In the January 9, 1915, issue: Irvin S. Cobb reports from Dinant, Belgium, where four months of German occupation has left the townsfolk listless.
Europe’s Rag Doll
By Irvin S. Cobb
Cobb observed that the army of Germany could still match its great cannons for sheer destructiveness. Back in August 1914, when the Germans had entered the Belgian town of Dinant on the banks of the Meuse River, they ran into unexpected resistance. Enraged, the German soldiers rounded up over 670 civilian men and boys from the town and executed them.
By the time Cobb visited the town, the German rage had subsided, and the Belgian townsfolk had sunk into a dazed acceptance of occupation, which he noted:
“After the first shock and panic of war, there appears to descend on all who have a share in it, whether active or passive, a kind of numbed indifference as to danger. … The soldier gets it, and it enables him to endure. … The civic populace gets it, and, as soon as they have been re-adjusted to the altered conditions forced on them by the presence of war, they become merely sluggish, dulled spectators of the great and moving events going on about them. … It is as though all the nerve ends in every human body were burnt blunt in the first hot gush of war.”
In the wake of the mass executions, it appeared to Cobb that the Germans — perhaps with a tinge of remorse — were showing unexpected signs of concern for the town’s civilian population.
“Just over the ragged line that marked the lowermost limits of the destructive fury of the conquerors … [we] passed a little house on the shutters of which was written, in chalked German script, these words: ‘A Grossmutter [grandmother] 96 years old lives here. Don’t disturb her.’
“Other houses along here bore the familiar line, written by German soldiers who had been billeted in them: ‘Good people. Leave them alone!’
“The people who enjoyed the protection of these public testimonials were visible, a few of them. They were nearly all women and children. They stood in their shallow doorways as our automobile went by bearing four Americans, two German officers … and a German chauffeur. As we interpreted their looks, they had no hate for the Germans. I take it the weight of their woe was so heavy on them that they had no room in their souls for anything else.”