Primary Documents - Belgian Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain in August 1914

Louvain Reproduced below is the judicial report authored by Professor Leon van der Essen dealing with the destruction of the ancient city of Louvain in Belgium in August 1914.

In his report Professor van der Essen ultimately (if with some doubt) acquits the German military authorities of a premeditated assault upon the town - arguing instead that they believed they were genuinely under attack by either the French or by franc-tireurs - but finds the authorities guilty of unnecessarily continuing with the destruction of the town even once order has been restored.

Click here to read the German government's official statement regarding the incident; click here to read Kaiser Wilhelm II's response.

Belgian Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain
By Professor Leon van der Essen

Apart from requisitions and constant vexations, the Germans had committed no excesses in Louvain after their entry on August 19th.

They continued to make hostages, who took it in turn to live at the town-hall and were responsible for the behaviour of their fellow-citizens.  Every day, in all the churches of the place, an urgent warning was given at the instance of the German authorities, telling the inhabitants to remain calm and promising them, in that case, not to take any more hostages.

The troops which reached the town the following week, however, seemed to be animated by a violently anti-clerical spirit.  They followed the priests who showed themselves in public with buffoonery, insults, and even threats.

They were also very excitable.  One day, when a municipal official was taken through the town, preceded by soldiers with drums, and forced to read a proclamation, the Germans hurried up at once from all sides in the hopes of seeing a civilian executed.

The attack by the Belgian 2nd and cavalry divisions on the German positions between Malines and Louvain on the day of August 25th produced considerable excitement in the town.  The gun-firing was distinctly heard, and became more violent in the course of the afternoon. It drew closer.

On this day Louvain was crammed with troops.  Some 10,000 men had just arrived from Liege and were beginning to take up quarters in the town.  A few hundred hussars were coming along the Malines road, covered with dust and leading their horses by the bridles.

It was plain that the struggle was not going well for the Germans and that reinforcements were necessary.  At the town-hall dispatch-bearers followed one another quickly, bringing messages which made the members of the Kommandantur anxious.

At 5 p.m. firing was heard of particular violence, and seemed to be extremely close to the town.  At this moment some horsemen galloped through the streets, giving the alarm.  At once officers and soldiers ran together and formed up in a disordered column.

Motor-cars were coming and going every way, and ranging themselves up confusedly on the borders of the boulevards.  Artillery and commissariat wagons were mixed up with them.

Along the roads the horses, lashed till they bled, stiffened themselves and rattled along in a mad dash the guns which were going to re-enforce the German troops on the Malines road.

As if to raise the confusion to its height, carts were coming back full-tilt and in the greatest disorder from the field of battle, their drivers all excitement, with revolvers in their hands.

After the departure of the hastily formed battalions a great silence fell upon the town.  In view of the gravity of affairs, everybody had gone home, and soon nothing more was heard except the ever closer and more distinct sound of guns.

Suddenly, at 8 p.m., when twilight had already fallen and every one, in obedience to the rules of the occupying army, had to be already at home, a shot rang out, followed rapidly by two more, and then by a terrible fusillade.  This was heard simultaneously at several points of the town, in the Boulevard de Tirlemont, at the Tirlemont Gate, in the Rue de Tirlemont, at the Brussels Gate, in the Rue and Place de la Station, in the Rues Leopold, Marie-Therese, and des Joyeuses-Entrees.

With the cracking of rifles was mingled the sinister "tac-tac" of machine guns.  The windows of the houses splintered under a hail of bullets, the doors and walls were riddled by the machine guns.  In their cellars and other places where they had taken shelter on the first shots the inhabitants heard, through the din, the quick and crowding steps of the soldiers, the noise of whistles followed at once by volleys, and at times the heavy sound of a body falling to the ground.

Those who had ventured to go up to their upper stories or attics soon saw the heavens reddened with a dreadful light.  The Germans had set fire to several quarters of the town - the Chaussee and Boulevard de Tirlemont, the Place and Rue de la Station, and the Place du Peuple.

Soon, too, the Palais de justice, the University with the celebrated Library, and the Church of St.Pierre were ablaze, systematically set on fire with fagots and chemicals.  Through the streets the German soldiers were running like madmen, firing in every direction.

Under the orders of their officers, they smashed in the doors of the houses, dragged the inmates from their hiding-places, with cries of "Man hat geschossen!  Die Zivilisten haben geschossen!"  (There has been firing!  Civilians have fired!), and hurled hand-grenades and incendiary pastilles into the rooms.

Several of the inmates were haled out and instantly shot.  Those who tried to escape from their burning houses were thrust back into the flames or butchered like dogs by the soldiers, who were watching along the pavements, with their fingers on the triggers of their rifles.

From several of the houses the officers had the objects of value taken out before giving the order to burn them.  Every one who showed himself in the street was shot down.  In the Rue de la Station an officer on horseback, bursting with rage, was directing the incendiaries.

In the morning certain of the inhabitants, who had passed the night in their cellars or their gardens, ventured to go out.  They then learnt that the Germans pretended that a plot had been hatched amongst them, that there had been firing on the troops, and that the whole responsibility for what had happened was thrown on the civilians.

From dawn squadrons of soldiers entered the houses, searched them from top to bottom, and turned out the inhabitants, forcing them towards the station.  The poor wretches were compelled to run with their hands uplifted.  They were given blows with the fists and with rifle-butts.

Soon a large number of townspeople were collected in the Place de la Station, where dead bodies of civilians were lying on the ground.  During the night a certain number of people had been shot, without serious inquiry.  While they were being hustled along, the townspeople were searched by officers and soldiers, and their money was taken from them (some officers gave a receipt in return), as well as any objects of value.

Those who did not understand an order, who did not raise their arms quick enough, or who were found carrying knives larger than a penknife, were at once shot.  While these horrible scenes were enacted, the guns were constantly booming in the Malines direction, but the noise gradually grew more distant.

In the streets numerous civilian corpses lay, and in some places corpses of German soldiers, who had been killed by one another in the night.  Victims of panic and obsessed by the thought of francs-tireurs, they had fired on every group which they met in the darkness.

Fights of this kind had taken place in the Rue de Bruxelles, near the station, in the Rue de Paris et Vieux-Marche, the Rue des Joyeuses-Entrees, near the canal, and in the Rue de Namur.

On all sides lay dead horses.  The Germans had un-harnessed them from their wagons, driven them into the streets and killed them, to lend belief to an attack by civilians.

As the houses burned and the soldiers continued to loot and to drive the inhabitants down the streets, the townspeople who had been carried off to the station were brutally separated into two groups.  The women and children were shut up in the station and the tram-shed, the men ranged up in the Place de la Station.  The Germans selected by haphazard from among then the victims destined to be executed.

Some of them had to lie on their stomachs, and were butchered by shots in the head, neck, or back.  Others were collected in groups, surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets, and carried off to the outskirts of the town, to the accompaniment of curses, threats, and blows.  They were forced to march and counter-march through Herent, Thildonck, Rotselaer, Campenhout, etc.

Wherever they went the prisoners saw houses in flames and corpses of civilians stretched on the road or charred by fire.  In the country district of Louvain the Germans had committed the same excesses as in the town itself.  In order to terrorize them, these groups of prisoners were hunted along the roads, without any precise object except to drive them mad.

Sometimes they were made to stop, and a mock shooting took place.  They were forced to run, to lift up their arms, etc.  Those who fell through fatigue or attempted to escape were slaughtered.  When the mournful procession passed through a village they found their ranks swollen by numbers of inhabitants of these places, who had already spent the night in the church.

At last, after having thus wandered over the country for hours, several of these groups were taken back to Louvain and put on board cattle-trucks.  Piled on to these like cattle, old men, women, children, and able-bodied men were dispatched to Germany.

We cannot stop to describe the tortures which the deported had to endure on the journey and the cruelties inflicted on them by the fanatical inhabitants of the towns through which they passed.  Some were taken to Cologne and exhibited to the crowd; others were sent as far as Munster, where they were interned.

During these explosions of violence on the part of the troops there was no respect of persons.  Dutch, Spaniards, South Americans pleaded their neutral status in vain; they were jeered at and subjected to the same outrages as the Belgians.  The flags of foreign nations floating over certain houses were no protection to them.  The Spanish pedagogie in the Rue de la Station was burnt, and in the house of Professor Noyons, of Dutch nationality, a pile of fagots was lighted.

Meanwhile those of the inhabitants who had not fled towards the station, or who had not been driven in that direction, were running madly about the streets.  A large number took refuge in the Hospital of Saint-Thomas, in the neighbourhood of the Institut Superieur de Philosophic.

About 9 a.m. on Wednesday, August 26th, the shooting ceased and quiet temporarily returned.  A picket of soldiers traversed the streets, taking an unarmed policeman with them to announce that able-bodied men must come together in certain places to help to put out the flames.

The civil guards were specially invited to repair, in civilian clothes, to the St.-Martin barracks.  All who obeyed the summons were made prisoners and taken, some to the station, bound for Germany, others to the neighbouring villages, where they swelled the troops of prisoners already there.

Several groups were taken to Campenhout in particular.  After spending the night there, insulted and threatened with death all the time, they were ordered the next day or the day after to Louvain and shut up in the Riding School.  There atrocious scenes were witnessed.  Women went mad and children died.

On this Wednesday the soldiers started again to fire at intervals, to plunder, and to burn.  They could be seen strolling about the town, drunk, laden with bottles of wine, boxes of cigars, and objects of value.  The officers let them do it, roared with laughter, or set the example themselves.

The Vice-Rector of the University and the Prior of the Dominicans were led through the town, escorted by soldiers, and forced to stop at certain spots to read a German proclamation warning the people "not to fire again upon the soldiers."  A gloomy comedy, indeed!

In several places soldiers were seen entering the houses and the gardens, firing shots, so as to prolong the mystification and the looting.  Some walked along firing phlegmatically into the air.

If a house was of fairly good appearance, a group of soldiers would assail it with shouts of "There was firing from here," and at once began to loot.

On the third day, Thursday, August 27th, some soldiers went through the town in the morning, announcing to the terrified population that Louvain was to be bombarded at noon and that every one must leave at once.  Often they added special instructions to go to the station.

Those who obeyed these orders were put on to cattle-trucks and sent to join their hapless fellow-citizens in Germany.  Others, better advised, took refuge at Heverle, the property of the Duke of Aremberg, a member of the Prussian House of Lords, who was serving in the German army, and there they were not molested.

Along the Tirlemont and Tervueren roads rolled the wretched flood of fugitives, old men, women, children, invalids, nuns, priests, in a rout which cannot be described.

German soldiers followed, compelling the unfortunates to raise their arms, striking them and insulting them.  The fury of the Germans raged particularly against the priests.  On the Tirlemont road several of them were arrested, taken to a piggery, and stripped of everything.  They were accused of having incited the people to revolt, and there was talk of shooting them.  One officer, more humane than the rest, had them released.

The scenes were the same on the Tervueren road.  There the Rector of the University, several ecclesiastical professors, the President of the American Seminary, and a number of Jesuits were treated in a disgraceful fashion and penned in a field.  A young Jesuit, Father Dupierreux, on whom was found a diary with notes on the war, some of them very unflattering to the invaders, was shot before the eyes of his colleagues.

Certain of these priests were taken to Brussels, where they were at last released.  The Rector of the University, some professors and monks were set free through the intervention of a Dutchman, M. Grondys, who was present at the sack of Louvain.

At 11 o'clock on this Thursday, August 27th, the town was as dead.  Nothing could be heard to break the profound silence except the sinister crackle of houses on fire.  Then, the inhabitants having disappeared, the regular sack began.  There was no more talk of bombardment.  The sack was organized methodically like the burning, which also continued at the same time.

The doors of wardrobes and drawers of desks were smashed with rifle-butts.  Safes were broken open with burglars' tools.  Every soldier took his pick amid the heap of furniture spread over the floor.  Silver-plate, linen, works of art, children's toys, mechanical instruments, pictures-everything was taken.

Whatever could not be carried off was broken.  The cellars were emptied.  Then the looters finished up by depositing their filth in all the corners.

This lasted eight days.  Every time fresh troops reached Louvain, they rushed on their prey.  Recalling his entry and his stay at Louvain on August 29th, a Landsturm soldier from Halle wrote in his diary: "The battalion... arrive dragging along with it all sorts of things, particularly bottles of wine, and many of the men were drunk... The battalion set off in close order for the town, to break into the first houses they met, to plunder - I beg pardon, I mean to requisition - wine and other things too.  Like a pack let loose, each one went where he pleased.  The officers led the way and set a good example."

And Gaston Klein, the soldier in question, concludes "This day has inspired me with a contempt I could not describe."

The burning continued, simultaneously with the sack, down to September 2nd.  On that day the last houses were set on fire in the Rue Marie-Therese.  In the evening drunken German soldiers were still dragging to the station heavy bags full of things stolen in the Rue Leopold.

On the afternoon of Friday, August 28th, the Germans committed a particularly odious crime.  From August 20th the little town of Aerschot had been abandoned to the mercy of all the troops passing through.

The parish priest of Gelrode had been put to death there in barbarous circumstances, and the burning of houses and terrorization of the remaining inhabitants had gone on.  On the morning of August 28th a large group of people from Aerschot was carried off in the direction of Louvain.  When they reached the Place de la Station they were made to wait, being told that they were to be put on a train and deported to Germany.

While the human herd stood there, suddenly, without motive, some enraged soldiers began to fire into the mass.  Some were killed and wounded, including women and children.  Certain German soldiers, who took two of the wounded to the Hospital of St.-Thomas, could not themselves conceal the disgust inspired in them by this barbarous act.

Meanwhile some energetic citizens, among whom was M. Nerinckx, professor of the University, had somehow managed to form a new municipal council, with the help of some members of the old council who had escaped the massacre or had returned after the early days of terror.

By their firm attitude they were at last able to obtain from the commandant of the town the cessation of all acts of disorder on the part of the troops.

Such is the story of the sack of Louvain.

What was the motive of it?  We shall not stop to consider the odious and lying accusation made against the inhabitants by the military authorities and adopted by the Emperor himself in his famous telegram to the President of the United States.  It has been reduced to nothing by the evidence of disinterested neutrals and by the inquiries of an Austrian priest, made on the spot.

In Louvain itself the following explanation is given.  On the night of August 25th, at the moment when soldiers and vehicles were coming back in disorder from Malines, some shots rang out.

The German soldiers in the town imagined, some that the enemy was coming, others that the civilians were beginning an attack.  The former fired on their own comrades, taking them for Belgian or French soldiers; the latter riddled the fronts of the houses with bullets.

The supposition is that there was a mistake, and then a panic.

It must be the truth with regard to a great number of German soldiers.  We have already said that the soldiers quartered in Louvain seemed very nervous, that the troops who flocked back into the town during the battle were very excited; and, on the other hand, it is established that during the night several groups of Germans fired on one another in the streets.

In such a state of mind, constantly haunted by visions of francs-tireurs, the German soldiers were very liable to sudden panic.  A single shot was sufficient to produce it.  We have the histories of Aerschot, Liege, Namur, and above all Andenne, to guide us on the subject.

Now, the evidence of witnesses establishes that a few moments before the fusillade began a shot was heard, followed immediately by two others.  By whom was this shot fired?  That will probably never be known.  Was it fired by an unnerved sentry, by a drunken soldier, by a civilian?

Considering the numerous warnings given to the townspeople, the threats of the Germans themselves, the excited state of the troops returning to the town, and the numbers of the soldiers in the garrison, it is very unlikely that a civilian would have been guilty of this act of folly, knowing that thereby he was exposing the whole population to nameless horrors.  The fate of Aerschot was in every one's memory.  Those events were recent.

If the first shot was fired by a German soldier, did that soldier act with the intention of starting a catastrophe?  Was he obeying superior orders, and was he giving the signal for the carrying out of a German military "plot"?

Some have replied to the German accusation with a charge of premeditation on the part of the invaders.  Louvain must have been condemned in advance, they say, and the attack of the Belgian troops on August 25th can only have hastened the execution of the plan.

History, while rejecting the German accusation, will demand serious proofs before accepting the victims' counteraccusation of German premeditation.  Doubtless the German methods of terrorization do not entirely exclude the possibility of systematic and premeditated destruction of a town.  But did this premeditation exist positively in this one particular case of Louvain?  That is the whole question.

After carefully examining the mass of documents within our reach, we believe we may say that, in the present state of the evidence, it is impossible to consider proved the charge of premeditation with regard to Louvain - premeditation signifying to us the plan conceived long beforehand of giving Louvain up to the flames.

No doubt there are singular facts which, at first sight, seem to justify the defenders in their hypothesis of German premeditation.

The fusillade breaking out almost simultaneously at several points some distance apart, the several centres of incendiarism started at the same time, the presence of a company of incendiaries armed with up-to-date appliances, the luminous signals said to have been sent up a few moments before the fusillade began, certain remarks let drop by soldiers or officers, the removal of the German wounded on the eve of the disaster, the warnings given long in advance to the inhabitants living in places 20 to 30 kilometres away from Louvain by soldiers or officers - the whole setting of the drama, taken in its entirety, cannot fail to be suspicious.

Still, when one examines the weight of these facts, one by one, many of them lose their conclusive force.  The data are not precise enough or are insufficiently established; the facts and the words themselves seem capable of different interpretations.

On the other side, certain facts seem to negative premeditation, in the sense which we attach to the word.  It is established that many soldiers, and even officers, believed for a moment that "the French were there."

On the hypothesis of a preconceived plan, would they not have understood that the first shots were the signal for the massacre?  At the start, and in the night, the Germans fired upon one another; there can be no doubt of that.  This can be easily understood on the hypothesis of a panic, less easily on that of a German plot.

We therefore exclude, provisionally, the supposition of a German plot, conceived long before its execution.  It does not seem to us proved by the documents published so far.

What we do not exclude is the hypothesis of premeditation on the part of the soldiers.  In the state of excitement in which they were, particularly those coming back in disorder from Malines, they may have fired a shot, knowing that "the rest" would follow.  This story was repeated so often in other places that we have the right to apply it hypothetically in the case of Louvain.

There is more.  On the night of the 25th and the following days, certain soldiers and non-commissioned officers fired shots so as to have a pretext for continuing the pillage.

Many of the soldiers and officers may have believed, at the beginning, for a few moments, that they were being attacked by the enemy entering the town or that a civilian attack was taking place.  But this mistake cannot have lasted long.

It remains established that, in cold blood and without any idea of a serious inquiry, the military authorities persisted in the error and subjected Louvain to eight days' martyrdom, without raising a finger to stop the orgy.

Whether the responsibility falls upon Major Von Manteuffel or must be referred back to the highest personalities in the Empire does not matter.  It is the prolonged sack of the town, without previous inquiry, which makes what has been called "the crime of Louvain" so enormous.

Such an inquiry was possible.  The example of Huy proves that.  On August 25th Major Von Bassewitz, commandant of that place, published the following order of the day:

August 25, 1914

Last night shooting took place.  It has not been proved that the inhabitants of the town were still in possession of arms.  Nor has it been proved that the civil population took part in the shooting; on the contrary, it would seem that the soldiers were under the influence of alcohol and opened fire under an incomprehensible fear of an enemy attack.

The conduct of the soldiers during the night produces a shameful impression, with a few exceptions.

When officers or non-commissioned officers set fire to houses, without permission or order from the commandant, or in the present case from the senior officer, and when they encourage the troops by their attitude to burn and loot, it is an act of the most regrettable kind.

I expect severe instructions to be given generally as to the attitude towards the life and property of the civil population.  I forbid firing in the town without officers' orders.

The bad conduct of the troops has had as its result the serious wounding of a non-commissioned officer and a soldier by German shots.


If this had been the state of mind of the military authorities in Louvain, it is certain that there would not have been the horrors which we have described above.

We cannot help thinking that the military authorities, when once the machine was accidentally thrown out of gear, were not at all annoyed.  They took care not to give the necessary sign to avert the consequences.

How many victims were there at Louvain?  We do not know.

The Capuchin Father Valere Claes himself discovered 108, of whom 96 had been shot, the others having perished in the ruins of the houses.

In his Pastoral Letter, Cardinal Mercier speaks of 176 persons shot or burnt in the whole neighbourhood of Louvain and the adjoining communes.  With regard to material destruction, 1,120 houses were burnt in the area of the commune of Louvain, 461 in the adjacent commune of Kessel-Loo, and 95 in that of Heverle, these three parts making up the urban district of Louvain.

In Louvain itself, apart from private houses, fire destroyed the Church of St.-Pierre, the central University buildings, the Palais de Justice, the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the theatre, and the School of Commercial and Consular Science belonging to the University.

The Church of St.-Pierre was methodically set on fire, as was the University Library.  A Josephite Father called the attention of the officer in command of the incendiaries to the fact that the building which he was about to set on fire was the Library.  The officer replied, "Es ist Befehl" (It is ordered).  It was then about 11 p.m. on Tuesday, August 25th.

This was not the end, however, of the excesses committed by the Germans during the first sortie of the Belgian troops from Antwerp.

The region round Louvain and the villages situated between this town and Malines were engulfed in the "punishment."

Bueken, Gelrode, Herent, Wespelaer, Rymenam, Wygmael, Tremeloo, Werchter, Wesemael, Wackerzeel, Blauwput, Thildonck, Rillaer, Wilsele, Linden, Betecom, Haecht were partly burnt and plundered, a number of the inhabitants being shot.

Others were dragged along for many hours, loaded with insults, used as shields against the enemy's troops during the battle, and finally chased in the direction of the Belgian lines.

Some were thrown into wells after being horribly ill-treated.  Here, too, the German soldiers were bitter against the priests.

The Rev. Father Van Holm, a Capuchin, and Father Vincent, a Conventual; Lombaerts, parish priest of Boven-Loo; de Clerck, parish priest of Bueken, and Van Nadel, parish priest of Herent, were killed, as also were a Josephite Father and a Brother of Mercy.  The parish Priests of Wygmael and Wesemael were shamefully treated.

Finally, in this neighbourhood the Germans committed the same outrages against women and young girls as in the neighbourhood of Hofstade, Sempst, etc.  Crimes of a Sadic character were also found.  Neither old men, women, nor children were respected.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

At the Battle of Sarikamish the Turks suffered a disastrously high 81% casualty rate.

- Did you know?

Primary Docs