'In Aerschot and Louvain'
from the book 'Fighting in Flanders'
by E. Alexander Powell 1914

An American Journalist Visits Two Destroyed Towns

a view of Aerschot


We were the first foreigners to see Aerschot, or rather what was left of Aerschot after it had been sacked and burned by the Germans. A few days before Aerschot had been a prosperous and happy town of ten thousand people. When we saw it it was but a heap of smoking ruins, garrisoned by a battalion of German soldiers, and with its population consisting of half a hundred white-faced women. In many parts of the world I have seen many terrible and revolting things, but nothing so ghastly, so horrifying as Aerschot. Quite two-thirds of the houses had been burned and showed unmistakable signs of having been sacked by a maddened soldiery before they were burned. Everywhere were the ghastly evidences. Doors had been smashed in with rifle-butts and boot-heels ; windows had been broken ; furniture had been wantonly destroyed; pictures had been torn from the walls; mattresses had been ripped open with bayonets in search of valuables ; drawers had been emptied upon the floors ; the outer walls of the houses were spattered with blood and pock-marked with bullets; the sidewalks were slippery with broken wine-bottles; the streets were strewn with women's clothing. It needed no on- to tell us the details of that orgy of blood and lust. The story was so plainly written that anyone could read it.

For a mile we drove the car slowly between the blackened walls of fire-gutted buildings. This was no accidental conflagration, mind you, for scattered here and there were houses which stood undamaged and in every such case there was scrawled with chalk upon their doors "Gute Leute. Nicht zu pliindern." (Good people. Do not plunder.)

The Germans went about the work of house-burning as systematically as they did everything else. They had various devices for starting conflagrations, all of them effective. At Aerschot and Louvain they broke the windows of the houses and threw in sticks which had been soaked in oil and dipped in sulphur. Elsewhere they used tiny, black tablets, about the size of cough lozenges, made of some highly inflammable composition, to which they touched a match. At Termonde, which they destroyed in spite of the fact that the inhabitants had evacuated the city before their arrival, they used a motor-car equipped with a large tank for petrol, a pump, a hose, and a spraying-nozzle. The car was run slowly through the streets, one soldier working the pump and another spraying the fronts of the houses. Then they set fire to them. Oh, yes, they were very methodical about it all, those Germans.

Despite the scowls of the soldiers, I attempted to talk with some of the women huddled in front of a bakery waiting for a distribution of bread, but the poor creatures were too terror-stricken to do more than stare at us with wide, beseeching eyes. Those eyes will always haunt me. I wonder if they do not sometimes haunt the Germans. But a little episode that occurred as we were leaving the city did more than anything else to bring home the horror of it all. We passed a little girl of nine or ten and I stopped the car to ask the way. Instantly she held both hands above her head and began to scream for mercy. When we had given her some chocolate and money, and had assured her that we were not Germans, but Americans and friends, she ran like a frightened deer. That little child, with her fright-wide eyes and her hands raised in supplication, was in herself a terrible indictment of the Germans.

There are, as might be expected, two versions of the happenings which precipitated that night of horrors in Aerschot. The German version — I had it from the German commander himself — is to the effect that after the German troops had entered Aerschot, the Chief of Staff and some of the officers were asked to dinner by the burgomaster.

While they were seated at the table the son of the burgomaster, a boy of fifteen, entered the room with a revolver and killed the Chief of Staff, whereupon, as though at a prearranged signal, the townspeople opened fire from their windows upon the troops. What followed — the execution of the burgomaster, his son, and several score of the leading townsmen, the giving over of the women to a lust-mad soldiery, the sacking of the houses, and the final burning of the town — was the punishment which would always be meted out to towns whose inhabitants attacked German soldiers.

Now, up to a certain point the Belgian version agrees with the German. It is admitted that the Germans entered the town peaceably enough, that the German Chief of Staff and other officers accepted the hospitality of the burgomaster, and that, while they were at dinner, the burgomaster's son entered the room and shot the Chief of Staff dead with a revolver. But — and this is the point to which the German story makes no allusion — the boy killed the Chief of Staff in defence of his sister's honour. It is claimed that toward the end of the meal the German officer, inflamed with wine, informed the burgomaster that he intended to pass the night with his young and beautiful daughter, whereupon the girl's brother quietly slipped from the room and, returning a moment later, put a sudden end to the German's career with an automatic.

What the real truth is I do not know. Perhaps no one knows. The Germans did not leave many eye-witnesses to tell the story of what happened. Piecing together the stories told by those who did survive that night of horror, we know that scores of the townspeople were shot down in cold blood and that, when the firing squads could not do the work of slaughter fast enough, the victims were lined up and a machine-gun was turned upon them. We know that young girls were dragged from their homes and stripped naked and violated by soldiers — many soldiers — in the public square in the presence of officers. We know that both men and women were unspeakably mutilated, that children were bayoneted, that dwellings were ransacked and looted, and that finally, as though to destroy the evidences of their horrid work, soldiers went from house to house with torches, methodically setting fire to them.


from a post-war Belgian magazine - the ruins of Aerschot in 1914


It was with a feeling of repulsion amounting almost to nausea that we left what had once been Aerschot behind us. The road leading to Louvain was alive with soldiery, and we were halted every few minutes by German patrols. Had not the commanding officer in Aerschot detailed two bicyclists to accompany us I doubt if we should have gotten through. Whedbee had had the happy idea of bringing along a thousand packets of cigarettes — the tonneau of the car was literally filled with them — and we tossed a packet to every German soldier that we saw. You could have followed our trail for thirty miles by the cigarettes we left behind us. As it turned out, they were the means of saving us from being detained within the German lines.


several views of the ruins of Louvain


Thanks to our American flags, to the nature of our mission, and to our wholesale distribution of cigarettes, we were passed from outpost to outpost and from regimental headquarters to regimental headquarters until we reached Louvain. Here we came upon another scene of destruction and desolation. Nearly half the city was in ashes. Most of the principal streets were impassable from fallen masonry. The splendid avenues and boulevards were lined on either side by the charred skeletons of what had once been handsome buildings. The fronts of many of the houses were smeared with crimson stains. In comparison to its size, the Germans had wrought more widespread destruction in Louvain than did the earthquake and fire combined in San Francisco. The looting had evidently been unrestrained. The roads for miles in either direction were littered with furniture and bedding and clothing. Such articles as the soldiers could not carry away they wantonly destroyed. Hangings had been torn down, pictures on the walls had been smashed, the contents of drawers and trunks had been emptied into the streets, literally everything breakable had been broken. This is not from hearsay, remember ; I saw it with my own eyes.

And the amazing feature of it all was that among the Germans there seemed to be no feeling of regret, no sense of shame. Officers in immaculate uniforms strolled about among the ruins, chatting and laughing and smoking. At one place a magnificent mahogany dining-table had been dragged into the middle of the road and about it, sprawled in carved and tapestry-covered chairs, a dozen German infantrymen were drinking beer.


a view of the city center


Just as there are two versions of the destruction of Aerschot, so there are two versions, though in this case widely different, of the events which led up to the destruction of Louvain. It should be borne in mind, to begin with, that Louvain was not destroyed by bombardment or in the heat of battle, for the Germans had entered it unopposed, and had been in undisputed possession for several days. The Germans assert that a conspiracy, fomented by the burgomaster, the priests and many of the leading citizens, existed among the townspeople, who planned to suddenly fall upon and exterminate the garrison. They claim that, in pursuance of this plan, on the night of August 26, the inhabitants opened a murderous fire upon the unsuspecting troops from house-tops, doors and windows; that a fierce street battle ensued, in which a number of women and children were unfortunately killed by stray bullets; and that, in retaliation for this act of treachery, a number of the inhabitants were executed and a portion of the city was burned. Notwithstanding the fact that, as soon as the Germans entered the city, they searched it thoroughly for concealed weapons, they claim that the townspeople were not only well supplied with rifles and ammunition, but that they even opened on them from their windows with machine-guns. Though it seems scarcely probable that the inhabitants of Louvain would attempt so mad an enterprise as to attack an overwhelming force of Germans — particularly with the terrible lesson of Aerschot still fresh in their minds — I do not care to express any opinion as to the truth of the German assertions.

The Belgians tell quite a different story. They say that, as the result of a successful Belgian offensive movement to the south of Malines, the German troops retreated in something closely akin to panic, one division falling back, after nightfall, upon Louvain. In the inky blackness the garrison, mistaking the approaching troops for Belgians, opened a deadly fire upon them. When the mistake was discovered the Germans, partly in order to cover up their disastrous blunder and partly to vent their rage and chagrin, turned upon the townspeople in a paroxysm of fury.


ruins of St. Peter's church in Louvain


A scene of indescribable terror ensued, the soldiers, who had broken into the wine- shops and drunk themselves into a state of frenzy, practically running amuck, breaking in doors and shooting at every one they saw. That some of the citizens snatched up such weapons as came to hand and defended their homes and their women no one attempts to deny — but this scattered and pitifully ineffectual resistance gave the Germans the very excuse they were seeking. The citizens had attacked them and they would teach the citizens, both of Louvain and of other cities which they might enter, a lasting lesson. They did. No Belgian will ever forget — or forgive — that lesson. The orgy of blood and lust and destruction lasted for two days. Several American correspondents, among them Mr. Richard Harding Davis, who were being taken by train from Brussels to Germany, and who were held for some hours in the station at Louvain during the first night's massacre, have vividly described the horrors which they witnessed from their car window. On the second day, Mr. Hugh S. Gibson, secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, accompanied by the Swedish and Mexican charges, drove over to Louvain in a taxi-cab.

Mr. Gibson told me that the Germans had dragged chairs and a dining-table from a nearby house into the middle of the square in front of the station and that some officers, already considerably the worse for drink, insisted that the three diplomatists join them in a bottle of wine. And this while the city was burning and rifles were cracking, and the dead bodies of men and women lay sprawled in the streets! From the windows of plundered and fire-blackened houses in both Aerschot and Louvain and along the road between, hung white flags made from sheets and tablecloths and pillow-cases — pathetic appeals for the mercy which was not granted.

If Belgium wishes to keep alive in the minds of her people the recollection of German military barbarism, if she desires to inculcate the coming generations with the horrors and miseries of war, if she would perpetuate the memories of the innocent townspeople who were slaughtered because they were Belgians, then she can effectually do it by preserving the ruins of Aerschot and Louvain, just as the ruins of Pompeii are preserved. Fence in these desolated cities; leave the shattered doors and the broken furniture as they are ; let the bullet marks and the bloodstains remain, and it will do more than all the sermons that can be preached, than all the pictures that can be painted, than all the books that can be written, to drive home a realization of what is meant by that dreadful thing called War.


the burning of Louvain and aftermath - from a British magazine


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