The destruction of Louvain 5

November 19 2014

Such were the rumours that passed current in the German Army; but there is no reference in this officer’s deposition to what really happened at the Station on the night of the 27th-28th. The prisoners arrived there about 7.0 p.m., and were immediately put on board a train. Their numbers had risen by now to between 2,000 and 3,000, and the overcrowding was appalling. The curé of Rotselaer was placed in a truck which had carried troops and was furnished with benches; but even this truck was made to hold 50 people, while the majority were forced into cattle trucks – from 70 to 100 men, women, and children in each, which had never been cleaned, and were knee-deep in dung. They stood in these trucks all night, while the train remained standing in the Station. On August 28th, about 6.0 in the morning, they started for Cologne, but the stoppages and shuntings were interminable, and Cologne was not reached till the afternoon of August 31st. During these four days – from the evening of August 27th to the afternoon of August 31st – the prisoners were given nothing to eat, and were not allowed to get out of the train to relieve themselves when it stopped. “We had nothing to eat,” states one of them, “not even the child one month old.” — “My wife was suckling her child,” states another, “but her milk came to an end. My wife was crying nearly all the time. The baby was dreadfully ill, and nearly died.” — “We had been without food for two days and nights, and had nothing to drink till we got to Cologne except that one of my fellow-prisoners had a bottle of water, from which we just wetted our lips.” — “I asked for some water for my child at Aix-la-Chapelle, and it was refused. It was the soldiers that I asked, and they spat at me when they refused the water. The soldiers also took all the money that I had upon me.” — “We had not been allowed to leave the train to obey the calls of nature, till at Cologne we went on our knees and begged the soldiers to allow us to get down.”

The brutality of the soldiers did not stop short of murder. “At Henne,” where the train stopped at 3.30 a.m. on August 29th, “a man got out to satisfy nature. He belonged to the village of Wygmael. He was going towards the side of the line when three German soldiers approached him. One of them caught hold of him and threw him on the ground, and he was bayonetted by one or other of them in his left side. The man cried out; then the German soldier withdrew his bayonet and showed his comrades how far it had gone in. He then wiped the blood off his bayonet by drawing it through his hand. … After the soldier had wiped his bayonet, he and his comrades turned the man over on his face. … A few minutes after he had wiped his bayonet, he put his hand in his pocket and took out some bread, which he ate. …”

Between Louvain and the frontier two men in a passenger-carriage “tried to escape and broke the windows. The German sentinels bayonetted these two men and killed them.”

Two people on the train went mad, and two committed suicide. When the train started again after its halt at Liége, a man from Thildonck was run over, and it was supposed that he had thrown himself under the wheels to put himself out of his misery. When the train was emptied at Cologne, three of the prisoners were taken out dead.

The trucks were chalked with the inscription: “Civilians who shot at the soldiers at Louvain,” and at every place in Germany where the train stopped the prisoners were persecuted by the crowd. “At Aix-la-Chapelle,” states the curé of Rotselaer, “an officer came up to spit on me.” At Aix, too, those destined for the internment camp at Münster had to change trains and were marched through the streets. “As we went,” states one of them, “the German women and children spat at us.” — “We arrived at Aix-la-Chapelle,” states another witness. “There the German people shouted at us. At Dürren, between Aix-la-Chapelle and Cologne, 4,000 German people crowded round. I turned round to the old woman with eight children, and said: ‘Do these people think we are prisoners? Show them one of your little children, at the window.’ This child was a month old, and naked. When the child was shown at the window a hush came over the crowd.”

“When we reached Cologne a crowd came round the trucks, jeering at us, and as we marched out they prodded us with their umbrellas and pelted us and shouted: ‘Shoot them dead! Shoot them dead!’ — and drew their fingers across their throats.”

“At Cologne,” states the curé of Rotselaer, “we had to leave the train and parade – men, women and children – through the streets under the surveillance of the police.” — “On the way,” adds another, “the children in the streets threw stones at us.”

They were herded for the night into an exhibition-ground called the “Luna Park,” and here their first food was served out to them – for every ten persons one loaf of mouldy bread. A certain number found shelter in a “joy-wheel”; the rest spent the night in the open, in the rain. The guards amused themselves by making individuals kneel down in turn and threatening them with execution. Next morning they were marched back to the station, once more under the insults of the crowd, and started to retrace their journey, but not all of them were allowed to return. A batch of 300 men were kept at Cologne for a week, during which time 60 of their number were shot before the eyes of the rest, while the survivors were paraded through the town again and subjected more than once to a sham execution. Others were sent direct from Aix-la-Chapelle to the internment camp at Münster where the Garde Civique of Louvain had been sent before. In this camp the men were separated completely from the women and children – one of them was the man whose baby had nearly died on the way, and for six weeks he was kept in ignorance of what was happening to the baby and to his wife. For the first six weeks they were given no water to wash in, and no soap during the whole period of their imprisonment. They were not allowed to smoke or read or sing. This particular prisoner was allowed by special grace to return to Louvain with his family on December 6th, but the others still remained.

Meanwhile, the main body of the prisoners was being transported back to Belgium. This return journey was almost as painful as the journey out; they were almost as badly crowded and starved; but the delays were less, and they reached Brussels on September 2nd. While they were halted at Brussels, Burgomaster Max managed to serve out to each of them a ration of white bread.

Adolphe Max, mayor of Brussels from 1909 until his death just after the outbreak of the Second World War, was a notable non-collaborator.

They were carried on to Schaerbeek, detrained, and marched in column to Vilvorde. “I was in the last file,” states one of them. “We were made to run quickly, and the soldiers struck us on the back with their rifles and on the arms with their bayonets.” — “On the way to Vilvorde one man sprang into the water, a canal – he was mad by then. The German soldiers threw empty bottles at this man in the water; they were bottles they got from the houses as they passed, and were drinking from on the way.” At Vilvorde they were informed that they were free. They dragged themselves forward towards the Belgian lines, but at Sempst another party of Germans took them prisoner again. “The Germans thrust their bayonets quite close to our chests,” states one of the prisoners; “then four of them prepared to shoot us, but they did not shoot. One of the prisoners went mad; I was made to hold him, and he hurt me very much.” Finally the officer commanding the picket let them go once more. They asked if they might return to Louvain. “If you go back that way we will kill you,” the officer said; “you have to go that way,” and he pointed towards Malines. It was now midnight, and pouring with rain. The prisoners stumbled on again, and made their way, in scattered parties, to the Belgian outposts.

This horrible railway journey to Cologne was the last stroke in the campaign of terrorisation carried out against Louvain after the night of August 25th by the deliberate policy of the German Army Command. A refugee who had returned to the city on August 28th, and had been kept prisoner during the night, was released with her fellow prisoners on the 29th. “We will not hurt you any more,” said the officer in command; “stay in Louvain. All is finished.”

On August 30th the staff of the Hôpital St.-Thomas, who had defied the proclamation of the 27th and remained continuously at their posts, took the task of reconstruction in hand. A committee of notables was formed, and overtures were made to Major von Manteuffel, the German Etappen-Kommandant in the town. On September 1st a proclamation, signed by the provisional municipal government, was posted up, with von Manteuffel’s sanction, in the streets. It communicated a promise from the German Military Authorities that pillage and arson should thenceforth cease, and it invited the inhabitants to come back to Louvain and take up again their normal life. The most pressing task was to clear the ruins, and to find and bury the dead. In Louvain alone, not including the suburban communes, 1,120 houses had been destroyed and 100 civilians had been killed during this week of terror.

“We arrived at Louvain,” writes a German soldier in his diary on August 29th. “The whole place was swarming with troops. Landsturmers of the Halle Battalion came along, dragging things with them – chiefly bottles of wine – and many of them were drunk. A tour round the town with ten bicyclists in search of billets revealed a picture of devastation as bad as any imaginable. Burning and falling houses bordered the streets; only a house here and there remained standing. Our tour led us over broken glass, burning wood-work and rubble. Tram and telephone wires trailed in the streets. Such barracks as were still standing were full up. Back to the Station, where nobody knew what to do next. Detached parties were to enter the streets, but actually the Battalion marched in close order into the town, to break into the first houses and loot – no, of course, only to ‘requisition’ – for wine and other things. Like a wild pack they broke loose, each on their own; officers set a good example by going on ahead. A night in a barracks with many drunk was the end of this day, which aroused in me a contempt I cannot describe.”

End of passage.

Louvain University Library

The ruined library of the Catholic University, August 1914

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

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