The destruction of Louvain 4

November 18 2014

These preliminary expulsions on the 26th were followed up by more comprehensive measures on the morning of the 27th. Between 8.0 and 9.0 a.m. German soldiers went round the streets proclaiming from door to door: “Louvain is to be bombarded at noon; everyone is to leave the town immediately.” The people had no time to set their affairs in order or to prepare for the journey. They started out just as they were, fearing that the bombardment would overtake them before they could escape from the town. The exodus was complete. About 40,000 people altogether were in flight, and the majority of them streamed towards the Station Square, where they had been ordered to assemble, and then out by the Boulevard de Tirlemont, along the Tirlemont Road.

The Dominicans from the Monastery in the Rue Juste-Lipse were expelled with the rest. “At the moment when they were leaving the Monastery an old man was brought in seriously wounded in the stomach; it was evident that he had but a few hours to live. A German officer proposed to ‘finish him off,’ but was deterred by the Prior. One of the monks attempted to pick up a paralysed person who had fallen in the street; the soldiers prevented him, striking him with the butt-ends of their muskets. The weeping, terrified population was hurrying towards the Railway Station. …” At the Station the Dominicans were stopped and sent to Germany by train; the rest of the crowd was driven on. There were from 8,000 to 10,000 people in this first column. “Nothing but heads was to be seen – a sea of heads. … The wind was blowing violently, and a remorseless rain scourged us. … The crowd was pressing upon us, suffocating us, and sometimes literally lifting us along like a wave, our feet not touching the ground. We progressed with difficulty, and had to stop every ten metres. Sometimes a German asked us if we had any arms. …” When they arrived at Tirlemont they were kept outside the town till nightfall. The inhabitants did their best for them, but Tirlemont too, had been ravaged by the invasion. The number of the refugees was overwhelming, and there was a dearth of supplies. “My mother and I,” states a Professor of Louvain University, “had to walk about 20 miles on the 27th and the following day before we could find a peasant cart. We had to carry the few belongings we were able to take away, and to walk in the heavy rain. We could find nothing to eat, but other people were yet more unfortunate than we. I saw ladies walking in the same plight, without hats and almost in their night-dresses. Sick persons, too, dragged themselves along or were carried in wheel-barrows. Thousands of people were obliged to sleep in Tirlemont on the church pavements. We found a little room to sleep in. …”

Ecclesiastics were singled out for special maltreatment. This professor, and twelve other priests or monks with him, was stopped by German troops en camped at Lovenjoul. They were informed that they were going to be shot for “having incited the population.” — “A soldier,” states the professor, “called me ‘Black Devil’ and pushed me roughly into a dirty little stable.” — “I was thrust into a pig-stye,” states one of his fellow-victims, “from which a pig had just been removed before my eyes. … There I was compelled to undress completely. German soldiers searched my clothes and took all I had. Thereupon the other ecclesiastics were brought to the stye; two of them were stripped like me; all were searched and robbed of all they had. The soldiers kept everything of value – watches, money and so on – and only returned us trifles. Our breviaries were thrown into the manure. Some of the ecclesiastics were robbed of large sums – one had 6,000 francs on him, another more than 4,000. All were brutally handled and received blows.” They were saved from death by the professor’s mother, who appealed to a German officer with more sense of justice than his colleagues, and they were thankful to rejoin the other refugees.

A second stream of refugees was pouring out of Louvain by the Tervueren Road, towards the south-west. “On the road,” states a professor, “we had to raise our arms each time we met soldiers. An officer in a motor-car levelled his revolver at us. He threatened fiercely a young man walking by himself who only raised one arm – he was carrying a portmanteau in the other hand, which he had to put down in a hurry. At Tervueren we were searched several times over, and then took the electric tram for Brussels. …”

But here the ecclesiastics were singled out once more. One was searched so roughly that his cassock was torn from top to bottom. Another was charged with carrying “cartridges,” which turned out to be a packet of chocolates. One soldier tried to slip a cartridge into a Jesuit’s pocket, but the trick was fortunately seen by another monk standing by. Insults were hurled at them – “Swine”; “Beastly Papists”; “You incite the people to fire on us”; “You will be castrated, you swine!” Then they were driven into a field, and surrounded by a guard with loaded rifles. About 140 ecclesiastics were collected altogether, including Mgr. Ladeuze, the Rector of Louvain University; Canon Cauchie, the Professor of History; Mgr. Becker, the Principal of the American Seminary; and Mgr. Willemsen, formerly President of the American College. [The Seminary and the College are the same thing.] After they had waited an hour, 26 of them were taken and lined up against a fence. Expecting to be shot, they gave one another absolution, but after waiting seven or eight minutes they were marched out of the field and lined up once more with their backs to a wood. As they marched, a soldier muttered that “one of them was going to be shot.” The two Americans showed their passports to an officer, but were violently rebuffed. Then Father Dupierreux, a Jesuit student 23 years old, was led before them under guard, and one of their number was called forward to translate aloud into German a paper that had been found on Father Dupierreux’s person. The paper (it was a manuscript memorandum of half-a-dozen lines) compared the conduct of the Germans at Louvain to the conduct of Genseric and of the Saracens, and the burning of the Library to the burning of the Library at Alexandria. The officer cut the recitation short. Father Dupierreux received absolution, and was then ordered to advance towards the wood. Four soldiers were lined up in front of him, and the 26 prisoners were ordered to face about, in order to witness the execution. Among their number was Father Robert Dupierreux, the twin brother of the condemned. “Father Dupierreux,” states Father Schill, the Jesuit who had been forced to translate the document, “had listened to the reading with complete calm. … He kept his eyes fixed on the crucifix. … The command rang out: ‘Aim! Fire!’ We only heard one report. The Father fell on his back; a last shudder ran through his limbs. Then the spectators were ordered to turn about again, while the officer bent over the body and discharged his pistol into the ear. The bullet came out through the eye.”

The others were then placed in carts, and harangued: “When we pass through a village, if a single shot is fired from any house, the whole village will be burnt. You will be shot and the inhabitants likewise.” They were paraded in these carts through the streets of Brussels and liberated, at 7.0 o’clock in the evening, at eight kilometres’ distance beyond the city.

Meanwhile, the proclamation of the morning had had its effect. Louvain was cleared of its inhabitants, but the bombardment did not follow. Between 11.0 and 12.0 o’clock a few cannon shots were heard in the distance, but that was all. “At Rotselaer,” states an inhabitant of Louvain who was in the party conveyed there on the 27th, “I understood from the prisoners in the church that all the people of Rotselaer were made to leave their houses on the pretext that they were in danger of bombardment, and the Germans stated that they were being placed in the church for security. While all these people were in the church the Germans robbed the houses and then burned the village.” At Louvain the German strategy was the same. The bombardment was only a pretext for the wholesale expulsion of the inhabitants, which was followed by systematic pillage and incendiarism as soon as the ground was clear. The conflagration of two nights before, which had never burnt itself out, was extended deliberately and revived where it was dying out; the plundering, which had been desultory since the Germans first occupied the town, was now conducted under the supervision of officers from house to house.

On the morning of August 27th, even before the exodus began, a Dutch witness waiting at the Hôtel-de-Ville saw “soldiers streaming in from all sides, laden with huge packages of stolen property – clothes, boxes of cigars, bottles of wine, etc. Many of these men were drunk.” — “I saw the German soldiers taking the wine away from my house and from neighbours’ houses,” states a Belgian witness. “They got into the cellar with a ladder, and brought out the wine and placed it on their waggons.” — “The streets were full of empty wine bottles,” states another. “My factory has been completely plundered,” states a cigar-manufacturer. “Seven million [sic] cigars have disappeared.” The factory itself was set on fire on the 26th, and was only saved by the Germans for fear the flames might spread to the prison. They saved it by an extinguishing apparatus which was as instantaneous in its effect as the apparatus they used for setting houses alight. “The soldiers, led by a non-commissioned officer, went from house to house and broke in the shop fronts and house doors with their rifle butts. A cart or waggon waited for them in the street to carry away the loot.” Carts were also employed in the suburb of Blauwput, on the other side of the railway. “I saw German soldiers break into the houses,” states a witness from Blauwput. “One party consisting of six soldiers had a little cart with them. I saw these break into a store where there were many bottles of champagne and a stock of cigars, etc. They drank a good deal of wine, smoked cigars, and carried off a supply in the cart. I saw many Germans engaged in looting.” This employment of carts became an anxiety to the Higher Command. A type-written order, addressed to the Officers of the 53rd Landwehr Infantry [from Württemberg], lays down that “For the future it is forbidden to use army carts for the transport of things which have nothing whatever to do with the service of the Army. At some period these carts, which travel empty with our Army, will be required for the transport of war material. They are now actually loaded with all sorts of things, none of which have anything to do with military supplies or equipment.”

This systematic pillage went on day after day. “The Station Square,” states a refugee from Louvain who traversed the city again on August 29th, “was transformed into a vast goods-depôt, where bottles of wine were the most prominent feature. Officers and men were eating and drinking in the middle of the ruins, without appearing to be in the least incommoded by the appalling stench of the corpses which still lay in the Boulevard. Along the Boulevard de Diest I saw Landsturm soldiers taking from the houses anything that suited their fancy, and then setting the house alight, and this under their officers’ eyes.” On September 2nd there was a fresh outbreak of plunder and arson in the Rue Léopold and the Rue Marie- Thérèse. As late as September 5th – ten days after the original catastrophe – the Germans were pillaging houses in the Rue de la Station and loading the loot on carts. Householders who returned when all was over found the destruction complete. “I found my parents’ house sacked,” states one. “A great deal of the furniture was smashed, the contents of cupboards and drawers were scattered about the rooms. … In my sister’s house the looking-glasses on the ground floor were broken. On the bedding of the glass the imprint of the rifle-butts was clearly visible.” — “Inside our house,” states another, “everything is upside down. … The floors are strewn with flowers and with silver plate not belonging to our house, the writing room is filled with buckets and basins, in which they had cooled the bottles of champagne. … There was straw everywhere – in short, the place was like a bam. To crown everything, my father was not allowed to sleep in his own house. … When the Germans at last quitted our residence, it was necessary to cleanse and disinfect everything. The lowest stable was cleaner than our bedrooms, where scraps from the gourmandising and pieces of meat lay rotting in every corner amid half-smoked cigars, candle ends, broken plates, and hay brought from I don’t know where.”

But these two houses were, at any rate, not burnt down, and more frequently, when they had finished with a house, the Germans set it on fire. They had begun on the night of August 25th; on August 26th they were proceeding systematically, and the work continued on the 27th and the following days. All varieties of incendiary apparatus were employed – a white powder, an inflammable stick, a projectile fired from a rifle. They introduced these into the house to be burnt by staving in a panel of the front door or breaking a window, and the conflagration was immediate when once the apparatus was inside. This scientific incendiarism was the regular sequel to the organised pillage. The firing by German soldiers also went on. “On August 27th,” states one German witness, “I was fired at from a garden from behind the hedge, without being hit. It was in the afternoon; I could not see the person who had shot.” The identification can be inferred from the experience of the Rector of Louvain University, Mgr. Ladeuze, on the night of August 25th, when he detected two German soldiers firing over the garden wall of the Chemical Institute into the Rue de Namur. Another German witness, a military surgeon in the Neuss Landsturm, who arrived at Louvain in the afternoon of August 27th, testifies that “in the course of the afternoon I heard the noise of firing in the Rue de la Station. … I had the impression that we were being shot at from a house there, in spite of my conspicuous armlet with the Red Cross. We approached the house. A German soldier of another battalion leapt out from the first floor, and in so doing broke the upper part of his thigh. He told me that he had just been pursued and shot at by six civilians in the house.” The surgeon, a young man of twenty-five, a new-comer to Louvain, and unused to the notion of German soldiers firing on one another, repeats this story without seeing that it fails to explain the shots fired from the house and directed against himself, and he takes the presence of the “six civilians” on faith. Was the soldier who escaped punishment by this lie firing into the street from panic? This may have been so, for the German troops were in a state of nervous degeneration, but there is another possible explanation. Two days later, on August 29th, when Mr. Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation at Brussels, visited Louvain to enquire into the catastrophe, his motor-car was fired at in the Rue de la Station from a house, and five or six armed men in civilian costume were dragged out of it by his escort and marched off for execution. But they were not executed, for they were German soldiers disguised to give Mr. Gibson an ocular demonstration that “the civilians had fired.” The German Higher Command had already adopted this as their official thesis, and they were determined to impose it on the world.

After the exodus on the morning of the 27th, Louvain lay empty of inhabitants all day, while the burning and plundering went on. But at dusk a procession of civilians, driven by soldiers, streamed in from the north. They were the fourth batch of prisoners who had been marched out of Louvain on the previous day. They had spent the night in the open, and had been locked up that afternoon in Rotselaer church. But after only an hour’s respite they had been driven forth again, and the whole population of Rotselaer with them, along the road leading back to the city.

“On the way,” states one of the victims, “we rested a moment. The curé of Rotselaer, a man 86 years of age, spoke to the officer in command: ‘Herr Offizier, what you are doing now is a cowardly act. My people did no harm, and, if you want a victim, kill me. …’ The German soldiers then seized the curé by the neck and took him away. Some Germans picked up mud from the ground and threw it in his face. …”

“We entered Louvain,” states the curé himself, “by the Canal and the Rue du Canal. No ruins. We reached the Grand’ Place – what a spectacle! The Church of Saint-Pierre! Rest in front of the Hôtel-de-Ville. Fatigue compelled me to stretch myself on the pavement, while the houses blazed all the time.

“Other prisoners from Louvain and the neighbourhood kept arriving. Soon I saw fresh prisoners arrive from Rotselaer – women, children and old men, among others a blind old man of eighty years, and the wife of the doctor at Rotselaer, dragged from her sick-bed. (She died during the journey to Germany.) …”

“In the Grand’ Place,” states the former witness, “the heat from the burning houses was so great that the prisoners huddled together to get away from it. …”

“After we had remained standing there about an hour,” states a third, “we had to proceed towards the Station along the Rue de la Station. In this same road we saw the German soldiers plundering the houses. They took pleasure in letting us see them doing it. In the city and at Kessel-Loo the conflagration redoubled in intensity.”

“The houses were all burning in the Rue de la Station,” states the first, “and there were even flames in the street which we had to jump across. We were closely guarded by German soldiers, who threatened to kill us if we looked from side to side.”

Yet these victims in their misery were accused of shooting by their tormentors. “On August 27th,” states an officer concerned, “the Third Battalion of the Landwehr Infantry Regiment No. 53 had to take with it on its march from Rotselaer to Louvain a convoy of about 1,000 civilian prisoners. … Among the prisoners were a number of Belgian priests, one of whom especially caught my attention because at every halt he went from one to another of the prisoners and addressed words to them in an excited manner, so that I had to keep him under special observation. In Louvain we made over the prisoners at the Station. … On the following morning it was reported to me … that the above-mentioned priest had shot at one of the men of the guard, but had failed to hit him, and in consequence had himself been shot in the Station Square.”

Execution of Dupierreux

Murder of Father Eugene Dupierreux, via oorlogsdagboekleuven.be; opens in a new window

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

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