Three days of terror in Leuven

Leuven was occupied by German troops on 20 August. Between 5,000 and 10,000 German soldiers had found accommodation in the city by 25 August. Things did not run out of hand at first, although the tension could clearly be felt. Hell broke out on 25 August after a major shooting incident in the station area. Scores of civilians were killed, while over 1,000 houses were burnt down.

It is not clear who or what exactly triggered the wild shooting at the station. German troops blamed so-called "franc-tireurs", armed civilians acting as snipers. Whoever was to blame, the incident caused numerous reprisals, and marked the start of 3 days of terror. Houses were looted, complete streets were burnt down. Many Leuven residents would have to live in shacks until the 1920s.

218 civilians died between 25 and 29 August, some in violent acts, others as they were executed. Among them were 21 women and 11 children. 3 victims were in their 80ies. Their names are mentioned on a commemoration plaque on Leuven's "Martelarenplein" (Martyrs' Place).

Hundreds of other Leuven residents were apprehended and sent to Germany. 1,081 houses were destroyed by the fire, according to official statistics, which is 1 in 6. As a result, thousands of people had to survive wartime and the cold and wet winters in tents or wooden shacks that had been put together hastily. This made wartime even harder to bear, and some would continue living in these poor conditions until the 1920s as they had no alternative.

Many houses were only rebuilt in the beginning of the 20ies. The city of Leuven preferred classic-style constructions, which is why the damage that was done at the time is not always noticeable at first sight now. The newly-built dwellings received a mark. A plaque shows a sword, a flame and the date at which it was rebuilt on the façade. If you drink a pint of beer at the Oude Markt - the old central square - you will notice the changes if you pay attention.

Precious documents destroyed

Not only private dwellings were set on fire, but also monuments and university buildings. The old Leuven University suffered a major blow when a blaze was started in the Library. 230,000 precious books, 950 manuscripts and 800 incunabula were lost, which caused international outrage.