Germany invaded neutral Belgium on 4 August 1914. Their armies killed 6,500 civilians there and in northern France that summer, and these so-called ‘German atrocities’ soon became one of the defining propaganda debates of World War One.
Within days of the invasion, Belgian and French commissions documented the massacres by interrogating refugees and sending out roving reporters before the front closed down. In the late spring of 1915, an official British commission chaired by Viscount James Bryce (1838–1922) came up with this Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages.
While not actually lying, it overemphasised cruelty against women and children and did not challenge refugees’ panic-infused allegations, such as the story that German troops hacked off children’s hands.
However, Bryce was well respected and the report was seen as credible at the time in the US. It struck a propaganda blow by portraying the Germans as evil and unjust, and violating international standards of warfare, in contrast to the Allies’ legitimate methods of conflict.
Germany responded with its less credible ‘White Book’, fabricating Belgian excesses and falsely maintaining they were merely countering activity by snipers – claims that Belgium in turn refuted with its ‘Grey Book’.
The accuracy of the Bryce Report was challenged after the war, and the resulting international scepticism about ‘official reports’ may have helped Nazi atrocities during World War Two to be underestimated.