In the historical literature, but also in the collective consciousness, the military aspects of the First World War in Belgium begin with the "Defence" of Liège, that nevertheless did little to significantly slow the drive of the German troops heading west. This is the first episode, the prelude, in fact. On the other hand, in civilian, emotional and dramatic terms, it was indeed the August 1914 sack of the city of Louvain that will inaugurated a long series of brutality, attacks on civilians, and misunderstandings as well. Since time immemorial, in fact, from Ephesus to Rome, the sackings of cities, particularly striking moments during conflicts given their crudeness, vague causes and the unrestrained violence that they imply, are often key milestones in the understanding of war as it is experienced by civilian populations. But these violent, sudden and often short-lived episodes are also an occasion for the press and public opinion, that was only barely defined in the 19th century, to develop and to become a power in and of itself. In August 1914, the case of Louvain is thoroughly atypical. A peaceful, tranquil and replete university city, provincial to its core however close to the Capital, Louvain did not seem destined to be troubled by the future that seemed to lay before it. With the exception of a few disputes around the city of Antwerp in the early months of its existence, Belgium had never been invaded since its independence in 1831. As the preferred theatre of operations for the nations of the 17th and 18th centuries, the southern Netherlands (future Belgium), now an ideal "barrier" between France and the other side of the Rhine, are awakened with a jolt in 1914. Did socialist leader Emile Vandervelde not say that the German invasion had surprised Belgium "like a thief in the night"? The first spoils would be found in Louvain.
A peaceful city
August 1914. Symbolic of the opening hostilities of the First World War, this month appears to us as a thunderclap in an otherwise clear blue sky. Louvain, a university town since 1425, where the July exams had just ended, will be paying the price, and a bloody price indeed. The Belgian university world has not yet been affected by the grievances of the Flemish movement. Of course, the judicial and administrative worlds have been affected by laws. But the university world remains as though a protected ivory tower. It's the golden era of a small universe, a French-speaking, bourgeois and often liberal world. It lives at the rhythm of graduating classes, education given in French, and the few annual student forays into alcoholic excess. The life of this microcosm therefore rolls along peacefully.
A native of Louvain in his heart, Herman Vander Linden (1868-1956), a history professor at the University of Liège, epitomizes what the city will experience. Until 1914, the life of this rigorous and austere scientist – who would only marry at 43 years of age – and of this man of the archives, had been a series of diplomas, works, study trips abroad to France and Germany, where historical sources had been taken to the far reaches of study, namely the Quellen. Germanic culture is like a badge of honour for him. He is imbued with it by his first professor, barely 6 years old than him, author of the Histoire de Belgique that is still spoken of today, historian Henri Pirenne (1862-1935).
In a commonly shared blow from destiny, the latter will also be caught up in the pangs of the 1914-1918 war. Would he not lose one of his sons in 1914? Would he not leave Belgium in 1916, carried off militarily by the occupier before being incarcerated at the Holzminden camp, where he would give lessons to Russian prisoners? For these men, for such scientists, 1914 was the end of an era, and the end of the idyll that they had known with Germany. Just like the newlyweds who would spend their honeymoon on the shores of the Rhine, they then begin to hesitate when looking at yesterday's point of reference. The finest example of this break with Germany is incarnated by historian Godefroid Kurth (1847-1916), who himself trained Henri Pirenne and, to some degree, Herman Vander Linden. A native of Arlon, guttural of speech, nervous, ambitious and somewhat mystical, Kurth was first and foremost a Catholic intellectual very well-placed in political circles, who would plead his best case in a work published three years after his death: the Guet-Apens Prussien en Belgique, published in 1919.
Let us quote these lines by Kurth (translation), that Vander Linden could easily have written: In me, Germany had no better friend in Belgium. I'm pleased to say so openly, at a time when such an admission, both in Belgium and elsewhere, could lead to a measure of unpopularity […] This book would never have been written if the hand writing it were still capable of holding a gun, and if the author's career had ended in the trenches of the Yser. But since death, like fortune, despises old men, it will not be surprising that, having been unable to offer my blood to the homeland, I can only give it the humble tribute of my testimonial.
In me, Germany had no better friend in Belgium.
In relative calm, German troops occupy Louvain starting on August 20th. The evening before, on the 19th, Herman Vander Linden had only just written in his personal notes: A few hours before the Germans arrived in Louvain (19 August), we noted a good many farms burning on the hills of Pellenberg and Kessel-Loo, which you can see from our residence in the Boulevard de Tirlemont. These fires took hold with extraordinary speed. However, the inhabitants did not seem to be particularly alarmed. But everything would change on the 25th. Rumours fly about approaching English soldiers. Also, the Belgian army makes its first sortie coming from Malines, with the aim of a counter-attack. Confusion quickly takes hold. Germans garrisoned in Louvain blindly shoot at their co-religionists coming from the North. Panic engulfs the city. The German set fire to the University Halls. Also the Chaussée de Tirlemont, where Vander Linden lives. Immersed in German culture since his youth, how could this man even envisage such acts of brutality? It was a personal earthquake. His home is petrol-bombed, all of his manuscript are destroyed, and his considerable library goes up in smoke. He and his family (i.e. wife and two children) are captured. Vander Linden then experiences a sad journey: he is taken by train from Louvain to Cologne, where, with others, he is exhibited to the population as a kind of Belgian pseudo-irregular. After these macabre festivities, he is returned by train to Willebroeck where he manages to escape from his jailers, by jumping from a moving convoy. He wanders for several days. The consul of the Netherlands in Louvain comes to his assistance, taking him to Oxford where his family has settled. After the conflict, Vander Linden will return to the locations of the sacking, with the French journalist Yvonne Dusser. In the eyes of the world, Louvain was the prelude to the martyrdom of Poor Little Belgium.
While he remained a professor until 1938, the conflict affected him greatly. He changed, becoming feverish. One of his former students, lawyer J.-L. Libert, describes him in these words, but without naming Vander Linden: He always had his favourite whipping boys, always "clericals", since he didn't go along with Kurth; the most heavily targeted included King Charles X of France and Jules-Armand, prince of Polignac, his prime minister who, they say, had visions. [...] This professor had a salt-and-pepper beard, a gaunt neck, bare forehead, the rest of his scalp somewhat hairy and, from time to time, somewhat trembling hands. They say that in 1914 in Louvain (Leuven), his home had been destroyed, his library and writings burned, that the Germans had put him against the wall and that he expected to be shot, hence his nervousness. In my view, he was an intelligent man, without malice, but lacking in serenity.
These fires took hold with extraordinary speed