Aerschot and District
Period I. (August 19th and following days)
The German army entered Aerschot quite early in the morning. Workmen going to their work were seized and taken a hostages.
The Germans, apparently already irritated, proceeded to make a search for the priests and threatened to burn the convent if the priests should happen to be found there. One priest was accused of inciting the inhabitants to fire on the troops, and when he denied it, the Burgomaster was blamed by the officer. The priest then showed the officer the notices on the walls, signed by the Burgomaster, warning the inhabitants not to intervene in hostilities.
It appears that they accused the priest of having fired at the Germans from the tower of the church. This is important, because it is one of the not infrequent cases in which the Germans ascribed firing from a church to priests, whereas in fact this firing came from Belgian soldiers, and also because it seems to show that the Germans from the moment of their arrival in Aerschot, were seeking to pick a quarrel with the inhabitants, and this goes far to explain their subsequent conduct. Hostages were collected, until 200 men, some of whom were invalids, were gathered together.
Monsieur Tielmans, the Burgomaster, was then ordered by some German officers to address the crowd and to tell them to hand in any weapons which they might have in their possession at the Town Hall, and to warn them that anyone who was found with weapons would be killed. As a matter of fact, the arms in the possession of civilians had already been collected at the beginning of the war. The Burgomaster’s speech resulted in the delivery of one gun which had been used for pigeon shooting. The hostages were then released. Throughout the day the town was looted by the soldiers. Many shop windows were broken, and the contents of the shop fronts ransacked.
A shot was fired about 7 o’clock in the evening, by which time many of the soldiers were drunk. The Germans were not of one mind as to the direction from which the shot proceeded. Some said it came from a jeweler’s shop, and some said it came from other houses. No one was hit by this shot, but thereafter German soldiers began to fire in various directions at people in the streets.
It is said that a German general or colonel was killed at the Burgomaster’s house. As far as the Committee have been able to ascertain, the identity of the officer has never been revealed. The German version of the story is that he was killed by the fifteen-year-old son of the Burgomaster; the Committee, however, is satisfied by the evidence of several independent witnesses that some German officers were standing at the window of the Burgomaster’s house, that a large body of German troops were in the square, that some of these soldiers were drunk and let off their rifles, that in the volley one of the officers standing at the window of the Burgomaster’s house fell, that at the time of the accident the wife and son of the Burgomaster had gone to take refuge in the cellar, and that neither the Burgomaster nor his son were in the least degree responsible for the occurrence which served as the pretext for their subsequent execution, and for the firing and sack of the town.
This account agrees substantially with that given in a letter, written by Mme. Tielmans, the Burgomaster’s wife, which is printed in the fifth report of the Belgian commission. The letter is as follows: ‘This is how it happened. About 4 in the afternoon my husband was giving cigars to the sentinels stationed at the door. I saw that the General and his Aides-de-Camp were looking at us from the balcony, and told him to come indoors.
Just then I looked towards the Grand Place, where more than 2,000 Germans were encamped and distinctly saw two columns of smoke followed by a fusillade: the Germans were firing on the houses, and forcing their way into them. My husband, children, servant, and myself had just time to dash into the staircase leading to the cellar. The Germans were even firing into the passages of the houses. After a few minutes of indescribable horror, one of the General’s Aides-de-Camps came down and said:
“The General is dead, where is the Burgomaster?” My husband said to me, “This will be serious for me.” As he went forward, I said to the Aide-de-Camp, “You can see for yourself, sir, that my husband did not fire.” “That makes no difference,” he said, “he is responsible.” My husband was taken off. My son, who was at my side, took us into another cellar. The same Aide-de-Camp came and dragged him out, and made him walk in front of him, kicking him as he went.
The poor boy could hardly walk. That morning when they came to the town the Germans had fired through the windows of the houses, and a bullet had come into the room where my son was, and he had been wounded in the calf by the ricochet. After my husband and son had gone, I was dragged all through the house by Germans, with their revolvers leveled at my head. I was compelled to see their dead General.
Then my daughter and I were thrown into the street without cloaks or anything. We were massed in the Grand Place, surrounded by a cordon of soldiers, and compelled to witness the destruction of our beloved town. And then by the hideous light of the fire I saw them for the last time, about one in the morning, my husband and my boy tied together. My brother-in-law was behind them. They were being led off to execution”.
The houses were set on fire with special apparatus, while people were dragged from their houses already burning, and some were shot in the streets.
Many civilians were marched to a field on the road to Louvain and kept there all night. Meanwhile many of the inhabitants were collected in the square. By this time very many of the troops were drunk.
On the following day a number of the civilians were shot under the orders of an officer, together with the Burgomaster, his brother and his son. Of this incident, which is spoken to by many witnesses, a clear account is given: „German soldiers came and took hold of me and every other man they could see, and eventually there were about 60 of us, including some of eighty (i.e., years of age), and they made us accompany them …. all the prisoners had to walk with their hands above their heads. We were then stopped and made to stand in a line, and an officer, a big fat man who had a blueish uniform …. came along the line and picked out the Burgomaster, his brother, and his son, and some men who had been employed under the Red Cross. In all, ten men were picked out …. the remainder were made to turn their backs upon the ten. I then heard some shots fired, and I and the other men turned round and we saw all the ten men, including the Burgomaster, were lying on the ground.” This incident is spoken to by other witnesses also: some of their depositions appear in the Appendix.
On the same day, at Gelrode, a small village close to Aerschot, 2 civilians were imprisoned in the church; seven were taken out by 15 German soldiers in charge of an officer just outside. One of the seven tried to run away, whereupon all the six who remained behind alive were shot. This was on the night of the 19th August. No provocation whatever had been given. The men in question had been searched, and no arms had been found upon them. Here, as at Aerschot, precautions had been taken previously to secure the delivery up of all arms in the hands of civilians.
Some of the survivors were compelled to dig graves for the seven. At a later date the corpses were disinterred and reburied in consecrated ground. The marks of the bullets in the brick wall against which the six were shot were then still plainly visible. On the same day a woman was shot by some German soldiers as she was walking home. This was done at a distance of 100 yards and for no apparent reason.
An account of a murder by an officer at Campenhout is given in a later part of this Report, and depositions relating to Rotselaer, Tremeloo, and Wespelaer will be found in the Appendix.
The Committee is specially impressed by the character of the outrages committed in the smaller villages. Many of these are exceptionally shocking and cannot be regarded as contemplated or prescribed by the responsible commanders of the troops by whom they were committed. The inference, however, which we draw from these occurrences is that when once troops have been encouraged in a career of terrorism, the more savage and brutal natures, of whom there are some in every large army, are liable to run to wild excess, more particularly in those regions where they are least subject to observation and control.
Aerschot and District
Period II. (August 25th)
Immediately after the battle of Malines, which resulted in the evacuation by the Germans of the district of Malines, Sempst, Hofstade, and Eppeghem, a long series of murders were committed either just before or during the retreat of the army. Many of the inhabitants who were unarmed, including women and young children, were killed, some of them under revolting circumstances.
Evidence given goes to show that the death of these villagers was due not to accident but to deliberate purpose. The wounds were generally stabs or cuts, and for the most part appear to have been inflicted with the bayonet.
In Malines itself many bodies were seen. One witness saw a German soldier cut a woman’s breasts after he had murdered her, and saw many other dead bodies of women in the streets.
In Hofstade a number of houses had been set on fire and many corpses were seen, some in houses, some in back yards, and some in the streets.
Several examples are given below.
Two witnesses speak to having seen the body of a young man pierced by bayonet thrusts with the wrists cut also.
On a side road the corpse of a civilian was seen on his doorstep with a bayonet wound in his stomach, and by his side the dead body of a boy of five or six with his hands nearly severed.
The corpses of a woman and boy were seen at the blacksmith’s. They had been killed with the bayonet.
In a cafe a young man, also killed with the bayonet was holding his hands together as if in the attitude of supplication.
Two young women were lying in the back yard of the house. One had her breasts cut off, the other had been stabbed.
A young man had been hacked with the bayonet until his entrails protruded. He also had his hands joined in the attitude of prayer.
In the garden of a house in the main street, bodies of two women were observed, and in another house the body of a boy of 16 with two bayonet wounds in the chest.
In Sempst a similar condition of affairs existed. Houses were burning, and in some of them were the charred remains of civilians.
In a bicycle shop a witness saw the burned corpse of a man. Other witnesses speak to this incident.
Another civilian, unarmed, was shot as he was running away. As will be remembered all the arms had been given up some time before by order of the burgomaster.
The corpse of a man with his legs cut off, who was partly bound, was seen by another witness, who also saw a girl of seventeen dressed only in a chemise-and in great distress. She alleged that she herself and other girls had been dragged into a field, stripped naked and violated, and that some of them had been killed with the bayonet.
At Weerde four corpses of civilians were lying in the road. It was said that these men had fired upon the German soldiers; but this is denied. The arms had been given up long before.
Two children were killed in a village, apparently Weerde, quite wantonly as they were standing in the road with their mother. They were three or four years old and were killed with the bayonet.
A small farm burning close by formed a convenient means of getting rid of the bodies. They were thrown into the flames from the bayonets. It is right to add that no commissioned officer was present at this time.
At Eppeghem, on the 25th of August, a pregnant woman who had been wounded with a bayonet was discovered in the convent. She was dying. On the road six dead bodies of labourers were seen.
At Elewyt a man’s naked body was tied up to a ring in the wall in the backyard of a house. He was dead, and his corpse was mutilated in a manner too horrible to record. A woman’s naked body was also found in a stable abutting on the same backyard.
At Vilvorde corpses of civilians were also found. These villages are all on the line from Malines to Brussels.
At Boort Meerbeek a German soldier was seen to fire three times at a little girl of five years old. Having failed to hit her, he subsequently bayoneted her. He was killed with the butt end of a rifle by a Belgian soldier who had seen him commit this murder from a distance.
At Herent the charred body of a civilian was found in a butcher’s shop, and in a hand cart 20 yards away was the dead body of a labourer.
Two eye-witnesses relate that a German soldier shot a civilian and stabbed him with a bayonet as he lay. He then made one of these witnesses, a civilian prisoner, smell the blood on the bayonet.
At Haecht the bodies of 10 civilians were seen lying in a row by a brewery wall.
In a labourer’s house, which had been broken up, the mutilated corpse of a woman of 30 to 35 was discovered.
A child of three with its stomach cut open by a bayonet was lying near a house.
At Werchter the corpses of a man and woman and four younger persons were found in one house. It is stated that they had been murdered because one of the latter, a girl, would not allow the Germans to outrage her.
This catalogue of crimes does not by any means represent the sum total of the depositions relating to this district laid before the Committee. The above are given merely as examples of acts which the evidence shows to have taken place in numbers that might have seemed scarcely credible.
In the rest of the district, that is to say, Aerschot and the other villages from which the Germans had not been driven, the effect of the battle was to cause a recrudescence of murder, arson, pillage, and cruelty, which had to some extent died down after the 20th or 21st August.
In Aerschot itself fresh prisoners seem to have been taken and added to those who were already in the church, since it would appear that prisoners were kept to some extent in the church during the whole of the German occupation of Aerschot. The second occasion on which large numbers of prisoners were put there was shortly after the battle of Malines, and it was then that the priest of Gelrode was brought to Aerschot church, treated abominably and finally murdered.
One witness describes the scene graphically: „The whole of the prisoners - men, women, and children - were placed-in the church. Nobody was allowed to go outside the church to obey the calls of nature. The church had to be used for that purpose. We were afterwards allowed to go outside the church for this purpose, and then I saw the clergyman of Gelrode standing by the wall of the church with his hands above his head, being guarded by soldiers.”
The actual details of the murder of the priest are as follows: The priest was struck several times by the soldiers on the head. He was pushed up against the wall of the church. He asked in Flemish to be allowed to stand with his face to the wall, and tried to turn round. The Germans stopped him, and then turned him with his face to the wall, with his hands above his head. An hour later the same witness saw the priest still standing there. He was then led away by the Germans a distance of about 50 yards. There, with his face against the wall of a house, he was shot by five soldiers.
Other murders of which we have evidence appear in the Appendix.
Some of the prisoners in the church at Aerschot were actually kept there until the arrival of the Belgian army, on September 11th, when they were released. Others were marched to Louvain, and eventually merged with other prisoners, both from Louvain itself and the surrounding districts, and taken to Germany and elsewhere.
It is said by one witness that about 1,500 were marched to Louvain, and that the journey took six hours.
The journey to Louvain is thus described by a witness: We were all marched off to Louvain, walking. There were some very old people, amongst others a man 90 years of age. The very old people were drawn in carts and barrows by the younger men. There was an officer with a bicycle, who shouted, as people fell out by the side of the road, „Shoot them.”
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