Primary Documents - French Report into German Conduct during the Hindenburg Line Retreat, March 1917

Wartime German Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg, photographed in 1927 Reproduced below is the text of the official French report into allegations of German misconduct during the latter's retreat to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917.

Specifically the commission headed by Georges Payelle investigated the destruction said to have been wreaked by retreating German forces upon the French towns and villages through which they passed.

Inevitably perhaps, Payelle's report found that the Germans were indeed guilty of atrocities both prior to and during their extended retreat.  Payelle's document, as was to be expected, was largely comprised of propaganda material designed to inflame the patriotism of those Frenchmen and women who read its contents.

Click here and here to read memoirs of the retreat to the Hindenburg Line as witnessed by two noted German journalists.  These bear out French claims of wanton destruction by German troops but offer a spirited defence of its rationale.  Click here to read the views of the U.S. Ambassador to Austria-Hungary who witnessed the aftermath of the retreat at first hand in the Department of the Aisne.  Click here to read the reaction of the U.S. Ambassador to France.

Official French Report into German Conduct during the Retreat to the Hindenburg Line, by Georges Payelle (President of the Court of Audits)

Monsieur le President,

We have just been over a part of the regions of the Oise, the Aisne and the Somme, which, after lying for over thirty months under German domination, have recently been delivered from its crushing and abominable yoke.

Every detail in the spectacle of devastation that met our eyes reveals a method so implacable and so strikingly uniform that it is impossible not to recognize the execution of a rigorously marked-out plan.

The enslavement of citizens, the carrying off of women and young girls, the pillage of homes, the annihilation of towns and villages, the ruin of industries by the destruction of factories, the desolation of rural districts by the shattering of agricultural implements, the burning of farms and the cutting down of trees, were all inaugurated at the same moment and with the same ferocity, to create poverty, inspire terror and generate despair.

In the majority of the places we visited, the enemy, at the beginning of his occupation, does not seem to have indulged in sanguinary excesses comparable in numbers to those which marked his furious course through Champagne and Lorraine.  Nevertheless, in several places we were informed of murders and serious assaults upon the person.

Though murders do not appear to have been numerous in the districts we have visited so far, the occupation was certainly of a most rigorous nature.  Requisitions were continual everywhere.  The communes had to contribute to the maintenance of the troops quartered in their territory, and were compelled to pay enormous subsidies.

To provide these when their pecuniary resources were exhausted, they were forced to form unions among themselves for the purpose of issuing paper-money in the form of warrants.  Mayors who declined to come into this scheme were arrested and sent to Germany.  The enemy gave these notes forced currency and put them into circulation himself.

The inhabitants were subjected to vexations of every kind, and daily witnessed the theft of the few provisions they possessed and of the household objects most necessary to them.  In the shops, officers and soldiers took as if by right all that they coveted.  Thus at Ham, in M. Gronier's ironmongery shop, an officer of high rank, said to have been the Grand Duke of Hesse, came to choose various articles, in payment for which he merely promised to send a warrant, which was never delivered.

Every moment our unfortunate fellow citizens had to endure fresh restrictions on their rights and fresh attacks upon their dignity-orders to be within doors by 7 o'clock in the evening, and not to go out before 8 o'clock in the morning; prohibitions upon the burning of lights in houses during the night, injunctions to doff hats to officers in salutation; compulsory labour in the fields - all enforced by terms of imprisonment and by fines, to which the inhabitants were continually exposed by the slightest infraction of the innumerable regulations.

But nothing equals the abominations that occurred in certain communes, such as Freniches, where, one day in May, 1915, all the young girls of the village were summoned to the house appropriated to the German military doctor and were subjected to the most brutal and revolting examination, in spite of their screams of protestation.

In February, 1917, that is to say, at the moment when the Germans were beginning to prepare for their retreat, they committed the savage depredations which are now known to the entire world, and which revolt the universal conscience of mankind.

There had already been deportations of a large number of inhabitants, whom the invader, quite without mercy in breaking up families, had sent to work in Germany or in the north of France.  This measure was now generalized, and has affected the entire able-bodied portion of the population of both sexes from sixteen to sixty years old, the only exceptions being women with young children.

It was applied in all the communes with the same rigour, and produced the most heartrending scenes.  Among the 600 persons carried off from Ham there were four patients from the hospital.  At Noyon, a week after sending off the first batch, on February 17th, the Germans selected fifty young girls who had been expelled from the region of St. Quentin and interned in the town.  They were all sent to the north, in spite of the tears and entreaties of their parents, whose anguish was terrible.

Here, as in many other places, doctors, chemists and priests were among the first to be marked out for exile, and as nothing had been left in the pharmacy at the hospital, or in the operating-theatre, which had been disgracefully pillaged, the numerous invalids and sick persons brought from the neighbouring districts were unable, in spite of the efforts of charity, to obtain the care and succour of which they stood the more urgently in need because they were exhausted by cold, privation and sorrow.

All these unfortunate creatures had arrived in a miserable state, and seven or eight of them died every day.  They were persons who had been dragged from their beds, and who had not been given time to carry away anything.  Among them there were paralyzed and dying people, several nonagenarians, and even one woman of 102 years old.  Many had been carried off under the most atrocious circumstances.

Mme. Deprez, the owner of the Chateau of Gibercourt, one of the victims of these pitiless orders, was suffering from a serious affection of the heart, and was obliged to keep her bed.  An officer insisted upon her getting up and dressing in his presence, although she begged him to retire.  She died twelve days later.

Mme. Begue, a woman of Flavyle-Martel, who was also suffering from cardiac disease, had asked to be allowed to take with her her two young children, aged seven and four respectively, who were clinging to the wheels of the vehicle.  This favour was refused, and the poor little creatures were left in the road.

Another woman of the same commune was ill in bed when she was told that the Germans were about to carry off her husband.  She got up at once, and, in spite of the opposition of an officer, succeeded in throwing herself into the prisoner's arms.  He had to leave without embracing his child.  The young woman was expelled from Noyon and brought to the hospital, where she abandoned herself to the most violent despair.  On the day of her arrival she threw herself, together with her little girl, under the wheels of a motor car.  Fortunately the nuns succeeded in rescuing her in time.

All these deportations afforded an army which has turned war into brigandage special facilities for appropriating at its leisure all that had escaped its earlier depredations.  "Our compatriots were scarcely four kilometres on their road," we were told by M. Dacheux, a municipal councillor who was acting as mayor at Guiscard, "when vans arrived at their doors to carry everything off."

At Ham, the head of the Kommandantur took good care not to return a very valuable old table which he had borrowed from the Mairie, and General von Fleck removed all the furniture from M. Bernot's house where he had been quartered.  The operation was carried out so thoroughly that at the end of his stay the General, who had nothing left to sit on, was obliged to ask the municipality for a few chairs.

At Noyon, throughout the period of occupation, there was continual robbery.  Many houses were sacked and the interiors defiled in a disgraceful manner.  The bells of the cathedral and the pipes of the great organ were removed by order of the commanding officer.  Safes belonging to private persons were broken open by revolver shots fired into the mechanism of the lock.

On February 26th and 27th two soldiers, accompanied by two officers, came and opened the safes of the Societe Generale by means of a blow-pipe, and carried off the contents.  The same operation was carried out at Cheneau and Barbier's Bank and at Briere's Bank.  The ledgers of each establishment were seized at the same time as the valuables.

When M. Briere expressed astonishment that even his archives should be taken from him, and pointed out that they could be of no use to any one but himself, the officer whom he had addressed, and who gave himself out to be the emissary of the Berlin Treasury, merely replied: "My orders were to empty the safes, and I am emptying them."

At Sempigny, one of the few places where the houses are still standing, it is possible to form some idea of the scenes of plunder which occurred everywhere.  From March 1st, the date on which such of the able-bodied inhabitants as still remained were expelled, until the departure of the invading troops, this unhappy village was incessantly pillaged.

It looks as if a horde of violent maniacs had passed through it, and in truth the Germans displayed a sort of frenzy in destroying everything they could not carry off, shattering beds and wardrobes with pick-axes or mallets, pulverizing crockery and mirrors, breaking up agricultural implements and gardening tools, scattering corn and seed, stealing all the furniture of the High Altar in the Church, defiling drawers and cupboards with filth, and leaving excrements even in the kitchen utensils.  Most of these exploits were performed by the 338th Infantry Regiment.

One asks oneself with stupefaction how the army of a nation which claims to be civilized could have been guilty of such deeds; but it is still more astounding to find that its soldiers even violated the resting-places of the dead.  In the cemetery of Carlepont, the door of the chapel over the vault of the Swiss family Graffenried-Villars was carried off.  Nothing but the copper fittings were left.  A stone of the vault was prised up, and bones are visible through the aperture.

The tomb of the Caille family was also desecrated.  The stone which covered it is broken, and human remains are exposed.  At Candor, two witnesses surprised some Germans in the act of breaking open the tombs of the Trefcon and Censier families, and examining the interior of the Mazier vault, the lid of which they had worked off.

The church to which the cemetery belongs had been shamefully pillaged; the silver figures of Christ on the Crucifixes had been torn off, and Mme. Collery herself removed the ornaments with which the soldiers had derisively decked the statue of a saint.

At Roiglise there is a gaping hole in the pavement of the Derreulx Chapel which exposes the compartments of the vault.  A coffin can be seen in one and some bones in another.  All this damage is undoubtedly due to criminal enterprises, for there is no trace of bombardment either in or about the tombs.

After they had been pillaged, houses, chateaux and farms were destroyed by means of explosives, or were set on fire or demolished with pick-axes.  At Margny-aux-Cerises, the operation was performed with the help of a powerful battering-ram.  Annois, Flavy-le-Martel, Jussy, Frieres-Faillouel and Villequier-Aumont no longer exist.  Chauny, a manufacturing town of nearly 11,000 inhabitants, is nothing but a heap of ruins, save for the suburb of Le Brouage.

After the expulsion of the able-bodied inhabitants, the rest of the population, consisting of 1,990 persons, were herded into this suburb together with about 3,000 men and women from the thirteen communes of the district, on February 23, 1917.  On March 3rd an order was issued from the Kommandantur ordering all these people to assemble the next day at 6 o'clock in the morning in one of the streets.

Sick and infirm persons were not exempted, and some of there had to be carried to the place of assembly, which was over a kilometre long.  There was a general call over and then an inspection which lasted not less than six hours, and during which an officer selected three more men, thirty-one women, and a boy of thirteen for deportation to the north.  The cold was intense, and on the following day twenty-seven persons died.

As soon as the citizens of Chauny were interned at Le Brouage, the Germans gave themselves up to unbridled pillage in the town, carrying off furniture, ripping open strong boxes, and sacking churches; and for a fortnight they proceeded to destroy the houses methodically by mines and incendiarism.  For the past two months they had made notes of the dimensions of all the cellars, and so knew exactly what quantities of explosives were necessary for the execution of their infamous task.

Nothing is left of the Church of St. Martin but some portions of the wall.  In Notre Dame, only a part of which was injured by explosion, the three alms-boxes are broken, and the marks of the instruments used to force them are very noticeable.  The locks of the cupboards set in the panelling of the transept are forced.  In the sacristy the chaos is indescribable; the presses are smashed, the drawers pulled out, and polluted sacerdotal ornaments are strewn on the ground.

On the 10th the enemy, having effected his retreat, began to bombard Le Brouage with batteries placed on the heights of Rouy.  The bombardment continued for two and a half days, and was directed more especially against the Institute of St. Charles, which the Germans themselves had allotted as an asylum for the sick and aged, and on the roof of which they had painted enormous red crosses.  Several persons were killed and others were wounded more or less seriously.

Even in the towns and villages they have not completely razed to the ground, the Germans made frantic efforts to destroy the factories and ruin agriculture.  At Roye, for instance, where the fighting had caused no irreparable damage, they burned the sugar-refineries and took systematic steps to ruin all the industries, first by seizing all bronze, zinc, lead, copper and tin, and then by carrying off all the pieces of mechanism of any value, and smashing all the castings.

At Ham, again, where they blew up the bell tower and the chateau, they also blew up the two sugar refineries of Messrs. Bocquet and Bernot, the Sebastopol distillery, M. Dive's oil refinery and M. Serre's brewery.  They acted in the same manner in many other places, notably at Flavy-le-Martel and at Ourscamp, which are models of devastation.

Nearly everywhere the fruit trees in the open country and in gardens have been cut down, savagely hacked about, or barked in such a way as to kill them.  Long rows of great poplar-trees, sawn through at the base, strew the fields adjoining the roads.  The approaches to the villages are blocked by agricultural implements irretrievably damaged.

Near what was once the railway station of Flavy-le-Martel we saw a vast orchard entirely devastated, and made a dumping ground for a large number of ploughs, harrows, mowing and reaping machines, mechanical rakes and sowers which have been wrecked, the damage being of such a kind that they are beyond repair.  Here and there a certain number of these machines had been piled on bonfires.  The iron wheels were sprung, the mechanism smashed, and the wooden parts charred by the flames.

One has only to look at all these ruins to recognize that they were not heaped one upon another merely for military reasons, and that the desire to injure was the essential motive.  A German army doctor, Professor Benneke, said one day to Sister St. Romauld, the Sister Superior of the hospital at Noyon: "You would not accept peace, so now we have orders to make war on civilians"; and at Guiscard a non-commissioned officer, who seemed intelligent and well educated, expressed himself as follows: "As Germany's peace offers have been rejected, the war is about to enter on a new phase.  Henceforth we shall respect nothing."

Such words reveal a very poor psychology.  Nowhere, indeed, among those who have undergone such cruel trials, have we noted any indication of lassitude or discouragement; we have met with no sentiment but that of patriotic enthusiasm and a fierce determination to obtain by victory the reparation for this multitude of crimes.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A "British warm" was a heavy issue greatcoat for officers.

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