Excerpts from: FALSEHOOD IN WAR-TIME: Propaganda Lies of the First World War by Arthur Ponsonby

Arthur Augustus William Harry Ponsonby (1871-1946)1st Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede was the son of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Private Secretary to Queen Victoria. After receiving a good education, Ponsonby joined the Diplomatic Service and worked in Constantinople and Copenhagen. He was a British writer and social activist as well as a politician, and he was opposed to Britain’s involvement in World War One. He joined with others to form the Union of Democratic Control, which became a very active anti-war organisation in Britain. He and other anti-war MPs were defeated in the 1918 General Election, but he joined the Labour Party and in the 1922 General Election became the MP for the Brightside division of Sheffield. Ponsonby was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport in 1929. The following year Ponsonby was granted a peerage and became Leader of the House of Lords (1930-1935). In 1940 Ponsonby resigned from the Labour Party, opposing its decision to join the coalition government of Winston Churchill.


War is, in itself, an atrocity. Cruelty and suffering are inherent in it. Deeds of violence and barbarity occur, as everyone knows. Mankind is goaded by authority to indulge every elemental animal passion, but the exaggeration and invention of atrocities soon becomes the main staple of propaganda. Stories of German “frightfulness” in Belgium were circulated in such numbers as to give ample proof of the abominable cruelty of the German Army and so to infuriate popular opinion against them. A Belgian commission was appointed, and subsequently a commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Bryce, who was chosen in order that opinion in America, where he had been a very popular ambassador, might be impressed. Affidavits of single witnesses were accepted as conclusive proof. At best, human testimony is unreliable, even in ordinary occurrences of no consequence, but where bias, sentiment, passion, and so-called patriotism disturb the emotions, a personal affirmation becomes of no value whatsoever.

To cover the whole ground on atrocity stories would be impossible. They were circulated in leaflets, pamphlets, letters, and speeches day after day. Prominent people of repute, who would have shrunk from condemning their bitterest personal enemy on the evidence, or rather lack of evidence, they had before them, did not hesitate to lead the way in charging a whole nation with every conceivable brutality and unnatural crime. The Times issued “Marching Songs,” written by a prominent Eton master, in which such lines as these occurred:

“He shot the wives and children
“The wives and little children;
“He shot the wives and children,
“And laughed to see them die.”

It was reported that some thirty to thirty-five German soldiers entered the house of David Tordens, a carter, in Sempst; they bound him, and then five or six of them assaulted and ravished in his presence his thirteen-year-old daughter, and afterwards fixed her on bayonets. After this horrible deed, they bayoneted his nine-year-old boy and then shot his wife. His life was saved through the timely arrival of Belgian soldiers. It was further asserted that all the girls in Sempst were assaulted and ravished by the Germans. The secretary of the commune, Paul van Boeckpourt, the mayor, Peter van Asbroeck, and his son Louis van Asbroeck, in a sworn statement made on April 4, 1915, at Sempst, declared that the name given to the carter, David Tordens, was quite unknown to them; that such a person did not live in Sempst before the war and was quite unknown in the commune; that during the war no woman or child under fourteen was killed in Sempst, and if such an occurrence had taken place they would certainly have heard of it.

Another report published was that at Ternath the Germans met a boy and asked him the way to Thurt. As the boy did not understand them, they chopped off both his hands. (“Quoted in Truth: “A Path to justice and Reconciliation,” by ‘Verax’).

Statement by the Mayor of Ternath, Dr. Poodt, on February 11, 1915 : “I declare there is not a word of truth in it. I have been in Ternath since the beginning of the war, and it is impossible that such an occurrence should not have been reported to me; it is a pure invention.”

After the publication of the various reports, five American war correspondents issued the following declaration: “To let the truth be known, we unanimously declare the stories of German cruelties, from what we have been able to observe, were untrue. After having been with the German Army for two weeks, and having accompanied the troops for over one hundred miles, we are not able to report one single case of undeserved punishment or measure of retribution. We are neither able to confirm any rumours as regards maltreatment of prisoners and non-combatants. Having been with the German troops through Landen, Brussels, Nivelles, Buissière, Haute-Wiherie, Merbes-le-Château, Sorle-sur-Sambre, Beaumont, we have not the slightest basis for making up a case of excess. We found numerous rumours after investigation to be without foundation. German soldiers paid everywhere for what they bought, and respected private property and civil rights. We found Belgian women and children after the battle of Buissière to feel absolutely safe. A citizen was shot in Merbes-le-Chateau, but nobody could prove his innocence. Refugees, who told about cruelties and brutalities, could bring absolutely no proof. The discipline of the German soldiers is excellent; no drunkenness. The Burgomaster of Sorle-sur-Sambre voluntarily disclaimed all rumours of cruelties in that district. For the truth of the above we pledge our word of honour as journalists.” (Signed) Roger Lewis, Associated Press; Irwin Cobb, Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia Public Ledger, Philadelphia; Harry Hansen, Chicago Daily News, Chicago; James, O’Donnell Bennett, Chicago Tribune; John T. McCutcheon, Chicago Tribune, Chicago.

In the issue of the New York World of January 28 1915, appeared the following dispatch: “Washington, January 27th. Of the thousands of Belgian refugees who are now in England, not one has been subjected to atrocities by German soldiers. This, in effect, is the substance of a report received at the State Department. The report states that the British Government had investigated thousands of reports to the effect that German soldier had perpetrated outrages on fleeing Belgians. During the early period of the war columns of British newspapers were filled with the accusation. Agents of the British Government, according to the report of the American Embassy in London, carefully investigated all these charges ; they interviewed the alleged victims and sifted all the evidence. As a result of the investigation, the British Foreign Office notified the American Embassy that the charges appeared to be based upon hysteria and natural prejudice. The report added that many of the Belgians had suffered hardships, but they should be charged up against the exigence of war rather than to brutality of the individual German soldiers.”

The following passage occurs in a review by the New York Times Literary Supplement of March 19, 1918, of “Brave Belgians,” by Baron C. Buttin, to which Baron de Brocqueville, the Belgian Minister of War, contributed a preface commending its truth and fairness: “The work gives eye-witness accounts of the first three months of the invasion of Belgium, and is made up of reports told by various people who did their share in that extraordinary resistance---colonels, majors, and army chaplains, lieutenants, etc. There is scarcely a hint of that “bugbear,” German atrocities, or the nameless or needless horrors described in the report of the Bryce Commission.”

An amazing instance of the way atrocity lies may still remain fixed in some people’s minds, and how an attempt may be made to propagate them even now, is afforded by a letter which appeared as recently as April 12, 1927, in the Evening Star, Dunedin, New Zealand. The writer, Mr. Gordon Catto, answering another correspondent on the subject of atrocities, wrote : “My wife, who in 1914-15 was a nurse in the Ramsgate General Hospital, England, actually nursed Belgian women and children refugees who were the victims of Hun rapacity and fiendishness, the women having had their breasts cut off and the children with their hands backed off at the wrists.”

An instance of a man being genuinely misled by the information given him, not having any desire himself to propagate lies. can be given in the case of a Baptist minister of Sheffield, who preached on atrocities. On February 28, 1915, preaching in Wash Lane Baptist Chapel, Letchford, Warrington, he told the congregation that there was a Belgian girl in Sheffield, about twelve years old, who had had her nose cut off and her stomach ripped open by the Germans, but she was still living and getting better. On inquiry being made as to whether he had made this statement, he replied: “I have written to our Belgian Consul here for the name and address of the girl whose case I quoted at Letchford. If all I hear is true, it is far worse than I stated. I am also asking for another similar instance, which I shall be glad to transmit to you if, and as soon as, I can secure the facts.”

The Belgian Consul, in a letter of March 11th, wrote: “Although I have heard of a number of cases of Belgian girls being maltreated in one way and another, I have on investigation not found a particle of truth in one of them, and I know of no girl in Sheffield who has had her nose cut off and her stomach ripped open. I have also investigated cases in other towns, but have not yet succeeded in getting hold of any tangible confirmation.”

Like so many other stories, this one underwent considerable changes and variations. The crucified person was at one time a girl, at another an American, but most often a Canadian.

“Last week a large number of Canadian soldiers, wounded in the fighting round Ypres, arrived at the base hospital at Versculles. They all told a story of how one of their officers had been crucified by the Germans. He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet, another bayonet had then been driven through his throat, and, finally, he was riddled with bullets. The wounded Canadians said that the Dublin Fusiliers had seen this done with their own eyes, and they had heard the Officers of the Dublin Fusiliers talking about it.” (“The Times,” May 10, 1915. Paris Correspondent.)

“There is, unhappily, good reason to believe that the story related by your Paris Correspondent of the crucifixion of a Canadian officer during the fighting at Ypres on April 22, 1923, is in substance true. The story was current here at the time, but, in the absence of direct evidence and absolute proof, men were unwilling to believe that a civilized foe be guilty of an act so cruel and savage. Now, I have reason to believe, written depositions testifying to the fact of the discovery of the body are in possession of British Headquarters Staff. The unfortunate victim was a sergeant. As the story was told to me, he was found transfixed to the wooden fence of a farm building. Bayonets were thrust through the palms of his hands and his feet, pinning him to the fence. He had been repeatedly stabbed with bayonets, and there were many punctured wounds in his body. I have not heard that any of our men actually saw the crime committed. There is room for the supposition that the man was dead before he was pinned to the fence and that the enemy, in his insensate rage and hate of the English, wreaked his vengeance on the lifeless body of his foe. That is the most charitable complexion that can be put on the deed, ghastly as it is. There is not a man in the ranks of the Canadians who fought at Ypres who is not firmly convinced that this vile thing has been done. They know, too, that the enemy bayoneted their wounded and helpless comrades in the trenches.” (The Times, May15, 1915. Correspondent, North France).

MR. HOUSTON asked the Under Secretary of State for War whether he has any information regarding the crucifixion of three Canadian soldiers recently captured by the Germans, who nailed them with bayonets to the side of a wooden structure.
MR. TENNANT: “No, sir; no information of such an atrocity having been perpetrated has yet reached the War Office.”
MR. HOUSTON: “Is the Right Hon. Gentleman aware that Canadian officers and Canadian soldiers who were eyewitnesses of these fiendish outrages have made affidavits? Has the officer in command at the base at Boulogne not called the attention of the War Office to them?”
MR. HARCOURT: “No, sir; we have no record of it.” (House of Commons, May 12, 1915.)
Mr. HOUSTON asked the Under-Secretary of State for War whether he has any official information showing that during the recent fighting, when the Canadians were temporarily driven back, they were compelled to leave about forty of their wounded comrades in a barn, and that on recapturing the position they found the Germans had bayoneted all the wounded with the exception of a sergeant. and that the Germans had removed the figure of Christ from the large village crucifix and fastened the sergeant, while alive, to the cross; and whether he is aware that the crucifixion of our soldiers is becoming a practice of Germans.
MR. TENNANT : The military authorities in France have standing instructions to send particulars of any authenticated cases of atrocities committed against our troops by the Germans. No official information in the sense of the Hon. Member’s question has been received, but, owing to the information conveyed by the Hon. Member’s previous question, inquiry is being made and is not yet complete. (House of Commons, May 19, 1925).

The story went the round of the Press here and in Canada, and was used by Members of Parliament on the platform. Its authenticity, however, was eventually denied by General March at Washington. It cropped up again in 1919, when a letter was published by the Nation (April 12th) from Private E. Loader, 2nd Royal West Kent Regiment, who declared he had seen the crucified Canadian. The ‘Nation’ was informed in a subsequent letter from Captain E. N. Bennett that there was no such private on the rolls of the Royal West Kents, and that the 2nd Battalion was in India during the whole war.

Not only did the Belgian baby whose hands had been cut off by the Germans travel through the towns and villages of Great Britain, but it went through Western Europe and America, even into the Far West. No one paused to ask how long a baby would live were its hands cut off unless expert surgical aid were at hand to tie up the arteries (the answer being a very few minutes). Everyone wanted to believe the story, and many went so far as to say they had seen the baby. The lie was as universally accepted as the passage of the Russian troops through Britain.

“One man whom I did not see told an official of the Catholic Society that he had seen with his own eyes German soldiery chop off the arms of a baby which clung to its mother’s skirts. (“The Times” Correspondent in Paris, August 27, 1914.)
On September 2, 1914, The Times Correspondent quotes French refugees declaring: “They cut the hands off the little boys so that there shall be no more soldiers for France.”

Pictures of the baby without hands were very popular on the Continent, both in France and in Italy. Le Rive Rouge had a picture on September 18, 1915, and on July 26, 1916, made it still more lurid by depicting German soldiers eating the hands. Le Journal gave, on April 30, 1915, a photograph of a statue of a child without hands, but the most savage of all, which contained in it no elements of caricature, was issued by the Allies for propaganda purposes and published in Critica, in Buenos Ayres (reproduced in the Sphere, January 30, 1925). The heading of the picture was, “The Bible before All,” and under it was written: “Suffer little children to come unto Me.” The Kaiser is depicted standing behind a huge block with an axe, his hands darkly stained with blood. Round the block are piles of hands. He is beckoning to a woman to bring a number of children, who are clinging to her, some having had their hands cut off already.

Babies not only had their hands cut off, but they were impaled on bayonets, and in one case nailed to a door. But everyone will remember the handless Belgian baby. It was loudly spoken of in buses and other public places, had been seen in a hospital, was now in the next parish, etc., and it was paraded, not as an isolated instance of an atrocity, but as a typical instance of a common practice. In Parliament there was the usual evasion, which suggested the story was true, although the only evidence given was “seen by witnesses.”

Mr. A. K. LLOYD asked the First Lord of the Treasury whether materials are available for identifying and tracing the survivors of those children whose hands were cut of by the Germans, and whose cases are referred to by letter and number in the Report of the Bryce Committee; and, if so, whether he will consider the possibility of making the information accessible, confidentially or otherwise, to persons interested in the future of these survivors ?
Sir G. CAVE: My Right Hon. Friend has asked me to reply to this question. In all but two of the individual cases m which children were seen by witnesses mutilated in this manner, the child was either dead or dying from the treatment it had received. In view of the fact that these children were in Belgium, which is still in German occupation, it is unlikely that they could now be traced, and any attempt to do so at this time might lead to the further persecution of the victims or their relatives.
MR. LLOYD: Were there not other cases brought over here to hospital?
Sir G. CAVE: Not the cases to which the Hon. Member’s question refers.
(House of Commons, December 16, 1916).

Sometimes the handless person was grown up. A Mr. Tyler, at a Brotherhood meeting in Glasgow on April 17, 1915, said he had a friend in Harrogate who had seen a nurse with both her hands cut off by Germans. He gave the address of his informant. A letter was at once addressed to the friend at Harrogate, asking if the statement was correct, but no reply was ever received. But the most harrowing and artistically dressed version of the handless child story appeared in the Sunday Chronicle on May 2, 1915.

“Some days ago a charitable great lady was visiting a building in Paris where have been housed for several months a number of Belgian refugees. During her visit she noticed a child, a girl of ten, who, though the room was hot rather than otherwise, kept her hands in a pitiful little worn muff. Suddenly the child said to the mother: “Mamma, please blow my nose for me.”

“Shocking,” said the charitable lady, half-laughing, half-severe, “A big girl like you, who can’t use her own handkerchief”

The child said nothing, and the mother spoke in a dull, matter-of-fact tone. “She has not any hands now, ma’am,” she said. The grand dame looked, shuddered, understood. “Can it be,” she said, “that the Germans--?” The mother burst into tears. That was her answer.”

Signor Nitti, who was Italian Prime Minister during the war. states in his memoirs : “To bring the truth of the present European crisis home to the world it is necessary to destroy again and again the vicious legends created by war propaganda. During the war France, in common with other Allies, including our own Government in Italy, circulated the most absurd inventions to arouse the fighting spirit of our people. The cruelties attributed to the Germans were such as to curdle our blood. We heard the story of poor little Belgian children whose hands were cut off by the Huns. After the war a rich American, who was deeply touched by the French propaganda, sent an emissary to Belgium with the intention of providing a livelihood for the children whose poor little hands had been cut off. He was unable to discover one. Mr. Lloyd George and myself, when at the head of the Italian Government, carried on extensive investigations as to the truth of these horrible accusations, some of which, at least, were told specifically as to names and places. Every case investigated proved to be a myth.”

Colonel Repington, in his ‘Diary of the World War,’ vol. ii, p. 447, says: “I was told by Cardinal Gasquet that the Pope promised to make a great protest to the world if a single case could be proved of the violation of Belgian nuns or cutting off of children’s hands. An inquiry was instituted and many cases examined with the help of the Belgian Cardinal Mercier. Not one case could be proved.”

The former French Minister of Finance, Klotz, to whom at the beginning of the war the censorship of the Press was entrusted, says, in his memoirs (De la Guerre à la Paix, Paris, Payot, 1924): “One evening I was shown a proof of the Figaro, in which two scientists of repute asserted and endorsed by their signatures that they had seen with their own eyes about a hundred children whose hands had been chopped off by the Germans. In spite of the evidence of these scientists I entertained doubts as to the accuracy of the report and forbade the publication of it. When the editor of the Figaro expressed his indignation, I declared myself ready to investigate, in the presence of the American Ambassador, the matter that would stir the world. I required, however, that the name of the place where these investigations had to take place should be given by the two scientists. I insisted on having these details supplied immediately. I am still without their reply or visit.”

But this he obtained such a hold on people’s imagination that it is by no means dead yet. Quite recently a Liverpool poet, in a volume called ‘A Medley of Song,’ has written the following lines in a “patriotic” poem:

“They stemmed the first mad onrush
Of the cultured German Hun,
Who’d outraged every female Belgian
And maimed every mother’s son.”

Many atrocity stories were circulated which were impossible to prove or disprove, but in the early months of the war the public was shocked by a horrible story of barbarous cruelty, of which a complete record can be given. It is a curious instance of the ingenuity of the deliberate individual liar.

From “The Star,” September 16th, 1914. “DUMFRIES GIRL THE VICTIM OF SHOCKING BARBARITY.”

“News has reached Dumfries of the shocking death of a Dumfries young woman, Nurse Grace Hume, who went out to Belgium at the outbreak of war. Nurse Hume was engaged at the camp hospital at Vilvorde, and she was the victim of horrible cruelty at the hands of German soldiers. Her breasts were cut off and she died in great agony. Nurse Hume’s family received a note written shortly before she died. It was dated September 6th, and ran: “Dear Kate, this is to say good-bye. Have not long to live. Hospital has been set on fire. Germans cruel. A man here had his head cut off. My right breast has been taken away. Give my love to ---- Good-bye. GRACE.”

“Nurse Hume’s left breast was cut away after she had written the note. She was a young woman of twenty-three and was formerly a nurse in Huddersfield Hospital.

“Nurse Mullard, of Inverness, delivered the note personally to Nurse Hume’s sister at Dumfries. She was also at Vilvorde, and she states that Nurse Hume acted the part of a heroine. A German attacked a wounded soldier whom Nurse Hume was taking to hospital. The nurse took his gun and shot the German dead.” (“The Star,” September 16th, 1914.)

“I have been asked by your sister, Nurse Grace Hume, to hand the enclosed letter to you. My name is Nurse Mullard, and I was with your sister when she died. Our camp hospital at Vilvorde was burned to the ground, and out of 1,517 men and 23 nurses, only 19 nurses were saved, but 149 men managed to get away. Grace requested me to tell you that her last thoughts were of you and that you were not to worry over her, as she would be going to meet her Jack. These were her last words. She endured great agony in her last hours. One of the soldiers (our men) caught two German soldiers in the act of cutting off her left breast, her right one having been already cut off. They were killed instantly by our soldiers. Grace managed to scrawl the enclosed note before I found her, but we all say that your sister was a heroine. She was out on the fields looking for wounded soldiers, and on one occasion, when bringing in a wounded soldier, a German attacked her. She threw the soldier’s gun at him and shot him with her rifle. Of course, all nurses here are armed. I have just received word this moment to pack to Scotland. Will try and get this handed to you, as there is no post from here, and we are making the best of a broken-down wagon truck for a shelter. Will give you fuller details when I see you. We are all quite safe now, as there have been reinforcements.”

A condensed account appeared in the Evening Standard with the note: “This message has been submitted to the Press Bureau, which does not object to the publication and takes no responsibility for the correctness of the statement.”

“A story which attracted particular attention both because of its peculiar atrocity and because of the circumstantial details which accompanied it, was told in several of the evening papers on Wednesday. It was first published, we believe, in the ‘Dumfries Standard’ on Wednesday morning and related to an English nurse, who was said to have been killed by Germans in Belgium with the most revolting cruelty. This nurse came from Dumfries and, according to the ‘Dumfries Standard,’ the story was told to the nurse’s sister in Dumfries by another nurse from Belgium, who also gave an account of it in a letter. Further, the ‘Dumfries Standard’ published a facsimile of a letter said to been written by the murdered nurse when dying to her sister in Dumfries. The story therefore appeared to be particularly well authenticated and, as we say, it was published by a number of London evening papers of repute, including the Pall Mall and Westminster Gazette, the Globe, the Star, and the Evening Standard. But late on Wednesday night it was discovered to be entirely untrue, since the nurse in question was actually in Huddersfield and had never been to Belgium, though she volunteered for the front. The remaining fact is that her sister in Dumfries states, according to the Yorkshire Post, that she was visited by a “Nurse Mullard,” professing to be a nurse from Belgium, who told her the story and gave her the letter from her sister in a handwriting that resembled her sister’s. (“Times” Leader, September 18, 1914.)

The Times goes on to call for an inquiry and to suggest that the story may have been invented by German agents in order to discredit all atrocity stories.

“Kate Hume, seventeen, was charged at Dumfries yesterday, before Sheriff Substitute Primrose, with having uttered a forged letter purporting to have been written by her sister, Nurse Grace Hume in Huddersfield. She declined to make any statement, on the advice of her agent, and was committed to prison to await trial. (“The Times,” September 30, 1914.)
The case came before the High Court at Dumfries, and it was proved that Kate Hume, (the sister), had fabricated the whole story and forged both the letter from her sister and that from “Nurse Mullard” and had communicated them to the Press. (The Times” December 29th and 30th, 1914.)