- 'Louvain the Forsaken'
- by Irvin S. Cobb
- from his book Paths of Glory 1915
An American Journalist in Louvain
two color illustrations of German soldiers fighting urban franc-tireurs
It was Sunday when I saw Louvain in the ashes of her desolation. We were just back then from the German trenches before Antwerp; and the hollow sounds of the big guns which were fired there at spaced intervals came to our ears as we rode over the road leading out from Brussels, like the boomings of great bells. The last time I had gone that way the country was full of refugees fleeing from burning villages on beyond. Now it was bare, except for a few baggage trains lumbering along under escort of shaggy gray troopers. Perhaps I should say they were gray-and-yellow troopers, for the plastered mud and powdered dust of three months of active campaigning had made them of true dirt color.
Oh, yes; I forgot one other thing: We overtook a string of wagons fitted up as carryalls and bearing family parties of the burghers to Louvain to spend a day among the wreckage. There is no accounting for tastes. If I had been a Belgian the last thing I should want my wife and my baby to see would be the ancient university town, the national cradle of the Church, in its present state. Nevertheless there were many excursionists in Louvain that day.
The Germans had taken down the bars and sight-seers came by autobusses from as far away as Aix-la-Chapelle and from Liege and many from Brussels. They bought postal cards and climbed about over the mountain ranges of waste, and they mined in the debris mounds for souvenirs. Altogether, I suppose some of them regarded it as a kind of picnic. Personally I should rather go to a morgue for a picnic than to Louvain as it looks to-day. I tried hard, both in Germany among the German soldiers and in Belgium among the Belgians, to get at the truth about Louvain. The Germans said the outbreak was planned, and that firing broke out at a given signal in various quarters of the town; that, from windows and basements and roofs, bullets rained on them; and that the fighting continued until they had smoked the last of the inhabitants from their houses with fire and put them to death as they fled. The Belgians proclaimed just as stoutly that, mistaking an on marching regiment for enemies, the Germans fired on their own people; and then, in rage at having committed such an error and to cover it up, they turned on the townspeople and mixed massacre with pillaging and burning for the better part of a night and a day.
I could, I think, sense something of the viewpoint of each. To the Belgian, a German in his home or in his town was no more than an armed housebreaker. What did he care for the code of war? He was not responsible for the war. He had no share in framing the code. He took his gun, and when the chance came he fired -and fired to kill. Perhaps, at first, he did not know that by that same act he forfeited his life and sacrificed his home and jeopardized the lives and homes of all his neighbors. Perhaps in the blind fury of the moment he did not much care.
Take the German soldier: He had proved he was ready to meet his enemy in the open and to fight him there. When his comrade fell at his side, struck down by an unseen, skulking foe, who lurked behind a hedge or a chimney, he saw red and he did red deeds. That in his reprisals he went farther than some might have gone under similar conditions is rather to have been expected. In point of organization, in discipline, and in the enactment of a terribly stern, terribly deadly course of conduct for just such emergencies, his masters had gone farther than the heads of any modern army ever went before. You see, all the laboriously built-up ethics of civilized peace came into direct conflict with the bloody ethics of war, which are never civilized, and which frequently are born in the instant and molded on the instant to suit the purposes of those who create them. And Louvain is perhaps the most finished and perfect example we have in this world to-day to show the consequences of such a clash.
a burned-out church
I am not going to try to describe Louvain. Others have done that competently. The Belgians were approximately correct when they said Louvain had been destroyed. The Germans were technically right when they said not over twenty per cent of its area had been reduced; but that twenty per cent included practically the whole business district, practically all the better class of homes, the university, the cathedral, the main thoroughfares, the principal hotels and shops and cafes. The famous town hall alone stood unscathed; it was saved by German soldiers from the common fate of all things about it. What remained, in historic value and in physical beauty, and even in tangible property value, was much less than what was gone forever.
I sought out the hotel near the station where we had stayed, as enforced guests of the German army, for three days in August. Its site was a leveled gray mass, sodden, wrecked past all redemption; ruined beyond all thought of salvage. I looked for the little inn at which we had dined. Its front wall littered the street and its interior was a jumble of worthlessness. I wondered again as I had wondered many times before what had become of its proprietor the dainty, gentle little woman whose misshapen figure told us she was near the time for her baby.
I endeavored to fix the location of the little sidewalk cafe where we sat on the second or the third day of the German occupation August twenty-first, I think, was the date and watched the sun go out in eclipse like a copper disk. We did not know it then, but it was Louvain's bloody eclipse we saw presaged that day in the suddenly darkened heavens. Even the lines of the sidewalks were lost. The road was piled high with broken, fire-smudged masonry. The building behind was a building no longer. It was a husk of a house, open to the sky, backless and front-less, and fit only to tumble down in the next high wind.
As we stood before the empty railroad station, in what I veritably believe to be the forlornest spot there is on this earth, a woman in a shawl came whining to sell us postal cards, on which were views of the desolation that was all about us.
"Please buy some pictures," she said in French. "My husband is dead."
"When did he die?" one of us asked.
She blinked, as though trying to remember.
"That night," she said as though there had never been but one night. "They killed him then that night." "Who killed him?" "They did."
She pointed in the direction of the square fronting the station. There were German soldiers where she pointed both living ones and dead ones. The dead ones, eighty- odd of them, were buried in two big crosswise trenches, in a circular plot that had once been a bed of ornamental flowers surrounding the monument of some local notable. The living ones were standing sentry duty at the fence that flanked the railroad tracks beyond.
"They did," she said; "they killed him! Will you buy some postal cards, m'sieur? All the best pictures of the ruins!"
She said it flatly, without color in her voice, or feeling or emotion. She did not, I am sure, flinch mentally as she looked at the Germans. Certainly she did not flinch visibly. She was past flinching, I suppose.
The officer in command of the force holding the town came, just before we started, to warn us to beware of bicyclists who might be encountered near Tirlemont.
"They are all franc-tireurs those Belgians on wheels," he said. "Some of them are straggling soldiers, wearing uniforms under their other clothes. They will shoot at you and trust to their bicycles to get away. We've caught and killed some of them, but there are still a few abroad. Take no chances with them. If I were in your place I should be ready to shoot first."
We asked him how the surviving populace of Louvain was behaving.
"Oh, we have them like that!" he said with a laugh, and clenched his hand up in a knot of knuckles to show what he meant. "They know better than to shoot at a German soldier now; but if looks would kill we'd all be dead men a hundred times a day." And he laughed again.
Of course it was none of our business; but it seemed to us that if we were choosing a man to pacify and control the ruined people of ruined Louvain this square-headed, big- fisted captain would not have been our first choice.
It began to rain hard as our automobile moved through the wreckage-strewn street which, being followed, would bring us to the homeward road home in this instance meaning Germany. The rain, soaking into the debris, sent up a sour, nasty smell, which pursued us until we had cleared the town. That exhalation might fully have been the breath of the wasted place, just as the distant, never-ending boom of the guns might have been the lamenting voice of the war-smitten land itself.
I remember Liege best at this present distance by reason of a small thing that occurred as we rode, just before dusk, through a byway near the river. In the gloomy, wet Sunday street two bands of boys were playing at being soldiers. Being soldiers is the game all the children in Northern Europe have played since the first of last August.
From doorways and window sills their lounging elders watched these Liege urchins as they waged their mimic fight with wooden guns and wooden swords; but, while we looked on, one boy of an inventive turn of mind was possessed of a great idea. He proceeded to organize an execution against a handy wall, with one small person to enact the role of the condemned culprit and half a dozen others to make up the firing squad.
As the older spectators realized what was afoot a growl of dissent rolled up and down the street; and a stout, red-faced matron, shrilly protesting, ran out into the road and cuffed the boys until they broke and scattered. There was one game in Liege the boys might not play.
The last I saw of Belgium was when I skirted her northern frontier, making for the seacoast. The guns were silent now, for Antwerp had surrendered; and over all the roads leading up into Holland refugees were pouring in winding streams. They were such refugees as I had seen a score of times before, only now there were infinitely more of them than ever before: men, women and children, all afoot; all burdened with bags and bundles; all dressed in their best clothes they did well to save their best, since they could save so little else all or nearly all bearing their inevitable black umbrellas.
They must have come long distances; but I marked that none of them moaned or complained, or gave up in weariness and despair. They went on and on, with their weary backs bent to their burdens and their weary legs trembling under them; and we did not know where they were going and they did not know. They just went. What they must face before them could not equal what they left behind them; so they went on.
That poor little rag doll, with its head crushed in the wheel tracks, does not after all furnish such a good comparison for Belgium, I think, as I finish this tale; for it had sawdust insides and Belgium's vitals are the vitals of courage and patience.
a commercial neighborhood in Louvain
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