“The Mills of God“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.
This story takes place entirely on the Western Front after the trenches have been dug.
It is short tale of divine vengeance for the murder of a small French boy, Bodru. He is a favorite of some British troops. The village he lives in is in a contested area of the front, and the story opens with the British deciding to retreat from the area since it “was full of spies”.
A few weeks after the British retreat, a German soldier enters the home of Bodru and his mother. He is seemingly a deserter given “There was no sign of cap-badge or title on his shoulder straps, and he was horribly dirty.”
Soon he’s drunk on a bottle of confiscated Benedictine and has an argument with Bodru who mocks him. “I think you may be like the man in the English soldiers’ story, who turned into a pig—a baby killer perhaps.”
Bodru gets bayoneted and his body concealed in the attic.
As his mother frantically seeks Bodru and the German soldier is still in the house, the British soldiers return. They notice blood on the German’s sleeve.
At that moment, a shell strikes the roof, and Bodru’s body falls from its concealment in the attic. The German soldier flees and is shot.
The convenient results of artillery fire, shelling as a revelation of a miracle, calls to mind the alleged miracle of crucifixes surviving the destruction of churches that vicar Forbes Phillips talks about in his introduction to the work, War and the Weird, where this story first appeared.
What isn’t here is any real mention of organized German atrocities, the so-called “Rape of Belgium”, that helped sustain the war effort in Britain. Calling the German “baby killer” is about the closest the story gets, but he isn’t acting in concert with other Germans.
German atrocities in Belgium were real as discussed in a recent BBC broadcast, “The Great War of Words, Episode 1”. It became fashionable in the late 1920s, particularly with Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That, to argue that they never happened. But German records document thousands of Belgiums, including children, being executed by the forces of Imperial Germany. Some may have been justifiable as being conducted against partisans not in uniform and beyond the Geneva Convention’s protection, but there is no doubt Germany’s behavior in Belgium, apart from the very act of invading a neutral country and unrestricted submarine warfare, did it no favors.
The Kaiser didn’t help either when, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was the one who dubbed the German Army “Huns”
So, it is a bit surprising in a tale where divine intervention avenges a German atrocity, that Hopkins gives us a small scale story that only very slightly touches on what was such an emotional motive for Britain to fight the Great War.
World War One Content
- Living Memory: Yes.
- On-Stage War: Yes.
- Belligerent Area: Yes.
- Home Front: No.
- Veteran: Yes — probably.