In the late summer of 1914, Belgians viewed the brewing war with concern. Though Belgium had been officially neutral since 1839, the prospect of war on their doorstep was worrisome to say the least. Still, many Belgians expected neutrality to shield them from the worst of the war’s destruction. Unfortunately for Belgium, the German plan to conquer France with a massive flanking maneuver, the Schlieffen Plan, explicitly called for the violation of Belgian neutrality.
With the outbreak of the war, German troops crossed the border into Belgium and into history. The period of German occupation from August to September 1914 became known as the “Rape of Belgium”. Fear of Belgian resistance fighters led German troops to burn homes and kill civilians. In late August the city of Leuven was sacked, its 42,000 inhabitants forced to evacuate. German soldiers, short on supplies, did what armies throughout history have done—they helped themselves to what they wanted from the local population.
These atrocities were a propaganda bonanza for the Allied cause. Propaganda posters depicted Germans as raging beasts and evil Huns, rampaging around Europe, victimizing the weak and innocent. The British were responsible for much of the propaganda, and while the Germans were aware of their increasingly negative image, they seemed unable to do much about it. In the United States public opinion was initially divided over which side to support. As the propaganda war continued, however, public opinion turned against Germany and the other Central Powers.
The sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May of 1915, which resulted in the death of 1,198 passengers and crew was a crushing blow to Germany’s image and gave rise to one of the most haunting and effective recruiting posters of all time: a mother and child sinking into the depths of the sea. The sinking, coupled with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and the revelation of the Zimmerman telegraph, and with the aid of propaganda posters like these, turned public opinion against Germany once and for all and led to the US entry into the war on the side of the Allies.