Aerschot and District
Period III. (September)
It is unnecessary to describe with much particularity the events of the period beginning about September 10th. The Belgian soldiers who had recaptured the place found corpses of civilians, who must have been murdered in Aerschot itself, just as they found them in Sempst and the other villages on August 25th. Some of these bodies were found in wells, and some had been burnt alive in their houses.
The prisoners released by the Belgian army from the church were almost starved.
At Haecht several children had been murdered, one of two or three years old was found nailed to the door of a farmhouse by its hands and feet, a crime which seems almost incredible, but the evidence for which we feel bound to accept. In the garden of this house was the body of a girl, who had been shot in the forehead.
At Capelle-au-Bois two children were murdered in a cart, and their corpses were seen by many witnesses at different stages of the cart’s journey.
At Eppeghem the dead body of a child of two was seen pinned to the ground with a German lance. Same witness saw a mutilated woman alive near Weerde on the same day.
Belgian soldiers on patrol duty found a young girl naked on the ground, covered with scratches. She complained of having been violated. On the same day an old woman was seen kneeling by the body of her husband and she told them that the Germans had shot him as he was trying to escape from the house.
Louvain and District
The events spoken to as having occurred in and around Louvain between the 19th and the 26th of August deserve close attention.
For six days the Germans were in peaceful occupation of the city. No houses were set on fire, no citizens killed. There was a certain amount of looting of empty houses, but otherwise discipline was effectively maintained. The condition of Louvain during these days was one of relative peace and quietude, presenting a striking contrast to the previous and contemporaneous conduct of the German army elsewhere.
On the evening of August 25th a sudden change takes place. The Germans, on that day repulsed by the Belgians, had retreated to and reoccupied Louvain. Immediately the devastation of that city and the holocaust of its population commences. The inference is irresistible that the army as a whole wreaked its vengeance on the civil population and the buildings of the city in revenge for the setback which the Belgian arms had inflicted on them. A subsidiary cause alleged was the assertion, often made before, that civilians had fired upon the German army.
The depositions which relate to Louvain are numerous, and are believed by the Committee to present a true and fairly complete picture of the events of the 25th and 26th August and subsequent days. We find no grounds for thinking that the inhabitants fired upon the German army on the evening of the 25th August. Eye-witnesses worthy of credence detail exactly when, where, and how the firing commenced. Such firing was by Germans on Germans. No impartial tribunal could, in our opinion, come to any other conclusion.
On the evening of the 25th firing could be heard in the direction of Herent, some three kilometres from Louvain. An alarm was sounded in the city. There was disorder and confusion, and at 8 o’clock horses attached to baggage wagons stampeded in the street and rifle fire commenced. This was in the Rue de la Station and came from the German police guard (21 in number), who, seeing the troops arrive in disorder, thought it was the enemy. Then the corps of incendiaries got to work.
They had broad belts with the words „Gott mit uns” and their equipment consisted of a hatchet, a syringe, a small shovel, and a revolver. Fires blazed up in the direction of the Law Court, St. Martin’s Barracks, and later in the Place de la Station. Meanwhile an incessant fusillade was kept up on the windows of the houses. In their efforts to escape the flames the inhabitants climbed the walls.
„My mother and servants,” says a witness, „had to do the same and took refuge at Monsieur A., whose cellars are vaulted and afforded a better protection than mine. A little later we withdrew to Monsieur A.’s stables; where about 30 people who had got there by climbing the walls, were to be found. Some of these poor wretches had to climb twenty 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.
Every moment new fires were lighting up, accompanied by explosions. In the middle of the night I heard a knock at the outer door of the stable which led into a little street, and heard a woman’s voice crying for help. I opened the door and just as I was going to let her in, a rifle shot fired from the street by a German soldier rang out and the woman fell dead at my feet. About 9 in the morning things got quieter, and we took the opportunity of venturing into the street.
A German who was carrying a silver pyx and a number of boxes of cigars, told us we were to go to the station where trains would be waiting for us. When we got to the Place de la Station we saw in the Square 7 or 8 dead bodies of murdered civilians. Not a single house in the place was standing. A whole row of houses behind the station at Blauwput was burnt.
After being driven hither and thither interminably by officers, who treated us roughly and insulted us throughout, we were divided.” The prisoners were then distributed between different bodies of troops and marched in the direction of Herent. Seventy-seven inhabitants of Louvain, including a number of people of good position (the names of several are given) were thus taken to Herent.
„We found the village of Herent in flames, so much so that we had to quicken up to prevent ourselves from being suffocated and burnt up by the flames in the middle of the road. Half burnt corpses of civilians were lying in front of the houses. During a halt soldiers stole cattle and slaughtered them where they stood. Firing started on our left. We were told it was the civilians firing, and that we were going to be shot. The truth is that it was the Germans themselves who were firing to frighten us.
There was not a single civilian in the neighbourhood shortly afterwards we proceeded on our march to Malines. We were insulted and threatened…. The officers were worse than the men. We got to Campenhout about 7 p.m., and were locked into the church with all the male population of the village. Some priests had joined our numbers. We had had nothing to eat or drink since the evening of the day before. A few compassionate soldiers gave us water to drink, but no official took the trouble to see that we were fed.”
Next day, Thursday, the 27th a safe conduct to return to Louvain was given, but the prisoners had hardly started when they were stopped and taken before a Brigade General and handed to another escort. Some were grossly ill-treated. They were accused of being soldiers out of uniform, and were told they could not go to Louvain ‘as the town was going to be razed to the ground.’ Other prisoners were added; even women and children, until there were more than 20. They were then taken towards Malines, released, and told to go to that town together, and that those who separated would be fired on. Other witnesses corroborate the events described by the witness.
A woman employed as servant by an old gentleman living in the Rue de la Station tells the story of her master’s death. „We had supper as usual about 8, but two German officers (who were staying in the house) did not come in to supper that evening. My master went to bed at 8.15, and so did his son. The servants went to bed at half-past 9.
Soon after I got to my bedroom I saw out of my room flames from some burning house nearby. I roused my master and his son. As they came down the stairs they were seized by German soldiers and both were tied up and led out, my master being tied with a rope and his son with a chain. They were dragged outside.
I did not actually see what happened outside, but heard subsequently that my master was bayoneted and shot, and that his son was shot. I heard shots from the kitchen where I was, and I was present at the burial of my master and his son 13 days later. German soldiers came back into the house and poured some inflammable liquid over the floors and set fire to it. I escaped by another staircase to that which my master and his son had descended.”
On the 26th (Wednesday), in the city of Louvain, massacre, fire, and destruction went on. The University, with its Library, the church of St. Peter, and many houses were set on fire and burnt to the ground. Citizens were shot and others taken prisoners and compelled to go with the troops. Soldiers went through the streets saying „Man hat geschossen”. [„They have been shooting.”] One soldier was seen going along shooting in the air.
Many of the people hid in cellars, but the soldiers shot down through the gratings. Some citizens were shot on opening the doors, others in endeavouring to escape. Among other persons hose houses were burnt was an old man of ninety lying dangerously ill, who was taken out on his mattress and left lying in his garden all night. He died shortly after in the hospital to which a friend took him the following morning.
On Thursday, the 27th, orders were given that everyone should leave the city which was to be razed to the ground. Some citizens, including a canon of the Cathedral with his aged mother, were ordered to go to the station and afterwards to take the road to Tirlemont. Among the number were about 20 priests from Louvain. They were insulted and threatened, but ultimately allowed to go free and make their way as best they could, women and sick persons among them, to Tirlemont. Other groups of prisoner s from Louvain were on the same day taken by other routes, some early in the morning through various villages in the direction of Malines with hands tightly bound by a long cord. More prisoners were afterwards added, and all made to stay the night in the church at Campenhout.
Next day, the 28th, this group, then consisting of about 1,000 men, women and children, was taken back to Louvain. The houses along the road were burning and many dead bodies of civilians, men and women, were seen on the way. Some of the principal streets in Louvain had by that time been burnt out. The prisoners were placed in a large building on the cavalry exercise ground - ‘One woman went mad, some children died, others were born.’
On the 29th the prisoners were marched along the Malines road, and at Herent the women and children and men over 40 were allowed to go, the others were taken to Boort Meerbeek, 15 kilometres from Malines, and told to march straight to Malines or be shot. At 11 p.m. they reached the fort of Waelhem and were at first fired on by the sentries, but on calling out they were Belgians were allowed to pass.
These prisoners were practically without food from early morning on the 26th until midnight on the 29th. Of the corpses seen on the road some had their hands tied behind their backs, others were burnt, some had been killed by blows, and some corpses were those of children who had been shot.
Another witness, a man of independent means, was arrested at noon by the soldiers of the 166th Regiment and taken to the Place de la Station. He was grossly ill-treated on the way and robbed by an officer of his purse and keys. His hands were tied behind his back. His wife was kept a prisoner at the other side of the station.
He was then made to march with about 600 other prisoners until midnight, slept in the rain that night, and next day, having had no food since leaving Louvain, was taken to the church in Rotselaer where there were then about 1,500 prisoners confined, including some infants. No food was given, only some water. Next day they were taken through Wepelaer and back to Louvain.
On the way from Rotselaer to Wespelaer 50 bodies were seen, some naked and carbonised and unrecognisable. When they arrived at Louvain the Fish Market, the Place Marguerite, the Cathedral and many other buildings were on fire. In the evening about 100 men, women and children were put in horse trucks from which the dung had not been removed, and at 6 next morning left for Cologne.
The wife of this witness was also taken prisoner with her husband and her maid, but was separated from him, and she saw other ladies made to walk before the soldiers with their hands above their heads. One, an old lady of eighty-five - (name given) - was dragged from her cellar and taken with them to the station.
They were kept there all night, but set free in the morning, Thursday, but shortly afterwards sent to Tirlemont on foot. A number of corpses were seen on the way. The prisoners, of whom there are said to have been thousands, were not allowed even to have water to drink, although there were streams on the way from which the soldiers drank. Witness was given some milk at a farm, but as she raised it to her lips it was taken away from her.
A priest was taken on the Friday morning, August 28th, and placed at the head of a number of refugees from Wygmael. He was led through Louvain, abused and ill-treated, and placed with some thousands of other people in the riding school in the Rue du Manege. The glass roof broke in the night from the heat of burning buildings round.
Next day the prisoners were marched through the country with an armed guard. Burnt farms and burnt corpses were seen on the way. The prisoners were finally separated into three groups, and the younger men marched through Herent and Bueken to Campenhout and ultimately reached the Belgian lines about midnight on Saturday, August 29th. All the houses in Herent, a village of about 5,000 inhabitants, had been burnt.
The massacre of civilians at Louvain was not confined to its citizens. Large crowds of people were brought into Louvain from the surrounding districts, not only from Aerschot and Telrode as above mentioned, but also from other places. For example, a witness describes how many women and children were taken in carts to Louvain, and there placed in a stable.
Of the hundreds of people thus taken from the various villages and brought to Louvain as prisoners, some were massacred there, others were forced to march along with citizens of Louvain through various places, some being ultimately sent on the 29th to the Belgian lines at Malines, others were taken in trucks to Cologne as described below, others were released. An account of the massacre of some of these unfortunate civilian prisoners given by two witnesses may be quoted.
„We were all placed in Station St., Louvain, and the German soldiers fired upon us. I saw the corpses of some women in the street. I fell down, and a woman who had been shot fell on top of me. I did not dare to look at the dead bodies in the street, there were so many of them. All of them had been shot by the German soldiers. One woman whom I saw lying dead in the street was a Miss J… - about 35. I also saw the body of A … (a woman). She had been shot. I saw an officer pull her corpse underneath a wagon.”
Another witness, who was taken from Aerschot, also describes the occurrence: „I was afterwards taken with an irate number of other civilians and placed in the church at Louvain. Then we were taken to Station St. Louvain. There were about 1,500 civilians of both sexes, and we had been marched from Aerschot to Louvain. When we were in Station St. I felt that something was about to happen, and I tried to shelter in a doorway.
The German soldiers then fired a mitrailleuse and their rifles upon the people, and the people fell on all sides. Two men next to me were killed. I afterwards saw someone give a signal, and the firing ceased. I then ran away with a married woman named B… (whose maiden name was A …. M ….), aged 29, who belonged to Aerschot, but we were again captured. She was shot by the side of me, and I saw her fall. Several other people were shot at the same time. I again ran away, and in my flight saw children falling out of their mothers’ arms. I cannot say whether they were shot, or whether they fell from their mother’s arms in the great panic which ensued. I, however, saw children bleeding.”
Journey to Cologne
The greatest number of prisoners from Louvain, however, were assembled at the station and taken by trains to Cologne. Several witnesses describe their sufferings and the ill-treatment they received on the journey. One of the first trains started in the afternoon. It consisted of cattle trucks, about 100 being in each truck. It took three days to get to Cologne. The prisoners had nothing to eat but a few biscuits each, and they were not allowed to get out for water and none was given.
On a wagon the words ‘Civilians who shot at the soldiers at Louvain’ were written. Some were marched through Cologne afterwards for the people to see. Ropes were put round the necks of some and they were told they would be hanged. An order then came that they were to be shot instead of hanged. A firing squad was prepared, and five or six prisoners were put up, but were not shot.
After being kept a week at Cologne some of these prisoners were taken back - this time only 30 or 40 in a truck and allowed to go free on arriving at Limburg. Several witnesses who were taken in other trains to Cologne describe their experiences in detail. Some of the trucks were abominably filthy. Prisoners were not allowed to leave to obey the calls of nature; one man who quitted the truck for the purpose was killed by a bayonet.
Describing what happened to another body of prisoners, a witness says that they were made to cross Station Street, where the houses were burning, and taken to the station, placed in horse trucks crowded together, men, women, and children, in each wagon. They were kept at the station during the night and the following day left for Cologne.
For two days and a half they were without food, and then they received a loaf of bread among ten persons, and some water. The prisoners were afterwards taken back to Belgium. They were, in all, eight days in the train, crowded and almost without food. Two of the men went mad. The women and children were separated from the men at Brussels. The men were taken to a suburb and then to the villages of Herent, Vilvorde and Sempst, and afterwards set at liberty.
This taking of the inhabitants, including some of the influential citizens, in groups and marching them to various place, and in particular the sending them to Malines and the despatch of great numbers to Cologne, must evidently have been done under the direction of the higher military authorities. The ill-treatment of the prisoners was under the eyes and often by the direction or with the sanction of officers, and officers themselves took part in it.
The object of taking many hundreds of prisoners to Cologne and back into Belgium is at first sight difficult to understand. Possibly it is to be regarded as part of the policy of punishment for Belgian resistance and general terrorization of the inhabitants, possibly as a desire to show these people to the population of a German city and thus to confirm the belief that the Belgians had shot at their troops.
Whatever may have been the case when the burning began on the evening of the 25th, it appears clear that the subsequent destruction and outrages were done with a set purpose. It was not until the 26th that the Library, and other University buildings, the church of St. Peter and many houses were set on fire. It is to be noticed that cases occur in the deposition in which humane acts by individual officers and soldiers are mentioned, or in which officers are said to have expressed regret at being obliged to carry out orders for cruel action against the civilians.
Similarly, we find entries in diaries which reveal a genuine pity for the population and disgust at the conduct of the army. It appears that a German non-commissioned officer stated definitely that he „was acting under orders and executing them with great unwillingness.” A commissioned officer on being asked at Louvain by a witness - a highly educated man - about the horrible acts committed by the soldiers, said he „was merely executing orders,” and that he himself would be shot if he did not execute them.
Others gave less credible excuses, one stating that the inhabitants of Louvain had burnt the city themselves because they did not wish to supply food and quarters for the German army. It was to the discipline rather than the want of discipline in the army that these outrages, which we are obliged to describe as systematic, were due, and the special official notices posted on certain houses that they were not to be destroyed show the fate which had been decreed for the others which were not so marked.
We are driven to the conclusion that the harrying of the villages in the district, the burning of a large part of Louvain, the massacres there, the marching out of the prisoners, and the transport to Cologne (all done without enquiry as to whether the particular persons seized or killed had committed any wrongful act), were due to a calculated policy carried out scientifically and deliberately, not merely with the sanction, but under the direction of higher military authorities, and were not due to any provocation or resistance by the civilian population.
To understand the depositions describing what happened at Termonde it is necessary to remember that the German army occupied the town on two occasions, the first, from Friday, September the 4th, to Sunday, September the 6th, and again later in the month, about the 16th. The civilians had delivered up their arms a fortnight before the arrival of the Germans. Early in the month, probably about the 4th, a witness saw two civilians murdered by Uhlans. Another witness saw their dead bodies which remained in the street for ten days. Two hundred civilians were utilised as a screen by the German troops about this date.
On the 5th the town was partially burnt. One witness was take prisoner in the street by some German soldiers together with several other civilians. At about 12 o’clock some of the tallest and strongest men amongst the prisoners were picked out to go around the streets with paraffin. Three or four carts containing paraffin tanks were brought up, and a syringe was used to put paraffin on to the houses which were then fired.
This process of destruction began with the houses of rich people, and afterwards the houses of the poorer classes were treated in the same manner. German soldiers had previously told this witness that if the Burgomaster of Termonde, who was out of town, did not return by 1 o’clock that day the town would be set on fire.
The firing of the town was in consequence of his failure to return. The prisoners were afterwards taken to a factory and searched for weapons. They were subsequently provided with passports enabling them to go anywhere in the town but not outside. The witness in question managed to effect his escape by swimming across the river.
Another witness describes how the tower of the church of Termonde St. Gilles was utilised by the Belgian troops for offensive purposes. They had in fact mounted a machine gun there. This witness was subsequently taken prisoner in a cellar in Termonde in which he had taken refuge with other people. All the men were taken from the cellar and the women were left behind. About 70 prisoners in all were taken; one, a brewer, who could not walk fast enough, was wounded with a bayonet. He fell down and was compelled to get up and follow the soldiers. The prisoners had to hold up their hands, and if they dropped their hands they were struck on the back with the butt ends of rifles. They were taken to Lebbeke, where there were in all 300 prisoners, and there they were locked up in the church for three days and with scarcely any food.
A witness living at Baesrode was taken prisoner with 250 others and kept all night in a field. The prisoners were released on the following morning. This witness saw three corpses of civilians, and says that the Germans on Sunday, the 6th, plundered and destroyed the houses of those who had fled. The Germans left on the following day, taking about 30 men with them, one a man of seventy-two years of age.
Later in the month civilians were again used as a screen, and there is evidence of other acts of outrage.