„The Germans sentenced Louvain
on Wednesday to become a wilderness and with the German system and love of
thoroughness they left Louvain
an empty and blackened shell.”
Much has been written on the subject of the sacking of
Louvain/Löwen, a simple Google search will turn up many hits defending (!?) and
condemning the German action. I will simply limit myself to reproducing a
period article about the action and to showing an Iron Cross document to one of
the commanders involved. A more indepth account can be found HERE.
The Reserve Infanterie Regiment 31 had left Germany on
the 23-24th of August making their way through Belgium by rail. On the night of
the 25th the II./ R.I.R.31 (under the command of Major Freiherr von Bülow) was bivouacked
in Louvain. What happened there is summed up in 3 lines in the Regimental
"At about 5 pm shots were fired at the II./R.I.R. 84 in
Bueken. At the same time our troops on Löwen (Louvain) were attacked. Strict
measures were taken to combat the franktireur and gangsters."
Major Freiherr von Bülow received both the Iron Cross
2nd and 1st class in 1914. The award of the Iron Cross 2nd class was on the
21st of September 1914 following the battle at Noyon. The IX. R.K. Iron Cross
documents were issued retroactively in 1916.
Below: An American warbonds poster. Louvain was one of a number of actions that would be the main thrust of the allied "Rape of Belgium" propaganda campaign.
New York Tribune, August 31, 1914, Reported from
Louvain by Richard Harding Davis.
London, August 30 -- I left Brussels on Thursday
afternoon and have just arrived in London. For two hours on Thursday night I
was in what for six hundred years has been the city of Louvain. The Germans
were burning it, and to hide their work kept us locked in the railway
carriages. But the story was written against the sky, was told to us by German
soldiers incoherent with excesses; and we could read it in the faces of women
and children being led to concentration camps and of citizens on their way to
The Germans sentenced Louvain on Wednesday to become a
wilderness and with the German system and love of thoroughness they left
Louvain an empty and blackened shell.
The reason for this appeal to the torch
and the execution of noncombatants, as given to me on Thursday morning by
General von Lutwitz, military governor of Brussels, was this: on Wednesday,
while the German military commander of the troops of Louvain was at the Hotel
de Ville talking to the Burgomaster, a son of the Burgomaster with an automatic
pistol shot the chief of staff and German staff surgeons.
Lutwitz claims this was the signal for the civil
guard, in civilian clothes on roofs, to fire upon the German soldiers in the
open square below. He said also the Belgians had quick-firing guns, brought
from Antwerp. As for a week the Germans had occupied Louvain and closely
guarded all approaches, the story that there was any gunrunning is absurd.
Fifty Germans were killed and wounded. For that, said
Lutwitz, Louvain must be wiped out. So in pantomime with his fist he swept the
papers across his table.
"The Hotel de Ville," he added, "was a
beautiful building; it is a pity it must be destroyed."
Ten days ago I was in Louvain when it was occupied by
Belgian troops and King Albert and his staff. The city dates from the eleventh
century, and the population was 42,000. The citizens were brewers, lacemakers,
and manufacturers of ornaments for churches. The university was the most
celebrated in European cities, and still is, or was, headquarters of the
The Town Hall was very old and very beautiful, an
example of Gothic architecture, in detail and design more celebrated even than
the Town Hall of Bruges or Brussels. It was five hundred years old, and lately
had been repaired with great taste and at great cost.
Opposite was the Church of St. Pierre, dating from the
fifteenth century a very noble building, with many chapels filled with carvings
of the time of the Renaissance in wood, stone, and iron. In the university were
Near it was the bronze statue of Father Damien, priest
of the leper colony in the South Pacific, of which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote.
All these buildings are now empty, exploding cartridges. Statues, pictures,
carvings, parchments, archives -- all are gone.
No one defends the sniper. But because ignorant
Mexicans when their city was invaded fired upon our sailors, we did not destroy
Vera Cruz. Even had we bombarded Vera Cruz, money could have restored it. Money
can never restore Louvain. Great architects, dead these six hundred years, made
it beautiful, and their handiwork belonged to the world. With torch and
dynamite the Germans have turned these masterpieces into ashes, and all the
Kaiser's horses and all his men cannot bring them back again.
When by troop train we reached Louvain, the entire
heart of the city was destroyed and fire had reached the Boulevard Tirlemont,
which faces the railroad station. The night was windless, and the sparks rose
in steady, leisurely pillars, falling back into the furnace from which they
sprang. In their work the soldiers were moving from the heart of the city to
the outskirts, street by street, from house to house....
In other wars I have watched men on one hilltop, with
out haste, without heat, fire at men on another hill, and in consequence on
both sides good men were wasted. But in those fights there were no women and
children, and the shells struck only vacant stretches of veldt or uninhabited
At Louvain it was war upon the defenceless, war upon
churches, colleges, shops of milliners and lacemakers; war brought to the
bedside and fireside; against women harvesting in the fields, against children
in wooden shoes at play in the streets.
At Louvain that night the Germans were like men after
Outside the station in the public square the people of
Louvain passed in an unending procession, women bareheaded, weeping, men
carrying the children asleep on their shoulders, all hemmed in by the shadowy
army of gray wolves. Once they were halted, and among them marched a line of
men. They well knew their fellow townsmen. These were on their way to be shot.
And better to point the moral an officer halted both processions and, climbing
to a cart, explained why the men were going to die. He warned others not to
bring down upon themselves a like vengeance.
As those being led to spend the night in the fields
looked across to those marked for death they saw old friends, neighbours of
long standing, men of their own household. The officer bellowing at them from the
cart was illuminated by the headlights of an automobile. He looked like an
actor held in a spotlight on a darkened stage. It was all like a scene upon the
stage, so unreal, so inhuman, you felt that it could not be true, that the
curtain of fire, purring and crackling and sending up hot sparks to meet the
kind, calm stars, was only a painted backdrop; that the reports of rifles from
the dark rooms came from blank cartridges, and that these trembling shopkeepers
and peasants ringed in bayonets would not in a few minutes really die, but that
they themselves and their homes would be restored to their wives and children.
You felt it was only a nightmare, cruel and uncivilized. And then you
remembered that the German Emperor has told us what it is. It is his Holy War.
Above: A German postcard showing the "Attack on German troops by Belgian civilians" at Louvain.
A cable sent from the Belgian Minister of Foreign
Affairs under date of August 8, 1914:
"On Tuesday evening a body of German troops who
had been driven back retired in disorder upon the town of Louvain. Germans who were guarding the town
thought that the retiring troops were Belgians and fired upon them. In order to
excuse this mistake the Germans, in spite of the most energetic denials on the
part of the authorities, pretended that Belgians had fired on the Germans,
although all the inhabitants, including policemen, had been disarmed for more
than a week. Without any examination and without listening to any protest the
commanding officer announced that the town would be immediately destroyed. All
inhabitants had to leave their homes at once; some were made prisoners; women
and children were put into a train of which the destination was unknown;
soldiers with fire bombs set fire to the different quarters of the town; the
splendid Church of St. Pierre, the markets, the university and its scientific establishments,
were given to the flames, and it is probable that the Hotel de Ville, this
celebrated jewel of Gothic art, will also have disappeared in the disaster. Several
notabilities were shot at sight. Thus a town of 40,000 inhabitants, which,
since the fifteenth century, has been the intellectual and scientific capital
of the Low Countries, is a heap of ashes. Americans,
many of whom have followed the course at this illustrious alma mater and have
there received such cordial hospitality, cannot remain insensible to this
outrage on the rights of humanity and civilization which is unprecedented in