Now that the handwringing over the millions killed in the First World War has momentarily quietened, here’s a story that in all probability will not get told again, as it does not play the tidy vision of civilised nations fighting like gentlemen. This was behaviour of medieval barbarity — the kind that ISIL would exact, but never we Europeans.
Felix Fivet would have celebrated his 100th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Except that he was executed on August 23 1914, aged three weeks. He was not alone.
Dinant is on the Meuse river in Belgium. The name is translated as Divine Valley. Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone was born there. On August 23, 674 unarmed civilians died there. They were casually executed by German military firing squads or murdered by informal bands of drunken rapacious soldiers in and around Dinant. The little town was burnt to the ground. A trumped up excuse was that someone fired on a working party of soldiers at the bridge. It turned out from the other massacres in other towns across Belgium that it was a policy decision by the German military to intimidate the Belgians into quick surrender.
Six months later the British put out a report after 1500 depositions from eye witnesses were gathered. It concluded that at the start of the invasion of Belgium, the Germans had murdered, raped, looted, tortured and routinely used civilians as human shields. Though it was used as propaganda, the British had probably not exaggerated where it cited individual occasions of witnessed brutality. Captured German soldiers had even recorded events in their diaries in which they took part.
In a style reminiscent of Goya, an American painter named George Bellows imagined some of those scenes in a series created after the war ended in 1918. The paintings included one of an actual incident of the Germans chopping off both hands of a Belgian youth.
When you begin your day on Saturday, have a thought for the nearly seven hundred — all the men from the local woollen mill, the women just finishing the washing; the kids lining up to watch the soldiers marching by — all of whom would be dead by the end of the day. You don’t have to wear a long beard to be a barbarian and barbarism is not so distant from us all after all.