The sack of Louvain

In 1914, German soldiers sacked the Belgian city of Louvain. Its population was expelled and some were carried off in freight trains to camps in Germany. Its library, together with its priceless collection of rare manuscripts and early printed books, was deliberately burnt.

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A cowed and defeated civilian population watches helplessly as their conquered city is taken and burnt by German soldiers. Prominent citizens are rounded up and then shot whilst others are beaten and publicly disgraced. Tales of brutal atrocities against women and children spread almost as quickly as the flames that are destroying the ancient buildings.

Interior of the Famous Library at Louvain. (Photo by N.J. Boon, Holland.)

The university’s ancient library, filled with irreplaceable volumes of incunabula and glorious illuminated manuscripts, is doused with kerosene and set alight. Wooden beams and millions of pages make perfect fuel for the ferocious flames that soon reduce the building to rubble and its priceless contents to ashes.

Finally, the people are rounded up and expelled from the city. Under threat of bombardment, most are sent to the surrounding countryside whilst an unlucky 1,500 are deported in cattle wagons to spend miserable months in a prison camp.

This could be one of innumerable accounts of the callous destruction and slaughter from the Second World War. With columns of civilians being deported, people shoved onto cattle wagons and cities burnt to the ground, it would have been unremarkable in a conflict miserably full of such atrocities.

Town hall of Leuven

But this is not a story from the Second World War; it is a remarkable incident from the First World War and one that illustrates that the harsh treatment of civilians was not reserved for the later conflict.

Louvain was one of the jewels of pre-war Belgium. It grew rich in the middle ages, a thriving commercial centre for the booming cloth trade. Its architecture was proud, gothic and patrician. By the summer of 1914, it had become a major centre for culture and learning, with a famous university and library that attracted scholars from around the world.

In August, the city had been declared an open city, the Belgian soldiers defending the city had been despatched to defensive positions closer to Antwerp and its Garde Civique had been dispanded. By the end of the month, one-sixth of the city’s buildings lay in ruins and its population of over 10,000 had been expelled.

Remember Belgium propaganda poster

According to the History Channel, “over the next five days, as Louvain and its buildings—including its renowned university and library, founded in 1426—burned, a great outcry grew in the international community, with refugees pouring out of the village and eyewitness accounts filling the foreign press.”

Unsurprisingly, the reaction in the Allied and neutral countries was immediate and angry.  The New York Tribute shouted “GERMANS SACK LOUVAIN; WOMEN AND CLERGY SHOT”. If anything, the press in Allied countries was even more frenzied. British editorials proclaimed “Treason to Civilization” and portrayed the Germans as descendants and inheritors of Atilla the Hun.

The sack of Louvain became one of the more famous examples of German atrocities in the First World War. Plucky Belgium was contrasted with the brutish Hun, and tales of civilian casualties and deliberate destruction of irreplacement cultural treasures provided excellent fuel for Allied propaganda.

Leuven, Universitieisbibliotheek (University Library) By Michielverbeek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The rector of the university, Monsignor Paulin Ladeuze, was sure that the cause was arson. He reported to the Vatican that “all that remained of this enormous building and the 300,000 volumes it contained were four walls and ashes” and concluded that this could only be explained by deliberate action.

For those familiar with the atrocities of the Second World War, one of the more disturbing aspects of events in Louvain was the expulsion of civilians and the deportation by cattle cars of a large group to German prison camps.

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