Picture Postcards from the Great War
1914-1918

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(4) Mutilated Civilians

 

During September and October 1914, pamphlet and newspaper reports enraged the British public against the enemy with lurid stories of German atrocities in France and Belgium. The Allies actively promoted the stories.  Most of them were pure fiction, but were off great propaganda value, particularly in America and certainly helped the recruitment campaign in Britain. One of the most infamous was the story of Belgium children with their hands cut off.

One of the most famous and harrowing versions of the story first appeared in the Sunday Chronicle on 2nd May 1915. Readers were told of the visit by an aristocratic lady to a Belgian refugee centre in France, when, at the end of her visit she noticed a girl of about ten years of age who kept her hands "in a pitiful little worn muff." Suddenly the child said to her mother, "Mama, please blow my nose for me." The aristocratic woman half-laughing, half-shocked, said, "a big girl like you, who can’t use her own handkerchief." The child said nothing, but the mother speaking in a dull tone said "She has not any hands now, ma’am." The aristocratic Lady looked shocked, and said, "Can it be, that the Germans…?" The mothers answer to this half-asked question was to burst into tears.

A British officer, Major A. Corbett-Smith, wrote an account on the same subject. On 26th August 1914 following a successful British counter-attack on an unnamed town, the major said that, "Up the main street everywhere there was evidence that they had been at work…But there was one thing which, for the men who saw it, dwarfed all else. Hanging up in the window of a shop…was the body of a little girl, five years old, perhaps. Its poor little hands had been hacked off."

Although Corbett-Smith was a prolific writer it seems that his atrocity account was pure fantasy. The combined cavalry and infantry attack, which he described, did not relate to any British action on the 26th and it seems that later diary evidence points to suspicion that he was simply doing the work of the propaganda bureau. One or two picture postcards carried images relating to the alleged mutilation stories and the one featured below is an example.

 

 Cards such as this one helped to spread the rumour among the Allies of German brutality.
This French postcard of 1917, is captioned in French and English. The English version reads, "I'm sure the 'Huns' have passed by here." To give the impression of forced entry and violation, a window is broken and two of the Little girls dolls  have had their hands/paws cut off. Cards such as this one helped to spread the rumour among the Allies of German brutality.

 

Some people it seems were very eager to make damming statements first and then try to collect the evidence afterwards. For example, on 7th October 1914, a Manchester clergyman informed the Manchester Geographical Society "You will hear only one-hundredth part of the actual atrocities this war has produced. The civilized world could not stand the truth. There are, up and down England to-day, scores – I am under-stating the number – of Belgian girls who have had their hands cut off. That is nothing to what we could tell you." Later the same month the clergyman wrote to the Daily News, asking, "Will anyone who has actually seen such cases here in England send me full particulars?"

In1917, William Shepherd, a United Press correspondent, said that he was in Belgian in 1914,  when the first atrocity stories started circulating and did his best to hunt down the source of them, but could not find it. He spent much time among Belgium refugees and even "offered sums of money for photographs of children whose hands had been cut off…" When he tracked down second-hand stories of the outrage "they all petered out." He said. Even the influential Lord Northcliffe became intrigued with the story and offered £200 for an authentic photograph "of a mutilated civilian," but no one ever claimed the money.

 

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