Military Bureau for the Investigation of Offenses Against the Laws of War.
The Revolt of the Belgian Population
on August 19 and 20, 1914
The officially appointed Belgian Investigation Commission and the foreign press have among their numerous defamations of the German warfare in Belgium, also discussed the Aerschot incident. Both dwelled at length on descriptions of the "barbaric" conduct of the German troops and their officers toward the "harmless" population and the lack of cause for the retributory treatment measured out to the "peaceful" city. The true facts of the case, which were ascertained through a number of sworn affidavits carefully drawn up with reliable witnesses present show an entirely different picture:
On August 19, 1914, German troops of the eighth infantry brigade were quartered in Aerschot. The staff of the brigade entered the apparently peaceful city on this clay. Colonel Stenger, Commander of the brigade, despatched Captain Schwarz, his Adjutant, ahead to provide for quarters for the members of the staff. Captain Schwarz was cordially received by the mayor and his wife. The mayor placed his own home situated on the market place, at the disposal of the officers, as the best quarters available. Colonel Stenger, and his orderly-officer Lieutenant Beyersdorff, arrived there between four and five o'clock in the afternoon.
From the beginning the relations between the officers and their host were quite polite and courteous.
Colonel Jenrich, Commander of the Infantry Regiment No. 140 who had been appointed as post-commander, summoned the mayor before hint) and questioned him whether any dispersed Belgian soldiers were in hiding in the city and whether Belgian soldiers in civilian clothes were hidden in the houses. The mayor answered these questions in the negative. Colonel Jenrich warned him expressly against attacks by the civilian population for which he, as mayor, would be responsible with his head and requested him to look after the surrender of arms by the in habitants. This request had to be repeated twice by Colonel Jenrich because it was found that large quantities of arms had been retained by the population.
Suddenly at eight o'clock in the evening an especially loud shot was heard in the city. This was the signal for the commencement of a general shooting upon the German soldiers in the streets and in the market place. The firing—and evidently the signal shot, too—started from a window in the attic of a corner house near the market place, situated opposite to the house of the Mayor. Three volleys were fired from this house. Then the firing subsided for a short while, after which it was followed by lively [p. 38] rapid fire from many houses. Most of the shots came from attic windows. All doors and windows in the house out of which the first shots had been fired were tightly closed and had to be forced open by the soldiers. The house was set on fire. A number of civilians who had attempted to escape were apprehended, many among them with weapons in hand. Of these, 88 grown-up men were shot as franctireurs.
Colonel Stenger had remained alone in his room in the mayor's residence. A notice posted in front of the house clearly marked it as headquarters of the brigade staff. Relying upon the simulated friendliness of the inhabitants Colonel Stenger had spent the afternoon on the balcony in front of his room, in plain view of everybody. Toward evening he had stayed near the open balcony doors in the well-lighted room.
When Captain Schwarz and Lieutenant Beyersdorff went to call on him after eight o'clock that evening to receive his instructions relative to the attack, they found Colonel Stenger lying mortally wounded in the middle of the lighted room breathing his last; the doors leading to the balcony were open. A physician was immediately summoned but could only establish that Colonel Stenger was already dead. The shots, therefore, were fired upon the Colonel at the same time at which the first heavy firing commenced from the houses situated across from his room. This was a well-planned attack upon the German troops, devised to deprive them of their commander and thus throw them into confusion. For this reason the firing ceased after the first volleys had been fired, and the criminals, seeing that the murder of the Colonel had been accomplished, started their attack against the, as they thought, leaderless German troops in force. The events are so clear that the preceding simulated friendliness of the inhabitants only serves to strengthen, and does not weaken, their correlation, as the Belgian reports claim.
That also the family of the mayor not only knew of, but even participated in the hostilities was established by an immediate search of their residence: Shots had been fired from the locked cellar, the key to which the family claimed to have mislaid and which had to be broken open. A step had even been placed near the cellar windows, to ease the position of the marksman. One of the musketeers was positive to have observed a shot coming out of the house. Only the son of the mayor could be the perpetrator. He had been hidden by the family and was dragged forth from a dark room. As complicity in the murder of the, according to Belgian presentation "hospitably" received, Colonel fell upon the family, father and son were shot on the following day, August 20. The Mayor's brother, in whose home Captain Karge, who had been quartered there at the suggestion of the Mayor, was also attacked, met with the same fate.
[p. 39] The sequence of the shootings alone bar all doubts that it was case of a well-planned treacherous attack upon the German force of occupation. This was also admitted to Captain Karge by an educated civilian who was taken prisoner. The participation of the Mayor's whole family proves how systematically the Belgian authorities took part in the treacherous actions against German troops which unfortunately occurred so frequently. In Aerschot the official participation culminated in the foul murder of the military commander.
Berlin, January 17, 1915.
Military Bureau for the Investigation of Offenses against the Laws of war.
(Signed) Major Bauer.
(Signed) Dr. Wagner, district court councillor.
Roubaix, November 6, 1914.
Present: Lieutenant of Reserves Klaus as court-officer.
Vice-sergeant Ross as Military court clerk.
In the examination in regard to the events in the night from August 19th to 20th, 1914, in Aerschot there appeared as witnesses:
1. Captain Schwarz, adjutant of the 8th infantry brigade.
2. Lieutenant Beyersdorff, of the Reserves, orderly officer of, the 8th infantry brigade.
After they had been acquainted with the nature of the investigation and were impressed with the significance of the oath to be taken, they were examined individually as follows:
1. Captain Schwarz.
My name is Carl Schwarz, thirty-four years old, of Protestant faith.
On August 19, 1914, I was sent in advance to Aerschot by Colonel Stenger who was shot later and was at that time commander of the 8th infantry brigade; my orders were to arrange for quarters there for the staff. The Mayor of Aerschot assigned to me his dwelling on the market place as the best quarters available. I went to this house and was received most pleasantly by the Mayor's wife. Between four and five o'clock in the afternoon Colonel Stenger arrived with the orderly officer, lieutenant of the reserves Beyersdorff.
Shortly before eight o'clock in the evening, after I had just had a short talk with the Colonel in the latter's room, a lively rifle fire suddenly started in the city against the passing troops and columns, part of whom were stopping in the market place. At the first shots which from the sound seemed to come from the north, I thought at first that they came from a skirmish with an opposing force which had been reported from the north. Soon, however, the shots fired at our house convinced me that the firing was meant for us. The shots did not come from our own troops. After a short pause in the firing it set in again with the same violence. In the meanwhile soldiers of infantry regiment No. 140 had brought the Mayor to me. I had to protect him from the rage of the troops. I then event through the streets with the Mayor and had him call the inhabitants to reason. After the firing had ceased I turned the Mayor over to the local commandant, Colonel Jenrich.
When I returned to the Mayor's house in order to receive orders from Colonel Stenger, I found him lying on the floor of his room heavily wounded.
According to the number of shots which had been fired at our adjoining rooms and from the circumstance that it was evidently known [p. 42] in the town that the commander-in-chief had his quarters in the Mayor's house (sign on the door), furthermore from the fact that through the wide-open balcony windows the presence of Colonel Stenger could be observed from the other side of the market place, I received the impression that the firing was directed especially at the Colonel.
After Colonel Jenrich had given orders for the withdrawal of the troops from Aerschot I personally made a thorough examination, accompanied by some men of infantry regiment No. 140, of the Mayor's house from which shots were also said to have been fired. The Mayor's wife and daughter were present. On this occasion the locked cellar door, the key to which, it was said, could not be found, was broken in with hatchets at my order. In the cellar I found in front of a window opening on the street, a frame-work from which the shooting must have been done. The window panes were completely smashed. While searching the living rooms the Mayor's son came towards me out of a dark room. I turned him over personally to the guard on the market place.
The slanders circulated in foreign newspapers about our behavior in the Mayor's house are not true. The negotiations about the quartering and provisioning were carried on by both sides in the most friendly and polite way, mostly with the wife of the Mayor since the latter was busy at the city hall. That the friendly tone was replaced by a strictly official one after the shooting of Colonel Stenger and that I did not omit to express my horror at the sad occurrence, is a matter of course.
Read, approved, signed.
Hereupon the witness was sworn.
2. Lieutenant of reserves Beyersdorff of regiment of dragoons, No. 12.
My name is Bruno Beyersdorff, thirty-one years old, a Protestant.
At the examination of the witness it was found that his statements coincided with those of Captain Schwarz. The latter's statements were therefore read to him, whereupon he said:
These statements are correct. I accept them as mine adding the following:
At the time in question, with the exception of short intervals, I was in the same room with Captain Schwarz. The negotiations which we made with the Mayor and his wife in regard to quarters and provisions, were carried out in the most friendly fashion.
For the same reason as those of Captain Schwarz, I am of the opinion that the firing which was directed against our rooms, was meant especially for the Colonel. In this connection I want to add that Colonel Stenger, wearing his various orders, had sat for sometime on the balcony so that he could be plainly seen from the market place. I left [p. 43] the room together with Captain Schwarz after the first shooting in order to establish order among the troops on the market place, as they had been thrown into disorder by the firing.
When the shooting began soon afterwards for the second time I went alone to the room of Colonel Stenger in order to receive instructions from him. When after knocking several times I was not bidden to enter, I went in and found him in his last agonies at full length in the middle of the room with his face on his crossed arms. Since I found wounds and there was also a great deal of blood, I immediately fetched a physician who established the Colonel's death which had occurred in the meanwhile. I cannot give the name of the physician.
I was not present at the examination of the rooms which took place later on.
It is out of the question that, as is said to be reported in a foreign paper, we behaved rudely in the Mayor's house. After finding the Colonel's body our tone towards the Mayor's wife was indeed entirely formal. We left the house and Captain Schwarz told the Mayor's wife: "Your husband was sufficiently warned. You will have to bear the consequences."
I add that after the shooting was over, so far as I know at least three houses, from which firing was said to have come, were set on fire at the order of Captain Karge. I myself, at the burning of the house adjoining that of the Mayor's, heard the exploding of ammunition. That could be determined by the single explosions.
Read, approved, signed.
The witness was thereupon sworn.
(Signed) Klauss, Lieutenant of the reserves and court officer.
(Signed) Ross, Vice-sergeant, as Military court clerk.
Ostel, November 3, 1914.
Present: Lieutenant of the Reserves Klauss as Court Officer.
Field-Sergeant Ross as Clerk of the Military Court.
In matters of investigation concerning the events during the night from August 19 to 20, 1914, Colonel Jenrich, Commander of Infantry Regiment No. 140, appears as witness:
Having been informed about the matter in question and the meaning of the oath, he testified as follows:
My name is Andreas Jenrich, I am fifty-six years of age, a Protestant.
[p. 44] On August 19, 1914 at 5 P. M. I arrived with the staff of my regiment at Aerschot, after the third division had had an encounter in that vicinity with the Belgian troops. I had been appointed to the command of the place and had to take measures for the local service as well as for the security of the position. The staff of the 8th infantry brigade was already in Aerschot and had been quartered at the house of the Mayor. I immediately requested this gentleman to come and see me and ask him whether there were any dispersed Belgian soldiers in the town or whether there were any Belgian soldiers in civilian clothes in the houses. He denied this. I pointed out the consequences, which would befall him and the town if anything should be undertaken against the German troops by the population; I especially left no doubts as to that he would suffer the penalty of death if an attack should be made by the people against the German troops. I considered this warning necessary because the day before in Schaaffen near Diest civilians had shot upon and killed several of our soldiers. To my knowledge the commanding general of the III Army Corps, von Linsingen, had similarly warned the Mayor and the population at noon of August 19, 1914.
Besides this I ordered all weapons in the possession of civilians to be delivered up before the court house at the market place. After an hour I observed that only a small number of weapons had been delivered up. I, therefore, renewed my order to the Mayor to see that all weapons were handed in. Then, to my great surprise, thirty-six more rifles came forth, which, it was alleged, were used at public parades and by the "garde civique." Moreover ammunition for these rifles was found packed in a box. After another urgent warning to the Mayor a greater number of arms were handed in. At 8 P. M. sharp, when the troops had just marched in and were still in the streets, firing was started from all the houses, to which our soldiers naturally replied. I would like to emphasize especially that before the general shooting began a particularly loud shot was heard, which seems to have been a signal. I and several other officers, among them brigade-adjutant Captain Schwarz, succeeded in stopping the fire of our soldiers at the market place. Soon afterwards I heard from Captain Schwarz that the commander of the brigade had been found fatally wounded in his room in the house of the Mayor.
I immediately—it was about 8.30 P. M.—gave orders for the evacuation of the town and went into bivouac outside on the road to Vespelaer.
Meanwhile the houses had been searched by the troops and a considerable number of inhabitants arrested who could be proven to have [p. 45] participated in the onslaught upon the troops. Of the arrested male population the mayor and his son, as well as the brother of the mayor, and every third man, were shot the next morning.
Read, approved, signed.
Witness was then sworn.
(Signed) Klauss, Lieutenant of the Reserves and Court Officer.
(Signed) Ross, Field-Sergeant and Clerk of the Military Court.
Tourcoing, November 15, 1915.
Present: Chief Military Court Councillor Hottendorf.
Chief Military Court Secretary Westphal as Clerk of the Military Court.
In matters of investigation concerning events in Aerschot during the night from August 19 to 20, 1914, Captain Karge, commander of the field gendarmes of the II Army Corps appeared as witness, and after the sanctity and the meaning of the oath had been pointed out to him he deposed as follows:
My name is Hans Karge, I am forty-two years of age, a Protestant. Witness handed in the adjoined statement and declared:
I have deposed my testimony in writing.
The written statement having been read the witness added the following:
I accept the statement, just read to me, as my testimony.
I have heard the rumor expressed by several German officers that the Belgian Government, especially also the King of Belgium had issued a decree pronouncing it the duty of every male Belgian to harm the German army as much as possible. Such an order is said to have been found on a Belgian soldier, taken prisoner. I also heard that Belgian soldiers were dismissed to their hones there to fight as civilians against the Germans. As a matter of fact a number of Belgian soldiers, some of whom wore only civilian clothes, while others wore the trousers of their uniforms together with civilian clothes, were taken prisoners.
An officer, who had been present at the onslaught in Aerschot told me, that he himself had read at the church door of a village near Aerschot that the Belgians were forbidden to keep German officers [p. 46] prisoners on their word of honor, but that they were to shoot them. I cannot repeat the exact words of this officer, but their meaning was as I have stated.
A seminary teacher in Aerschot, who is also mentioned in my written statement, assured me, as I believe to recall distinctly, that the "garde civique" had received orders to do as much harm as possible to the German army.
Read, approved, signed.
Witness then was sworn.
(Signed) Hottendorf. (Signed) Westphal.
Supplement to Report of November 15, 1914.
On August 19, 1914, while I was standing at an open window of my quarters, which had been recommended to me by the Mayor of Aerschot, in the home of his brother, situated on a street leading to the Market Square, a shot was suddenly fired-it may have been shortly before eight o'clock.
In the street below a column was marching to the market square just then. I leaned out of the window, assuming that perhaps one of the soldiers had inadvertently let go off his gun; then a volley was immediately fired. As I had been looking in the direction out of which the first shot had come, I was able to notice a cloud of smoke and dust rising above the edge of the roof of a red colored corner house, located across to the right of my quarters. Soon afterwards a second volley was fired from the same place, as I could plainly see from the light smoke which appeared. I was now certain that the first volley and perhaps also the first shot had been fired from that spot. The shots may have been fired from eight to ten rifles, and I gained the impression from the exactness with which the volley was fired, that the attack was well organized, and perhaps led by some military person. Shortly after the second volley a third volley was fired, followed by a violent rapid fire, which, however, seemed to come not only out of the above mentioned house but also out of the other houses in the street.
The firing was apparently done not from the windows but out of the sky-lights and out of loopholes specially constructed in the lofts. This accounts for the small damage caused among men and animals. For the street was quite narrow and the rifles had to be held in an unnaturally downward position, if they were to take direct effect upon the street and upon the columns which had now come to a halt in the middle of the street. Teamsters and train-soldiers had left their horses and wagons in the meantime and sought shelter in the house doors. The wagons had in part run into one another, as the horses, without guidance and made restless by the shots, had run their own way.
[p. 47] As shots fell also in my neighborhood, I sought shelter behind the walls between the windows.
After a while I believed I could observe that the fire was being answered by our troops from the market square. Shortly afterward signals and shouts were heard: "Cease firing!" The firing did stop for a while but was resumed, apparently by both sides, but with less severity.
I had made use of the brief truce to leave my quarters and to go to the Market Square to report to a Colonel, standing there, the observations I had made. At the same time I asked permission to set fire to the house out of which the signal-shot—as such I regarded it—and the volleys had come, and because I believed that the ringleaders of the whole enterprise were assembled in that house. The Colonel refused this request. I then returned into the street but a soldier, standing in the doorway, stopped me and called:
"I have just plainly seen that a shot has been fired out of the house opposite."
He pointed the house out to me and I recognized it to be that of the Mayor.
I now took several soldiers, who were nearby (members of Inf. Reg. No. 140) and went with them up to the house out of which the first shots were fired, and where I suspected the ringleaders and instigators of the attack to be still in hiding. In the meantime a Lieutenant of this regiment appeared and placing him and the men under my command I ordered them to break down the windows as well as the doors to the house and to the shop on the main floor, both of which were tightly closed; I then entered the house myself and with the help of the con tents of a can of turpentine, containing about twenty quarts which I ordered to be poured out on the first floor, down the stairway and in the basement, we soon succeeded to put the house afire. I had also ordered some of the soldiers to guard all the exists and to arrest all male fugitives.
When I left the burning house several civilians, including a your4 clergyman, had already been arrested in the adjoining houses.
I ordered them brought to the Market Square; a troop of field-gendarmes had assembled here in the meantime. I now ordered the column to march out of the city, took command over all the prisoners, from among whom I discharged the women and children. A staff officer (a division Commander of Field Artillery Regiment No. 17), gave me orders to execute those who had been arrested. With a part of my gendarmes then rearranged the columns and marched them out of the city. The other half I ordered to escort the prisoners out of the city. A house was in flames at the outskirts and by the light of that fire I had the culprits—eighty-eight in number—shot, after having first separated three cripples from them.
[p. 48] Later a second batch of prisoners arrived. Among these I selected the one who appeared the most intelligent and told him that all of the guilty prisoners would be shot, but that I would spare his life if he would tell how the attack had been organized, for I had no doubt that the affair was the outcome of a well organized plan. This man, who was a teacher at the Seminary at Aerschot, spoke German and admitted that the citizens of Aerschot had made a big mistake when they received the fleeing Belgian soldiers, secreted them in their homes, and supplied them with civilian clothes. They had undoubtedly joined the "Garde-civique," which thereupon launched the attack.
When I consider the peculiar and suspicious attitude of the Mayor, of his brother and of several other citizens of Aerschot, with whom I came in contact, I have no doubt that a large portion of the population consciously transposed their hostile feelings into action.
Captain of the Horse.
Darmstadt, January 12, 1915.
Present: Military Court Councillor Bernhards.
"Referendar" Hoffmann as Military Court Clerk.
In matters of investigation concerning the facts connected with the assault by the civilians in Aerschot, Captain Folz appeared as witness:
After having been made familiar with the matter of investigation, and with the meaning of the oath, he deposed as follows:
My name is Hermann Folz, I am thirty-two years of age, a Protestant, Captain of the 49th Infantry, at present of the Aero-reserve-detachment No. 3.
On a day in August, I do not remember any more on which day, I came with the staff of the 8th Infantry brigade to Aerschot to make quarters there for my regiment. It was between three and four P. M., when we rode into the town. Previously parts of the 3rd infantry division had passed through, and the entire town, crooked and narrow as it is, was full of baggage trains, artillery and ammunition columns. About three hours after our arrival suddenly a senseless shooting commenced, from the northwest exit of the place. Soon afterwards a detachment of the Sanitary Corps—I believe it was the second company— (one Dr. Wildt was among them) as well as parts of the baggage-train belonging to the third division arrived while shots were being fired continuously, and reported that they had been fired upon and that a Belgian Battalion was approaching. With great difficulties we succeeded to [p. 49] bring our machine-gun company to the front and I, with the leader of the company, Captain Schleusener, rode in the direction of the Belgian Battalion, reported to be approaching. About 3 Km. from the town, at a wind mill, we ascertained that no enemy was in the neighborhood. I therefore walked back to Aerschot. Already during our advance we heard continuous shooting in the town; when, however, I crossed a bridge leading into Aerschot, I observed that our troops were being fired upon from the houses. The shots came partly from windows of the upper floors, partly from cellars, and one could clearly distinguish by the noise that machine guns as well as rifles were being used. The situation became such that our men stood close to the walls and, when ever they saw a shooter in a house across the street, they fired at him. I saw several of our men wounded by those shots and heard the bullets whizzing around my head. Close to the town office, which was to be transformed into an artillery depot, a Captain of Infantry Regiment No. 140 was standing, who ordered the bugler to blow the "halt." Evidently he intended to stop the shooting of our men first in order to be able to start a systematic proceeding. At the market place I met Brigade-adjutant Schwarz, who since then has been killed; he told me that the commander of the 8th brigade, Colonel Stenger, had been shot. I immediately hastened to the quarters of the Colonel in the house of the Mayor on market square, where I found Colonel Stenger lying dead upon the bed. The orderly officer, Lieutenant Beyersdorff of the 12th Dragoons, who was present, told me that he had found the Colonel in the room about three meters from the window lying dead on the floor, face downward. I could still see two puddles of blood on the floor; I also observed that the wall opposite the window was riddled with bullets. The window panes were shot to pieces. I noticed a wound on the dead body, running from the right eye to the right ear; and I also observed a shot through the right side of the chest, of which one could see only the gaping wound where the shot had entered. The regimental surgeon of the 140th Infantry, who on the next day opened the body in my presence, found in the chest a deformed lead bullet, torn by hitting on a hard object. The bullet had severed a main artery and caused death immediately. Also the wound in the face, according to the surgeon, was not one caused by an Infantry rifle bullet. There is no doubt, judging from the downward direction of the wound and from the nature of the bullet, that the Colonel was not shot from the street, but from one of the houses across the street by one of the inhabitants. Considering the calibre of the projectile which hit the chest, it must have been fired from a breech loader. I have handed the bullet, which was removed from the body, to the paymaster of the II Battalion of the 49th Infantry to keep it. The paymaster's name is Wirowski. The [p. 50] revolt then was systematically suppressed, and the houses were searched for snipers. About forty civilians, among them several clergymen,—at least two—were found with weapons in their hands.
All facts considered we have here, beyond doubt, a well planned assault by Belgian civilians upon German troops.
The regimental adjutant first-lieutenant von Oppen also witnessed the occurrences and will be in position to testify. Also the Captain of the gendarmes of the II Corps, Karge was present.
Read, approved, signed.
Sworn according to law.
(Signed) Bernhard. (Signed) Hofmann.