'A Visit to Louvain'
by Hugh Gibson
from his book ‘A Diplomatic Diary’

An American Diplomat Visits Louvain

two pages from a British magazine


August 28, 1914

After lunch Blount and I decided to go out to Louvain to learn for ourselves just how much truth there is in the stories we have heard, and see whether the American College is safe. We were going alone, but Pousette and Bulle, the Swedish and Mexican Chargés d'Affaires, were anxious to join us, so the four of us got away together and made good time as far as the first outpost this side of Louvain.

ilere there was a small camp by a hospital, and the soldiers came out to examine our papers and warn us to go no further, as there was fighting in the town. The road was black with frightened civilians carrying away small bundles from the ruins of their homes. Ahead was a great column of dull grey smoke which completely hid the city. We could hear the muffled sound of firing ahead. Down the little street which led to the town we could see dozens of white flags which had been hung out of the windows in a childish hope of averting trouble.

We talked with the soldiers for some time in an effort to get some idea of what had really happened in the town. They seemed convinced that civilians had precipitated the whole business by firing upon the staff of a general who was parleying with the Burgomaster in the square before the Hotel de Ville. They saw nothing themselves and believe what they are told. Different members of the detachment had different stories to tell, including one that civilians had a machine gun installed on top of the Cathedral, and fired into the German troops, inflicting much damage. One of the men told us that his company had lost twenty-five men in the initial flurry. They were a depressed and nervous-looking crew, bitter against the civil population and cursing their ways with great earnestness. They were at some pains to impress upon us that all Belgians were Schwein, and that the people of Louvain were the lowest known form of the animal.

After talking the situation over with the officer in command, we decided to try getting around the town to the station by way of the ring of outer boulevards. We got through in good shape, being stopped a few times by soldiers and by little groups of frightened civilians who were cowering in the shelter of doorways, listening to the noise of fighting in the town, the steady crackle of machine guns, and the occasional explosions.

They were pathetic in their confidence that the United States was coming to save them. In some way word has travelled all over Belgium that we have entered the war on the side of Belgium, and they all seem to believe it. Nearly every group we talked to asked hopefilly when our troops were coming, and when we answered that we were not involved, they asked wistfully if we didn't think we should be forced to come in later. A little boy of about eight, in a group that stopped us, asked me whether we were English, and when I told him what we were, he began jumping up and down, clapping his hands, and shouting:

"Les Américains sont arrivés! Les Américains sont arrivés!

His father told him to be quiet, but he was perfectly happy and clung to the side of the car as long as we stayed, his eyes shining with joy, convinced that things were going to be all right somehow.


a view from a tower - the ruins of Louvain


About halfway around the ring of boulevards we came to burning houses. The outer side of the boulevard was a hundred feet or so from the houses, so the motor was safe, but it was pretty hot and the cinders were so thick that we had to put on our goggles. A lot of the houses were still burning, but most of tjiem were nothing but blackened walls with smouldering timbers inside. Many of the front doors had been battered open in order to start the fires or to rout out the people who were in hiding.

We came to a German ammunition wagon, half upset against a tree, where it had been hurled when the horses had turned to run away. The tongue was broken and wrenched out. Near by were the two horses, dead and swollen until their legs stood out straight. Then we began to see more ghastly sights-poor civilians lying where they had been shot down as they ran-men and women - one old patriarch lying on his back in the sun, his great white beard nearly hiding his swollen face. All sorts of wreckage scattered over the street, hats and wooden shoes, German helmets, swords and saddles, bottles, and all sorts of bundles which had been dropped and abandoned when the trouble began. For three-quarters of a mile the boulevard looked as though it had been swept by a cyclone. The Porte de Tirlemont had evidently been the scene of particularly bloody business. The telegraph and trolley wires were down; dead men and horses all over the square; the houses still burning. The broad road we had travelled when we went to Tirlemont was covered with wreckage and dead bodies.

Some bedraggled German soldiers came out from under the gate and examined our passes. They were nervous and unhappy and shook their heads gloomily over the horrors through which they were passing. They said they had had hardly a minute's sleep for the past three nights. Their eyes were bloodshot and they were almost too tired to talk. They told us we could proceed in safety as far as the station, where we would find the headquarters of the commanding officer. Here we could leave the motor and learn how far we could safely go. This crowd varied the wording a little by saying that the Belgians were all dogs and that these particular dogs were being driven out, as they should be; that all that part of the town was being cleared of people, ordered to leave their homes and go to Brussels or some other town, so that the destruction of Louvain could proceed systematically. We thought at the time that they were exaggerating what was being done, but were enlightened before we had gone much further.

We continued down the boulevard for a quarter of a mile or so till we came to the station. Sentries came out and looked through our passes again. We parked the motor with a number of German military cars in the square and set off on foot down the Rue de la Station, which we had admired so much when we had driven down its length, just ten days before.


a main street in Louvain


The houses on both sides were either partially destroyed or smouldering. Soldiers were systematically removing what was to be found in the way of valuables, food, and wine, and then setting fire to the furniture and hangings. It was all most businesslike. The houses are substantial stone buildings, and fire will not spread from one to another. Therefore the procedure was to batter down the door of each house, clean out what was to be saved, then pile furniture and hangings in the middle of the room, set them afire, and move on to the next house.

It was pretty hot, but we made our way down the street, showing our passes every hundred feet or so to soldiers installed in comfortable armchairs, which they had dragged into the gutter from looted houses, till we came to a little crossing about halfway to the Hotel de Ville. Here we were stopped by a small detachment of soldiers, who told us that we could go no further; that they were clearing civilians out of some houses a little further down the street, and that there was likely to be firing at any time.

The officer in command spoke to us civilly and told us to stick close to him so that we could know just what we ought to do at any time. He was in charge of the destruction of this part of the town and had things moving along smartly. His men were firing some houses near-by and he stood outside smoking a rank cigar and looking on gloomily.

We exchanged remarks with him in German for a few minutes, I limping along behind the more fluent Pousette and Bulle. Then I said something in an aside to Blount, and the officer broke into the conversation in perfectly good English. He turned out to be a volunteer officer from Hamburg, who had spent some thirty years in England and was completely at home in the language.

We then accomplished the formal introductions which are so necessary to Germans even at a time like this, and when we came to Bulle the officer burst into a rapid fire of questions, which ended in his proclaiming in rapture:

"Why, I knew your father in Hamburg and went to school with your Uncle So-and-so!"

Reminiscence went on as though we were about a dining table at home; minute inquiry was made into the welfare and activities of the Bulle family from the cradle to the grave. On the strength of the respectability of Bulle's relatives we were then taken under the officer's wing and piloted by him through the rest of our visit.


before the burning of Louvain - the university library building


From where we stood we could see down the street through the smoke, as far as the Hotel de Ville. It was still standing, but the Cathedral across the street was badly damaged and smoke was rising in clouds from its roof. The business houses beyond were not to be seen; the smoke was too dense to tell how many of them were gone.

Machine guns were at work near-by, and occasionally there was a loud explosion when the destructive work was helped with dynamite.

A number of the men about us were drunk and evidently had been in that state for some time. Our officer complained that they had had very little to eat for several days, but added glumly that there was plenty to drink.

A cart, heaped high with loot, driven by a fat Landsturmer and pulled by a tiny donkey, came creaking past us. One of our party pulled his Kodak from his pocket and inquired of our guardian in English:

"May I take a picture?"

His intent evidently escaped the German, who answered cordially:

"Certainly; go ahead. You will find some beautiful things over there on the corner in the house they are getting ready to burn."

We kept our faces under control, and he was too much occupied with his other troubles to notice that we did not avail of his kind permission to join in the pillage.

He was rabid against the Belgians and had an endless series of stories of atrocities they had committed - though he admitted that he had none of them at first hand. He took it as gospel, however, that they had fired upon the German troops in Louvain and laid themselves open to reprisals. To his thinking there is nothing bad enough for them, and his chief satisfaction seemed to consist in repeating to us over and over that he was going the limit. Orders bad been issued to raze the town - "till not one stone was left on another', as he said.

Just to see what would happen I inquired about the provision of The Hague Conventions, prescribing that no collective penalty can be imposed for lawless acts of individuals. He dismissed that to his own satisfaction by remarking that:

"All Belgians are dogs, and all would do these things unless they are taught what will happen to them."

Convincing logic!

With a hard glint in his eye he told us the purpose of his work; he came back to it over and over, but the burden of what he had to say was something like this:

"We shall make this place a desert. We shall wipe it out so that it will be hard to find where Louvain used to stand. For generations people will come here to see what we have done, and it will teach them to respect Germany and to think twice before they resist her. Not one stone on another, I tell you - kein Stein auf einander!"

I agreed with him when he remarked that people would come here for generations to see what Germany had done, but he did not seem to follow my line of thought.


photo by Ernst Vollbehr


While we were talking about these things and the business of burning and looting was pursuing its orderly course, a rifle shot rang out near-by. Instantly every soldier seized his rifle and stood waiting for an indication as to what would happen next. In a few seconds a group of soldiers rushed into a house about a hundred feet away. There was a sound of blows, as though a door was being beaten in; then a few shots, and the soldiers came out wiping the perspiration from their faces.

"Snipers! " said our guide, shaking his fist at the house. "We have gone through that sort of thing for three days and it is enough to drive us mad; fighting is easy in comparison, for then you know what you are doing." And then almost tearfully: "Here we are so helpless

While he was talking another shot rang out, and then there was a regular fusillade, which lasted for fifteen seconds or so; then an explosion.

Bulle stood not upon the order of his going, but ran for the station, calling back:

"I've had enough of this. Let's get out and go home." Our friend the officer said Bulle was right, and that it would be the part of wisdom for us all to fall back to the station, where we would be near the car in case anything happened. He started off at a good pace, and as we were in no mood to argue we went meekly along in his wake. We overtook Bulle engaged in an altercation with a very drunken soldier, who wanted to see his papers and was insulting about it. Instead of taking the easy course and showing his papers, Bulle was opening a debate on the subject, when we arrived and took a hand. Our officer waded into the soldier in a way that would have caused a mutiny in any other army, and the soldier, very drunk and sullen, retreated muttering to his armchair on the kerb. We then moved on to the station.



Outside the station was a crowd of several hundred people, mostly women and children, being herded on to trains by soldiers, to be run out of the town. They seemed to be decently treated, but were naturally in a pitiable state of terror. Just inside the gates of the freight yard were a couple of women telling their troubles to a group of officers and soldiers. They had both lost their husbands in the street-fighting, and were in a terrible state. The officers and men were gathered about them, evidently distressed by their trouble, and trying to comfort them. They had put the older woman in an armchair and were giving her a little brandy in a teacup. And the same men may have been the ones who killed the husbands. .

We went on into the freight yards and were greeted by a number of officers with hopeful talk about a train coming from Brussels with food. We were given chairs and an orderly was dispatched for a bottle of wine so that a drink could be given to Bulle, who said that after what he had been through he would appreciate a glass of something comforting.

We settled down and listened to the stories of the past few days. It was a story of clearing out civilians from a large part of the town; a systematic routing out of men from cellars and garrets, wholesale shootings, the generous use of machine guns, and the free application of the torch- the whole story enough to make one see red. And for our guidance it was impressed on us that this would make people respect Germany and think twice about resisting her.

Suddenly several shots rang out apparently from some ruins across the street, and the whole place was instantly in an uproar. The lines of civilians were driven helter-skelter to cover-where, I don't know. The stands of arms in the freight yard were snatched up, and in less time than it takes to tell it several hundred men were scattered behind any sort of shelter that offered, ready for the fray.


a burned-out train in Louvain station
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


I took one quick look about and decided that the substantial freight station was the most attractive thing in sight. In no time I was inside, closely followed by my own crowd and a handful of soldiers. First, we lay down upon the platform, and then when we got our bearings rolled over on to the track among a lot of artillery horses that were tethered there.

Apparently a number of civilians, goaded to desperation by what they had seen, had banded together, knowing that they were as good as dead, and had determined to sell their lives as dearly as they could. They had gathered in the ruins of the houses fronting on the station and had opened up on us. There was a brisk interchange of shots, with an occasional tinkle of broken glass and a good deal of indiscriminate cursing by the soldiers who had taken refuge with us.

The artillery horses did not welcome us very cordially and began to get restive in a way that made us debate whether we preferred staying up on the platform with a chance of being potted or staying under cover and being ingloriously trampled to death. A joint debate on this important question kept us occupied for several minutes. We finally compromised by fishing down a few boxes from the platform and erecting a barricade of sorts to protect us against any stray kicks.

As we sat in the undignified position imposed on us by circumstances we exchanged various frivolous remarks, not because we felt particularly gay, but because we had to do something to keep ourselves interested and to keep our courage up. Bulle resented this, and raised his head to look at me reproachfully over the barricade, and say: Don't talk like that; it is nothing short of tempting Providence."

After a time Blount and I decided to make a reconnaissance in force and see how the car was getting on. We crawled along the floor to a place from which we could see out into the square. The soldiers were flat on their stomachs behind a low wall that extended around the small circular park in the centre of the square, and behind any odd shelter they could find. The car lay in the line of fire but had not been struck. We were sufficiently pessimistic to be convinced that it would go up in smoke before the row was over, and took a good look at our shoes to see whether they would last through a walk back to Brussels.

Our officer came out from behind his barricade and showed us where the attacking force was concealed-at least he told us that they were there, and we were willing to take his word for it without going across the street to make a first-hand investigation.

He tried to impress us with the black sinfulness of people who would fire upon the German troops, and called our particular attention to the proof now offered us that civilians had started the row by firing on German troops. According to the German story, which was the only one we had heard, civilians had been hunted down like rats in garrets and cellars and shot down in cold blood in the streets when they sought safety in flight. To my mind it was not surprising that men driven to desperation by seeing their friends and neighbours murdered in cold blood should decide to do any harm possible to the enemy. Three days of the reign of terror that had been described to us was enough to account for anything, and the fact that civilians were firing now did not in any sense prove that they were guilty of starting the trouble. For all we could tell they may have started it or they may not, but firing by them three days after the row began was no proof to anyone with the slightest sense of the value of evidence. On the other hand, the story freely told us by the Germans as to their own behaviour is enough to create the darkest presumptions as to how the trouble started, and would seem to place the burden of proof on them rather than on the Belgians.

While we were talking about this there came another rattle of fire, and we scuttled back to our shelter, among the horses. Every now and then a surly soldier with two huge revolvers came and looked over the ledge at us, and growled out "Was machen Sie denn hier?" followed by some doubting remarks as to our right to be on the premises. As he was evidently very drunk and bad-tempered, I was not at all sure that he would not decide on his own responsibility to take no chances and put us out of our misery. After several visits, however, he evidently found something else more interesting, and came back to trouble us no more.

When the row began a motor had been dispatched toward Brussels to recall some troops that had left a few hours before. Now and then our officer came in to tell us what he thought of their chances of getting back.

On one of these visits, Blount remarked, by way of airy persiflage, that that drink of wine that had been sent for was a long time coming. Anything as subtle as that was lost on our friend, for he walked solemnly away, only to reappear in a few minutes with a bottle and several glasses which he set up on the edge of the platform and filled with excellent Burgundy. We stood up among the horses and drained a bumper of the stuff, while the officer wandered back to his work. He had gone calmly out into the thick of things to rescue this bottle, and took it as a matter of course that we should claim the drink that had been promised us.

Presently, with a good deal of noise, a fairly large force of troops came marching down the boulevard and took up positions around the station. Our officer returned, waving a smoking revolver, and told us to lie down as flat as we could among the horses, and not to move unless they got restive. He said it looked as though an attempt would be made to take the station by storm, and that there might be a brisk fight.

However, there were only a few scattering shots, and then our friend came back and told us that we had better get out and start for home before things began again. He added, however, that we must have the permission of the commanding officer, who was on the other side of the station, but offered to pilot us to the great man and help us get the permission. The way lay straight out into the square, in full view of the houses across the way, along the front of the station just behind the troops and into the railroad yard on the other side.


the Hotel de Ville of Louvain in the background left


That station seemed about four miles long, and the officer was possessed of a desire to loiter by the way, recounting anecdotes of his school days. He would walk along for a few steps and then pause to tell Bulle some long and rambling yarn about his uncle. Bulle would take him by the arm and get him in motion again. Then the old chap would transfer his conversational fire to another member of the party, and we were obliged almost to pull him the length of the square.

The commanding officer was a pleasant-faced little man who stood in the shelter of a water tank and received us in a puzzled way, as though he wondered what civilians were doing in that neighbourhood anyway. Permission was readily granted for us to leave, with the ludicrous proviso that we did so "at our own risk." Then Bulle put everybody in good humour by inquiring innocently if there was any danger. Everybody burst into peals of laughter, and we were escorted to our car by the same slow-moving officer, who insisted on exchanging cards with us and expressing the hope that we should meet again, which we could not honestly reciprocate. Then, after an hour and a half in the station, we got away amid a great waving of hands.

The boulevards were deserted save for the troops coming back into the town. New houses were burning that had been intact in the afternoon. After passing the Porte de Tirlemont, we began to see people again-little groups that had come out into the streets through a craving for company, and stood huddled together listening to the fighting in the lower part of the town. In harmony with the policy of terrorising the population, the Germans have trained them to throw up their hands as soon as anyone comes in sight, in order to prove that they are unarmed and defenceless. And the way they do it, the abject fear that is evident, shows that failure to comply with the rule is not lightly punished.

Our worst experience of this was when in coming around a corner we came upon a little girl of about seven, carrying a canary in a cage. As soon as she saw us, she threw up her hands and cried out some-thing we did not understand. Thinking that she wanted to stop us with a warning of some sort, we put on the brakes and drew up beside her. Then she burst out crying with fear, and we saw that she was in terror of her life. We called out to reassure her, but she turned and ran like a hunted animal.

It was hard to see the fear of others-townspeople, peasants, priests, and feeble old nuns who dropped their bundles and threw up their hands, their eyes starting with fear. The whole thing was a nightmare.

We were dreadfully depressed, and rode along in silence until Bulle turned around from the front seat and inquired in a matter-of-fact voice:

"What sort of wine was that we drank at the station?

We told him, and then he shook his head and said as though to himself:

"I drank a big glass of it, but I was so frightened that I didn't taste it at all."

That broke the edge of the strain we were under, and we had a good laugh in which Bulk joined.

And so back to the Legation without further mishap, to find everybody worrying about us, and the Minister putting his foot down and announcing that there were to be no more expeditions of the sort, no matter what the reason for them.


a street in Louvain


NOTE. - The foregoing is an impression of one afternoon at Louvain, taken from a journal written at the time. It was intended to pass on the question of responsibility for precipitating the orgy of murder and bestiality indulged in by the German army from the 25th of August until the 30th, when orders were received from Berlin to stop' the destruction and restore public order.

Many subsequent visits to Louvain, and conversations with people who were there when the trouble began, have only served to strengthen the impression that the whole affair was part of a cold-blooded and calculated plan to terrorise the civilian population.

While we were there, it was frankly stated that the town was being wiped out; that its destruction was being carried out under definite orders. When the German Government realised the horror and loathing with which the civilised world learned of the fate of Louvain, the orders were cancelled and the story sent out that the German forces had tried to prevent the destruction, had fought the fire, and by good fortune had been able to save the Hotel de Ville. Never has a Government lied more brazenly. When we arrived, the destruction of the town was being carried on in an orderly and systematic way that showed careful preparation. The only thing that saved the Hotel de Ville was the fact that the German troops had not progressed that far with their work when the orders were countermanded from Berlin.

It was only when he learned how civilisation regarded his crimes that the Emperor's heart began to bleed.

The true facts as to the destruction of Louvain will startle the world-hardened though it has become to surprise at German crimes. Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to publish the details at this time without endangering the lives of people still in Belgium under German domination. But these people will speak for themselves when the Germans have been driven from Belgian soil and they are once more free to speak the truth.


from a German history book
right the medieval city hall and left a ruined church


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