The Bathurst Times Saturday 10 July 1915
This article is titled: German Revenge in Dinant. FATE OF THE CIVILIAN POPULATION. DAYS OF HORROR. DEAD WOMAN'S DIARY.
This account of the sack of Dinant was written by a Belgian lady who was living there when the Germans entered the town. Their entry was heralded by a rain of shells which set fire to the buildings and was accompanied by appalling scenes of pillage and outrage. The lady took refuge with about 70 others — men, women, children, and babies in arms — in some caves on a hill overlooking Dinant. There they spent three dreadful nights. Forced out at last by hunger and despair, they fell into the hands of the Germans, who used them as a screen for their machine guns and at last lined them up in front of a file of soldiers to be shot.
At the last moment the refugees were spared and sent to Ciney, a Belgian town 15 miles southeast of Namur, where they were set free. The narrator managed to escape and reached England, where she eventually died in hospital.
August 21. — For the past five days things have been pretty quiet, but at night a terrible cannonade began, and we dared not go out. There was a fierce fight until 12:30 a.m., and then it stopped. We went to bed without undressing, and about 5 in the morning we heard unusual sounds in the street and hurried out to hear that the German soldiers had assaulted the Rue Saint Jaques; most of them were drunk, they shot the peaceable inhabitants, and then set about pillaging shamefully, then set fire to the houses with bombs, and destroyed everything.
That night the bombardment began again. We made up our mind to take refuge in the cellar. The bombardment went on at intervals all night, and about 4 in the morning it became more dreadful than can be imagined. We prayed and commended our souls to God. We heard explosions all around us; they were bombs, and looking out we saw the whole street on fire. We came upstairs, as we saw we must try to escape while there was still a chance.
When we got into the street we hardly knew what to do. We reached the end of the street leading to the quay, and there we stopped, terrified. The sight was of moving — women, children, wretchedly clothed, nuns holding up their hands to heaven, were standing all along the riverside watching the town blazing — hundreds of people worn out with terror and fatigue, old men lying on mattresses, babies in cradles whose parents had gone — none knew where. Everyone was crying and sobbing — men, women, and children. They had all been driven out of their homes by the brutal soldiers, who smashed the doors and windows with the butts of their rifles, seized the unarmed men, and illtreated the women and children, then ranged them in two rows and shot the men before the eyes of their wives and children. We saw among these unfortunates a woman who was soon to have a baby, with bare feet and clad only in her chemise and petticoat.
A LIVING TOMB.
One idea possessed us — to escape from the town we loved so much. What could we do? There was no means of crossing the river. Suddenly someone remembered the grottos on the way back through the burning streets. At last, we got through — about 15 or 16 of us altogether — through the woods lighted up by the burning town — and arrived at the grotto of Montfat. The door was shut, but an energetic blow opened it, and we entered this living tomb. We went through I don't know how many dark passages. After wandering about in this way for a quarter of an hour we reached a hall where we found between 70 to 80 people, all in tears. We were dying with fatigue; our limbs were benumbed, bruised; but we had to make up our minds to lie down on the damp earth, and so the night passed.
With the day all our terrors returned. Shouts rose from the town below; cannon thundered above us. In the afternoon I made a little reconnaissance at the entrance to the grotto and looked down on the smoking ruins of what had been Dinant. An intense heat rose up from it. At last, we prepared again for the night, but what a night! My God, ten times I was on the point of leaving the grotto, imagining I heard noises, but they were hallucinations produced by hunger and thirst. I thought day would never come; at last, about 6 o'clock, I risked going out. As I returned into the grotto a lady came up to me and begged me to bring a light, as she thought everyone had lost their wits. I found to my horror that many of them really had lost their reason. It is hard to stand such mental suffering. I went up to Mons. P. and asked him to reconnoiter outside and see if the army was away.
He soon returned, saying that it would be more prudent to spend another night there and try to escape in the morning. It is impossible to conceive how terrible the third night was, and how we suffered. I thought it would never end. About 5 o'clock I looked out and heard the sound of cannonading, the shouts of these brutes, and miserable cries and wails of distress, with crashes as half-destroyed buildings, fell in ruins. It was a pitiful sight.
IN THE ENEMY'S HANDS.
However, whatever happened we must leave the grotto. Out of the 75 persons who had taken refuge there, only 37 had the courage to follow us. We prepared 12 white flags to be carried by the oldest and the children. We climbed the hill, and arrived at the plateau on the top, to find ourselves at the German camp. At that moment we saw officers and men come towards us, but we advanced towards them without hesitation, and Mons. P. spoke for us all, saying, "We come from burning Dinant. We are ruined: We beg your protection." The soldiers searched us and our packages. Then, without saying what they intended to do with us, they sent us under an armed escort into another camp. For twenty minutes we walked through fields and came out on an immense plain where a battle was going on. There we were placed near the mitrailleuses which is a type of volley gun with multiple barrels of rifle, in front of the army, and an officer said to us, "Nothing of Dinant must be left; the French cannon will finish you." We remained in this position for about twenty minutes, momentarily expecting to die — an unforgettable torture. Whole families — fathers, mothers, children, grandparents — bade each other farewell, clinging to each other than they might die together.
But our hour had not come. The French cannon ceased firing. Then we were set off without further sign, and we wandered on through the devastated country. We ran, for we felt we were still in the field of battle, for about half an hour, when we came into a crowd of these savages, who pointed their revolvers at us. We were seized. Again we were examined. Then we were placed in a row, the mitrailleuses behind us.
What were our fears! Again we marched for twenty minutes — then halt. Fifty yards from us we saw immense braziers full of corpses. We were placed in a line, and the soldiers faced us with rifles ready. Heartbreaking scenes took place; parents and children embraced for the last time — but they were so broken down that resistance was useless, and they stood resigned to their fate. But I still wished to live, though some men called out to me, "Come, you prolong our agony; let it be ended!" I had noticed that the soldier in command of the platoon spoke French very well, and I turned to him and begged for our lives. I saw that he was not insensible, for he seemed to have tears in his eyes. When I had finished, the officer said to me: "I have my orders; nothing was to be left of Dinant — they fired on our soldiers." "That is not true," I replied. "Of that I am certain."
The officer, however, was not unfeeling and gave orders to the soldiers_not to fire, while he sent a message to the camp. Presently another officer came on horseback and told us our lives were spared but we were to be prisoners of war for six months. We could scarcely believe our lives were saved. We were again lined up and made to march, guarded by armed soldiers, through the burning village from which all the inhabitants had fled. It was nearly night when we reached the village of Achaine, and we were met by soldiers with revolvers in one hand and electric lamps in the other. We were again searched, and then the priest was sent for and then he asked to let us sleep in the church. We were not badly treated, and the priest's servant was allowed to bring us water to wash with. Outside, the cannon thundered, the church shook.
What a night it was! However, the guard was kind to us, so much, so that I wondered how they could commit such dreadful deeds. At break of day, we were ordered to make ready to leave. The priest was allowed to give each a cup of hot coffee, which was a great comfort, and a soldier brought us a large jug of milk for the old people and the children. We were ready to start, not knowing our destination. We were drawn up in line and counted, then an officer said kindly, "Here is a large carriage for the old people."Then I heard one officer say to the other, "These are decent people; take them to Ciney and set them free." We set off, traveling through the devastated country, and constantly passing armies. We arrived at Ciney — the whole population came out to look at us, and all wept when they saw us, for we were a lamentable sight. Members of the Red Cross Society came to our aid, and hospitality was provided for the refugee.