Along with the thousands of men assigned to the military occupation of Belgium, the entire German military legal machinery also arrived. The men in place in Belgium who find themselves accused of everything from stealing bread to desertion, will be brought before tribunals made up of German officers, sometimes lawyers. What were the most common misdeeds amongst the troops? Did they involve Belgians, or were these offences committed on one side or the other?
The Belgians, for their part, remain under the Belgian legal system that continues to operate normally until its interruption in February 1918, when Belgian magistrates collectively went on strike to protest the deportation of certain of their colleagues. Thereafter, civilians will appear before special German tribunals in case of crimes considered to be against the occupying authority...
Courts of first instance and Imperial appeal courts are set up on 7 April 1918, as well as repressive tribunals offering no avenues of appeal.
A new Justice system for all?
Throughout the occupation, German legal officers preside over field tribunals. In battalions lacking officers with specific training in this regard, battalion commanders and even company commanders often play this role. Jails are located in the big cities, or sometimes at the very location of the battalion's residence, if it happens to be too far away to justify a round-trip for a minimal sentence. Most of the time, the tribunals consist of a single judge, and more rarely a panel of two or three officers. The sole purpose of these tribunals is to judge offences committed by German soldiers. There is never any question of judging civilians, who are brought before a civilian tribunal that reports directly to the Belgian government. Nevertheless, battalion-based tribunals could pass sentence on civilians for offences punishable by not more than 5 days of arrest. Offences such as lacking respect for the soldiers or for having fed Russian prisoners, for example. In February 1918, several Belgian magistrates from the Brussels Court of Appeal are deported after yet another complaint about interference by the German government. After the deportations, on 11 February 1918, the Court of Cassation suspends its sessions, that were adjourned sine die. After this interruption, the occupying authority is obliged to take over the entire judicial system, and to organise a new judicial order. Courts of first instance and Imperial appeal courts are set up on 7 April 1918, as well as repressive tribunals offering no avenues of appeal. Everyone involved, barring perhaps the accused, was German, and the dispensed justice was often expeditious.
Some cases are very particular, such as the Landsturm soldier given three days of arrest for having let a civilian warm up with his mittens and jacket.
The occupiers judged for their misdeeds
The war journals of the German battalions give differing accounts of the sessions of the military tribunals. Certain officers take the time to describe each judgment, with the company and the name of the accused, as well as his offence and punishment, while others limit themselves to reporting the tribunal's sessions.
Before looking at the cases themselves, it's useful to have an idea of how often these audiences were held. In the Erlangen battalion, for example, where the officer does not report the content of the cases, the tribunal met 64 times in 1916, i.e. more than once a week, but only 36 times in 1917. These figures must be considered with caution. Indeed, if the tribunal met as often as it did in 1916, it was very rarely for serious cases leading to the offender's execution, with major offences such as desertion being tried by a "superior" tribunal under the authority of the German general government. Also, if the number of sessions was cut in half in one year, this does not automatically mean a lesser number of offences. Indeed, it was not uncommon for several defendants to be judged at the same time, for different cases.
It should be noted that certain of the condemned were more fortunate than others. Indeed, a soldier convicted in January could thank Ludwig III, King of Bavaria, for the annual general amnesty on January 27th, in honour of the Emperor's birthday.
In the case of one battalion, for example, the judgments handed down by these field tribunals can be divided into four major categories:
The first major group consists of men who, knowing that they've fallen prey to a venereal disease, have not turned themselves in as required by military law. The usual penalty is five days of arrest, sometimes 10. Seven judgments of this type are found between 1915 and 1918.
Secondly, they were the arrests for theft or embezzlement. The punishments are very uneven, ranging from 10 days of arrest to a year and three months. It's obvious that a bread thief will remain in prison for a shorter time than a NCO found to have massively embezzled military money. During the three years between 1915 and 1918, we also find seven judgments of this type.
We also note very rare cases leading to quite severe punishment, namely three men convicted as war traitors. In fact, these men were found guilty of corruption while guarding the border. The penalties range from death (commuted to life imprisonment), to four years in prison for attempted corruption.
After that, there are the men who hesitate to desert, and who finally report to their battalions. This group includes men who disappeared for a few hours or days, and others who extended their leave in Germany. The penalties are fairly light, not more than two weeks under arrest. The disappearances themselves are often quite short, seldom more than a few extra days or even hours (most often one night) when such disappearances occur in Belgium. Ten or so of such cases were recorded.
- Finally, the last category includes the most frequent cases. They range from dereliction of duty to refusal to follow an order, and even insubordination. 24 such cases were recorded. The accused are most often guilty of having imbibed while on duty, having fallen asleep at their post, or having insulted an officer. Punishments range from a fine to one month under arrest, as a maximum. Some cases are very particular, such as the Landsturm soldier given three days of arrest for having let a civilian warm up with his mittens and jacket, or another one sentenced to one day of arrest and a fine of 3 marks for having taken a bicycle without permission, and then injuring a colleague with this vehicle. Towards the end of the war, we note an increase in cases involving insubordination, insults and abandoned posts.
An analysis of these cases indicates that very few of them involved Belgian civilians. Indeed, it would appear that direct contacts between civilians and soldiers outside of their duties were quite rare. This is particularly the case in the event of petty thefts, in which Belgians only provided very relative assistance… Even when involved, such as in cases of attempted corruption at the border, they aren't judged together, notably in order to avoid creating any feeling of solidarity between the occupied and the occupiers.