Whether or not the operations just described had in the estimation of
the German commanders fulfilled their purpose cannot be decided, but
is at least open to doubt. Not only in the more serious fighting but
in the numerous smaller skirmishes and unceasing affairs of outposts
the losses to the invaders, were it really known, would probably
appear surprising. The losses fell mainly upon their cavalry, and
most of all upon their uhlans. A perfect cloud of these raiders had
swarmed over the country, and had made themselves hated by acts of
cruelty and pillage. They were most of all the agents of the Terror.
Of the nineteen regiments of them in the German army, some fourteen
seem to have been employed in Belgium. At the end of ten or twelve
days the larger part of this force were either killed, wounded, or
prisoners. No doubt can be entertained that they were turned out to
live upon the country. They lived badly; were entrapped right and left;
revenged themselves by acts of outrage; but waged against an enraged
and unjustly ruined people what was in fact an impossible contest. The
policy of sending out roving bands in a country as populous as northern
Belgium was an absurdity.
Up to the point now reached the German campaign in Belgium had been
one consistency of gross mistakes. Almost incalculable damage had
been done; murder and rapine were rampant; but anything like a firm
conquest, or the first steps towards it, was as far off as ever. It is
notable that after his exploits in Belgium the uhlan fills a very minor
part. Eastern Belgium had to no small extent become his grave.
So far the operations had enabled the Belgian army to inflict
heavy losses while remaining itself intact. And now appeared a new
factor–the advance of the French into Belgian Luxemburg. The Belgians
still held Namur and the two bridges over the Meuse at that point. It
was possible, since the Germans had seized Huy, that they would move in
force upon Dinant, and, crossing the river above that place, attempt a
diversion in the rear of the Belgian positions, in conjunction with a
second effort to cut the Belgian army off from its base at Antwerp.
To prevent this the French crossed the Meuse and occupied Dinant. By
the time they arrived the anticipated German movement had already
begun. In part the French advance was directed to feeling the strength
and disposition of the enemy in the Ardennes with a view to their own
plans, but it was also directed to assist the Belgians in holding up
the hostile march westward.
The result of these opposing movements was, on August 15, a sharp
collision. An effort on the part of the Germans to cross the river
above Dinant was thrown back by the French. With a greatly superior
force the Germans advanced against the town prepared to carry it by
In describing the assault Mr. Granville Fortescue states that the
Germans moved up a strong body of light infantry supported by mountain
batteries. The French had established themselves on the outlying hills
and in the ancient citadel, a rocky mass on the south bank of the
Meuse, commanding from its summit a view of the river for many miles in
either direction. The attack was determined and some of the outlying
positions were carried by assault. French reinforcements, however,
were brought up and the positions retaken.
In the town, defended by a French regiment of the line, barricades
had been thrown across the streets. The bridge was fortified by wire
entanglements, and held by an infantry detachment with a mitrailleuse.
The picturesque old place, sheltering under the high limestone cliffs
on one side of the river, and struggling up the wooded hillside on the
other, was subjected to a hot bombardment. As the shells tore through
roofs and walls the inhabitants sought refuge in their cellars.
Following an obstinate fight, the Germans had won the crest of the
cliffs above the old town, and under cover of a heavy artillery fire
had stormed the citadel. The town and bridge, however, were still held.
Further French reinforcements, with guns, cleared the Germans off the
cliffs. From that position the French gunners in turn bombarded the
citadel. One of their first shots cut through the flagstaff and brought
down the German colour hoisted upon it.
Thus the first assault upon Dinant was beaten off, though not without
serious casualties to the defending force. Renewing the attack next day
with larger forces the Germans succeeded in gaining the town on the
east bank of the river which here runs nearly north and south. The part
of Dinant on the opposite bank remained in the hands of the defenders,
who commanded the passage across the waterway.
In possession of the old town a resolute attempt was made by the
enemy to force the passage. Two divisions of cavalry, one of them the
cavalry of the Prussian Guard, 8,000 strong, with several battalions
of _jaegers_, and maxim companies engaged in this operation. While
infantry lined the positions on the east bank, and artillery opened
a bombardment from the citadel and cliffs, the cavalry dashed across
the bridge _en masse_, opening a way for the _jaegers_. In the steep
streets and from behind garden walls in the new town an obstinate
battle raged. It was determined by the onset of a division of French
chasseurs, who drove the Germans in flight down to the margin of the
river. The bridge became a mass of struggling fugitives, stumbling
over fallen horses and men. To save themselves, those cut off threw
themselves into the water. Many in the confusion were drowned.
From Namur the French remained masters of the west bank, and at Namur
the Belgians still possessed an important bridge-head. The Allied
forces too held their positions from Namur across the country through
Gembloux and Louvain to beyond Diest. But behind this dyke opposed by
the Allies the grey-green flood of invasion was steadily rising making
ready to burst through, and with apparently irresistible mass and
momentum to cover with its devastation the rich fields of Belgium and
the fair land of France.
On the face of things it looked as though the enemy had been taught
caution. In front of the Allied lines stretched a No-man’s Land 10 to
15 miles in breadth. No Germans were met with nearer than Ramillies. In
the intervening desolation, amid the hideous squalor of war, occasional
terrified peasants, old men or widowed women, fled into hiding places
at the distant approach of strangers, friend or foe.
Brussels had begun to regain breath. Though theatres, picture-houses,
and other places of public entertainment were closed, and the busy
traffic of the boulevards had shrunk to a rare and occasional vehicle,
the shops, closely shuttered during the first days of the Terror, had
reopened, and _cafés_ were thronged with crowds eagerly debating the
When, on Monday, August 17, the Government removed from Brussels to
Antwerp, it was realised that grave events were impending. All had
been in readiness for removal for some days. At the Palais de Justice
the courts and registries were closed and seals placed on the doors.
Measures had been taken for the protection of the nation’s priceless
art treasures, and to meet all emergencies. The Government issued
a reassuring proclamation, exhorting the public to confidence, and
expressing the resolve at all costs to safeguard the country’s freedom.
Despite the deep anxiety of the moment, the public spirit remained
firm. There was no trace either of disorder or of panic.
It was known that so long as the forts at Liége continued to fight the
German advance could not begin. Notwithstanding the efforts of the
Germans to cover their preparations with the closest veil of secrecy,
the Belgian Government was kept well informed. Liége had become for
its remaining inhabitants a prison. As a precaution the invaders had
divided up the city by street barricades. Every approach to the place
was closely patrolled. At night the only sounds were the heavy footfall
of Prussian patrols, along streets where ruined houses showed the gaps
made by shell fire, or over quays past bridges whose _débris_ was
heaped in the rivers. Many houses were doorless, but all were dark and
silent. Nevertheless, news leaked through the German lines, and when on
August 18, having silenced all but two of the forts, the German advance
began, neither the Belgian Government nor the Belgian commanders were
left in any uncertainty. The spirit and resource which had baffled
all the energy of Spain, still baffled all the power of Prussianised
A strange spectacle was presented by that seemingly countless and
endless host as it defiled along every main road leading to the
north-west. No words can adequately picture the movement of an army,
or rather a combination of armies, totalling nearly three-quarters
of a million of men. The effect is too vast, and it might well be
asked what human power could withstand such a multitude welded by an
enormous labour of organisation into a machine of destruction and
death. Onward it flowed, like the tide sweeping through the channels of
a shore, ready to burst upon obstacles in angry breakers, but breakers
of fire. Lines of lances moved among its forest of bayonets. Endless
trains of guns and automobiles, field kitchens, field bakeries, huge
wagons bearing pontoons and drawn by long teams of horses, ponderous
caissons, camp equipment, portable smithies, rumbled successively past.
The dust rose from the hot roads and floated over the deserted and
trampled fields. Sabres and bayonets flashed back the August sunlight.
And for hour after hour the mass rolled on, seemingly without end.
Not since the days of Attila has Western Europe been offered such
a spectacle; nor has it been paralleled since the Gothic hordes
rolled through the Alps on to the plain of northern Italy. The Goths
were barbarians. These, their descendants, had the resources of
civilisation, but applied to the same hopes and aspirations–dominion
and the vision of material riches; inspired by the same belief in their
own unconquerable prowess; impelled by the same conviction of their
inborn right as the earth’s most valiant to possess and to rule the
sunny lands held by cowards and degenerates. It is a profound mistake
to assume that the philosophy of a Treitschke is anything new. It is as
ancient as Germany. Ever since the wild swamps, and sandy plains and
gloomy forests of central Europe became the home of a prolific people,
who win from them a hard and penurious livelihood, that people have
dreamed of the countries to the west and south where the beauties of
art speak of the resources of the soil, and where no dark and frozen
winter binds the year.
Twelve army corps traversed the Belgian plain. A corps of the German
army is made up on a war footing to 63,000 men. The total of this vast
host could not therefore have been far short of 700,000 even allowing
for losses. Commonly, an army corps is spoken of as though it were
inconsiderable. An army corps, however, is a complete army, and a huge
body of men.
Though it might look complex, and was indeed a triumph of machinery,
the plan of the advance was simple. The right flank was covered by an
overwhelming mass of cavalry. It was estimated that there were 65,000
out of the 83,000 sabres of the German army in that truly formidable
column. The rest advanced in three main columns heading for the roads
between Brussels and Namur. It was the intention to push right on
to the French frontier before the French could assemble there in
sufficient strength to stem the onset. A host of this magnitude would
take two days and a night to pass any given point. The distance between
the van and the rear was half the breadth of Belgium.
One reason, it is now evident, for the German incursion into Limburg
was a clearing of the country between Liége and Maastricht in order
unobserved to muster their troops and transport for the great trek.
The military situation immediately following the general advance was
interesting. Probably it has given rise to more misunderstanding than
any other phase of the war.
In the declaration, already alluded to, issued by the Belgian
Government on its removal to Antwerp the statement was made that
“pursuit of the aim assigned to the Belgian troops in the general plan
of campaign predominates over everything…. What is going on at our
gates is not the only thing to be thought of. A strategic movement
conceived with a well-defined object is not of necessity a retreat….
There is at the present time no necessity for letting ourselves be hung
up. To do so would be to play into the hands of the Germans.”
Why pursuit of the aim assigned to the Belgian troops predominated has
been pointed out. What was the strategic movement with a well-defined
In their dispositions for the advance the Germans had placed their
main force of cavalry, and a great strength of mobile guns on their
right in order that that wing might execute a rapid flank attack on
the Belgian army, and if possible envelop it. So far as was known the
Belgian lines still extended from Diest through Aerschot and Louvain to
Wavre. They certainly did until the night of August 17. But during that
night they were rapidly and secretly changed. The left was extended
eastward beyond Diest, and the right withdrawn so that the army in its
new situation occupied entrenched positions along and behind the Dyle.
In these positions it was well prepared successfully to resist a force
vastly superior in numbers, and in any event was within easy distance
of the outer forts of Antwerp.
To mask this change of front, a slight covering force was left
at Louvain, and some cavalry was thrown forward for purposes of
observation as far as Tirlemont.
On August 18, this cavalry came into contact with the uhlans forming
the advanced front of the German columns. They promptly fell back
towards Louvain, and after a show of opposition before that place
retired upon Malines.
The Germans believed that Louvain was still held in force, and opened
a bombardment. After their experience of Belgian ruses, they did not
venture to enter the city until some hours later.
To the Belgians this gain in time was essential. Since it had been
necessary to occupy the old lines until the last possible moment,
the change of front had not been altogether completed when the
rapidly moving right wing of the vast invading host threatened in
part to frustrate it. An army with its impedimenta and guns cannot be
transferred from place to place in a moment and one part of the Belgian
force had a distance to cover of nearly 20 miles.
At all costs, therefore, it was necessary to hold up the German
movement. That was not easy because the uhlans and armed motors spread
themselves out along all the roads and by-roads in a broad fan-shaped
formation covering many miles of country. Nevertheless, the stratagem
at Louvain proved successful. Three regiments of infantry, a corps
of guides and the 3rd and 9th, with a cavalry division deceived the
enemy into the belief that they were the covering troops of a much
larger force, and he drew up to deploy for battle. As was inevitable,
the Belgian force employed suffered somewhat severe losses. It was
indeed a devoted piece of service, but it served its purpose. When the
Germans advanced in battle order against the assumed Belgian lines they
found them deserted, and must have experienced some of the feeling of
treading on a missing stair.
Beginning with outpost operations on August 18, the battle of Louvain,
as it has been called, was continued during August 19 and 20. On the
one hand, there was the fighting between the Belgian troops already
referred to, detailed to hold up the right of the German advance;
on the other, there was an attempt by the Germans along the front
from Diest to Aerschot to turn the left of the new Belgian position.
Along the centre, to aid the attempted turning movement, a formidable
artillery duel developed.
The troops before Louvain, some 20,000 strong, carried out with
brilliant gallantry the tactics most effective in such a situation.
Retiring under all the cover available whenever the pressure of
numbers became too threatening, they seized every opening afforded
for a counter-attack, and by these alternative advances and retreats
reduced the forward progress of the enemy to a minimum. The Germans
found themselves obliged to search every position with their artillery,
before throwing forward their skirmishers, and finally advancing masses
of infantry. With an intimate knowledge of the country the Belgians
enticed them into the most difficult places, and then suddenly swept
back and dislodged them. By the time reinforcements had been brought
up, the enemy found the position evacuated.
So from hour to hour the struggle went on, along roads, through woods,
behind hedges and ditches, with furious rushes and counter-rushes
of infantry, and dashes of cavalry; the air filled with the puffs
and smoke of bursting shrapnel, the boom of battle travelling slowly
over the countryside like a laggard thunderstorm with its lightnings
chained to earth. To what an extent skilful troops may arrest the
advance of a hostile force enormously greater in numbers has been many
times exemplified in warfare. The Germans employed their overwhelming
superiority in cavalry and machine guns with the greatest energy. They
had to deal, however, with elusive yet bold and persistent enemies.
In this part of Belgium, the country is perfectly flat. There are no
hillocks to assist observation. Information by airmen was rendered
unreliable by the rapid movements of the Belgian forces. Literally the
invaders had to grope their way, imagining that the main army was in
front of them. Beyond the narrow horizon the danger lurked, but exactly
where, it was hard to say.
The most serious effort on the part of the invaders was to throw a
large force towards Antwerp. Against the strong position held by the
Belgians and their change of front the effort failed. The assumed
Belgian left wing had become its centre. Strongly posted as that now
was with a deep river in front and a great fortress in the rear the
position made an attack too costly to be pressed. Half at least of the
whole mighty German host would have been necessary to force it. That,
however, would have thrown the programme into confusion. The artillery
duel went on from daylight to darkness, but the Belgians showed
themselves unshakable. All the efforts of the invaders to throw troops
over the Dyle were beaten off with heavy loss. Finally, the Germans
were compelled to pass on, leaving the Belgian main army a still
The military considerations which dictated the Belgian strategy may be
readily made clear. Since the base of the army was Antwerp, where it
had all its supplies and munitions, the first essential was not to be
cut off from that base. An army defending its native country, and among
its own people may, so far as foodstuffs are concerned, be said to be
at home anywhere, but it cannot in modern warfare fight without shells
and bullets, and when those it brings with it are exhausted its power
as a present-day fighting force is at an end. No army can encumber
itself in the field with more than the munitions it immediately needs.
It has consequently to keep in touch with its reserve stocks, or, in
military phrase, to keep its line of communications open.
That to a general in command is as important as victory. Indeed, a
victory gained if it left the communications cut would be illusory.
A second consideration, not less essential, is that of not fighting in
such a position that, in the event of being compelled to retire, the
army, in order to save its communications, must pass across the front
of the victorious force. Irreparable defeat would almost certainly be
the result. Fighting in a situation of that kind is known as fighting
with the front of the army turned to what should be its flank, or in
military phraseology is a “front to a flank” position. It is one of the
purposes of strategy to manœuvre a hostile force into such a position
As the Belgian army was disposed up to August 17, it stood “front to a
flank,” and if it had fought in that situation it must, owing to its
inferior numbers, have been surrounded, or been compelled to fall back
upon or beyond Brussels, so that its communications with Antwerp would
have been cut off. It must consequently, whatever the bravery of its
officers and men, have been compelled in a few days either to lay down
its arms or to be annihilated.
Possibly the Germans thought that it meant to remain where it was for
the purpose of covering Brussels, and that sentimental rather than
military reasons influenced its movements. As a fact, this seeming
incompetence was a ruse, designed to induce the Germans to throw
their main force forward in the direction of Brussels rather than in
the direction of Antwerp. The latter place, if they had been ably
commanded, would have been made their first objective. Seizure of
Antwerp would have settled the business. They fell, however, blindly
into the trap laid for them, and blundered on towards Brussels only to
discover, too late, that they had been left with the shadow, but had
lost the substance.
In any event, for the Belgians, save in a position of complete security
to have offered battle to an army more than six times as numerous,
with a crushing superiority of some 2,000 guns would simply have been
throwing the lives of brave men away to no purpose. Decidedly the
King of the Belgians was not the man to “play into the hands of the
From August 17 to August 21 were days of intense suspense in Brussels.
Dr. E. J. Dillon has drawn a picture of them sober yet arresting and
faithful. Naturally, after the removal of the Government, there was a
feeling that the city was on the eve of grave events. Amid the public
anxiety the Burgomaster, M. Adolphe Max, showed the evidences of that
civic spirit and unfaltering firmness, worthy of the greatest years
in the old struggle for freedom, which later made him the hero of his
Emotions changed from hour to hour, but when the Civic Guard left for
the front, amid demonstrations of patriotic fervour, it was the common
belief that the forces of Belgium might successfully keep off the
enemy, at any rate until aid arrived. Barricades were built across the
streets, and lines of trenches thrown up. Brussels resigned itself to
the prospect of a siege.
Little did the crowds who discussed these events know of the real
purpose of them. Under present-day conditions of warfare Brussels is
wholly indefensible. It lies for the most part in a hollow commanded
by hills from which long-range guns could destroy it without the
possibility of effective reply.
The object of the apparent preparations for a siege was to mislead,
not the citizens of Brussels, but the foe who had trampled on the
nation’s rights. The Government and the authorities in Brussels were
well aware of the enemy’s swarm of spies in their midst. They were not
ignorant that their every movement was forthwith betrayed. A wireless
installation discovered on the building lately occupied by the German
Ministry had been unearthed and dismantled, but there were still,
doubtless, secret channels of communication open. Rightly concluding
that German plans would be adjusted to this information, they met ruse
with ruse. The enemy was to be led on to an empty and merely theatrical
Of course, the ordinary citizen, not in the secret, took the siege
preparations at their face value. The German advance was evidenced,
apart from reports and rumours, by the crowds of homeless fugitives,
who like flotsam driven before a storm, tramped into the city
footsore, weary, and miserable, their few belongings, hastily snatched
together, carried on their backs, or piled on the light carts drawn
by dogs. At first in bands, the inflow swelled until these pitiful
processions filled every eastern and south-eastern road; and soon the
railway stations were crowded by people struggling for trains to the
Then came ambulances and trains of wounded. On the night of Thursday,
August 20, Brussels did not go to bed. News arrived in the early
hours that the Germans were close upon the city. From their posts in
the Forest of Soignies, the Civic Guard marched in. It became known
that they had been ordered to Ghent, and that the capital was to be
surrendered without firing a shot.
The public at large were stunned, and their astonishment was without
doubt shared, not in Belgium only, but abroad. Undaunted by the turn of
events, the 20,000 men of the Civic Guard passed through the streets
_en route_ for Ghent intoning the “Marseillaise” in a thunderous
chorus. Meanwhile those responsible wisely kept their counsel. The
proclamation that the military evacuation was a measure necessary
for the well-being of Brussels itself and of the country was, with
judicious suppression as to reasons, the truth.
The public, of course, did not realise the military situation. All
they for the moment grasped was the peril of an occupation by troops
whose atrocities had been marked by a trail of burned-out villages
and slaughtered peasantry. The crowds of fugitives from the country
into Brussels were speedily swelled by yet even greater crowds out of
the city. The roads to Ghent became thronged with refugees. Afoot and
in every sort of vehicle, they fled from the on-coming Terror, the
darkness relieved only by distant glares which told of villages in
flames, and the fear sharpened by the sullen boom of far-off guns.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, the effort of the large non-resident population
to get out while the way was yet open assumed the aspect of a panic.
The first care of the authorities was, of necessity to remove the
wounded, who had been placed, not only in hospitals, but in large
stores turned for the time being into hospitals. This, of course, taxed
the railway accommodation. It was necessary, too, that no rolling stock
should fall into the hands of the invaders. Trains available were
therefore limited. Would-be passengers fought their way with cries and
curses into the compartments until these were choked with people all
in a state of excitement or dread. Every train, even the last, left
hundreds of the terror-stricken behind.
It would be untrue, however, to assume that these refugees represented
the spirit or feeling of the population of Brussels as a whole. The
first shock passed, the population awaited developments without any
marked signs of dismay.
German cavalry reached Teuveren, a suburb of Brussels, about six
o’clock that morning. The street barricades were hastily removed by the
city authorities. Those had served their turn and were no longer wanted.
The invaders’ formal entry took place at two in the afternoon. The
clatter and jingle of heavy dragoons through deserted suburban streets,
where the houses had been closely shuttered, announced that Brussels
was in the power of the Prussians. The dragoons were the head of a
column of infantry. These dauntless warriors had waited nearly eight
hours in order to make sure that the “contemptible” Belgian military
had in fact withdrawn.
Very soon the fact became evident that the entry had been carefully
stage-managed in order to render it as “impressive” as possible.
Some 50,000 of the smartest and freshest troops were paraded across
the city. This display, which occupied some hours, was intended to
convince the Bruxellois of the utter futility of Belgian resistance.
With many of the population curiosity prevailed over repugnance, and
they stood in throngs along the boulevards while the show went by.
Seeing this impassive but orderly multitude, and doubtless convinced
that the conquest of Belgium had already been accomplished as the first
fruits of the war, the troops, by permission, struck up “Deutschland
über Alles.” In the fighting during the earlier days of the campaign
the German troops, despite the plundering of the territory they had
overrun, were in a half-famished state, and the horses of their
cavalry, in particular, perishing of hunger and fatigue. Many prisoners
were picked up in the last state of exhaustion. They might readily have
been murdered by the enraged peasantry, but it is doubtful if there is
even one clearly proved instance of a German having been assassinated
under such circumstances.
The forces, however, now paraded bore few of the traces of warfare,
a proof to the spectators that the Belgian operations were on paper!
An incident recorded is that of several officers who rode in a
motor-car. The group, apparently part of a divisional staff, called
for a newspaper, and on reading the news broke out into ostentatious
laughter. At selected points the troops, on a whistle being sounded,
fell into the parade or “goose” step. Decidedly, the Bruxellois ought
to be impressed. What resistance could avail against such instantaneous
In truth, the discipline was rather on the side of the spectators than
of the performers. A proclamation by M. Max had enjoined a scrupulous
avoidance of acts of insult or violence. The injunction was implicitly
obeyed. Though, like every great city, Brussels had its irresponsible
elements, such was the influence and authority of its burgomaster, and
the esteem in which he was justly held, that his requisition was taken
by every inhabitant as a personal obligation. The Germans imagined that
this remarkable effect arose from their show of mechanical and material
power. It was, on the contrary, a marvel of moral force.
The occupation, or more strictly the seizure, of the city was carried
out methodically, and had manifestly, like the rest of the German
arrangements, long been cut and dried. Detachments of troops took
possession of the post and telephone offices; of the railways stations;
of the public buildings; and of the barracks. At the Palais de Justice
the doors were broken open, and the building turned into a military
quarters. Brussels was cut off from communication with the outside
world, Germany excepted. Guards were placed along the roads leading
from it, and no person was allowed to pass without a military permit.
On the great open space in front of the Palais de Justice heavy guns
were ranged so that they could command the greater part of the lower
town. From this space, as everyone familiar with Brussels knows, the
city, a picture of the multitudinous beauty of roofs and streets and
towers, can be seen stretching away across the broad valley of the
One of the first measures taken by General von Arnim, the German
commandant, was to summon the burgomaster and the members of the civic
council, and to inform them that they must consider themselves hostages
for the good behaviour of the citizens. A long list of the wealthiest
citizens proved to be in the possession of the invaders, and opposite
each name the approximate total of the person’s fortune. Such was one
of the effects of the spy system. Opposite each name, too, was the
amount which it was proposed to exact.
The burgomaster was told that the city must pay a war “fine” of
£8,000,000, and that he must see to it that the sum was forthcoming
promptly and in cash. He was also told that he would be looked to for
the German soldiery being treated by Brussels citizens with proper
respect. The police of the city would be left under his direction,
subject, of course, to orders from the new authorities.
M. Max replied that a payment of £8,000,000 as demanded was out of the
question. All the cash from the banks had been removed. In any event,
if the levy was fairly assessed it must take time to collect. Hence at
best it could only be paid by instalments. He added that measures had
already been taken for the maintenance of public order, and that the
occupying troops would meet with no molestation if they on their part
behaved properly to the public. If he and the city council were to be
responsible the civic rights and the persons and property of citizens
must be respected.
The reply was that all this must be dependent on the amount of the fine
being found somehow.
While this interview was in progress at the offices lately evacuated
by the Government where the “conquerors” had installed themselves,
arrangements were being made for billeting some thousands of officers,
who promptly took possession of the hotels, where, with the arrogant
air of superiority which marks off the Prussian military caste, they
proceeded to regale themselves without payment, adding to these acts of
petty brigandage in many cases gross insults if their demands could not
be complied with. Others were quartered on private families. During the
evening of the first day of the occupation they sat at open windows or
outside _cafés_ on the boulevards, and refreshed with food and liquor
beyond the dreams of their own exiguous commissariat, indulged in
mocking observations on the manners and ways of citizens, who in the
qualities of dignity, courtesy, and restraint offered an example which
“kultur” had left the Prussian intruders unable to copy.
As for the troops not needed for garrison duty, they had been marched
to an encampment to the north-west of the city. The delights of
conquest were reserved for the officers. It was enough for the men that
they shared the honour of its fatigues.
Two days later arrived from Berlin General von der Goltz who, it
was announced, had been appointed civil governor of Belgium. This
superannuated worthy brought with him instructions for more “fines,”
including the _modest_ requisition of £18,000,000 from the province of
It may be doubted whether the world, outside Germany, did not receive
the news of the levy upon Brussels with even greater laughter than
indignation. The preposterous character of the demand was only exceeded
by its impudence. But the new viceroy of Belgium, like his employers,
took himself seriously. Having installed himself with due ceremony
in the royal palace, he proceeded to tackle the knotty business of
converting the phantom £10 a head for every man, woman, and child into
solid sinews of war.
There was no sign of the money making its appearance. The burgomaster
was sent for and carpeted for his remissness. He intimated with polite
sarcasm that if the new “government” could discover a better way of
collecting the fine they did not need his assistance. General von der
Goltz agreed to accept payments by instalments. Hints were thrown
out that if the instalments were not paid it would be the worse for
Brussels. The “government” would not stand on ceremony.
Nevertheless, the instalments were not forthcoming. After huge worry
and effort, all that could be extracted was £800,000. The policy of
making Belgium pay for its own subjugation, brilliant in theory,
threatened in practice to become a comedy.
This was not the only light touch. A colleague of von der Goltz,
General von Luttwitz, had been appointed military governor of Belgium.
He signalised his arrival by a pompous proclamation in which, after the
manner of the 4,000 or more police by-laws of Berlin, he forbade the
citizens to do a variety of things, and strictly enjoined them on pain
of instant arrest and trial by court martial to do a variety of others.
The public read the proclamation with ridicule. Since it was
both an interference with the rights of the civic council as the
police authority, and likely to provoke mischief by its blundering
foolishness, the burgomaster, in the interests of public order and
security, issued a counter-proclamation reassuring citizens of the
endeavours for their protection, and enjoining pacific conduct and
restraint. The burgomaster’s announcement, not having been submitted
and passed in the first instance, was considered a defiance. German
soldiers were sent out as billstickers with sheets of blank paper to
cover it over. During the following night the blank paper was found to
have been oiled, and made transparent. This produced a threat that if
such a trick was repeated the police would be disbanded and replaced by
As lacking in any sense of proportion was the hurry to Germanise the
Press. The Brussels newspapers, laid under a strict censorship, were
forbidden to publish any save Berlin-provided war news, and to publish
it in German. Henceforth the Brussels public were to hear of nothing
save German victories. The newspapers declined to comply and were
suppressed. To supply the lack of news the authorities established
an official organ printed in the now official language. There was no
demand, and the government and garrison alone enjoyed the pleasure
afforded by its cultured and exciting contents. The Brussels public
preferred to remain in unofficial darkness.
Familiarity with the “conquerors” rapidly bred in the population of
the city a general contempt. It was speedily found out that their
political incapacity was only paralleled by their assumption. Despite
the elaborate imported machinery of government their authority remained
a shadow. The passive resistance of the public was “correct,” but
annoying. When processions of street boys, each in an old hat with the
end of a carrot pushed through the crown, played at German soldiers and
gave comic imitations of the goose step and the words of command–a
diversion General von Luttwitz had somehow forgotten to catalogue as
“verboten”–the military government of Belgium felt itself drifting
into a false position.
It was decided that the soul of the opposition was the burgomaster.
Inevitably in the situation there was much distress arising from
unemployment. The commerce of the city was at a standstill. M. Max,
aided by other public-spirited citizens, worked with energy to organise
relief. Brussels was divided into a score or so of districts, so that
the most necessitous could be dealt with. The citizens had realised
that by following the burgomaster’s wise counsels, refraining from
provocation on their own part, ignoring it on the part of their
oppressors, they were serving their country as effectively as if they
were on the battlefield. Indeed Brussels had become a battlefield–a
moral battlefield on which the defeat of the foe was complete. On that
battlefield in the dark days of the past the citizens of Brussels had
won signal victory. Dark days had come again, and they were drawn
together under the man raised up in the hour of need.
Whatever the show of power made by the combined civil and military
governments of Belgium, the real ruler was the burgomaster, and the
civil and military governments knew it. They tolerated him partly
because it assisted public order, but mostly because he was considered
indispensable in collecting the expected war fine. The latter was
dribbling in very slowly. Requisitions of supplies for the German
troops were “paid for” in vouchers to be met out of the tribute–when
received. Citizens shrewdly suspected, however, that, like other
Prussian promises, these were of little value. This system of plunder
of necessity aggravated the distress, and all the more because similar
seizures were going on in the smaller towns. Every day in face of
greater secrecy on the part of the population the collection of
supplies became more difficult. General von Luttwitz was at his wits’
Bold measures were resolved upon. The troops in occupation showed
signs of becoming demoralised. Quarrels broke out in barracks between
contingents of Prussians and Bavarians. As co-religionists of the
Belgians, the latter were suspected of being sympathetic to the
Brussels people. The old standing hatred of the Bavarians towards
Prussia, and the equally old-standing contempt of the Prussians for all
other Germans in general and for Bavarians in particular, led to free
fights in which bayonets were used. Some of the combatants lost their
lives. The military government decidedly had its hands full.
It endeavoured to show its authority by insisting on the presence of
a representative at the meetings of the City Council. There was a
suspicion that these meetings were in fact occupied with proposals to
subvert it, and evade payment of the fine. The indomitable burgomaster
declared that if the new civil or the new military government intruded
no more meetings would be held. The civil and military governments were
obliged to give way.
By way of reprisal, they insisted that the £1,200,000 still owing out
of the first £2,000,000 of the war fine should be paid up by a given
date. The burgomaster and council replied that the demand was an
impossible one. The new “authorities” were peremptory. The council met
them with a flat refusal. On receipt of it the burgomaster was sent
for by the military governor. He did not return, and in fact had been
arrested. The council were informed that payment of the £1,200,000 was
the condition of his release.
Forthwith on the walls and kiosks the public read over the signature of
the military governor the following proclamation:–
“To the people of Brussels!
“I have the honour to make it known that I have found myself obliged
to suspend Burgomaster Max from his office on account of his
unserviceable behaviour. He is now in honourable custody in a fortress.
“The German Government ordered the payment of all military requisition
vouchers in the supposition that the town would pay the war tribute
voluntarily. Only on this condition were special terms conceded to
Brussels, whereas in other towns requisition vouchers will be paid
after the conclusion of peace. As the Brussels municipality refuses to
pay the remainder of the tribute, no further requisition vouchers will
be paid by the German Government.”
The device which had been relied upon to cajole the public into the
belief that the requisitions were being bought and not stolen had
broken down, and the proclamation was nothing more than a confession
of its failure. Henceforth the robbery must be crude and unashamed. As
crude were the threats of outrage which the _competent_ von Luttwitz
indulged in. Summoning the aldermen into his presence and requiring
them to elect another burgomaster, he found that the spirit of M.
Adolphe Max, the ancient spirit of the Netherlands, was not to be
destroyed by arrests. The aldermen firmly refused compliance. They were
threatened with a German burgomaster and German military patrols in
place of the police, and told that if riots broke out Brussels would
be bombarded and burned. Riots, as the aldermen knew, might readily
be provoked for that purpose. Tension in face of the burgomaster’s
arrest was already acute. In these circumstances M. Maurice Lemonnier
undertook with his colleagues the maintenance of public order, but the
fiat for the election of a successor to M. Max remained unfulfilled.
Thus would-be conquerors of Europe in the face of unarmed citizens
offered the world a proof of their inborn incapacity to rule, and
themselves exposed the folly of their aspirations.
M. Max, it was afterwards learned, had been put under confinement in
the fortress of Wesel in Germany.
From Brussels by road to Mons is less than 40 miles; from Liége to
Charleroi in the valley of the Sambre little more than 50. It is clear
now that while one part of the great invading host took the direct
route from Liége towards the Sambre, the other made a detour by way of
Brussels to meet the Belgian army. The object was to strike towards
the three great international roads running to Paris from Belgium.
The most westerly of these great routes passes from Brussels through
Mons and Valenciennes; the next through Charleroi and the French
frontier fortress of Maubeuge; the third along the valley of the Meuse
through Namur, past Dinant, and away to Laon. These brief facts on the
topography of the country will help to explain the military operations.
Briefly, if we imagine the march by way of Brussels as a bow, and the
march direct from Liége as its string, we shall have a rough but
fairly accurate idea of the movement executed; bearing in mind only
that even the parts of a host of this magnitude, though the rear would
be nearly two days’ march behind the van, would each be pouring at once
along adjacent roads leading in the same direction.
In any event, and quite apart from any opposition offered by the
Belgians, with the delay resulting from it, the detour by way of
Brussels involved an additional two days at least. But the fighting
with the Belgians caused a further three days’ delay. Of those days,
two, certainly, were occupied in the battle, and the third in resting
the troops engaged and in burying the dead. It was not, therefore,
until August 23, five days after the start from Liége, that the forces,
in fact, concentrated at the opposite end of the bow in southern
Only a small part of them, as we have seen, passed through Brussels.
The main body, even of the northern division, marched through Tirlemont
and on to Hal, round the south of the capital. At the same time, the
enormous column of cavalry, acting as a screen, rode round by the north
of the city and then struck south through Enghien.
All the military display at Brussels was relatively but an aside to the
main performance, intended both for moral effect, such as it was, and
to throw dust in the eyes of the enemy.
We have therefore to imagine between August 21 and August 23 these
great, and, from their size, inevitably unwieldy, forces concentrating
towards the southern frontier of Belgium by every road available.
Here another brief note on geography is necessary. Eastern Belgium, or
that part of it between the Meuse and the sea, is nearly all perfectly
flat, and almost purely agricultural, and the invaders had there
marched through a country which, before they laid it waste, was a
habitation of industry and peace rejoicing in the bounties of harvest.
But western Belgium is largely a manufacturing country, though still
marked by rich rural beauty. Even the main Belgian coalfield extending
through the provinces of Hainault and West Flanders presents outwardly
few of those evidences of utilitarian squalor commonly associated with
coal and iron. The centre of the coal and iron industries of Western
Belgium is Mons, a quaint old place built upon a hill rising amid a
country thickly intersected by canals and railways. Looking east from
Mons, we are looking down the valley of the Sambre, on each side low
rolling hills, the sides and crests of which are in part clothed
with woods and plantations. These hills are, so to say, the outworks
of the Ardennes, one of the natural show-places of Europe. Fifteen
miles from Mons, and on the north bank of the Sambre, is the town of
Charleroi. Fifteen miles farther, at the juncture of the Sambre with
the Meuse, rises the rocky mass forming the ancient citadel of Namur.
The Sambre is not a wide stream, but is swift, its course alternating
between rapids and deep pools. It is most passable, in the military
sense, about ten miles west of Namur. Just there the river follows a
succession of sharp bends.
Of the huge land Armada now moving south through this busy and populous
but beautiful country, most people think as being in every sense a
modern European army. But it was not. There were surgeons with it,
but no field hospitals. It had encumbered itself with no tents. There
was all the grim apparatus of modern war, but only the least possible
of modern war’s humane apparatus. It was the intention of those who
could to quarter themselves on the population of the country through
which the host passed; to supplement food supplies by eating up the
country’s resources. The mass of the invaders slept, where other
shelter was not to be had, in the fields. These hardships sharpened
the lust of conquest. At the rear of the host trudged battalions of
gravediggers. But they were to dig the graves of those who would dare
to stand against it. The comparative poverty and the native parsimony
of the Prussians was reflected in these arrangements. Their all had
been invested in artillery and instruments of death because the leaders
of the host were sure of victory. What else they needed when winter
came would be provided from the spoil of the conquered. In appearance
a modern army, it presented essential features in common with the
migrations of Huns and Goths, which form in Europe the history of the
early Middle Ages. Under a modern disguise, it was a similar horde. It
is easy, therefore, to estimate the rage and surprise which thwarted
hopes, wounded pride, and heavy losses had produced in Belgium, and why
there was behind it a land of mourning and blood.
We now come to the military movements. The 5th French army and two
divisions had advanced and had occupied the angle of country between
the Meuse and the Sambre, and held the passages over both rivers; the
British line was taken up behind the canal which runs from Condé on
the west of Mons to Binche on the east. Mons lay somewhat in advance
of the position, and occupied by the British 3rd division commanded by
General Hamilton, formed an outward angle, or, in military terms, a
The 5th British cavalry division under General Sir Philip Chetwode had
been sent forward to reconnoitre. Part of the force had, on August
22, advanced as far as the forest of Soignies, close to Brussels. In
face of the cavalry covering the German advance they had fallen back.
Similar reconnaissances were made by the French cavalry round Gembloux
to the north of Namur. Hence during the German advance southward from
Brussels and westward of Namur the hostile forces were in touch with
An interesting episode, characteristic of the scouting tactics of the
Germans, is related by Mr. A. Beaumont, the special correspondent of
the _Daily Telegraph_, who was at the time in Charleroi:–
On my return to Charleroi I learnt that a detachment of twenty
Hussars of the Death’s Head, led by an officer, had entered
the upper town at seven in the morning. They proceeded towards
the Sambre, and quietly said, “Good-morning” to the people at
the doors. “Bon jour, bon jour,” they said to the housewives,
who were looking on in wonder, and who, mistaking their khaki
uniform, took them for English soldiers.
People even enthusiastically raised cheers for England. The
soldiers, also misled, allowed them to pass. An officer finally
saw them from a window, and rushed down to a detachment on
guard in the Rue Pont Neuf, and gave the alarm. A number of
infantry soldiers at once opened fire on them. It was at the
corner of the Rue De Montigny, where the tramway and railway
Three of the intruders were shot down. The rest, with their
officer, took to flight. It was not believed that such a thing
would be possible, but it proved that the Germans are capable
of anything. They did the same thing many a time in 1870.
Apart from cavalry skirmishes, the fighting began on August 22, when
the Germans attacked the passages over the Sambre about 10 miles to the
west of Namur, already alluded to. Here reference may be made to a ruse
on their part which explains the peculiarity of their movement across
Belgium. The southern contingent was hurried into action evidently in
order to lead the Allies to believe that it formed the bulk of the
German force. After the Allies had made their dispositions to resist on
that footing, the northern contingent was unexpectedly to appear, and
to finish and win the battle by the weight of its forces.
While the fighting was going on for the passages of the Sambre,
another part of the southern contingent, which was formed by the army
apparently of General von Bülow, moved on to attack Charleroi, and yet
another part, an army corps and a cavalry division, appeared before
The opening attack upon Mons, however, was what, in common parlance,
is called a “blind,” intended to screen the advance behind it of the
northern contingent, the army of General von Kluck, consisting of the
pick of the Prussian troops.
For it is known now that that commander had marched south from Brussels
having in his pocket an Army Order issued by the German Emperor from
headquarters at Aix-la-Chapelle, under date August 19, which contained
the following passage:–
It is my royal and imperial command that you concentrate your
energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and
that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of
my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and to
walk over General French’s contemptible army.
What happened, therefore, on the arrival of these troops on that
Sunday, August 23, was, briefly told, this. While the British troops
holding Mons were resisting the opening attack on that place, an attack
they readily defeated, the onslaught suddenly developed in great weight
and fury. In face of it, the necessity arose of withdrawing the troops
forming the British salient into line with the rest of the army.
This, in the face of such an attack by overwhelming numbers, was a
most difficult and dangerous operation. It was carried out, however,
with remarkable coolness and courage. Though the British suffered
heavy losses, the masses thrown up against them failed to break their
The attack thereupon developed all along the British line. Throughout
that day, and far into the succeeding night, the German officers and
men did their utmost faithfully to carry out the royal and imperial
orders, and it is not too much to say that German arrogance met with
the sharpest shock it had until then experienced. In the front of
the British positions German dead lay in masses, and, after their
custom, they left their wounded for the most part to perish. The
unerring marksmanship of the British infantry was as unexpected as
it was deadly; unshaken by the terrific artillery fire, the British
troops met the attacks thrown upon then in mass formation with a
withering hail of lead. Where, with an intensity of contempt and hate
the onslaught succeeded momentarily in getting close in, the British
dashed into it with the bayonet, and “the valour of my soldiers” wilted
under the slaughter. Again and again the German rank and file were
led or driven by their officers upon the British positions, again and
again to be ripped into bloody confusion. They had come up against the
While these events were in progress, word was received of a formidable
German turning movement in the direction of Tournai, held by a body
of French troops of the second line. This made advisable a retirement
of the British to the rear. Thanks alike to the rock-like steadiness
combined with the inbred tenacity of the infantry, the heavy hitting
power of the artillery, and not least the dauntless devotion of the
cavalry, who faced and broke the heavy odds of the German horse, the
movement was successfully accomplished.
It is not the purpose here to tell the story of the British retreat
from Mons. That feat of arms is related in another volume of this
series. All that comes within present scope is to glance briefly over
the other happenings of these eventful days along that line of battle.
Although in the struggle for the passages of the Sambre the Germans on
the night of August 22 had succeeded in throwing troops across, they
were long and heavily punished by the French artillery, which now, for
the first time, clearly demonstrated the superiority destined to have
so marked an effect during the war. The French field gun was a new
type of weapon, better than the German alike in rapidity and accuracy
of fire. Its more perfect rifling gave a higher muzzle velocity and a
flatter trajectory; the melinite shells used were of intense explosive
force, and the French gunners handled their guns with skill. A larger
proportion of the German artillery consisted of guns of, as it proved,
a relatively out-of-date type, retained and “converted,” apparently,
from motives of economy.
Crossing a river in the face of an enemy so supported is a costly
business, as the Germans soon discovered. With their heavy advantage in
numbers, and with at least four points of simultaneous attack strongly
in their favour, they should have been across in very little time. They
were held at bay for many hours, and repeatedly driven back by French
charges. Only at length under cover of darkness were they able to gain
a footing on the south bank.
Meanwhile, the assault was being pressed against Charleroi, and here
was the centre and decisive point. The French held the place against
repeated attacks, until the regiments of the Prussian Guard, always
held in reserve for critical operations, and reputed invincible, were
brought up against it. There are 20 regiments of the guard, each 3,000
strong. The French were driven out. In turn they launched against the
town the infantry of their African Army Corps, the not less famous
Zouaves and Turcos; and that Sunday afternoon witnessed one of the most
terrible bayonet fights in the history of Europe, a fight in which the
little Belgian town and its environs became a hell. Amid a cannonade
too appalling for description men fought through its streets until
the ways were heaped with dying and dead. Charleroi was set on fire
by shells, but the combat, which knew no truce, went on amid blazing
buildings and collapsing walls. It was a combat of men turned devils.
The town was taken and retaken. At the finish it remained in the hands
of the invaders, but thousands of the flower of their army lay amid and
around its ruins.
The battle of Mons and Charleroi was a Pyrrhic victory. One decisive
advantage, however, on that day the invaders had won. They had captured
the fortress of Namur.
After the heroic defence of Liége the rapid fall of Namur formed one
of the surprises of the campaign. The fortress was held by a Belgian
garrison of some 26,000 men, and well provisioned. Though so far as
natural situation goes a strong place, surrounded by a ring of four
larger and five smaller forts, in which the guns were protected by
armoured turrets of a type similar to those at Liége, it had some
serious weak spots.
As secretly as possible and during the night-time the Germans had
transported from Liége batteries of their huge howitzers, and had
planted these on already prepared beds of concrete in positions beyond
the range of the fortress artillery. It had been decided to renew the
ordnance of the forts, and the guns had been ordered, according to
report, though this lacks authority, from Germany. At all events the
newer and heavier ordnance was not there. It may here be explained
that an attack is rarely or never made upon a hostile fortress without
the general in command of the attack and his principal officers being
put into possession of plans of the works. These plans, the result of
espionage, show every detail, and afford every particular; disclose
every trench, entanglement, and obstacle, every building, wireless
instalment, or line of telegraph and telephone wire. The exact range
and power of every gun is stated. Between the field of fire of the guns
there are spaces, known technically as “dead points,” left uncovered,
or at all events, the facts being disclosed, such dispositions for
attack as will create “dead points” are readily made by drawing the
fire of the forts in particular directions.
Now the defence of Liége was successful because the entrenchments and
obstacles in the sectors between the forts were made when their details
could not be disclosed to the enemy. But Namur had been prepared
about the same time, and there was ample opportunity to discover the
All the Germans therefore had to do was to wait for the first autumn
mist among the hills to open fire from guns whose position the
defence did not know. To the attack the “laying” of such guns to
hit any desired object in the fortress was, with the plans in their
possession, a mere matter of mathematical calculation. Under cover of
such a mist, the forts being unable to reply, to knock some of them
to pieces by a heavily concentrated fire, and after that to stalk
the place was comparatively easy. The garrison were aware that the
fortress was untenable, or only to be held by meeting the attack by
a counter-attack. Following a terrific two days’ bombardment, during
which two of the forts were demolished, the assault was launched on the
afternoon of August 23. The garrison after a short resistance against
great odds were driven out. The mist which had favoured the attack
equally favoured their escape. They found their way fortunately into
the French lines.[C]
On August 20, the day before the formal entry of the German forces into
Brussels, the Belgians had evacuated Malines. It was deemed prudent, as
in fact it was, to withdraw the forces to the line of the outer forts
of Antwerp. Some of the most violent fighting on August 19 and 20 had
taken place 16 miles to the south-east of Antwerp at Aerschot. There
the Germans had made their determined, but unsuccessful, effort to
cross the Dyle.
Once in occupation of Brussels, they turned Malines into the
headquarters of the troops, an army corps some 60,000 strong, told off
to “mask” Antwerp by keeping the Belgian army if possible cooped up
within the fortress. Malines lies exactly halfway between Antwerp and
Brussels, about 12 miles from either city. It is, however, not more
than half a mile from the outer ring of the Antwerp fortifications.
The value of such a watch-tower to the Germans is manifest. No movement
could possibly be made by the Belgians from Antwerp without the
invaders knowing of it.
No sooner, however, had the march of the German main forces southward
from Brussels begun, than the Belgians sallied forth. They were
well-informed of the enemy’s movements, and were fully aware that,
acting in conjunction with the contingent moving from Liége direct to
the Sambre, that moving by way of Brussels could not in any event turn
This sortie, made so soon–it took place on August 23–took the German
troops in Malines by surprise. They were just beginning to make
themselves comfortable after their fatigues, when the Belgian army
burst in upon them. No effectual resistance was possible. The invaders
were driven, a battered rout, as far as Vilvorde, a northern suburb of
Brussels. There most of the 10,000 German troops forming the garrison
of Brussels were drawn up to cover the retreat. Malines remained in the
hands of the Belgians.
Realising from this defeat that they had a tough proposition in front
of them, the Germans hurried additional troops into the country.
Meanwhile the Belgians had again seized Aerschot, Termonde and Alost.
The German force threatening Ghent had to be withdrawn, and the
invaders found themselves in danger of being cooped up in the capital.
This situation throws light on the atrocities which almost immediately
followed, and on the question of whether these atrocities were
accidents of hasty indiscipline or were, in fact, military measures
carried out according to a settled plan.
A glance at the map of Belgium will show that the towns of Jodoigne,
Louvain, Malines, Termonde, and Alost form round Brussels an arc,
rather more than a semi-circle. The middle point of that arc is the
point nearest to Antwerp, that is to say, Malines.
Now these towns as well as Aerschot were destroyed with the exceptions
of Malines and Alost. Though Malines was three times severely bombarded
by the Germans, and in the succeeding struggles changed hands as many
times over, it was, while deplorably damaged, not destroyed. Neither
was Alost. Why? Because Malines was needed as a _point d’appui_ against
Antwerp, and Alost as a half-way position on the road to Ghent. Alost
was also the scene of repeated struggles. It is beyond argument to
suggest that this destruction of some places and not of others can
have been haphazard.
When we look further into the military situation the question passes
beyond all doubt. Entrenched at Antwerp the as yet undefeated Belgian
main army remained a serious menace. In fact, the Germans both at
Berlin and at Brussels were well aware that, so long as that state of
things continued, their hold upon the country was, not only precarious,
but, in the event of a reverse in France, to the last degree dangerous.
For, in possession of Antwerp and the seaboard provinces, the Belgians
might, in conjunction with the Allies, at once close the only door of
escape, and force at Aix-la-Chapelle what is, in effect, the main door
From the invaders’ point of view, therefore, it was essential both to
restrict the operations of the Belgian forces and to affirm their own
grip on Brussels. And this explains why the threats indulged in to
bombard and burn Brussels were merely threats. In a city of 800,000
people, numbers of whom, doubtless, secretly possessed arms, a rising
on the part of the population, with a native army of nearly 100,000 men
only a few miles away, meant a risk of the garrison of Brussels and
even of the occupying troops altogether having to defend themselves
against extermination, for the hatred they had inspired was unspeakable.
The plan resolved upon, it was carried out without mercy. Owing to
its ancient renown, and the world-wide interest of its buildings and
monuments, the destruction of Louvain has most shocked civilised
peoples. The loss is a loss to the world, but as regards its utter
inhumanity, the razing of the other towns, not to speak of the villages
surrounding them, was equally pitiless and savage. In these murders the
German soldiery spared neither age nor sex, and wreaked upon the most
helpless their most indescribable and debased barbarities. It has been
said that for every Belgian soldier killed in action, they slew three
unarmed men, women, or children.
In the devastated districts the bodies of murdered peasants lay
unburied in ditches by the roadside. The corpses of children, stiff in
death, clung in their last attitude of terror to the corpses of their
mutilated mothers. Others lay amid the roofless ruins of their homes.
There were instances in which women were stripped, outraged by brutal
soldiery, hanged from the branches of trees, and disembowelled in
mockery of their final agony. Those who could escaped into the woods,
where they hid without food or shelter. Numbers died of starvation and
exposure. To destroy the last chance of life for these fugitives, and
to avoid the trouble of hunting them out, corpses of murdered people
were thrown into wells in order to poison the water.[D]
As might be expected, troops capable of such enormities were, as
combatants, of little value. Well disciplined soldiers could not be
driven to such excesses. Though their greater numbers, when reinforced,
enabled the invaders to make headway against the native troops, yet in
every encounter between anything like equal forces they were always
decisively defeated, and without exception suffered losses out of all
proportion to those they were able to inflict.
It was after an encounter having these results that, on August 25, a
body of these demoralised ruffians burned Louvain. They sallied out
of that place with the object of driving the Belgians from Aerschot
and beyond the Dyle. They were repulsed, and chased back almost to the
outskirts of Louvain, sustaining on the way, as usual, a galling fire
on both flanks. It has been suggested that the officer in command,[E]
whose competence is sufficiently measured by the adventure, gave
the order to sack and destroy the town in order to disguise the
indiscipline of his troops. The motive assigned is not easy to accept.
According to the statement for which the Belgian Government made itself
responsible–a statement based on evidence which inquiry has not left
open to doubt:–
The German armed guard at the entrance to the town mistook
the nature of this incursion, and fired on their routed
fellow-countrymen, taking them for Belgians. In spite of all
denials from the authorities, the Germans, in order to cover
their mistake, pretended that it was the inhabitants who had
fired on them, whereas the inhabitants, including the police,
had all been disarmed more than a week before.
Without inquiry and without listening to any protest, the
German commander announced that the town would immediately
be destroyed. The inhabitants were ordered to leave their
dwellings; part of the men were made prisoners; the women and
children put into trains of which the destination is unknown.
Soldiers, furnished with bombs, set fire to all parts of
the town. The splendid church of St. Pierre, the University
buildings, the Library, and the scientific establishments were
delivered to the flames. Several notable citizens were shot.
The town of 45,000 inhabitants, the intellectual metropolis of
the Low Countries since the fifteenth century, is now no more
than a heap of ashes.
Such is the brief official statement. It was, however, but the palest
reflection of the facts. How scrupulously restrained the Belgian
Government were in framing it, is shown from the accounts given by
eye-witnesses of the tragedy.
One of these, a Dutchman who owed his escape to the possession of
papers proving his nationality, and afterwards reached Breda, told his
On Tuesday, the 25th, many troops left the town. We had a few
soldiers in our house. At six o’clock, when everything was
ready for dinner, alarm signals sounded, and the soldiers
rushed through the streets, shots whistled through the air,
cries and groans arose on all sides; but we did not dare leave
our house, and took refuge in the cellar, where we stayed
through long and fearful hours. Our shelter was lighted up by
the reflection from the burning houses. The firing continued
unceasingly, and we feared that at any moment our house would
be burnt over our heads. At break of day I crawled from the
cellar to the street door, and saw nothing but a raging sea of
At nine o’clock the shooting diminished, and we resolved to
make a dash to the station. Abandoning our home and all our
goods except what we could carry, and taking all the money
we had, we rushed out. What we saw on our way to the station
is hardly describable. Everything was burning, the streets
were covered with bodies shot dead and half-burnt. Everywhere
proclamations had been posted, summoning every man to assist in
quenching the flames, and the women and children to stay inside
the houses. The station was crowded with fugitives, and I was
just trying to show an officer my legitimation papers when the
soldiers separated me from my wife and children.
All protests were useless, and a lot of us were marched off
to a big shed in the goods yard, from where we could see the
finest buildings of the city, the most beautiful historical
monuments, being burned down.
Shortly afterwards German soldiers drove before them 300 men
and lads to the corner of the Boulevard van Tienen and the
Maria Theresa-street, opposite the Café Vermalen. There they
were shot. The sight filled us with horror. The Burgomaster,
two magistrates, the Rector of the University, and all police
officials had been shot already.
With our hands bound behind our backs we were then marched
off by the soldiers, still without having seen our wives or
children. We went through the Juste de Litshstreet, along the
Diester Boulevard, across the Vaart and up the hill.
From the Mont Cesar we had a full view of the burning town, St.
Peter in flames, while the troops incessantly sent shot after
shot into the unfortunate town. We came through the village
of Herent–one single heap of ruins–where another troop of
prisoners, including half-a-dozen priests, joined us. Suddenly,
about ten o’clock, evidently as the result of some false alarm,
we were ordered to kneel down, and the soldiers stood behind
us with their rifles ready to fire, using us as a shield. But
fortunately for us nothing happened.
After a delay of half an hour, our march was continued.
No conversation was allowed, and the soldiers continually
maltreated us. One soldier struck me with all his might with
the heavy butt-end of his rifle. I could hardly walk any
further, but I had to. We were choked with thirst, but the
Germans wasted their drinking water without offering us a drop.
At seven o’clock we arrived at Camperhout, _en route_ for
Malines. We saw many half-burnt bodies–men, women, and
children. Frightened to death and half-starved, we were locked
up in the church, and there later joined by another troop of
prisoners from the surrounding villages.
At ten o’clock the church was lighted up by burning houses.
Again shots whistled through the air, followed by cries and
At five o’clock next morning, all the priests were taken
out by the soldiers and shot, together with eight Belgian
soldiers, six cyclists, and two gamekeepers. Then the officer
told us that we could go back to Louvain. This we did, but
only to be recaptured by other soldiers, who brought us back
to Camperhout. From there we marched to Malines, not by the
high road, but along the river. Some of the party fell into
the water, but all were rescued. After thirty-six hours of
ceaseless excitement and danger we arrived at Malines, where
we were able to buy some food, and from there I escaped to
Holland. I still do not know where my wife and children are.[F]
Another witness was Mr. Gerald Morgan, an American resident at
Brussels. His narrative, given after his eventual arrival in England
by way of Louvain, was published in the _Daily Telegraph_ on September
3. He made a tour over the German line of march, and found their
wounded scattered through every town and village not yet destroyed. In
the absence of any German field hospitals, these men were left in any
buildings available to be removed as far as possible back to Germany
in returning supply wagons, ’buses or motor-cars. To calculate their
number was very difficult. Mr. Morgan goes on to say:–
After this I returned to Brussels, and we Americans in Brussels
then decided that it was time we shook the soil of the country
from our feet. We found that we could return to England on
a troop-train, viâ Louvain, Liége, and Aix-la-Chapelle, and
thence over the Dutch border. A question arose as to how long
the train would stop at Louvain, but on the following morning
the German staff office at the railway station said, “You won’t
stop at Louvain, as Louvain was being destroyed.” We left at
three o’clock, the train stopping with abominable jerks every
few minutes, like a German soldier saluting. We began to see
signs of destruction in the outlying villages shortly before we
reached Louvain. Houses in the villages were in flames.
An hour before sunset we entered Louvain, and found the city
a smoking furnace. The railway station was crowded with
troops, drunk with loot and liquor, and rapine as well. From
house to house, acting under orders, groups of soldiers were
carrying lighted straw, placing it in the basement, and then
passing it on to the next. It was not one’s idea of a general
conflagration, for each house burnt separately–hundreds of
individual bonfires–while the sparks shot up like thousands of
shooting stars into the still night air. It was exactly like
a display of fireworks or Bengal lights, and set pieces, at a
grand display in Coney Island.
Meanwhile, through the station arch we saw German justice being
administered. In a square outside, where the cabs stand, an
officer stood, and the soldiers drove the citizens of Louvain
into his presence, like so many unwilling cattle on a market
day. Some of the men, after a few words between the officer
and the escorts, were marched off under fixed bayonets behind
the railway station. Then we heard volleys, and the soldiers
returned. Then the train moved out, and the last we saw of the
doomed city was an immense red glare in the gathering darkness.
My impressions after Louvain were just as if I had read and
dreamt of one of Zola’s novels.
Weighing this evidence, it is not possible to resist the conclusion
that the atrocity of Louvain was planned and carried out deliberately
and in cold blood, and it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the
trivial conflict between the German armed guard and their retreating
troops, a conflict which apparently hurt nobody on either side, was
prearranged in order to afford a colourable excuse. It has been alleged
that the troops forming the guard were drunk, and that they had just
turned out on the alarm being sounded, after a debauch following the
sack of a brewery. There is no present proof that the sack of the
brewery had anything to do with the affair, or that the connection was
anything more than an afterthought.
The inference of a plan is strengthened, not only by the method with
which, as Mr. Morgan shows, the destruction and its accompanying
“military executions” were completed, but by the provocation which had
previously been offered to the inhabitants, but offered, as it proved,
without the evidently expected effect.
On the latter point the statement of the escaped Dutch resident already
quoted is circumstantial, and since this is not a Belgian witness, his
relation may be accepted as unbiassed. He says:–
Before the Germans entered the town the Civic Guard had been
disarmed, and all weapons in the possession of the population
had to be given up. Even toy guns and toy pistols and precious
collections of old weapons, bows and arrows, and other
antique arms useless for any kind of modern warfare had to be
surrendered, and all these things–sometimes of great personal
value to the owner–have since been destroyed by the Germans.
The value of one single private collection has been estimated
at about £1,000. From the pulpits the priests urged the people
to keep calm, as that was the only way to prevent harm being
done to them.
A few days after the entry of the German troops the military
authority agreed to cease quartering their men in private
houses, in return for a payment of 100,000 francs (£4,000)
per day. On some houses between forty and fifty men had been
billeted. After the first payment of the voluntary contribution
the soldiers camped in the open or in the public buildings. The
beautiful rooms in the Town Hall, where the civil marriages
take place, were used as a stable for cavalry horses.
At first everything the soldiers bought was paid for in cash
or promissory notes, but later this was altered. Soldiers came
and asked for change, and when this was handed to them they
tendered in return for the hard cash a piece of paper–a kind
All the houses abandoned by their owners were ransacked,
notwithstanding the warnings from the military authorities
forbidding the troops to pillage. The Germans imprisoned as
hostages of war the Burgomaster, two magistrates, and a number
of influential citizens.
On Sunday, the 23rd, I and some other influential people in
the town were roused from our beds. We were informed that an
order had been given that 250 mattresses, 200 lb. of coffee,
250 loaves of bread, and 500 eggs must be on the market-place
within an hour. On turning out we found the Burgomaster
standing on the market-place, and crowds of citizens, half
naked, or in their night attire, carrying everything they could
lay hands on to the market, that no harm might befall their
Burgomaster. After this had been done the German officer in
command told us that his orders had been misinterpreted, and
that he only wanted the mattresses.
On this, it is clear that the townspeople did everything possible to
avoid giving offence to these brutal enemies. On the other hand, it
is equally clear that the German military “authorities” issued orders
against pillage by the troops, which were taken by the latter, and must
have been well known to be, hypocritical.
[Illustration: COPYRIGHT, SPECIALLY PREPARED FOR The Daily Telegraph BY
The proofs as to the real responsibility for this foul deed are
irresistible. The soldiers of Alva at their worst never perpetrated any
horror so utterly cowardly. They were fired by the fury of religious
zeal. Blindly mistaken and politically disastrous as it proved to be,
it was a motive worthy of respect by the side of the stupid hate and
the mean fear born of the grovelling and greedy materialism of these
The destroyers saved the incomparable town hall, because they destined
it to be an ornament of a Germanised Belgium. The rest of the town,
however, and more particularly the older part of it, was reduced to
a blackened ruin, from which, as from other burning towns, arose a
mighty cloud of smoke. Doubtless it was hoped that this spectacle,
visible from Antwerp, as well as from Brussels, would strike terror
into the people. What they could not gain by arms the Germans sought to
gain by the devices of barbarity. But a Nemesis waits on this mode of
“warfare.” It is related by Lamartine that after their subjugation of
Servia the Turks collected into a pyramid the skulls of the slain. This
ghastly monument, situated in a desolate valley, the scene of a great
battle, was intended as an everlasting warning. To the Serbs it became
a remembrance of the price their fathers had been willing to pay for
liberty: a revered national memorial which kept alive the spirit which
at last crushed their oppressors.
In the same way, the oppressors of Belgium fanned the fires of
resistance. In the library of the University of Louvain they had
destroyed ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Oriental texts and manuscripts
of priceless value; they had not destroyed the valour of one Belgian
heart. They had laid in ashes a place which had rightly been called by
Lipsius the Belgian Athens, and had earned the praise and admiration
of philosophers from Erasmus to Sir William Hamilton; they had but
enhanced the glory of the town where, while Northern Europe was
still covered by intellectual night, and “kultur” had not yet shed
its radiance on Germany, nor contributed to produce a Prussian army,
a community of mere weavers had, first among the municipalities of
Europe, founded out of their hard earnings, a seat of philosophy,
science, and the arts, and in its twenty-eight colleges, the nurseries
of many famous men, for centuries led the way in their cultivation. Its
university buildings and its library; its art treasures[G]; its Academy
of Painting; its School of Music; its Museum of National History had
been committed to the flames at the hands of rabble soldiery, urged on
by still more degraded officers, but the brand applied was applied to
their own country, whose good name they had burned from among nations.