The destruction of Louvain 1

November 15 2014

The Germans invaded Belgium on August 4 1914.

[They] entered Louvain [Leuven] on August 19th. The Belgian troops did not attempt to hold the town, and the civil authorities had prepared for the Germans’ arrival. They had called in all arms in private possession and deposited them in the Hôtel-de-Ville. This had been done a fortnight before the German occupation, and was repeated, for security, on the morning of the 19th itself. The municipal commissary of police remarked the exaggerated conscientiousness with which the order was obeyed. “Antiquarian pieces, flint-locks and even razors were handed in.” The people of Louvain were indeed terrified. They had heard what had happened in the villages round Liége, at Tongres and at St. Trond, and on the evening (August 18th) before the Germans arrived the refugees from Tirlemont had come pouring through the town. The Burgomaster, like his colleagues in other Belgian towns, had posted placards on August 18th, enjoining confidence and calm.

The German entry on the 19th took place without disturbance. Large requisitions were at once made on the town by the German Command. The troops were billeted on the inhabitants. In one house an officer demanded quarters for 50 men. “Revolver in hand, he inspected every bedroom minutely. ‘If anything goes wrong, you are all kaput.’ That was how he finished the business.” It was vacation time, and the lodgings of the University students were empty. Many houses were shut up altogether, and these were broken into and pillaged by the German soldiers. They pillaged enormous quantities of wine, without interference on the part of their officers. “The soldiers did not scruple to drain in the street the contents of stolen bottles, and drunken soldiers were common objects.” There was also a great deal of wanton destruction — “furniture destroyed, mirrors and picture-frames smashed, carpets spoilt and so on.” The house of Professor van Gehuchten, a scientist of international eminence, was treated with especial malice. This is testified by a number of people, including the Professor’s son. “They destroyed, tore up and threw into the street my father’s manuscripts and books (which were very numerous), and completely wrecked his library and its contents. They also destroyed the manuscript of an important work of my late father’s which was in the hands of the printer.” — “This misdemeanour made a scandal,” states another witness. “It was brought to the knowledge of the German general, who seemed much put out, but took no measures of protection.” The pillage was even systematic. A servant, left by an [the?] absent professor in charge of his house, found on August 20th that the Germans “had five motor-vans outside the premises. I saw them removing from my master’s house wine, blankets, books, etc., and placing them in the vans. They stripped the whole place of everything of value, including the furniture. … I saw them smashing glass and crockery and the windows.” On August 20th there were already acts of violence in the outskirts of the town. At Corbeek-Loo a girl of sixteen was violated by six soldiers and bayonetted in five places for offering resistance. Her parents were kept off with rifles. By noon on August 20th the town itself “was like a stable. Streets, pavements, public squares and trampled flower beds had disappeared under a layer of manure.”

On August 20th the German military authorities covered the walls with proclamations: “Atrocities have been committed by (Belgian) franc-tireurs.” — “If anything happens to the German troops, le total sera responsable” (an attempt to render in French the Prussian doctrine of collective responsibility). Doors must be left open at night. Windows fronting the street must be lighted up. Inhabitants must be within doors between 8.0 p.m. and 7.0 a.m. Most of these placards were ready-made in German, French and Russian. There were no placards in Flemish till after the events of August 25th. Yet Flemish was the only language spoken and understood by at least half the population of Louvain.

Hostages were also taken by the German authorities. The Burgomaster, a City Councillor and a Senator were confined under guard in the Hôtel-de-Ville on the first day of occupation. From August 21st onwards they were replaced successively by other notables, including the Rector and Vice-Rector of the University. On August 21st there was another German proclamation, in which the inhabitants were called upon (for the third time) to deliver up their arms. Requisitions and acts of pillage by individual officers and soldiers continued, and on the evening of August 24th the Burgomaster was dragged to the Railway Station and threatened with a revolver by a German officer, who had arrived with 250 men by train and demanded a hot meal and mattresses for them at once. Major von Manteuffel, the Etappen-Kommandant in the city, was called in and the Burgomaster was released, but without reparation. On that day, too, the German wounded were removed from Louvain – an ominous precaution – and in the course of the following day there were spoken warnings.

The mayor, or burgomaster, was Leo Colins. Alfred Nerincx, professor of international law at the university, took over on August 29. Colins came back at the end of the war.

On the morning of this day, Tuesday, August 25th, Madame Roomans, a notary’s wife, is said to have been warned by the German officers billeted on her to leave the town. In the afternoon, about 5.0 o’clock, another lady reported how an officer, billeted on her and taking his leave, had added: “I hope you will be spared, for now it is going to begin.” At supper time, when the first shots were fired and the alarm was sounded, officers billeted on various households are said to have exclaimed “Poor people!” – or to have wept.

On the morning of August 25th there were few German troops in Louvain. The greater part of those that had entered the town since the 19th had passed on to the front in the direction of Malines [Mechelen], and were now engaged in resisting the Belgian sortie from Antwerp, which was made this day. As the Belgian offensive made progress, the sound of the cannon became louder and louder in Louvain, and the German garrison grew increasingly uneasy. Despatch riders from the front kept arriving at the Kommandantur; at 4.0 o’clock a general alarm was sounded; the troops in the town assembled and marched out towards the north-western suburbs; military waggons drove in from the northwest in disorder, “their drivers grasping revolvers and looking very much excited.” At the same time, [German] reinforcements began to detrain at the Station, which stands at the eastern extremity of the town, and is connected with the central Grand’ Place and with the University buildings by the broad, straight line of the Rue de la Station, flanked with the private houses of the wealthier inhabitants. These fresh troops were billeted hastily by their officers in the quarters nearest the Station. The cavalry were concentrated in the Place du Peuple, a large square lying a short distance to the left of the Rue de la Station, about half-way towards the Grand’ Place. The square was already crowded with the transport that had been sent back during the day from the front. As the reinforcements kept on detraining, and the quarters near the Station filled up, the later arrivals went on to the Grand’ Place and the Hôtel-de-Ville, which was the seat of the Kommandantur.

During all this time the agitation increased. About 7.0 o’clock a company of Landsturm which had marched out in the afternoon to the north-western outskirts of the town, were ordered back by their battalion commander to the Place de la Station – the extensive square in front of the station buildings, out of which the Rue de la Station leads into the middle of the city. The military police pickets in the centre of the city were on the alert. Between 7.0 and 7.30 the alarm was sounded again, and the troops who had arrived that afternoon assembled from their billets and stood to arms. The tension among them was extreme. They had been travelling hard all day; they had entered the town at dusk; it was now dark, and they did not know their way about the streets, nor from what quarter to expect the enemy [Belgian] forces, which were supposed to be on the point of making their appearance.


The German Terror in Belgium, An Historical Record, Hodder & Stoughton, 1917

3 Responses to “The destruction of Louvain 1”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Liège was spelt with an acute accent when Toynbee was writing this.

    The italicisation of place names is not consistent and is as shown here.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Leuven vs Louvain: when did Flemish acquire parity of esteem in Belgium with French? After WW1 or WW2? I presume latter. Nobody says Louvain now.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    In this and the next few posts, footnotes, which state sources, are omitted.

    At one stage I added the page headings in the book (which were created by the publisher, not AJT) as cross-headings here, to break up a long narrative. But they added an additionally tendentious tone to what is already propaganda, true though it surely is, so I took them out.

    I used to think “deplane” was a recent invention, but OED shows first use of “detrain” as 1881.

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