Prom a Correspondent Our war so far has been deficient in full-blooded atrocity stories. Doubtless when the war itself becomes more full-blooded the deficiency will be made good. But up to the present, after an unpleasantly wide reading of the newspapers, one is forced to conclude that no Polish children have had their hands cut off, nor have nuns been raped, or corpses melted down for margarine.
In the last war such happenings were common—according to the newspapers: and a generation inexperienced in the art of falsehood in war believed in its newspapers which from The Times to the Deify Mirror said much the same thing at the same time.
Lord Ponsonby's book • on the lies circulated among the nations during the Great War has just been reprinted. It is a remarkable antidote to madness and ought to be possessed by everyone.
Little Alf's Stamp Collection
The birth of the atrocity is a rather mysterious process. Its origins are supposed to be untraceable. Lord Ponsonby manages to trace quite a lot of them, some to individuals in high places.
Many of the atrocity stories circulated in the last war are so naive that it would seem impossible to fool a nation with them a second time: yet one at least has already been reprinted in milder form with a fair degree of success in the present war.
It is the Little Alf's Stamp Collection Story; and it goes this way: "A letter from a prisoner of war in Germany contained the passage, ' The stamp on this letter is a rare one, soak it off for little Alf's collection. Though there was no one in the family called Alf, and no one who collected stamps, they did as they were told. Underneath the stamp were the words, ' They have torn out my tongue; I could not put it in the letter.' " It doesn't sound very intelligent, does it? Nevertheless, with suitable embroidery the tale appeared again In September, 1939, in at least two of the evening papers. The new version told of how just before war began a girl in Beckenham received a letter from a friend in Germany. In the letter she was told to steam off the stamp and put it among her collection. Underneath the stamp there were the words: " We are starving."
Bodies in Cauldrons
Even the most atrocious of atrocity stories can carry a very convincing air when presented with suitable restraint plus some bogus documentation, Here is The Times of April 16, 1917, on the "Corpse Factory."
"Herr Karl Romer, the Correspondent of the Berlin Lokaianzeiger, on the Western Front . .. published last Tuesday the first definite German admission concerning the way in which the Germans use dead bodies.
" We pass through Everingcourt. There is a dull smell in the air as if lime were being burnt. We are passing the great Corpse Exploitation Establiahment (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) of this Army group. The fat that is won here is turned into lubricating oils, and everything else is ground down in the bone mill into a powder which is used for mixing with pigs' food and as a manure—nothing can be permitted to go to waste."
Passages from Belgian papers were quoted in The Times describing a factory near Coblenz where trainloads of the stripped bodies of German soldiers, wired into bundles, arrived and were simmered down in cauldrons.
The revolting story was finally admitted to be a lie by Sir Austen Chamberlain, in the House of Commons, December 2, 1925.
But these are the obvious lies: the crucified Canadian, the child nailed to the table, the mutilated nurse, the tattooed man, and all the rest are the lies instinctively rejected when sanity returns, lies which we are ashamed to have believed in. Not so obvious are the official papers: the Blue Books and Orange Books and Yellow Books, with their doctored facts, misplaced emphasis, suppressed documents and reports. Lord Ponsonby deals soberly with them, and at the end one feels not quite so much Confidence as hitherto in the " official " document
" Blond Beasts " A remarkable chapter describes the faking of photographs—more accurately to be termed perhaps as the faking of captions.
A photograph taken by Karl Delius, of Berlin, showed the delivery of mallbags in front of the field post office in Kavevara. This was reproduced in the Daily Mirror of December 3. 1915, with the following caption : " MADE TO WASH THE HUNS' DIRTY LINEN " " The blond beasts are sweating the Serbians, who are made to do the washing for the invaders. Like most customers who do not settle their bills they are full of grumbles and complaints. Here a pile has just arrived from the wash."
A great many more examples, equally absurd, are given.
The most depressing part of the book concerns the statements made by the great men of the day concerning war aims.
Others to blame, too
Of course, the war-time lying was not restricted to Britain. Germany had a very good hand in it; was thorough and crude but not so effective. Italy and France suitably played their part as Britain's Allies, so did America, after 1917, where anything evil of Germany was eagerly believed.
A favourite story was that the Germans dropped poison sugar candy for children to cat. It is interesting to compare this with the more recent story of General Franco dropping chocolate boxes filled with bombs so that children would have their hands blown off.
Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal Opposition, vowed belief in the story in the House of Commons.
* Falsehood in War Time, by Lord Ponsonby (George Allen and Unvvin, 25. 6d.).