The destruction of Louvain 3

November 17 2014

It was now the morning of August 26th. At dawn Mgr. Coenraets and Father Parijs, the hostages of the preceding night, were placed under escort and marched round the City once more. If the firing continued the hostages were to be shot. They had to proclaim this themselves to the inhabitants from point to point of the town, and they were kept at this task till far on in the day. The inhabitants, meanwhile, were paying the penalty for the shots which not they but the Germans had already fired.

In one street after another the people were dragged from their houses, and those not slaughtered out of hand were driven by the soldiers to the Station Square. “I only had slippers on,” states one victim, “and no hat or waistcoat. On the way to the Station Square, soldiers kicked me and hit me with the butt-ends of their rifles, and shouted: ‘Oh, you swine! Another who shot at us! You swine!’ My hands were tied behind my back with a cord, and when I cried: ‘Oh, God, you are hurting me,’ a soldier spat on me.” — “We had to go in front of the soldiers,” adds this witness’s wife, “holding our hands above our heads. All the ladies who lived in the Boulevard – invalids or not – were taken prisoners. One of them, an old lady of 85, who could scarcely walk, was dragged from her cellar with her maid.”

When they reached the Station Square the men were herded to one side, the women and children to the other. It was done by an officer with a loaded revolver. “We were separated from our families,” states one of the men; “we were knocked about and blows were rained on us from rifle butts; the women and children and the men were isolated from one another. …”

The men’s pockets were rifled. Purses, keys, penknives and so on were taken from them. One gentleman’s servant had 7,805 francs taken from his bag, and was given a receipt for 7,000 francs in exchange. This was the preliminary to a “trial,” conducted by Captain Albrecht, a staff officer of the Ninth Reserve Corps. “The soldiers,” states a German tradesman who acted as Captain Albrecht’s interpreter, “brought forward the civilians whom they had seized. … In all about 600 persons may have been brought in, the lives of at least 500 of whom were spared, because no clear proof of their guilt seemed to be established at the trial. These persons were set on one side. … Captain Albrecht followed the course – I imagine, by the command of his superiors – of ordering that those among the men brought forward upon whom either a weapon or an identification mark was discovered, or in whose case it was established by at least two witnesses that they had fired upon the German troops, should be shot. It is an utter impossibility, according to my firm conviction, that any innocent man should have lost his life. …”

But was there really “clear proof of guilt” in any of these cases? Not one of these “identification marks” (assumed to establish that the bearer was a member of the Belgian Army) has been brought forward as material evidence by the German Government. And was the other material evidence so clear? One man, for instance, had a German bullet in his pocket which he had picked up in the street. “He was shot down, and two of his comrades had to make a pit and bury him in the place where he was shot.” One priest was shot “because he had purposely enticed the soldiers, according to their testimony, under the fire of the franc-tireurs.” Two other priests were shot “for distributing ammunition to civilians,” but this was only a story heard from General Headquarters at second-hand. The witness who tells it was sent with a squad “to set on fire two hotels in the Station Square and drive out their inmates. The chief culprits found, apparently, a way of escape in good time over the roofs, since only the proprietor of one of the hotels presented himself at 5.0 o’clock in the morning, and very shortly afterwards received the reward he deserved.” But what was the proof that he deserved it? Not any material evidence on his person, or the testimony of two witnesses who had seen him fire, but simply the fact that he was the only Belgian found in a certain building the inmates of which had been condemned, a priori as franc-tireurs. The logic of this proceeding is defended by the tradesman interpreter, who submits that “apart from all evidence, the persons brought to trial must have acted somehow in a suspicious manner – otherwise they would never have been brought to trial at all.”

“It is untrue,” nevertheless he states expressly, “that an arbitrary selection among the persons brought forward was made when the order for execution was issued.” But one of the Belgian women held prisoner in the Station Square describes how “the men were placed in rows of five, and the fifth in each row was taken and shot,” as she affirms, “in my presence. If the fifth man happened to be old, his place was taken by the sixth man if he happened to be younger. This was also witnessed by my grandmother, my uncle and his wife, my cousin and our servant. …”

“The whole day long,” states another Belgian woman, “I saw civilians being shot – twenty to twenty-five of them, including some monks or priests – in the Station Square and the Boulevard de Tirlemont, opposite the warehouse. The victims were bound four together and placed on the pavement in front of the Maison Hamaide [no explanation]. The soldiers who shot them were on the other side of the Boulevard, on the warehouse roof. For that matter, the soldiers were firing everywhere in all directions.”

The executions were also witnessed by the German troops. “On the morning of August 26th,” states a soldier, “I saw many civilians, more than a hundred, among them five priests, shot at the Station Square in Louvain because they had fired on German troops or because weapons were found on their persons.”

This went on all day, and all day the women were compelled to watch it, while the surviving men were marched away in batches, and the houses on either side of the railway continued to burn. When night came the women were confined in the Station. “My aunt,” continues the witness quoted above, “was taken to the Station with her baby and kept there till the morning. It rained all the night, and she wrapped the baby in her skirt. The baby cried for food, and a German soldier gave the child a little water, and took my aunt and the child to an empty railway-carriage. Some other women got into the carriage with her, but during the whole night the Germans fired at the carriage for amusement. …”

The firing by German soldiers had never ceased since the first outbreak at 8.0 o’clock the evening before. An eye-witness records two bursts of it on the 26th – one at 5.0 p.m., and a more serious one at 8.45. This firing was due in part to panic, but was in part of a more deliberate character. “The whole day,” states a Belgian witness, “the soldiers went and came through the streets, saying: ‘Man hat geschossen,’ [sic] but it seems that the shots came from the soldiers themselves. I myself saw a soldier going through the streets shooting peacefully in the air.” There was also killing in cold blood. A café proprietor and his daughter were shot by two German soldiers waiting to be served. The other daughter crept under a table and escaped.

The women held prisoner at the Station were only released at 8.0 o’clock on the morning of the 27th, but they had suffered less during these hours than the men. “Of the men,” as a German witness puts it, “some were shot according to Martial Law. In the case of a large number of others it was, however, impossible to determine whether they had taken part in the shooting. These persons were placed for the moment in the Station; some of them were conveyed elsewhere.”

The first batch of those “not found guilty” was “conveyed” by the Boulevard de Diest round the outskirts of the town, and out along the Malines Road, about 11.0 o’clock in the morning. It consisted of from 70 to 80 men, one of whom at least was 75 years old, while five were neutrals – a Paraguayan priest, [namely] Father Gamarra, the Superior of the Spanish Hostel, [namely] Father Catala, and three of Father Catala’s students. There were doctors, lawyers, and retired officers among the Belgian victims. One prisoner was driven on ahead to warn the country people that all the hostages would be executed if a single shot were fired; the rest were searched, had their hands bound behind their backs, and were marched in column under guard. On the way to Herent they were used as a screen. The village of Herent was burning, and they had to run through the street to avoid being scorched by the flames. “Carbonised corpses were lying in front of the houses.” — “At Herent” states the South American priest, “I saw lying in the nook of a wall the corpse of a girl twelve or thirteen years old, who had been burnt alive.” On the road from Herent to Bueken “everything was devastated.” Beyond Bueken and Campenhout they were made to halt in a field, and were told that they were going to be executed. Squads of soldiers advanced on them from the front and rear, and they were kept many minutes in suspense. Then they were marched on again towards Campenhout surrounded by a company which, they were given to understand, was the “execution company.” Crowds of German troops, bivouacked by the roadside, shouted at them and spat on them as they passed. They reached Campenhout at dusk, and were locked up for the night in the church with the inhabitants of the village. At 4.30 a.m. they were warned to confess, as their execution was imminent. At 5.0 a.m. they were released from the church, and told they were free. But at Bueken they were arrested again with a large number of country people, and were marched back towards Campenhout. One of these countrywomen bore a baby on the road. From the outskirts of Campenhout they were suddenly ordered to make their own way as best they could to the Belgian lines. They arrived at Malines about 11.30 in the morning (of August 27th), about 200 strong. Within four hours of their arrival the German bombardment of Malines began, and they had to march on again to Antwerp.

A second batch was driven out along the Brussels Road on August 26th between 1.0 and 2.0 o’clock in the afternoon. As they marched through Louvain by the Rue de Bruxelles, the guard fired into the windows of the houses and shot down one of the prisoners, who was panic-stricken and tried to escape. At Herent they were yoked to heavy carts and made to drag them along by-roads for three hours, and another civilian was shot on the way. At 10.0 p.m. they were made to lie down in an open field with their feet tied together, and lay thus in pouring rain till 6.0 o’clock next morning. Then they were marched through Bueken, Thildonck, Wespelaer – still in pouring rain – with their hands bound by a single long cord. They reached Campenhout at noon, and were set to digging trenches. At 7.0 p.m. they were allowed to sit down and rest, but only just behind the batteries bombarding the Antwerp forts, which might have opened retaliation fire on them at any moment. That night they passed in Campenhout church, and at 9.0 o’clock next morning (August 28th) they were marched back again to Louvain, about 1,000 in all – women and children as well as men. “The houses along the road were burning. The principal streets of Louvain itself were burnt out.” That night at Louvain they were crowded into the Cavalry Riding School in the Rue du Manège. Six or seven thousand people were imprisoned there in all. The press was terrible, and the heat from the burning buildings round was so great that the glass of the roof cracked during the night. Two women went out of their minds and two babies died. Next morning a German officer read them a proclamation to the effect that their liberty was given them because Germany had already won the war, and they were marched out again through the streets. They passed corpses left unburied since the night of August 25th. “The German soldiers giggled at the sight.” Once more they were driven round the countryside. At Herent the women and children, and the men over forty, were set free. At Campenhout the curé was added to the company, after being dragged round his parish at the tail of a cart. At Boortmeerbeek the men between twenty and forty were also released at last, and told to go forward to the Belgian lines [why?], under threat of being shot if they turned back. They arrived in front of Fort Waelhem in the dark, at 11.0 p.m. on the 29th, and were fired on by the Belgian outposts; but they managed to make themselves known and came through to safety.

The third batch “conveyed elsewhere” from Louvain on August 26th consisted of the Garde Civique. All members of this body were summoned by proclamation to present themselves at the Hôtel-de-Ville at 2.0 p.m. The 95 men who reported themselves were informed that they were prisoners, taken to the Station, and entrained in two goods-vans. There were 250 other deportees on the train, including the Gardes Civiques of Beyghem and Grimberghen, and about a hundred women and children. They did not reach the internment camp at Münster till the night of the 28th, and on the journey they were almost starved. At Cologne Station a German Red Cross worker refused one of the women, who asked her in German for a little milk to feed her sick baby fourteen months old. In the camp at Münster all the men were crowded promiscuously into a single wooden shed. The floor was strewn with straw (already old), which was never changed. The blankets (also old, and too thin to keep out the cold) were never disinfected or washed. There was no lighting or heating. The food was insufficient and disgusting. The sanitary arrangements were indecent. And the deportees had to live under these conditions for months, in the clothes they stood in, though many had come in slippers and shirt-sleeves – the proclamation having taken them completely by surprise. In neighbouring huts there were the 400 Russian students from Liége [mentioned earlier in the book], 600 or 700 people from Visé, the Gardes Civiques of Hasselt and Tongres, people from Haccourt and from several communes in the Province of Limburg – about 1,700 prisoners in all. On October 4th an article in the Berliner Tageblatt, signed by a German general, admitted that “only two of the prisoners at Münster were under suspicion of having fired”; but none of the prisoners from Louvain were released till October 30th, and then only cripples and men over seventy years of age. The rest were retained, including a man with a wooden leg. …

The fourth batch of prisoners on August 26th started about 3.0 o’clock in the afternoon, also by way of the Boulevard de Diest and the Malines Road. This group seems to have been treated even more brutally than the rest. One man was so violently mishandled that he fainted, and was carried in a waggon the first part of the way. He came to himself in time to see his own house burning and his wife waving him farewell. He was then thrown out of the waggon and made to go on foot. His bonds cut so deeply into his flesh that his arms lost all sensation for three days. The party was marched aimlessly about between Herent, Louvain, Bueken, and Herent again till 11.0 at night, when they had to camp in the open in the rain. They were refused water to drink. At 3.0 a.m. on August 27th they were driven on again, and marched till 3.0 p.m., when they arrived at Rotselaer. At Rotselaer they were shut up in the church – a company of 3,000 men and women, including all the inhabitants of the village. This respite only lasted an hour, and at 4.0 o’clock they started once more along the Louvain Road. They were destined for a still worse torment, which will shortly be described.

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

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