The war through a German woman's eyes

There are two sides to every story, they say. So how did the German perception of the British compare to the British perception of Germans after the first few months of war?

One German woman who had been in Luton shortly before war broke out outlined her thoughts and experiences in a letter to Madame Hilton, of Roxbury, New Bedford Road.

Fraulein Else Asbach was a young German teacher employed by Madame Hilton. She wrote two letters to her former employer when she got home to Berlin, the second one sent via Switzerland just before Christmas.

In the second letter, as printed in The Luton News, she wrote: "I am very sorry to say that everybody hates England the most. I tell everyone that I liked England and the English people very much, and that I had a very pleasant time there.

"England is very much hated. (1) People say that England does not fight only against the soldiers, but it also is fighting against women and children. It is trying to cut the importation of food. (2) They are trying to smash Germany in calling all the coloured people against a white nation. (3) It hurt Germany very much that the English hunted whole Japan against a heroic little army. They don't think that this yellow nation is able to cause them, if they are victorious, much greater damage. I may cite the proverb 'L'appetit vient en mangeant' [the appetite comes in eating].

"All men who have not to go to the army volunteer: Tory or Socialist, millionaire or workman, professor of the university or man of the people. I think all is the fault of the printing press, which only writes lies to cause the needless hate.

"The reports of the cruelties which the Germans are told of having done are wrong. I thought so when I was in England. It is a pity that the art of printing, instead of instructing the people, makes them excited by spreading false news among them.

"German soldiers are fighting against soldiers. Unfortunately, they were forced many times to attack the civil population. The reason is the following - hundreds of our soldiers have been shot from behind by the civil people in Belgium (franc-tireaurs [free-shooters]). I know myself some young men who came back from the front wounded - shot by civil people.

"They told the most terrible things of the Belgians. Even women and children poured hot oil etc on our soldiers, as they invited them to come into their houses and were very friendly with them. And then, when our soldiers had put up their arms, they shot them down from behind. That is assassination, and the worst thing that can be done. Naturally is something cruel happened like that our soldiers did not take any regard.

"In the places where the people kept quiet nothing happened to them: on the contrary, our soldiers are very friendly against the non-combatants. Some of my acquaintances write to me that they play with the Belgian and French children, and that they are all very kind to the civil population.

"When I was in England I could not understand why the Germans bombarded Rheims Cathedral. The reason is the following - the French put their observatory right on the top of the cathedral and put all their guns behind it to protect them. The officers saw it and had to defend themselves. They could not expose all their soldiers in preference to a monument. One human life is worth more than a monument, and there were thousands...

"To prevent our soldiers shooting, the French put our wounded soldiers into the cathedral. Isn't it very cruel? But our soldiers couldn't help it. Because the French shot from the cathedral they had to take the offensive. The General, who was himself a Roman Catholic, was very sorry to be forced to do it. I would be able to give you lots of examples.

"You can't imagine how cruel this uncivilised people, the Russians, are against the civil people. I could not write all these cruelties to you. England has always been an example to Germany for freedom. England was a refuge for political and religious refugees. This free England is allied with these barbaric Russians. It is not to be believed!

"You know that I like very much England and the English people. I think that every country has its good and bad sides, more or less. I hope you won't be cross that I wrote this letter to you, as I know you are not so narrow-minded, and it will be interesting to you to hear something from the other side.

"Berlin has not changed till now. One cannot imagine that such a great war is going on, only there are more soldiers in the streets and many wounded too. I go often to the theatre, concerts and elocutions. I am just knitting stockings for the soldiers. Everybody does it, just like in England.

"I hope that the war will soon be over, and that you will have the opportunity to come to Germany. You will wonder to see that the Germans are no 'barbares' as they are said but that, on the contrary, they are very nice people."

[The Luton News, January 28th, 1915]