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Aerschot

shot, house, town, german, soldiers, killed, fire and germans

AERSCHOT, a town of Belgium, 26 miles southeast of Antwerp and 20 miles northeast of Brussels. Situated on the river Demer, it is a junction of railroad and steam tramway lines running to Louvain (q.v.), Herenthals, Tirlemont and Haecht. Its mod ern importance was derived from its cloth manufacture and railway works. The town contains an old Gothic church with fine choir stalls of the 15th century and an altar piece by the Flemish painter, Gaspar de Craeyer (1582-1669). At the beginning of August 1914 Aerschot boasted a prosperous popula tion of about 8,000 souls; these were doomed to a tragic fate in the early stage of the European War. With the possible exception of Termonde, Aerschot seems to have suf fered more than any other place in the Flem ish-speaking part of the country. A fierce ac tion was fought round Aerschot on 19 Aug. 1914. German infantry, supported by ma chine-guns and artillery, opened the attack, and the Belgians, although outnumbered, made a desperate resistance. The troops on both sides fought like demons and the fight soon developed into a veritable butchery. The Belgians in the front held their ground tena ciously for two hours and retreated on Louvain, the main army retiring upon Ant werp. The Germans entered Aerschot early in the morning of 19 August. Throughout the day the soldiers looted the town, broke store windows and ransacked them. "A shot was fired about 7 o'clock in the evening, by which time many of the soldiers were drunk The Germans were not of one mind as to the direction from which the shot proceeded. . . . No one was hit by the shot, but thereafter German soldiers began to fire in various directions at the people" (Bryce committee). It was also said that a German officer had been killed at the burgomaster's house. The Ger man version stated that the 15-year-old son of the burgomaster had killed the officer—a Colonel Stenger. On the following day a number of civilians were shot, together with the burgomaster, his brother and the boy. In the report presented by the Belgian Royal Commission to President Wilson at Washing ton it was stated that "the Germans took every man who was inside of Aerschot ; they led them, 50 at a time, some distance from the town, grouped them in lines of four men, and, making them run ahead of them, shot them and killed them afterward with their bayonets. More than 40 men were found thus massacred.' About 150 inhabitants of Aerschot were sup posed to have been killed. For three days the invaders pillaged the houses and set fire to them. Much of the portable property was sent into Germany (13th Belgian report).

"I know there were 91 shot at Aerschot and that there, under pain of death, their fellow citizens were compelled to dig their graves" (Cardinal Mercier). Immediately after the battle of Malines (q.v.), which resulted in the evacuation by the Ger mans of the district of Malines, Sempst, Hofstade and Eppeghem (25 Aug. 1914), a long series of excesses were comnutted either just before or during the retreat. At Aerschot and the other villages from which the Germans had not been driven, the effect of the battle was to cause a recrudescence of outrage and pillage. Large numbers of civilians, men, women and children, were herded into the church. The priest of Gelrode, a village near Aerschot, was brought here, made to stand for some hours with his hands above his head, and finally shot by five soldiers. Some of the prisoners were actually kept in the church until the arrival of the Belgian army on 11 September, when they were released. Others were marched to Louvain, and with others from the surrounding districts were taken to Germany.

In May 1915 the German government pub lished a White Book under the title of ((Offenses against International Law in the Conduct of the War by the Belgians." It contained the results of an official inquiry into the Belgian allegations, and gave the evidence of numerous witnesses — German officers. In the section relating to Aerschot Captain Karge relates that he observed regular volleys from 8 or 10 rifles from a particular house; that he broke into it and set fire to it. No civilians are suggested to have been found by any of the soldiers who went upstairs to assist in the destruction; the house appears to have been empty. The captain stated: I pushed into the house with the others, and using a fairly large quantity of turpentine . . . succeeded in a very short time in setting the house on fire. . . . When I left the burning house, several civilians, including a young priest had been arrested from the adjoining houses. . . . I then put the col umns on the march out of the town, took command of all prisoners, among whom I set free the women, boys and girls. I was com manded by a staff officer to shoot the prison ers. Then I made some of my gendarmes ar range the columns and keep them in motion out of the town, while others escorted the prisoners and took them out of the town. Here, at the exit, a house was burning, and by the light of it I had the culprits-88 in number, after I had separated out three crip ples — shot." No mention is made of any in vestigation or trial. See ANDENNE ; LOUVAIN.