Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914


Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914

Jeff Lipkes

Rehearsals is the first book to provide a detailed account of the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 as it affected civilians.  Based on extensive eyewitness testimony, the book chronicles events in and around the towns of Liège, Aarschot, Andenne, Tamines, Dinant, and Leuven.

Fearing resistance from guerilla fighters and determined to cross rapidly through Belgium, German armies, particularly in locations where they met resistance from Belgian or French forces, treated civilians with great ruthlessness.  Nearly 6,000 non-combatants were executed as “franc-tireurs,” including women and children (the equivalent of about 230,000 Americans today), and some 25,000 homes and other buildings were burned.  But there were no franc-tireurs, only innocent Belgians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even today, accounts of the killing, looting, and arson are dismissed as “atrocity propaganda,” particularly in the U.S. and U.K.  Those historians who acknowledge that the German war crimes occurred attribute them to a spontaneous outbreak of paranoia about franc-tireurs.  Rehearsals offers evidence that the executions were part of a deliberate campaign of terrorism ordered by military authorities, and reflected beliefs that differed from those of their counterparts in other Western European nations.

Comments on the first edition:

“In the first days of the Great War, the Prussian army invading Belgium executed over six thousand civilians, burned entire villages, and culminated this campaign against noncombatants by destroying much of the city of Leuven. The author provides a graphic, detailed account of events that, until recently were often dismissed as atrocity propaganda.  His vivid descriptions from the victims’ perspective illustrates his position that the German terror of 1914 was a deliberate, top-down policy intended to break a conquered people, and in that sense was a ‘rehearsal’ for the greater crimes of World War II…  Events on the ground were all too likely to follow the pattern Lipkes so eloquently describes.”

—Dennis Showalter, The Historian

Rehearsals tells an important story.  It’s a credible record of the German army’s orchestrated campaign of terror in Belgium in 1914, and Lipkes is right to title it ‘Rehearsals,’ because the Germans were clearly experimenting with methods they hoped would facilitate modern, massive fast-moving warfare.  Their supplies and communications had been interrupted–albeit weakly–by guerrillas in 1870-71.  The Germans clearly hoped to terrorize conquered populations into complete submission.  Belgium was the rehearsal for campaigns to come, in this war and the next.”

—Geoffrey Wawro, Journal of Modern History

“Lipkes’ study of the horrible events in Belgium in August 1914 offers a wealth of valuable material.”

—Wim Klinkert, Journal of Military History