The destruction of Louvain 2

November 16 2014

It was in these circumstances that, a few minutes past eight o’clock [on the evening of August 25 1914], the shooting in Louvain broke out.

All parties agree that it broke out in answer to signals. A Belgian witness, living near the Tirlemont Gate, saw a German military motor-car dash up from the Boulevard de Tirlemont, make luminous signals at the Gate, and then dash off again. A fusillade immediately followed. The German troops bivouacked in the Place de la Station saw two rockets, the first green and the second red, rise in quick succession from the centre of the town. They found themselves under fire immediately afterwards. A similar rocket was seen later in the night to rise above the conflagration. It is natural to suppose that the rockets, as well as the lights on the car, were German military signals of the kind commonly used in European armies for signalling in the dark. There had been two false alarms already that afternoon and evening; there is nothing incredible in a third. The German troops in the Place de la Station assumed that the signals were of Belgian origin (and therefore of civilian origin, as the Belgian troops did not after all reach the town), because these signals were followed by firing directed against themselves. They could not believe that the shots were fired in error by their own comrades, yet there is convincing evidence that this was the case.

It is certain that German troops fired on each other in at least two places – in the Rue de la Station and in the Rue de Bruxelles, which leads into the Grand’ Place from the opposite direction.

“We were at supper,” states a Belgian witness, whose house was in the Rue de la Station, “when about 8.15, shots were suddenly fired in the street by German cavalry coming from the Station. The troops who were bivouacked in the square replied, and an automobile on its way to the Station had to stop abruptly opposite my house and reverse, while its occupants fired. Within a few seconds the din of revolver and rifle shots had become terrific. The fusillade was sustained, and spread (north-eastward) towards the Boulevard de Diest. It became so furious that there was even gun-fire. The encounter between the German troops continued as far as the Grand’ Place, where on at least two occasions there was machine-gun fire. The fight lasted for from fifteen to twenty minutes with desperation; it persisted an hour longer after that, but with less violence.”

“At the stroke of eight,” states another witness, “shots were heard by us, coming from the direction of the Place du Peuple, where the German cavalry was concentrated. Part of the baggage-train, which was stationed in the Rue Léopold, turned right about and went off at a gallop towards the Station. I was at my front door and heard the bullets whistling as they came from the Place du Peuple. At this moment a sustained fusillade broke out, and there was a succession of cavalry-charges in the direction of the Station.”

The stampede in the Place du Peuple is described by a German officer who was present. “I heard the clock strike in a tower. … Complete darkness already prevailed. At the same moment I saw a green rocket go up above the houses south-west of the square. … Firing was directed on the German troops in the square. … Whilst riding round the square, I was shot from my horse on the north-eastern side. I distinctly heard the rattling of machine-guns, and the bullets flew in great numbers round about me. … After I had fallen from my horse, I was run over by an artillery transport waggon, the horses of which had been frightened by the firing and stampeded. …”

The shots by which this officer was wounded evidently came from German troops in the Rue Léopold, where they were attacking the house of Professor Verhelst. The Landsturm Company bivouacked in the Station Square was already replying vigorously to what it imagined to be the Belgian fire, coming from the Rue Léopold and the Rue de la Station.

“I stood with my Company,” states the Company Commander, “at about ten minutes to eight in the Station Square. I had stood about five minutes, when suddenly, quite unexpectedly, shots were fired at my Company from the surrounding houses, from the windows, and from the attics. Simultaneously I heard lively firing from the Rue de la Station as well as from all the neighbouring streets.” (Precisely the district in which the newly-arrived troops had taken up their quarters.) “Shots were also fired from the windows of my hotel – straight from my room” (which had doubtless been occupied by some newly-arrived soldier during the afternoon, while the witness was on duty at the Malines Gate). …

“We now knelt down and fired at the opposite houses. … I sought cover with my Company in the entrances of some houses. During the assault five men of my Company were wounded. The fact that so few were wounded is due to the fact that the inhabitants were shooting too high. …

“About an hour later I was summoned to His Excellency General von Boehn, who was standing near by. His Excellency asked for an exact report, and, after I had made it, he said to me: ‘Can you take an oath concerning what you have just reported to me – in particular, that the first shots were fired by the inhabitants from the houses?’ I then answered: ‘Yes, I can swear to that fact.’”

But what evidence had the Lieutenant for the “fact” to which he swore? There was no doubt about the shots, but he gives no proof of the identity of those who fired them, and another witness, who lived in a house looking on to the Station Square, is equally positive that the assailants, too, were German soldiers.

“Just before eight,” he states, “we heard one shot from a rifle, followed immediately after by two others, and then a general fusillade began. I went at once to my garden; the bullets were passing quite close to me; I went back to the house and on to the balcony, and there I saw the Germans, not fighting Belgians, but fighting each other at a distance of 200 or 300 yards. At 8.0 o’clock it begins to be dark, but I am perfectly certain it was Germans fighting Germans. The firing on both sides passed right in front of my house, and from the other side of the railway. I was low down on the balcony, quite flat, and watched it all. They fought hard for about an hour. The officers whistled and shouted out orders; there was terrible confusion until each side found out they were fighting each other, and then the firing ceased. About half an hour after, on the other side of the railway, I heard a machine-gun – I was told afterwards that the Germans were killing civilians with it. It went on certainly for at least five or six minutes, stopping now and then for a few seconds. …”

This fighting near the Station seems to have been the first and fiercest of all, but the panic spread like wildfire through the city. It was spread by the horses that stampeded in the Place du Peuple and elsewhere, and galloped riderless in all directions – across the Station Square, through the suburb of Corbeek-Loo, down the Rue de la Station, and up the Rue de Tirlemont, the Rue de Bruxelles, and the Rue de Malines. The troops infected by the panic either ran amok or took to flight.

“About 8.0 o’clock,” states a witness, “the Rue de la Station was the scene of a stampede of horses and baggage waggons, some of which were overturned. A smart burst of rifle-fire occurred at this moment. This came from the German police-guard in the Rue de la Station who, seeing troops arrive in disorder, thought that it was the enemy. Another proof of their mistake is that later during the same night a group of German soldiers, under the command of an officer, got into a shop belonging to the F.’s and in charge of their nephew B., and told him, pointing their revolvers at him, to hide them in the cellar. A few hours afterwards, hearing troops passing, they compelled him to go and see if it was the French or the Germans, and when they learnt that it was the Germans, they called out: ‘Then we are safe,’ and rejoined their compatriots.”

These new troops hurrying into the town in the midst of the uproar were infected by the panic in their turn and flung themselves into the fighting. “On August 25th,” states one of them in his diary, “we hold ourselves on the alert at Grimde (a sugar refinery); here, too, everything is burnt and destroyed. From Grimde we continue our march upon Louvain; here it is a picture of horror all round; corpses of our men and horses; motor-cars blazing; the water poisoned; we have scarcely reached the outskirts of the town when the fusillade begins again more merrily than ever; naturally we wheel about and sweep the street; then the town is peppered by us thoroughly.”

In the Rue Léopold, leading from the Rue de la Station into the Place du Peuple, “at 8.0 o’clock exactly a violent fusillade broke out.” The newly-arrived troops, who had been under arms since the alarm at 7.0 o’clock, “took to flight as fast as their legs could carry them. From our cellar,” states one of the householders on whom they had been billeted, “we saw them running until they must have been out of breath.”

There was a single shot, followed by a fusillade and machine-gun fire, in the Rue des Joyeuses Entrées. Waggons and motor-cars were flying out of the town down the Rue de Parc, and soldiers on foot down the Rue de Tirlemont. In the Rue des Flamands, which runs at right-angles between these two latter roads, “at ten minutes past eight, a shot was fired quite close to the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie” (now converted into the Hôpital St.-Thomas). “We had scarcely taken note of it,” states one of the workers in the hospital, “when other reports followed. In less than a minute rifle-shots and machine-gun fire mingled in a terrific din. Accompanying the crack of the firearms, we heard the dull thud of galloping hoofs in the Rue de Tirlemont.”

Mgr. Deploige, President of the Institute and Director of the Hospital, reports that “a lively fusillade broke out suddenly at 8.0 o’clock (Belgian time), at different points simultaneously – at the Brussels Gate, at the Tirlemont Gate, in the Rue de la Station, Rue Léopold, Rue Marie-Thérèse, Rue des Joyeuses Entrées, Rue de Tirlemont, etc. It was the German troops firing with rifles and machine-guns. Some houses were literally riddled with bullets, and a number of civilians were killed in their homes.”

Higher up the Rue de Tirlemont, in the direction of the Grand’ Place, there was a Belgian Infantry Barracks, which had been turned into a hospital for slightly incapacitated German soldiers. The patients were in a state of nervous excitement already. “Every man,” states one of them, “had his rifle by his side, also ball-cartridge.” — “About 9.0 o’clock,” states another, “we heard shots. … We had to fall in in the yard. A sergeant-major distributed cartridges among us, whereupon I marched out with about 20 men. In the Rue de Tirlemont a lively fire was directed against us from guns of small bore. … We pushed our way into a restaurant from, which shots had come, and found in the proprietor’s possession about 100 Browning cartridges. He was arrested and shot.” — “We now,” continues the former, “stormed all the houses out of which shots were being fired. … Those who were found with weapons were immediately shot or bayonetted. … I myself, together with a comrade, bayonetted one inhabitant who went for me with his knife. …”

But who would not defend himself with a knife when attacked by an armed man breaking into his house? The witness admits that only five civilians were armed out of the twenty-five dragged out. Were these “armed” with knives? Or if revolver bullets were found in their houses, was it proved that they had not delivered up their revolvers at the time when they had been ordered to do so by the municipal authorities and the German Command? The witness does not claim to have found the revolvers themselves as well as the ammunition, though even if he had that was no proof that his victims had been firing with them, or even that they were theirs. The German Army uses “Brownings” too, and at this stage of the panic many German soldiers had broken into private houses and were firing from the windows as points of vantage. Two German soldiers broke into the house of Professor Verhelst (Rue Léopold, 16), and fired into the street out of the second storey window. Other Germans passing shouted: “They have been shooting here,” and returned the fire. Mgr. Ladeuze, Rector of Louvain University, was looking from the window of his house adjoining the garden of the Chemical Institute, Rue de Namur, and saw two German soldiers hidden among the trees and firing over the wall into the street.

Ladeuze remained rector until his death twenty-five years later, a few weeks before another German invasion.

Moreover, there is definite evidence of Germans firing on one another by mistake in other quarters beside the neighbourhood of the Station.

“I myself know,” declares a Belgian witness, “that the Germans fired on one another on August 25th. On that day, at about 8.0 p.m., I was in the Rue de Bruxelles at Louvain. I was hidden in a house. There was one party of German soldiers at one end of the street firing on another party at the other end. I could see that this happened myself. On the next day I spoke to a German soldier called Hermann Otto – he was a private in a Bavarian regiment. He told me that he himself was in the Rue de Bruxelles the evening before, and that the two parties firing on one another were Bavarians and Poles [Polish conscripts from German-occupied Poland], he being among the Bavarians. …”

The Poles openly blamed the Bavarians for the error. A wounded Polish Catholic, who was brought in during the night to the Dominican Monastery in the Rue Juste-Lipse told the monks that “he had been wounded by a German bullet in an exchange of shots between two groups of German soldiers.” On the Thursday following, a wounded Polish soldier was lying in the hospital of the Sisters of Mary at Wesemael, and, seeing German troops patrolling the road between Wesemael and Louvain, exclaimed to one of the nuns: “These drunken pigs fired on us.”

The casualties inflicted by the Germans on each other do not, however, appear to have been heavy. One German witness saw “two dead transport horses and several dead soldiers” lying in the Place du Peuple. Another saw a soldier lying near the Juste-Lipse Monument who had been killed by a shot through the mouth. But most express astonishment at the lightness of the losses caused by so heavy a fire. “It is really a miracle,” said a German military doctor to a Belgian Professor in the course of the night, “that not one soldier has been wounded by this violent fusillade.” — “A murderous fire,” states the surgeon of the Second Neuss Landsturm Battalion, “was directed against us from Rue de la Station, No. 120. The fact that we or some of us were not killed I can merely explain by the fact that we were going along the same side of the street from which the shots were fired, and that it was night.” — “A tremendous fire,” states Major von Manteuffel, the Etappen-Kommandant, “was opened from the houses surrounding the Grand’ Place, which was now filled with artillery (one battery), and with transport columns, motor-lorries and tanks of benzine. … I believe there were three men wounded, chiefly in the legs.” General von Boehn, commanding the Ninth Reserve Army Corps, estimates that the total loss, in killed, wounded, and missing, of his General Command Staff, which was stationed in the Place du Peuple, “amounts to 5 officers, 2 officials, 23 men, and 95 horses.” — “I note that the inhabitants fired far too high,” states a N.C.O. of the Landsturm Company drawn up in the Station Square. “That was our good luck, because otherwise, considering the fearful fire which was directed against us from all the houses in the Station Square, most German officers and soldiers would have been killed or seriously wounded.”

Thus the German troops in Louvain seem not merely to have fired on one another, but to have exaggerated hysterically the amount of danger each incurred from the other’s mistake. And the legend grew with time. The deposition last quoted was taken down on September 17th, 1914, less than a month after the event. But when examined again, on November 19th, the same witness deposed that “Many of us were wounded, and some of us even received mortal wounds. … I fully maintain my evidence of September 17th,” he naively adds in conclusion. [The two statements are surely not incompatible.]

On the night of August 25th these German soldiers were distraught beyond all restraints of reason and justice. They blindly assumed that it was the civilians, and not their comrades, who had fired, and when they discovered their error they accused the civilians, deliberately, to save their own reputation.

The Director and the Chief Surgeon of the Hôpital St.-Thomas went out into the street after the first fusillade was over. Three soldiers with fixed bayonets rushed at them shouting: “You fired! Die!” – and it was only with difficulty that they persuaded them to spare their lives. When the firing began again a sergeant broke into the hospital shouting: “Who fired here?” – and placed the hospital staff under guard. This was the effect of panic, but there were cases in which the firing was imputed to civilians, and punishment meted out for it, by means of criminal trickery. It was realised that the material evidence would be damning to the German Army. The empty cartridge cases were all German which were picked up in the streets, and it is stated that every bullet extracted from the bodies of wounded German soldiers was found to be of German origin. The Germans, convicted by these proofs, shrank from no fraud which might enable them to transfer the guilt on to the heads of Belgian victims.

“The Germans took the horses out of a Belgian Red Cross car,” states a Belgian witness living in the Station Square, “frightened them so that they ran down the street, and then shot three of them. Two fell quite close to my house. They then took a Belgian artillery helmet and put it on the ground, so as to prepare a mise-en-scène to pretend that the Belgians had been fighting in the street.”

At a late hour of the night a detachment of German soldiers was passing one of the professors’ houses, when a shot rang out, followed by a volley from the soldiers through the windows of the house. The soldiers then broke in and accused the inmates of having fired the first shot. They were mad with fury, and the professor and his family barely escaped with their lives. A sergeant pointed to his boot, with the implication that the shot had struck him there; but a witness in another house actually saw this sergeant fire the original shot himself, and make the same gesture after it to incite his comrades.

A staff-surgeon billeted on a curé in the suburb of Blauwput pretended he had been wounded by civilians when he had really fallen from a wall. On the morning of the 26th the officer in local command arrested fifty-seven men at Blauwput, this curé included, in order to decimate them [kill every tenth man] in reprisal for wounds which the surgeon and two other soldiers had received. The curé was exempted by the lot, when the surgeon came up with a handful of revolver-cartridges which he professed to have discovered in the curé’s house. The officer answered: “Go away. I have searched this house myself,” and the surgeon slunk off. The curé was not added to the victims, but every tenth man was shot all the same.

That “the civilians had fired” was already an official dogma with the German military authorities in Louvain. Mgr. Coenraets, Vice-Rector of the University, was serving that day as a hostage at the Hôtel-de-Ville. A Dominican monk, Father Parijs, was there at the moment the firing broke out, in quest of a pass for remaining out-of-doors at night on ambulance service. He was now retained as well, and Alderman Schmit was fetched from his house. Von Boehn, the General Commanding the Ninth Reserve Corps, harangued these hostages on his arrival from the Malines front, and von Manteuffel, the Etappen-Kommandant, then conducted them, with a guard of soldiers, round the town. Baron Orban de Xivry was dragged out of his house to join them on the way. The procession halted at intervals in the streets, and the four hostages were compelled to proclaim to their fellow-citizens, in Flemish and in French, that, unless the firing ceased, the hostages themselves would be shot, the town would have to pay an indemnity of 20,000,000 francs, the houses from which shots were fired would be burnt, and artillery-fire would be directed upon Louvain as a whole.

But “reprisals” against the civil population had already begun. The firing from German soldiers in the houses upon German soldiers in the street was answered by a general assault of the latter upon all houses within their reach. “They broke the house-doors,” states a Belgian woman, “with the butt-ends of their rifles. … They shot through the gratings of the cellars.” — “In the Hôtel-de-Ville,” states von Manteuffel, “I saw the Company stationed there on the ground floor, standing at the windows and answering the fire of the inhabitants. In front of the Hôtel-de-Ville, on the entrance steps, I also saw soldiers firing in reply to the inhabitants’ fire in the direction of their houses.” — “Personally I was under the distinct impression,” states a staff officer, “that we were fired at from the Hotel Maria Theresa with machine-guns.” (This is quite probable, and merely proves that those who fired were German soldiers.) “The fire from machine-guns lasted from four to five minutes, and was immediately answered by our troops, who finally stormed the house and set it on fire.” — “The order was passed up from the rear that we should fire into the houses,” states an infantryman who had just detrained and was marching with his unit into the town. “Thereupon we shot into the house-fronts on either side of us. To what extent the fire was answered I cannot say, the noise and confusion were too great.” — “We now dispersed towards both sides,” states a lance-corporal in the same battalion, “and fired into the upper windows. … How long the firing lasted I cannot say. … We now began shooting into the ground-floor windows too, as well as tearing down a certain number of the shutters. I made my way into the house from which the shot had come, with a few others who had forced open the door. We could find no one in the house. In the room from which the shot had come there was, however, a petroleum lamp, lying overturned on the table and still smouldering. …”

These assaults on houses passed over inevitably into wholesale incendiarism. “The German troops,” as the Editors of the German White Book remark in their summarising report on the events at Louvain, “had to resort to energetic counter-measures. In accordance with the threats, the inhabitants who had taken part in the attack were shot, and the houses from which shots had been fired were set on fire. The spreading of the fire to other houses also and the destruction of some streets could not be avoided. In this way the Cathedral” (i. e., the Collegiate Church of St. Pierre) “also caught fire. …”

When war broke out in August 1914, each of the combatants rushed to publish diplomatic sources purporting to show how it had begun. Britain published a Blue Book (as it was called), France a Yellow Book, Russia an Orange Book, the Germans a White Book.

There is a map in the German White Book which shows the quarters burnt down. The incendiarism started in the Station Square, and spread along the Boulevard de Tirlemont as far as the Tirlemont Gate. It was renewed across the railway and devastated the suburbs to the east. Then it was extended up the Rue de la Station into the heart of the town, and here the Church of St. Pierre was destroyed, and the University Halles with the priceless University Library – not by mischance, as the German Report alleges, but by the deliberate work of German troops, employing the same incendiary apparatus as had been used already at Visé, Liége and elsewhere.

The burning was directed by a German officer from the Vieux Marché, a large open space near the centre of the town, and by another group of officers stationed in the Place du Peuple. The burning here is described by a German officer (whose evidence on other points has been quoted above). “The Company,” he states, “continued to fire into the houses. The fire of the inhabitants (sic) gradually died down. Thereupon the German soldiers broke in the doors of the houses and set the houses on fire, flinging burning petroleum lamps into the houses or striking off the gas-taps, setting light to the gas which rushed out and throwing table-cloths and curtains into the flames. Here and there benzine was also employed as a means of ignition. The order to set fire to the houses was given out by Colonel von Stubenrauch, whose voice I distinguished. …”

In the Rue de la Station the Germans set the houses on fire with incendiary bombs. This was seen by a Belgian witness, and is confirmed by the German officer just cited, who, in the Place du Peuple, “heard repeatedly the detonation of what appeared to be heavy guns” round about him. “I supposed,” he proceeds, “that artillery was firing; but since there was none present, there is only one explanation for this – that the inhabitants (sic) also threw hand-grenades.”

In the Rue de Manège, another Belgian witness saw a soldier pouring inflammable liquid over a house from a bucket, and this though a German military surgeon, present on the spot, admitted that in that house there had been nobody firing. Soldiers are also stated to have been seen with a complete incendiary equipment (syringe, hatchet, etc.), and with “Gott mit Uns” and “Company of Incendiaries” blazoned on their belts. The Germans deny that the Church of St. Pierre was deliberately burnt, and allege that the fire spread to it from private houses; but a Dutch witness saw it burning while the adjoining houses were still intact. There is less evidence for the deliberate burning of the University Halles, containing the Library, but it is significant that the building was completely consumed in one night (a result hardly possible without artificial means), and at 11.o p.m., in the middle of the burning, an officer answered a Belgian monk, who protested, that it was “By Order.” The manuscripts and early printed books in the Library were one of the treasures of Europe. The whole collection of 250,000 volumes was the intellectual capital of the University, without which it could not carry on its work. Every volume and manuscript was destroyed. The Germans pride themselves on saving the Hôtel-de-Ville, but they saved it because it was the seat of the German Kommandantur, and this only suggests that, had they desired, they could have prevented the destruction of the other buildings as well.

As the houses took fire the inhabitants met their fate. Some were asphyxiated in the cellars where they had taken refuge from the shooting, or were burnt alive as they attempted to escape from their homes. Others were shot down by the German troops as they ran out into the street, or while they were fighting the flames. “The franc-tireurs [free shooters],” as they are called by the German officer in the Place du Peuple, “were without exception evil-looking figures, such as I have never seen elsewhere in all my life. They were shot down by the German posts stationed below. …”

Others, again, tried to save themselves by climbing garden walls. “I, my mother and my servants,” states one of these, “took refuge at A.’s, whose cellars are vaulted and therefore afforded us a better protection than mine. A little later we withdrew to A.’s stables, where about 30 people, who had got there by climbing the garden walls, were to be found. Some of these poor wretches had had to climb 20 walls. A ring came at the bell. We opened the door. Several civilians flung themselves under the porch. The Germans were firing upon them from the street.”

“When we were crossing a particularly high wall,” states another victim, “my wife was on the top of the wall and I was helping her to get down, when a party of 15 Germans came up with rifles and revolvers. They told us to come down. My wife did not follow as quickly as they wished. One of them made a lunge at her with his bayonet. I seized the blade of the bayonet and stopped the lunge. The German soldier then tried to stab me in the face with his bayonet. …

“They kept hitting us with the butt-ends of their rifles – the women and children as well as the men. They struck us on the elbows because they said our arms were not raised high enough. …

“We were driven in this way through a burning house to the Place de la Station. There were a number of prisoners already there. In front of the station entrance there were the corpses of three civilians killed by rifle fire. The women and the children were separated. The women were put on one side and the men on the other. One of the German soldiers pushed my wife with the butt-end of his rifle, so that she was compelled to walk on the three corpses. Her shoes were full of blood. …

“Other prisoners were being continually brought in. I saw one prisoner with a bayonet-wound behind his ear. A boy of fifteen had a bayonet-wound in his throat in front. … The priests were treated more brutally than the rest. I saw one belaboured with the butt-ends of rifles. Some German soldiers came up to me sniggering, and said that all the women were going to be raped. … They explained themselves by gestures. … The streets were full of empty wine bottles. …

“An officer told me that he was merely executing orders, and that he himself would be shot if he did not execute them. …”

The battue of civilians through the streets was the final horror of that night. The massacre began with the murder of M. David-Fischbach. He was a man of property, a benefactor of the University and the town. Since the outbreak of war he had given 10,000 francs to the Red Cross. Since the German occupation he had entertained German officers in his house, which stood in the Rue de la Station opposite the Statue of Juste-Lipse, and about 9.0 o’clock that evening he had gone to bed.

“Close to the Monument Square,” states Dr. Berghausen, the German military surgeon who was responsible for M. David-Fischbach’s death, “I saw a German soldier lying dead on the ground. … His comrades told me that the shot had been fired from the comer house belonging to David-Fischbach. Thereupon I myself, with my servant, broke in the door of the house and met first the owner of the house, old David-Fischbach. I challenged him concerning the soldier who had been murdered. … Old David-Fischbach declared he knew nothing about it. Thereupon his son, young Fischbach, came downstairs from the first floor, and from the porter’s lodge appeared an old servant. I immediately took father, son, and servant with me into the street. At that moment a tumult arose in the street, because a fearful fusillade had opened from a few houses on the same side of the street against the soldiers standing by the Monument and against myself. In the darkness I then lost sight of David-Fischbach, with his son and servant. …”

The soldiers set the old man with his back against the statue. Standing with his arms raised, he had to watch his house set on fire. Then he was bayonetted and finally shot to death. His son was shot, too. His house was burnt to the ground, and a servant asphyxiated in the cellar.

“Later,” adds Dr. Berghausen, “I met Major von Manteuffel with the hostages, and all four or five of us saw the dead soldier lying in front of the monument and, a few steps further on, old David-Fischbach. I assumed that the comrades of the soldier who had been killed … had at once inflicted punishment on, the owner of the house. …”

The corpse was also seen by a professor’s wife who made her way to the Hôpital St.-Thomas – the old man’s white beard was stained with blood.

The massacre spread. Six workmen returning from their work were shot down from behind. A woman was shot as she was beating for admittance on a door. A man had his hands tied behind his back, and was shot as he ran down the street. Another witness saw 20 men shot. One saw 19 corpses, and corpses were also seen with their hands tied behind their backs, like the victim mentioned above. There was the body of a woman cut in two, with a child still alive beside her. Other children had been murdered, and were lying dead. There was the body of another murdered woman, and a girl of fourteen who had been wounded and was being carried to hospital. A German soldier beckoned a Dutch witness into a shop, and showed him the shop-keeper’s body in the backroom, in a night-shirt, with a bullet-wound through the head.

These were the “evil-looking franc-tireurs” whom the German soldiers shot down at sight. Inhabitants of Louvain dragged as prisoners through the streets recognised the corpses of people they knew. Here a bootmaker lay, here a hairdresser, here a professor. The corpse of Professor Lenertz was lying in front of his house in the Boulevard de Tirlemont. It was recognised by Dr. Noyons, one of his colleagues (though a Dutchman by nationality), who was serving in the Hôpital St.-Thomas and so escaped himself. “On the 27th,” states a Belgian lady, “M. Lenertz’ body was still lying on the Boulevard. When his wife and children were evicted by the Germans and came out of their house, members of the family had to stand in front of the body to hide it from Madame Lenertz’ sight.”

The dead were lying in every quarter of the town. In the Boulevard de Tirlemont there were six or seven more. There was one at the end of the Rue du Manège. But the greatest number were in the Station Square, where they were seen by all the civilian prisoners herded thither this night and the following day. Their murder is described by a German sergeant-major who was fighting in the neighbourhood of the Station. “Various civilians,” he remarks, “were led off by my men, and after judgment had been given against them by the Commandant, they were shot in the Square in front of the Station. In accordance with orders, I myself helped to set fire to various houses, after having in every case previously convinced myself that no one was left in them. Towards midnight the work was done, and the Company returned to the station buildings, before which were lying shot about 15 inhabitants of the town.”

The slaughter itself increased the thirst for blood. A Dutch witness met a German column marching in from Aerschot. “The soldiers were beside themselves with rage at the sight of the corpses, and cried: ‘Schweinhunde! Schweinhunde!’ They regarded me with threatening eyes. I passed on my way. …”

The soldiers in their frenzy respected no one. The Hostel for Spanish students in the Rue de la Station was burnt down, though it was protected by the Spanish flag. Father Catala, the Superior of the Hostel and formerly Vice-Consul of Spain, barely escaped with his life. There was no mercy either for the old or the sick. A retired barrister, bedridden with paralysis, had his house burnt over his head, and was brought to the Hôpital St.-Thomas to die. Another old man, more than eighty years old and in his last illness, was cast out by the soldiers into the street, and died in the Hôpital St.-Thomas next day. An aged concierge was cast alive into the blazing ruins of the house it was his duty to guard. So it went on till dawn, when the havoc was completed by salvoes of artillery. “At four o’clock in the morning,” states an officer of the Ninth German Reserve Corps Staff, “the Army Corps moved out to battle. We did not enter the main streets, but advanced along an avenue. … As the road carrying our lines of communication was continuously fired on, the order was given to clear the town by force. Two guns were sent with 150 shells. The two guns, firing from the Railway Station, swept the streets with shells. Thus at least the quarter surrounding the Railway Station was secured, and this made it possible to conduct the supply-columns through the town. …”

Louvain 1914

Map based on one in the German White Book; opens in a new window

German and Belgian soldiers, 1915

German and Belgian soldiers, both wounded, 1915; Flickr source: Nationaal Archief, Spaarnestad Photo SFA022802554

Photographer unknown. Why in the Dutch archive? Where was this taken? A million refugees fled Belgium into neutral Holland. Were these deserters?

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

One Response to “The destruction of Louvain 2”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Footnotes, which state sources, are omitted.

    At one stage I added some of 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 may be, so I took them out.


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