The Stories from the Martyr Towns
These stories are true.
Concerned by persistent reports of German brutality towards the civilian population in invaded Belgium in 1914, The British Government, headed by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, commissioned James Bryce to prepare an independent report based upon his and an appointed committee’s findings.
These stories are adapted from the actual depositions of the eye-witnesses.
No dramatic licence has been employed in telling these tales.
The actions described herein are as recalled to and recorded by the investigators, simply re-written to tell the stories.
In September 1914 a quarter of a million Belgian refugees poured in through Britain’s ports having escaped the advancing German Army. This was, and still is, the largest refugee movement in British History and is largely forgotten.
The British Government accepted the responsibility for the reception, maintenance and registration of these refugees, whilst at the same time they sought out assistance in housing the refugees with local authorities.
The Belgian refugees remained in Britain until after the end of the war when most returned to Belgium.
This video shows Belgian Refugees being helped off a train by British & French soldiers and nurses. Courtesy of British Pathé http://goo.gl/Vc7Hfo (opens in a new window)
I awoke to the bombardment of my town, Aarschot, at around half past five in the morning. I quickly gathered my family, including my mother and father, my wife and my children and by 6 o’clock we were making our way to Gelrode, which was about half an hour away. We stayed there until around 3 o’clock in the afternoon – all the time hearing guns firing in the distance. On our return to Aarschot we encountered Germans for the first time. At around 7 o’clock in the evening they started shooting on Aarschot again, so we left our house. We couldn’t go back to Gelrode because the Germans were blocking the route so we went South instead where we found a public house. Altogether there were around 30 people seeking shelter there, about ten of whom were grown men. Outside the public house there was a water pump, and a couple of times during the night some of us had been out to get water or to go to the toilet. One time when I was out there I heard the sound of gunfire, and saw the flash of a rifle.
In the morning, at about 5 o’clock, thirty or forty German soldiers came into the building and made us put our hands in the air. They searched our pockets too. They said that we had been firing on them – which must have been the sound of rifles that I heard earlier, but I knew it wasn’t any of us who had done this. Because I was sat nearest to the door when the Germans came in they accused me of being the gunman. They kept repeating it over and over – as though to make me understand. I could understand though, because although they were speaking in German it was very similar to Flemish. I told them than no-one in here had been shooting at them, and that we had no weapons. Everyone in the village had already been made to surrender any weapons.
The Germans ordered all the men out of the building – there were about ten or eleven of us, I think, including me and my eldest son. We were told to put our hands in the air, and we were searched again. Then they forced us to walk two-by-two, with a German soldier either side of us, for about twenty minutes with our hands up. Some of the men got tired and rested their hand on their heads. The Germans called at houses along the way, and gathered any other men they found. There were about 18 of us and about 30 of them. In time, we were approached by a German officer, whom I later found out to be a general, who again accused us of firing on them. We all protested that this was not true, and we were marched to join another group of prisoners, making our numbers somewhere around 60.
After a short while, another General came out. He took out a piece of paper and read to us the news that one in three of us were to be taken and shot. They took all the young men, aged around 20, and moved them away from us. We heard shooting, but I did not dare to look behind me. Another thirty or so men were brought to join us, and then they took another 25 to be shot. One of these was a farm worker I knew, another man I recognised who worked in the mine, another was a mason, and my eldest son…
We were not allowed to look around. I heard shots but I did not really know what had happened. After the shooting we were told to return home, and I went directly to my house but there was no-one there. I slept two nights in the woods, and then I heard that my wife and children were in a house outside the village. I was afraid to stay with them, as I did not want to bring any danger to them. I stayed in the woods for eleven more nights and then travelled for fourteen days to get to Gheel where I took the train to Antwerp, and from there, the boat to London.
I never saw my eldest son again, and never knew, for sure, what had happened to him.
I remember the German Soldiers first arriving into Aarschot on the morning of August 19th. It was around 8 o’clock. Very soon after the Germans arrived they fired shots at the burgomaster’s house, which was only about 15 metres from ours. The burgomaster of the town owned a brewery and a mill, and he worked them together with his brothers. We had shut all the windows and doors, so I didn’t see the shooting, I could only hear it.
The burgomaster was escorted around the town by the soldiers, and he asked all the residents to open up their doors and windows. By around 10 o’clock in the morning they had collected together quite a number of the men of the town, and gathered them by the river Demer. The men were kept there until around noon. Whilst they were collecting these men, the soldiers broke a lot of windows on the houses, so that they could loot them and take anything they wanted. At my house they broke the windows in order to take three wine bottles that they could see – but these contained vinegar so were of no use to them. One of the officers demanded I give him coffee, and he took more than a kilogramme. He did not pay for it, nor did he give me a receipt, he just took it.
A few doors down from my house there was a jeweller. He had been told to prepare his house for some of the Germans to be billeted there. A shot was fired from one of the houses near to his, and some of the Germans said it came from his house, although some said it came from nearby, in another house. By now it was around 7 o’clock in the evening and a lot of the soldiers were drunk, and I am sure it was one of them who fired the shot, not a civilian, because some days before the soldiers arrived the town crier was sent to order all arms to be surrendered to the Hotel de Ville (the Town Hall) and they had put signs up to this effect. I do think that all arms were given up. No-one was hit when this shot was fired, but the German Soldiers started to fire on all the houses at once. The burgomaster’s cook told me that there were three Germans out there, and that one of them was a colonel. I saw them myself from inside my window. They were drying their hands on a towel. Whilst they were firing on the houses I believe the colonel was shot and killed, but I cannot be certain – the burgomaster’s cook told me this. She said that the burgomaster’s family – his wife, daughter and 15 years old son – were in the cellar when the colonel was shot, but the Germans said it was the 15 year old boy who did it. This firing upon the houses carried on for about 10 minutes, I think. We were all ordered out into the street and the houses were searched. Anyone who hadn’t left their house when ordered to was dragged out by their hair. The women and children were put on one side of the road, myself and my five children included. The men were kept separate and I saw that many had their hands tied. They took the men away sometime around 8 o’clock in the evening – it was getting dark and I couldn’t say for sure how many of them there were. We were kept there until about 3 o’clock the next morning, and then they let us go back to our houses.
I heard the next day that around 150 men had been shot. They shot the burgomaster, his brother and the 15 year old boy whom they had accused of killing the colonel. I have not seen my husband since the men were taken away, so I fear that he was also shot.
At around 5 o’clock in the evening of the next day, they told us all that we had to leave our houses, as they were going to burn them down. I took my children and went to Haterbeek to my brother-in-law’s farm, about a half hour walk away.
I was hiding in a cellar with some friends when the Germans arrived in Aarschot. When the soldiers found us, they made us join a large number of civilians from the town, and we had to walk with our hands above our heads for about 20 minutes. In all there were around a thousand of us. We were made to stand in lines near the river bank. Next to me was an old man, aged 75. One of the German soldiers, who spoke Flemish, told us that we were all to be shot. We were given no reason why. He also told us that half a million men were coming to the town.
We stood by the river for about three hours. As we were there, two German officers brought the burgomaster of Aarschot, who told us that we were to surrender any weapons. As a matter of fact, all weapons had been taken from the civilians eight days before. After this, they let us go free.
As I was walking towards my home I heard the sound of shooting and saw four men fall in front of me. These men were not with the prisoners, but were civilians. I knew two of them, a father and son. They had been taken out of their house and shot in front of it. Another of the men, I heard later, was shot as he returned home from work. As I continued home, I saw the dead body of another man in the street. He had been shot through the head. He was also known to me – a civilian who lived four doors down from my house.
Back at my house, I found that all the furniture had been broken and that anything of value had been stolen. For a while, my wife and I hid in the cellar of my house. When we came back out again I saw the body of the man who lived next door. He wore a Red Cross Brassard on his arm. He was riddled with bullets.
The German soldiers were in Aarschot for three days. Throughout that time they were killing Belgian civilians.
I was taken again by the Germans, along with a group of men. They took out every third man, and compelled the other two to dig a grave. There were 150 of us in all, and 50 were shot. I saw some of the shootings, but not all. None of the men who were shot had given the slightest provocation. The usual excuse was that they had fired upon the Germans, but this was quite untrue as none of them had weapons. The men who were picked out to be shot were usually young men.
Afterwards, we were placed in the church at Louvain. Then we were taken to Station Street. There were about 1,500 civilians of both sexes. When we were in Station Street I felt that something was about to happen, and I tried to shelter in a doorway. The German soldiers fired upon the people and bodies fell around me on all sides. Two men next to me were killed.
I saw someone give a signal, and the firing ceased. I escaped with woman from Aarschot, but we were captured. She was shot by the side of me, and I saw her fall. Several other people were shot at the same time. I ran, and in my flight saw children falling out of their mothers’ arms—I cannot say whether they were shot, or whether they fell in the great panic which ensued.
The Germans first arrived about 9 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, August 19th. The Belgian soldiers had retreated. I saw them pass out of the town.
Thousands and thousands of soldiers came into the town, but they did nothing. I stayed at home, because I was told (falsely, I now understand) that the bridge had been destroyed. I saw several soldiers firing a few shots at the church for no reason whatsoever. Then a whole troop came down the street, breaking windows all along. All the front doors were shut, but the Germans broke them open. The Germans had issued a proclamation that we were to keep our doors open, but I had not heard about it. They broke my door open with hatchets, and fired down the passage where I was standing with the old couple who lived next door. The old man and I ran away and hid at the back of the house, but soon a lot of Germans came along and found us. We were taken out and brought into the town, which was a quarter of an hour’s walk.
On the way I saw the Germans ill-treating a priest, who was a Red Cross man. I went back home and found my husband lying dead outside it. He had been shot through the head from behind. His pockets had been rifled. I went to the hospital, and I saw the old man, who had been shot in the leg. I went again later and was told he had died. I went home and stayed there for a while and then I went to my sister’s house.
When they were taking away my husband’s body, a German officer asked me who had killed him:
“Who has done this? Who shot that man? The Belgians have done this.”
I said, “The Germans.”
He said, “It is not a thing that ought to be allowed,” and shook his head.
I came back home to fetch my clothes and stopped the night in a neighbour’s cellar. The Germans fired on me when I was going there, they were only 10 yards off, but they didn’t hit me.
While I was walking about the town I was frequently stopped, but on putting my hands up, I was allowed to proceed. When going to my sister’s, I saw the body of a young man of 20. I knew him by sight.
When I was in my neighbour’s cellar another neighbour—a woman of about 68 or 70 with grey hair—came and called to us from the street; we did not go out or answer, and in the morning at half past four we found her body in the street in front of her door.
We went to the hospital, where they have very big cellars. We were challenged to stop, but we ran on and the Germans let us pass into the hospital. So far as I could see no houses had yet been burnt. At about 10 o’clock in the morning I went to my sister’s and stayed there till Friday, August 21st, in the cellar.
At 5 o’clock in the morning we came out and fled through small villages to Antwerp. We saw the bodies of some Belgian soldiers and civilians. I did not examine any of the bodies, I was too frightened. I cannot say whether they were all bodies of men or not. There were many houses burning when we left. I saw one whole street burnt to the ground—the interior of the houses were gutted, only the outside walls left.
My wife and two children and I were taken by the Germans into a brick field. There were 16 other men—all civilians. On the way, my 16 year old son was wounded by the bayonet of one of the German soldiers accompanying us, and on arriving at the brickfield he fainted from loss of blood.
After we arrived, another man, also a civilian, was brought into the brick field, and I saw the Germans kill him—they shot him with a revolver.
Afterwards the Germans tied our hands behind our backs, and selected five, including myself. We were made to march in front of the German troops, and were directed by one of the officers to guide the troops to Herent. The officer told us that he did this so that if the troops were fired on we should be the first to fall. We were pushed along with the point of a bayonet.
On the way I saw four or five civilians lying dead by the roadside, one of whom appeared to have been shot in the face. I was unable to see how the others had been killed. They had no weapons with them.
At Herent the officer told us that our company had not been fired upon, but the other company had, so they had shot all the men left in the brick field. Among them was my son.
I had been separated from my never saw my wife and daughter at the brick field, but I have since heard they are safe. We arrived at Bueken, eight or nine miles from Leuven. On the way we were joined by 300 to 400 other civilian prisoners—men, women and children. The Germans lit a large fire in a field, and the five of us who had been leading the group were ordered to walk through it. I was the first of the five, and on approaching the fire I saw a plank which had not been burned, and so I stepped on that and was able to jump through without burning myself. The other four men were then allowed to walk round instead of through the fire to the other side where I was.
We were taken back to the other prisoners, the men being separated from the women and children.
I had been taken to the brick field sometime between 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning, and at about 11 o’clock in the evening all the men were taken to another field close to a burning farmhouse. There were more than a hundred of us. We were made to kneel in two lines with our hands still tied behind us, and we were made to bite the earth.
After this we were forced into a small farmhouse which was not large enough to hold us, but those behind were pushed in by the German soldiers with the butt end of their rifles. We were left without food until 9 or 10 o’clock next morning.
About three weeks after the beginning of the war the Germans came to Boisschot. It was a patrol of about 15 mounted German soldiers. These were the first Germans who came there. They were followed by a number of infantry.
Our house is at the start of the village as one comes from the east side. I was standing outside the door of my house when the Germans came, and I stood there about half an hour. I saw German soldiers going into the houses and dragging out all the men. They dragged out all the men, old and young. The old men were only taken as far as Aarschot, two hours away, and they held them there in the church. They came back the next day. One old man I know told me this. The young men did not come back.
Later on, the same day, I was in the Groen Straat in Boisschot. I was running to the station by myself, when I saw an old man standing in the yard by his house. I told him to run away with me.
He said “I cannot come yet”. He was standing alone in his yard, I knew him well. I told him a German patrol was coming up the street, I could hear the horses. It was about 300 metres behind me, I think. The house is at the end of the village with open country beside it. There is a wood about 25 metres beyond it on the same side of the road as his house. I ran into the wood and hid there.
I saw the old man running across the road to the side opposite to that on which I was, and in the direction of the station. I heard two shots fired. After the second shot he fell backwards on the street. Half a minute later the patrol rode by towards the station. They passed by the old man lying on the ground, but none of them dismounted or did anything to help him. Each of them had a gun.
After they had passed, I crept out of the wood. I went up to the old man and stood beside him. I spoke to him, but he could not speak. I went back across the fields to my home. The house was empty, but there were two houses in the street which still had people in them. One of the houses belonged to a peasant woman. I went and told her and her husband what had happened to the old man. They came with a small cart drawn by a dog and we went to the spot where he lay. We lifted him onto the cart and took him to the station at Heyst-op-den Berg.
I was told by the old men who came back the next day that 200 men had been taken from the village. I have not seen my father since that day. He is an agricultural labourer, and had come home for dinner, but he went out again. The old told us that they had seen him in the church at Aarschot. He did not come back with them. Men between 16 and 50 or 55 were taken away and not let back.
I saw my mother, brother and sister again at Heyst-op-den-Berg. Station.
I also saw the old man lying in a room there. There was blood on his shirt, on the left hand side of his chest. He died while we were there.
I worked as a blacksmith with my father. At 6 o’clock in the morning on the 19th of August we left to go to work. We were captured by German soldiers – they were both infantry and cavalry. I’m not sure which regiments they were. I was searched, but of course I had no weapons. Two soldiers took me and forced me to break into houses – people were in the houses and had locked themselves there to hide. I was put with about 25 other men, who were prisoners, and had to follow them. There were other civilians captured, and eventually there were around two hundred of us (all men). I knew some of them. Some were sick people who had been taken from their beds.
We were made to stand for two hours with our hands in the air. M. Tielmans, the Burgomaster of Aarschot was ordered to speak to us. He said, in Flemish, “Everyone person among you who has weapons must take them to the Town Hall. Any of you poor men who do have weapons will be killed by the Germans. I therefore beg all of you to give up your weapons.”
The rifles had already been collected at the start of the war. One man, who I knew by sight, did have a gun that he used for pigeon-shooting. He surrendered this weapon and we were allowed to leave.
That night, when I was in my house, I saw some German soldiers pass by. A railway guard who was standing in the street saw them too and he ran away as they approached. A German officer shot him dead with his revolver. Another man, who also worked at the station, was shot dead by another soldier.
A man and his two sons were standing by the sluice gate. They were ordered to put their hands in the air. One of the sons was deaf. I understood what the order was by the signs they made to him, but he did not respond quickly enough and so the German soldiers shot him in front of his family. An officer ordered the sluice gates to be opened, and the man in charge did not react. I heard the order given for him to be shot, and this was done.
That night a cannon was placed on the outskirts of the town and Aarschot was bombarded.
The German officer who was staying at the Burgomaster’s house was shot dead. They accused the Burgomaster’s son of doing this, but I knew him and he was already injured in the arm and so could not have done it. He was only about 16 years of age. Because of this, we were all taken prisoner and sent to the Market Place, which was ablaze. We were made to stand very close to the flames. In the morning, we were marched to a potato field, and from I here I escaped.
I passed through a field where there had been a battle the previous day, and saw many bodies of Belgian soldiers. I did not see any German soldiers. As I came to Beggynendyk, which is about three quarters of a mile from Aarschot in the direction of Antwerp, I saw four civilians lying dead. They were close to the battlefield and had probably died in the battle. I also saw some German soldiers firing through the windows of houses in Beggynendyk for no reason.
Also, while I was there, I saw the body of an old man. To me, it looked like he had been kneeling down when he was shot.
I was in service in a large house in Aarschot. When the German soldiers entered the town they broke down doors and windows and took anything they wanted.
The lady of our house had prepared some food for the soldiers, and I invited them in. They dragged me out of the house by my collar and down the street, all the while pointing their revolvers at me. I was searched and the soldiers took my money. It was about 1,700 francs. I did have another purse – that one had about 30 francs in it and they didn’t find it.
Three of the soldiers were on horseback. They galloped off leaving one who was on foot behind. I managed to escape the one soldier and went to find my wife. Together we climbed through a hedge into the grounds of the hospital. We spent the whole night hiding in the hedge and from this vantage point we could see the town burning. In the morning we went in to the hospital. It was clear that they needed help there and so we were each given a red cross to wear so we could help attend to those people who were wounded.
The German soldiers took all the people they found on the streets and made them prisoners. All the men were held in the church, separated from their families as all the women and children were kept in the Chateau Fontaine. Two days later the women and children were released, and later all the men who were over 45 years of age. Everyone else was held for ten more days and then removed to Leuven. In the evening, drunken German soldiers would often fire their rifles into the air. We had to hide in the cellars.
When the German soldiers arrived, I, together with three other clergymen, hid in the convent garden. The convent was being used by the Red Cross and I had been called on to hear the confessions of some of the wounded Belgian soldiers who were being treated there.
German soldiers came to the convent. They were looking for priests and said that they would burn the convent down if they did not surrender.
On the night of the 19th of August the German soldiers set fire to Aarschot. I stayed hidden until the 22nd.
On that day, the German soldiers left but others arrived. From these new soldiers I managed to obtain a new passport. It was stamped by the General who was acting as the military governor.
The Germans had accused the Pastor of Aarschot of having shot at their soldiers from the church tower. This was untrue, although I believe that Belgian soldiers had previously shot from there.
The priest from Gelrode was brought to Aarschot church and made to stand outside for two hours with his hands in the air and on tip-toes. The prisoners who were held inside the church were forced to urinate on him. Later he was shot. His body was thrown in the River Demer.
When they knew that the German soldiers were on their way to our town, the Belgian forces advised us to flee. I took my family and my father and we hid in the woods. We heard that the Germans had left the town, and so we ventured back. Unfortunately this was not the case, the Germans were still there.
We found somewhere to hide – it was in someone else’s house, not ours, and there were some other civilians there too. The German soldiers set fire to the house opposite. A man who was hiding with us went outside, because he thought his mother-in-law may have been in the burning house. As he crossed the road I saw him get shot down by the German soldiers. They were only about 18 yards away from him when they did this. I was standing with this man’s wife, and she saw it too.
With my family we left the house by the back door and crossed the fields to our own house. By this time the German soldiers were bombarding the town with shrapnel, and so we all hid in our cellar.
Shortly afterwards the Germans arrived in the part of town where we lived. They broke down the door to our house and smashed all the windows with their rifles. We were ordered to come out with our hands up. I could only raise one hand as I was carrying my baby. One of the German soldiers kicked my mother-in-law in the knees. We were forced to walk to the market place between two lines of soldiers. Once there, they separated the women and the men. I was also kicked in the knees by one of the soldiers. By now, it was around 5.30 in the evening, and we were held there for around eleven hours or so. When we could get out of the market place we managed to make our way to Antwerp, and from there we managed to board a boat to bring us to Great Britain.
On the nineteenth of August I went down to Aarschot railway station to collect my wages, as this was the place of my employment. It was around ten o’clock in the morning. When I arrived at the station, I saw a large body of German soldiers, both cavalry and infantry. I do not know what regiments they were. I went to collect my wife and child and we ran to hide. We took refuge in the house of a widow who we knew.
Belgian soldiers were knocking at houses telling everyone that they must leave their doors open. One Belgian soldier asked me to help bury some other soldiers who were lying in a field close by. Together with the soldier and some other men I went to the field. There were two large guns there. Two of the soldiers were identifiable from medals they had on them. One was from St. Nicholas and the other from Dendermonde. We buried them.
We took refuge with another man from Aarschot in his house, and stayed there overnight. The next day, German soldiers came and collected together every man they could find. There were around sixty of us in all, of all ages, up to about eighty years old. I saw a German soldier hit a young man on his back with the end of his rifle. He called out to his father, who was among us, but his father told him to keep quiet. Another German soldier stabbed one of the men in the thigh with his bayonet and then forced him to walk with the rest of the prisoners. We had to do this with our hands above our heads.
We were made to stand in a line. A German officer with stripes on his walked along, inspecting us. He picked out the Burgomaster and his son and some people who were working for the Red Cross. There were about ten men in all. The rest were made to turn our backs. I heard shots. We looked around and we could see that all of them, the Burgomaster included, lying dead on the ground. I knew the Burgomaster personally, and two of the other men. One was the man who had been struck with the rifle.
After the shooting, we were made to shake hands with the soldiers. There were about fifteen of them. They let us go, but told us not to leave the town. I saw the man who had been stabbed with the bayonet. The wound was about three inches deep.
Now, though, I do not know where my own family are…
12 A (Female)
On August 19th, I was at home in Rodenburg, near Aarschot.
Quite early on in the day I heard gunfire outside. I went to hide in my cellar, together with my neighbour and all our children. After about a quarter of an hour we heard the German soldiers entering my house. They came down into the cellar – there were about twenty five of them. We begged them to take pity on us, but they said that there was no pity for anyone.
They pulled us up the stairs and out into the street. As we came outside we were fired on by some other German soldiers. I was carrying my child. The bullet went through my hand and hit the child.
We ran to Aarschot where a lady took us into her house. More German soldiers found us there, and I was sent to the Red Cross hospital. The next day I was moved to the town hospital.
Whilst I was here I saw three other women, two of whom I knew. They later died of their wounds. This was Saturday, August 22nd, 1914.
12 B (Male)
As the Germans were coming to Aarschot they passed my house. The next day I returned to my house to feed the cattle on the farm, and my aunt accompanied me. We encountered around fifty Belgian soldiers who told us not to go any further because there were German soldiers there. I ran away, together with my aunt and her one and a half year old child. Somehow, we lost each other, and I went up onto the high road. I later heard that my aunt had been shot in the hand and that her baby was also injured. Someone said that they were now in hospital in Aarschot, and I did find her there later.
I hid in the woods near Betecom. Whilst there, I saw some German soldiers passing along the road some distance away. They had two civilians with them, and to me it looked like the civilians were guiding them. A man I met later told me that these two men were forced at gun and bayonet-point to lead the way for the soldiers. He also told me that the two men had been beaten to death. I remember that one of the men was quite old, and the other was about twenty years of age.
Also whilst I was hiding in the woods I met two other men who said they were fleeing from the Germans. After they left me, I saw one of them captured.
On the Wednesday morning, when I was back in my house, I saw some German soldiers in the distance shooting civilians and setting fire to houses. They had something in their hands that they threw at the houses. Then there was a loud noise, like a shot, and the houses caught fire. This was only about five minutes’ walk from my house, which is on a hill and close to the main road to Lier. I witnessed some conflict between the Belgian and German forces, and this is the point at which I fled.
Local Actors Sharon Gaizutis & William Huw reading the stories live in Rhyl Tourist Information Centre on Sunday. August 31st 2014
Click here: http://soundcloud.com/refugeesinrhyl to listen to the stories, read aloud by Sharon Gaizutis & William Huw.