Louvain Posters: German-Occupied Belgium during the First World War

Colins, Leon, Poster, 12 March 1915

This important collection of propaganda posters provides an official version of everyday life in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. Related materials provide a very different picture.

On 2 August 1914, Germany issued an ultimatum to the Belgian government, requiring passage for their army through Belgium in order to bypass French border fortifications. Two days later, when the Belgian government denied the request as a violation of its neutrality, German troops invaded and occupied the country, precipitating the carnage of the First World War. Situated between Liège and Brussels, the city of Louvain, with a population 42,000 people, fell to the German First Army on 19 August 1914. On 25 August 1914, German soldiers close to the city of Louvain were attacked by a Belgian force advancing from Antwerp. Fifty German soldiers were killed in the attack. At the Hôtel de Ville the son of the city’s mayor shot members of the German staff. German soldiers, fearing a civilian uprising or the possibility of more Allied attacks, retaliated. During a five day rampage they terrorized the population of Louvain, burning and looting the city. Like most of Belgium, Louvain remained under German control for the duration of the war. Belgium would become the major battleground of the Western Front, mired in trench warfare.

00000959.jpg An excellent resource for the study and understanding of Louvain’s history for this painful period of German occupation during the World War I is a series of proof copies of 149 posters printed between July 1914 and August 1916 by E. Charpentier. Written in French, Flemish and occasionally in German, the posters are ordinances, proclamations, or warnings issued to the public by city officials, the police, or military authorities. Prior to the destruction of Louvain, the posters urge patriotism, restraint, calm, and the surrender of weapons. In September 1914, after the citizens are requested to return to the city by the provisional mayor, they take on a different tone – they contain harsh warnings, threatening severe punishment for any law breaking, prohibitions governing the sale and distribution of liquor, and the regulation of prices for bread, meat and other products. In an atmosphere of high tension, the courts, schools, churches, and markets re-opened; people attempted to reclaim their lives amid extraordinary circumstances of general unrest and fear. By the middle of 1915 the posters document that in spite of rationing, curfews, the intermittent closings of markets, bars, and cafés, stability was almost restored, although crowds, music, and noise were strictly forbidden.

00000085.jpg In addition to the Louvain posters, the collections include a great variety of other documents about the plight of the Belgian people and soldiers during this period. There are several other Belgian posters, all of German origin. The earliest poster, issued by General von Emmich circa 4 August 1914, is an appeal to the Belgian people to make a clear path through Belgium for the German army marching towards France. The General assures the population that no harm will be done to anyone and that the army will even reimburse supplies taken from the population. In sharp contrast to these posters from the German authorities, there is a set of Bulletin de propagande patriotique entitled La Libre Belgique (there were 171 issues printed between February 1915 and 12 November 1918 plus supplements). A revealing indication of the true state of Belgian opinion during the war, this newssheet had a circulation élastique, de zéro à l’infini. The supplements, directed at German atrocities, are entitled J’accuse! par un Allemand. In addition to newspapers, maps, and aerial photographs found in a number of smaller archives, another source of Belgian related material is the Russell Markland fonds, primarily correspondence about an anthology of poetry entitled The Glory of Belgium (1915), published in support of the Belgian Repatriation Fund.

Further resources

Chambry, René. The truth about Louvain (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915) An Eye-witness at Louvain (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1914)
Flamingo. "The Horrors of Louvain." Sunday Times (London), [1916]
Fuglister, Albert. A neutral description of the sack of Louvain (Concord, N.H.: Rumford press, 1929) Gruben, Hervé, Baron de. The Germans at Louvain (London ; Toronto : Hodder & Stoughton, 1916)
McCarthy, Donald G. Bertrand Russell's informal freedom (Louvain : [s.n.], 1960)
Soete, Pierre de, Whitney Warren. The Louvain library controversy; the misadventures of an American artist, or "Furore teutonico diruta: Dono americano restituta" (Concord, N.H.: Rumford press, 1929)
Toynbee, Arnold Joseph. The German terror in Belgium; an historical record (New York: George H. Doran company, 1917)

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