In 1918, the noted American artist, George Bellows (1882-1925) created a series of 5 oil paintings and 20 lithographic prints titled the WAR chronicling the activities of the German army in Belgium during August 1914. In particular he focused on some of the alleged atrocities committed by German soldiers against civilians and described in the Bryce report.
The Military Collection has been acquiring the lithographs from the War series, the most recent acquisition being Village Massacre, otherwise known as Massacre at Dinant. Bellows drew his inspiration from an article published in Everybody’s Magazine in February 1918 by Brand Whitlock, titled “Belgium: The Crowning Crime”; Bellows may also have read an abridged version of the Bryce report that had appeared in the New York Times on May 13, 1915.
Unlike the other prints in the series, Village Massacre which also appeared as an oil painting, focused on a particular event. On August 23, 1914, German troops entered Dinant, a town of 7,000 inhabitants in the province of Namur, Belgium, situated at a strategic crossing point of the River Meuse. Throughout the invasion, the Germans claimed that they were continuously fired upon by francs-tireurs or armed civilians so they considered any retribution towards those suspected of such acts as fully justified. Although they were constantly under fire from French troops across the Meuse, the Germans believed that civilians were partly responsible and took extreme measures. One of the first atrocities involved the arrest of 43 men who were summarily executed. Another group of civilians hid in the cellars of a woollen factory but were forced to give themselves up; the women and children were taken away and 31 workers shot. In another incident around 5.30 pm, 27 men found in a bar were executed by firing squad. In all, 312 inhabitants were killed by the Germans on the 23rd.
In the scene, Bellows depicts a group of men, women, children and nuns standing in an open space while the rifles of the Germans can be seen off to the left; the officer’s sword has dropped for the command to open fire. It is possible that the artist chose the moment in front of the Tschoffen house where 137 civilians were massacred although according to eye-witnesses, women and children were removed before the firing started. It is not clear why Bellows chose to depict the atrocities in Belgium four years after the fact, but in a preface to an exhibition of some of the lithographs in November 1918, he wrote: “In presenting these pictures of the tragedies of war, I wish to disclaim any intention of attacking a race or a people. Guilt is personal, not racial. Against that guilty clique and all its tools, who let loose upon innocence every diabolical device and insane instinct, my hatred goes forth, together with my profound reverence for the victims.”
George Bellows and the War Series of 1918. New York: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 1983.
With my profound reverence for the Victims. New Paltz: Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2001.
John Horne and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.