Louvain the Lost
By Arno Dosch
[The World's Work, October 1914]
AN AMERICAN EYE WITNESS'S STORY OF THE BURNING OF THE BEAUTIFUL
AND HISTORIC CITY: A GRIM WARNING TO THE BELGIANS THAT THE
GERMAN MILITARY AUTHORITIES WOULD TOLERATE NO RESISTANCE
FROM CIVILIANS—A STAGGERING RETRIBUTION FOR THE WORK OF
A FEW SNIPERS—LIFE IN LOUVAIN BEFORE AND DURING THE
OCCUPATION—ONE DAY QF FRATERNITY BETWEEN
SOLDIERS AND CITIZENS, ONE DAY OF DISTRUST
AND REPRISALS, ONE DAY OF EXECUTIONS OF
CITIZENS IN SQUADS, AND THEN
SCENES IN THE WAR
ZONE OF BELGIUM
[This is the story of lie destruction of Louvain, told by one of the two trained American observers who saw it—Mr. Arno Dosch, whom the WORLD'S WORK commissioned to write its first matter from the front. It is so graphic and so timely a picture of war-stricken Belgium that it is added to the October WORLD'S WORK after the rest of the magazine is printed, and it is inserted without page numbers in the most accessible place that the binders can find for it. The following letter from the author accompanied lie manuscript.—THE EDITORS.]
This is the story of lie destruction of Louvain, told by one of the two trained American observers who saw it—Mr. Arno Dosch, whom the WORLD'S WORK commissioned to write its first matter from the front. It is so graphic and so timely a picture of war-stricken Belgium that it is added to the October WORLD'S WORK after the rest of the magazine is printed, and it is inserted without page numbers in the most accessible place that the binders can find for it. The following letter from the author accompanied lie manuscript.—THE EDITORS.]
This is the best story I got out of my two weeks in Belgium. The only other American who had as good an opportunity to get at the story of Louvain was Will Irwin.
I am also going to write in the next few days a story on the astonishingly efficient German Army based on my own observations of it in its passage through Belgium. I followed it as far as the French frontier. This time next month I may he over in the Russian-German scrap, but I may go back to Belgium. Paris is already closed to London.
London, September 3, 1914.
P. S. I have not put a thing in this story that I did not see. It might have been more vivid to give the lurid details told about Louvain, but I send enough to indicate what it must have been.
The day before the German troops entered Brussels, the day they occupied Louvain, on August 19th, three other American correspondents and I went to Louvain from Brussels in a taxicab. Without realizing it, and without being stopped by outposts, we drove directly between the retreating Belgians and the advancing Germans. We were trapped in Louvain, and when the Germans learned of our presence they held us there three days on parole. This gave us time to know and love that charming old university city. Less than a week later two of us returned and saw it burn.
In those days in Brussels every day had a character of its own, and this was Wednesday, the day after the Queen and the Court had hurried in the night to Antwerp. The streets, which had been full of people the day before, were nearly deserted. The few pedestrians hurried along silently. Even the civic guards, with their high-domed hats and their cockades, no longer patrolled the streets. Only the Belgian flags hanging from every house front showed that the city was not half empty.
The four in our party, Mr. John T, McCutcheon, Mr. Will Irwin, Mr. Irvin S. Cobb, and I, had been trying for two days to get permission to leave the city so we could see some of the fighting between the Germans and the Belgians, and this morning we were on edge with anticipation. Mr. Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, had been intervening in our behalf, and we also had, besides our passports, impressive documents issued by Mr. Ethelbert Watts, the Consul-General, explaining that we were American citizens. With these we went to the Gendarmerie, a massive old citadel of a building, to secure "laissez passers."
LOUVAIN BEFORE THE BATTLE
Entering the old Gendarmerie through a small door in a great wooden gate, we passed under a low, deep arch and came upon half a dozen unshaved guards sitting before a long, plain table in the courtyard. Their uniforms gave no evidence of rank, but the manner in which they summoned us before them left no doubt as to their authority. As we stood explaining our need I noticed the courtyard was filled with military wagons, heaps of grains and provisions, and about fifty horses being harnessed before they had finished their morning oats. From an upper window some one was throwing out bags of grain, which were being hurriedly loaded into wagons.
We were told no "laissez passers" were being issued. "But you might try to see what you can do with these," suggested one of the guards, pointing to our passports.
Two days in Brussels had taught us to take every opportunity at once. So we left in a hurry, but, as only one of us spoke French and that poorly, we decided to stop at the American Legation to get some one to explain to our French taxicab driver what it was that we wanted him to do.
As we turned the corner of the Rue de Treves we saw the American flag flying before the American Legation. This was the first intimation we had that the city was threatened with invasion. But even then we did not expect anything more than a cavalry raid, and neither did the people of Brussels.
Our taxicab driver was instructed to take us as far as he could go, and it came near being only half a dozen blocks. There we were stopped by a double row of derailed street cars across the avenue. These were obviously calculated to break the formation of the expected Uhlan raid and were so placed as to make a direct charge impossible. The work had been done by a company of middle-aged citizens in blue smocks, drawn in at the belt line by their sword belts. Their costume was that of the revolution of 1830, which made of Belgium an independent kingdom.
These staunch citizens were not for letting us pass at first, but one of them said of the taxicab driver, "Let him get his fare," and that seemed to be a better argument than our passports. So our taxicab was permitted to describe a letter S passing through the barricade and we went on out the avenue. We now met a good many of these smocked burghers, binding the trees along the avenues into masses of barbed wire, and upsetting carts in the cross lanes. Then, for the next mile or two, we passed many people strolling or reading in the parkways, even nurses with baby carriages. But after we passed the civic guards at the barricades on the edge of the Forest of Soignes we had the road to ourselves as far out as the village of Tervuern, where King Leopold's Congo Museum stands.
We were now well out of the city and still going. There was not even a sentry for two or three miles before we came to the village of Tervuern. There half a dozen people were sitting in front of a cafe, and they stared dumbly after us as we took the Louvain road. That, too, was empty so far as we could see, except for a Belgian soldier mounted on a bicycle, whom we soon overtook and invited into the taxicab. We hoped to learn the pass word from him.
THE TERROR-STRIKING UHLANS
About half way to Louvain, at a point from which you can see a corner of the field of Waterloo, we came upon a dozen refugees with packs on their backs. They stopped only long enough to tell us they were from Tirlemont, the next important town beyond Louvain. "Uhlans!" they cried, as they hurried on toward Brussels. In their tone was the same terror heard in the voice of settlers on the American frontier when they cried "Indians!"
Within the next half mile the road became blocked with refugees. They were of all kinds and ages, peasants with their household goods in ox-carts, townspeople in carriages, men on horseback, women afoot. I counted eleven small children and one very old woman in a cart. A dignified old peasant grandmother sat in a wagon on a chair that looked as if it might have been lifted from the chimney corner. There were two red-cheeked girls, with their skirts tucked up, carrying a trunk. They had carried that trunk at least eight miles already.
Those who were wearing leather shoes were mostly footsore. Some carried their shoes in their hands. But those in wooden shoes clicked steadily on. Occasionally, when a spasm of cannonading began beyond Louvain, the whole line started forward at a faster pace. Little children holding to the hands of their parents were shaken into a dog-trot. Oxen were prodded into an ungainly, lope. Those with light burdens pressed past those with heavy. But none that I saw deserted their burdens. The nearer we drew to Louvain and the louder the cannonading, the more-hurried and silent were the refugees. Those who looked at us at all hardly seemed to see us. Only a few stopped and stared after us. They seemed trying to figure out what manner of mad men we were.
In the midst of the refugees we came upon a Belgian soldier still carrying his gun, "Where are the English? Where are the French?" he called out to us, and, as we stopped to answer his question, the refugees that dammed up behind repeated the question, "Are the English close?" they asked appealingly. We replied that we did not know but assured them the road to Brussels was open and safe.
"WHERE ARE THE ENGLISH?"
We now began to meet soldiers in groups of twos and threes, and from each group came the same question, "Where are the English? Where are the French?"
We soon came to understand the eagerness of the question. The Belgians had been holding the German advance for nearly three weeks. Liège had fallen four days previously and they had fought every inch of the road as they retreated. Each day they had been expecting to receive the support of the English and the French, and, now their capital was threatened, they could not believe their allies were not right behind them.
As a matter of fact the German army first encountered the French army at Namur, twenty-five miles southeast of Brussels, and it was not until two days after the occupation of Brussels that the German advance column which went direct from Brussels, to Mons had its first skirmish with the English at Bray, a small town near the French frontier.
At Laefdael, a village four miles from Louvain, we came upon ten thousand Belgians drawn up in a valley to the north of the road where the Germans advancing from the south could not see them. The right flank of the Belgians lay right along the road, and we could see what the Belgian army was made of. They were a dusty and foot-sore lot, most of them exhausted and asleep on the grass, but those who were awake smiled and waved their hands at us. Of the hundreds of faces I saw in that brave little army there was not one which showed defeat. And, despite their careless attitude, they were in good military order. Scattered among them were the rapid fire guns, drawn by dogs, which had done such astonishingly good work on the retreat from Louvain. To me those patient Belgian dogs, lying on their sides panting in the sun, gave the whole scene a peculiarly pathetic look. It all seemed so small and amateurish against the advancing German army with its half million men and its complete equipment. But, three days later when we came back that way, the wrecked town of Laefdael and the graves on the south side of the road showed that the Belgians and their dog-drawn mitrailleuses gave a good account of themselves that afternoon before they retreated.
A mile from the ramparts of Louvain we were stopped by two English motion-picture men in an automobile, who said it was dangerous to go farther, As we stood talking with them I saw a soldier lift his head in the beet-field beside the road. I looked closer then and saw that the field was full of Belgian soldiers and, as far as I could see, there were Belgian soldiers behind every hay-cock and every bush. But the cannonading was still vigorous on the far side of Louvain and we considered it still safe to go a little closer. We also knew that Louvain had been the headquarters of the Belgian army and we thought it was yet. But that morning at ten o'clock, King Albert had moved his headquarters to Malines.
Our taxicab driver was frightened by what the motion-picture men told us and refused to go farther. He did not want to risk his car, he said. So we told him to wait for us there and the four of us set off afoot into Louvain. The road was now crowded with refugees, but we were too intent on pushing forward to the fighting line to pay much attention to them. To the question, "Where are the English? Where are the French?" we merely shook our heads. We could not trust ourselves to answer. We knew now in its fullness what that question meant to them. It was not until we passed the old ramparts, made into a boulevard, that we found our way free of refugees. They had not come through Louvain, but had passed around it on the rampart. The streets, however, were full of people. The quarter, from which we entered was the oldest and the poorest, and the narrow streets were at points blocked, but people moved aside courteously to give us passageway. There was no sign of fleeing and that was what gave us courage to go on. We thought these people were in the street merely listening to the cannonading.
AN EDDY IN THE WHIRLPOOL
We stopped a priest to inquire our way and he turned back fifty yards to take us to a cloister, where, he said, there was a priest who could speak English. As we entered the low, cool arch so common to Belgian houses we could see the priests at the bottom of their garden among the pear trees and the wall fruit. Among ourselves, we commented that here at least the ravages of war would not be felt. A week later that cloister was a ruin.
The priests came forward to meet us and refused to hear a word of apology until we had rested and drunk a glass of light red wine. To them, we found, the war was in another world, even though the cannonading was now quite loud. After a few minutes, we pressed on toward the Grand Place, where we still expected to find the Belgian headquarters. There were now twice as many people in the streets as before. Even the girls and young women, usually kept under cover in Belgium, were standing in the roadway, though, when the rest of the people greeted us with their usual courtesy, like convent-bred girls they lowered their eyes. Most of the people took us for English and wished us well. When we said we were Americans, "Vive les Americaines" always floated down the road behind us.
We had not gone far down the twisting Rue de Bruxelles, watching for the Gothic façades of the wonderful Hotel de Ville, when an automobile swung in from the north and raced through the street back toward Brussels. The occupants, whom we took to be Brussels newspapermen, cried something after us, but all we could hear was the one word, "danger." They had hardly gone before eight or ten Belgian soldiers, the first we had seen in the town, came hurrying through an alley from the south and dashed across the Rue de Bruxelles. As they passed there was a stir, but, as soon as they were out of sight, all faces were again turned down the street. No one would have guessed they had just passed.
Twenty paces past the alley a single horseman rode around the corner into the Rue de Bruxelles from a side street. He wore a badly-fitting dust-gray uniform and carried a long steel spear. Close behind him came another gray-uniformed man on a bicycle, a carbine slung over the handle-bars. For ten seconds I stood in the middle of the street and stared at them before I realized they were German soldiers. Then I remembered the Belgians in the alley and stepped into the nearest doorway out of range. There was no shooting, however. The Germans rode unmolested into the next street, scanning the four of us curiously as they passed.
All at once we realized it was time we tried to get back to our taxicab. The townspeople, 'also understanding our need to get away, most of them taking us for English, gave us the road. But before we reached the rampart we could see the gray backs and the shining bayonets of an infantry column turning into the Brussels road from the boulevard. Ahead of them were a few straggling refugees from Tirlemont.
Behind the infantry came a company of lancers, one riding ahead, his automatic pistol in his hand, his eyes passing over the houses and the faces watching for the first false move. The others rode stolidly on. Next came a bicycle company, then more infantry and cavalry, at the head of each company one man with his pistol drawn. The ranks were thinned in some companies and there were many empty saddles. These were the men who had just forced the retreat of the Belgians and immediately behind them came their rapid fire guns and large pieces of artillery. The horses that drew them came trotting along the boulevard, and it was not more than half an hour before we could hear them at Laefdael.
SOLDIERS WITH DRAWN PISTOLS
I thought I would never forget the least detail of that first advance on Brussels, but I remember two minor things best. I noticed a lancer staring at my coat and I put up my hand to find that I was still wearing the colors of the Allies—the Belgian, French, English, and Russian. The lancer, however, merely smiled at my discomfiture. As soon as he was gone I removed those colors. A little later the first of the Uhlans appeared. They were recognized at once by the flat tops to their helmets and some one near me hissed. In a moment the muzzle of an automatic traveled across our faces with painful slowness. I could feel the crowd sway and the breath of relief when the Uhlan rode on. For some reason, which I was unable to determine after two weeks in Belgium, the Uhlans had acquired the reputation of butchers. They were, in fact, no more brutal than the rest of the Germany army. All were bound by inflexible rules. When they were cruel it was because their orders were cruel. If they were barbarous it was because war is barbarous.
For that matter I can say I was not able to verify or find any evidence to account for the stories of German atrocities which have been published in the London papers and are probably being published in the United States. The German army has been inflexible in its demand for reprisal, as the barbaric destruction of Louvain shows, but the German soldiers have been no more cruel than their enemies.
THE HUSH OF AN INVADED CITY
The hardest thing to describe about the entry of the Germans into Louvain was the hush that fell over the city. Except for the click of German heels, the clatter of German horses, and the rumble of German artillery you could have heard a sigh twenty feet away anywhere in Louvain. With the whole city at this nervous tension a German military aeroplane of the Taube type swept low overhead, and every face in the city stared at the black imperial crosses on the Underside of the great planes, symbols of the German invasion.
As if it were the imperial fancy to give another sign of its power, at this moment the silence was broken by a high, clear flute sound from around the bend in the Rue de Bruxelles, and a large, gray German war automobile raced through the street. Over it, reaching from the ground in the front of the hood to the back of the tonneau, were two long, sharp, scythe-like knives bent convexly. These were merely wire-cutters, so the automobile could charge through barbed wire, but they gave the car a sinister air. A general staff officer, evidently bound forward to direct the attack on Laefdael, sat alone in the tonneau, and the only man in the automobile with a rifle was the herald beside the driver, a curious brass instrument to his lips, its four horns announcing shrilly to the countryside that here was a man worth killing. It was a piece of imperial audacity, and Louvain admired that.
30,000 GERMANS MARCHING BY
We had been led to believe that the Germans were only making a reconnoitre in force and, before the afternoon was over, we would be able to swing to the north and regain the Belgian lines. But the German troops kept coming along the rampart all afternoon, and when the provision trains and cook stoves appeared we began to realize this was an invasion. Other war automobiles also passed, and late in the afternoon there was a large detachment of infantry. Night was coming on and it occurred to us we were in a slightly precarious position. We might be taken for spies. For that matter we had been taking the precaution to mingle with the crowd, and the townspeople had helped to shield us from scrutiny. Now it became necessary to report our presence to the police.
When we reached the Grand Place there were half a dozen military automobiles drawn up before the Hotel de Ville, the beauty of which was partly hidden by scaffolding set up for repairs. The Rue de la Station, the widest in the city, was also crowded with these automobiles, filled with officers of the distinctively Prussian type. Down a narrow side street came another line, similar to that which had passed on the ramparts, and it also took the street which led to Brussels. By six o'clock we had seen about thirty thousand men pass in the direction of Brussels, all with their baggage trains and cooking apparatus. It had also filtered through the town that Louvain had become staff headquarters, and that at three in the afternoon the German general had taken possession of the hotel which King. Albert had left at ten in the morning.
We made an attempt to get an interpreter by applying at the School of Languages which faced the Grand Place, but the interpreter did not come until later, and meanwhile we stood among the Louvain people watching the spectacle. While we were intent on the never-ending line of troops coming down the narrow street, a whole infantry division came marching down the Rue de la Station, in parade order, singing "Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own." This carried far down the line until a regiment broke it with "In the Night." It was plain to see these troops were fresh and good-humored. They had had a little skirmish that morning at Diest, just enough to lift their spirits, and they had not had the real fighting seen by those who passed along the ramparts.
Not to be outdone, and at the same time feeling the seriousness of war a little more, a company, which had been at Liège and Tirlemont, coming down the side street, began to sing "Die Wacht am Rhein." The line from Diest in the next lull changed to the patriotic also and sang the inspiriting "Deutschland Uber Alles." After that we heard hardly anything else but that, and late in the evening they were still marching to it.
By this time Louvain was full of soldiers, but our interpreter had also found us. The ease with which he picked us out of the crowd showed how conspicuous we were. Every few steps we were stopped with the gruff question, "English?" In consequence it took us some time to make our way to the Place de la Station to the hotel our interpreter had picked for us.
There were half a dozen staff officers in the next hotel and we decided to tell them our troubles. They listened politely for a moment and then they broke out laughing. "Going to war in a taxicab," they laughed, "this is a joke." We were glad they took it that way. What we had heard of the German army had led us to expect quite different treatment. We were told, however, we had done the wise thing in reporting ourselves.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE INVASION
By this time the town had begun to feel that the invasion of the Germans was not attended by all the atrocities they were supposed to be guilty of. German soldiers had entered the food stores and were buying like any other customers. In fact, Louvain had a rush of business such as it had not had for years. I think Louvain went to bed that night feeling as we did, that, whatever the German invasion might portend, the army was made up of pretty good fellows. In the morning Mr. Sabbe, the interpreter, called for us and took us to the barber's, where the German officers waited their turn like the rest of us, and then to breakfast at the best restaurant in Louvain. Its proprietor had drawn its iron blinds and taken down its sign, and, with all their detailed knowledge of the invaded country, the Germans had not discovered it. There our breakfast was cooked by the woman who owned the restaurant, a slight little Flemish woman with the gentle smile and even the parted hair of a Mona Lisa. The usual spiritual quality of her face was also heightened no doubt by the fact that she was soon to have a child.
It was well into the morning before our complacency was disturbed. Two ignorant little men, who looked as if they might be a peasant's stable hands, were led briskly up the street by a squad of soldiers to the staff headquarters. Ten minutes later a large closed van which looked like a city patrol wagon passed down the street again and turned to the left upon reaching the station. It was followed by a number of people wearing Red Cross badges. In five minutes the van returned. In five more minutes it was followed by a squad of soldiers and in ten minutes more by the Red Cross attendants bearing stiff, undersized bodies wrapped in blankets. This was the first military execution in Louvain. The undersized men were found guilty of shooting at the soldiers.
Meanwhile we had been ordered to keep to our hotel, our eating place, and the main streets. We were promised that Mr. Whitlock would be informed of our whereabouts, but we were not to return to Brussels. We had learned too much about the movement of the troops.
THE PREDOMINANCE OF PRUSSIANS
That second day in Louvain, Thursday, was full of activity. A half dozen aeroplanes made their headquarters to the right of the station, and to the left was the place of execution. Meanwhile the troops passed constantly in three columns, those from Diest still singing the four favorites of the day before, occasionally varying with the Austrian national air. Early in the day it struck me that the troops were all blond. They were, in fact, all from points north and east of Berlin, and, though I watched idly while no less than forty thousand passed, I counted only thirteen men who were not decided blonds. I also doubt if there were a dozen whose hair was not clipped close to the scalp.
By noon the relation between the soldiers and the townspeople had become a little strained. About this time there were half a dozen shots on a side street and, after awhile, a German officer who had been shot through the leg was carried by on a litter. Behind was the dead body of a Belgian. Evidently the German officer was the better shot. As the day wore on military executions down to the left of the railroad station also became more frequent. There were perhaps fifteen. At the staff headquarters of the German army we were told there had been a good deal of sniping from houses, mostly in the outskirts and in small adjoining villages, and the punishment for this was death.
During the day announcements were posted throughout the town, signed by the burgomaster, calling upon the citizens to surrender all their arms at once. A little later he made another announcement ordering all doors and windows to be closed by eight in the evening. In this announcement he said he was speaking in behalf of the military authorities. That night I think all Louvain went to bed with an uncomfortable feeling of impending danger.
"DIREKT NACH PARIS"
But the next morning the town was quiet. The troops were still coming through steadily in three streams. We began to realize that this was the main invading army headed for Paris. On many of the wagons in fact was scrawled, "Direkt nach Paris." That day will live in my memory chiefly on account of the rumble of wagons. The main provision train with food for 350,000 men for a month went through Louvain all day long and until far into the night.
Early that morning, however, it was announced that the burgomaster and two other prominent citizens had been held as hostages. The notice was signed by the military commander and stated that the least indication of hostility to the German troops would place all three hostages in a "very dangerous position." We were told at the staff headquarters that this measure had been taken because it seemed impossible otherwise to prevent sniping. I doubt, however, whether that announcement troubled Louvain as much as the one that followed in the afternoon. All houses facing on the Rue de Bruxelles and the Rue de la Station—the route the troops were taking—were placed under special restrictions. All windows were to be closed at eight o'clock in the evening, the curtains drawn, and lights so placed that the shadow of any one approaching the window would be thrown upon the curtain. These lights were to be left burning all night. At the same time the street doors were to be left unlocked.
PRECAUTIONS AGAINST SNIPING
This order was made to discourage sniping, but it was terrifying to the women of Louvain. Half a dozen whose acquaintance we had made did not go to bed.
As the word had gone forth that all persons found in a house from which one shot had been fired were being shot, we had taken the precaution during the day to secure the four front rooms in our hotel to prevent complications. So we had to pay for our security by sleeping in closed rooms with kerosene lamps. I stood it until three in the morning, then I put out my light and opened the windows.
On the morning of the third day we were told we could return to Brussels, and we found it took an hour or so to say good-bye to the kindly people we had come to know. We left our Mona Lisa hostess with the greatest regret. Besides being the best cook in Louvain, she was a sweet and gentle woman. I remember she made us laugh by trying to tell us in English about the predicament of the mayor. She said he had a ''crisis of the nerves." Undoubtedly he had, when any one of 45,000 people could cost him his life.
Then there were our friends the priests, our guide and counsel, Mr. Sabbe, and the tobacco dealer, who had the best brands of Havana cigars and who behind his store had built a little grotto with a fountain which was the delight of his wife and his three growing daughters. There were, besides, the pleasant spoken woman who sold us fresh linen and the buxom pastry cook from whom we got delicious little cakes right out of the oven. Our speaking acquaintance included most of the people who lived on the main streets and they all wished us a safe journey. Those who knew us best expressed the hope that we would return to Louvain in a happier time.
OWNERS OF WEAPONS TO BE SHOT
That time did not seem very near, however, after reading the latest notice that was being posted as we left. It was explicit and complete. It said in plain language that every citizen found with a weapon in his possession or in his house would be immediately shot. Every person in a house in which a weapon was found would be shot. Every person in a house from which a shot was fired would be shot. And every house from which a shot was fired would be burned.
Four days later I returned to Brussels from the French frontier to which I had followed the German troops in their march into France and was met with the news that Louvain was being burned. There were a dozen stories current as to why it was being burned, but none of them were susceptible of proof. I tried to get at the facts, as I realized the burning of Louvain would go down in history, but I doubt whether it will ever be known just what happened in Louvain immediately before the city was ordered to be destroyed. The details, however, are not really important. Ill-feeling had been growing from the second day. The German troops had become bad-tempered when their comrades were shot by snipers, and the people of the town had in turn grown restive under the rule of the mailed fist. There had been an exchange of shots, perhaps even a conspiracy, and the German troops took the full measure of reprisal.
On the way out of Belgium the next day I passed through Louvain in company with other newspaper correspondents who were trying to get out by way of Holland. We were told that a troop train returning to Germany with wounded and with English prisoners would leave the Gare du Nord in Brussels at eight o'clock in the morning. It finally left about four in the afternoon. In the station we heard the usual tales about Louvain and there was considerable excitement about it among the soldiers. The officers treated it coolly as a reprisal of war, but the incitement brought on by destruction showed in their men. At different times during the day five soldiers told me in a whisper that Brussels would be next, and there was no doubt from their tone they hoped it would be. There was even reason to fear it. For, as we reentered the station on the way back from a hurried luncheon in the hotel, two rapid-fire guns were being drawn up before the Gare du Nord so that they commanded the two principal streets of Brussels.
LOUVAIN ON FIRE
The train ran very slowly and did not reach Louvain until nearly evening. Some of the nearby towns were also afire, and at all the stations there were many soldiers. But it was not until we came in sight of Louvain that we realized the extent of the destruction. Some of us had not been able to credit it until we saw with our own eyes. I was prepared to find one or two of the more troublesome quarters destroyed, but the first thing that caught my eye was the roofless church of St. Pierre. Across the Grand Place the Hotel de Ville still stood, but everything in between, a distance of half a mile, and everything for a mile beyond to the farthest rampart, was burnt. All the handsomest houses in the northern end of the city were bare brick and stone walls. There were a few dwellings along the ramparts to the east still standing, but these were burning, too, when our train went on two hours later.
My first inclination, as the train pulled in, was to go through the ruined town, but the train had hardly come to a stop before a soldier, drunk both from excitement and drink, shoved his head into the window and cried with an expressive gesture, "Three cities razed! Three! There will be more!"
He had hardly gone before another shoved in his head and cried "English" in a menacing tone. We called back "Americans," but he did not understand. "Americans from the United States," I said in German. "We are not enemies," "All who can not speak German well are enemies," he replied, fumbling at his belt. It looked for a second as if we were in for a struggle, but another more intelligent soldier pushed him aside with the explanation, "He's drunk."
I realized by this time it would be extremely dangerous to go down the streets of Louvain in the twilight with my poor command of German. Moreover, the final act of the destruction of Louvain was being staged right in front of us. While it was being played, during a period of more than an hour, the third soldier, who had not been drinking but was much excited, remained at the window talking to us. As the station was crowded with other excited soldiers we did our best to keep him there. Meanwhile I could see directly out of the entrance upon the Place de la Station and down the Rue de la Station as far as the wrecked church of St. Pierre. Every house along that stately street was burnt. The homes of all our kindly acquaintances were gone. We had been told that the people had all been warned to leave, but I wondered what had become of the little Flemish woman of the restaurant with childbirth approaching, and the many lone women whose husbands and brothers were in the Belgian army.
About a hundred English prisoners were led across the Place de la Station and, after they had been placed in cars, a long line of citizens of Louvain were brought around in a circle under guard. I could not make out at first what the purpose of this was as my view was temporarily cut off by a cow that was led to the main entrance of the station. But presently a bayonet was run into the neck of the cow, and, as it fell, I could see a group of about fifteen men in civilian clothes closely guarded. The long line of Louvain citizens was being led around them.
It was difficult to make out what was going on. I asked the soldier at our window and he said carelessly, "Oh, those are the civilians who returned to-day to shoot us after we had burned half the town. Those are the fellows we caught inside the town. We are going to shoot some of them."
The outer line of civilians kept marching in a circle until they had all passed close to the men in the centre. Then the line opened, and the inner group passed out to the right. A group of soldiers followed. After an interval of only a minute or two, hardly time for final absolution, we could hear the rifles of the firing squad. Evidently the careless soldier knew what he was talking about.
"Hear that," he said, as the rifles cracked, "What did I tell you?"
Immediately some one climbed on a gun carriage among the group of citizens standing motionless before the station entrance. I could not hear a word he said, but his expressive gestures showed he was exhorting his fellow townsmen to accept their fate and yield to their conquerors.
While he talked, the butcher in the foreground skinned the cow with professional coolness, and began carving the carcass. It was nearly dark by this time and a number of soldiers came with candles and stood around the animal, the blood of which had spread over the station platform.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald