Mechelen, de nadagen van augustus 1914. Enkele weken terug werd de Oostenrijkse troonopvolger Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo vermoord. Oostenrijk-Hongarije beschuldigt Servië van de moord. Wanneer er geen diplomatieke oplossing wordt gevonden, veroorzaakt dit een onvoorstelbare kettingreactie in Europa. De Europese grootmachten komen door reeds bestaande militaire verdragen regelrecht tegenover elkaar te staan en mobiliseren massaal hun legers.
Duitsland verklaart de oorlog aan Frankrijk en vervolgens aan België. Het valt op 4 augustus ons land binnen. Nadat eerst Brussel wordt ingenomen, trekt het Duitse leger verder noordwaarts richting Antwerpen. Wanneer de Duitsers na dagenlange gevechten door de Belgische verdedigingslinies ten zuiden van Mechelen breken, beschrijft de Amerikaanse oorlogscorrespondent E. Alexander Powell de algemene chaos en angst bij de bevolking.
"The retreat from Malines provided a spectacle which I shall never forget. For twenty miles every road was jammed with clattering cavalry, plodding infantry, and rumbling batteries, the guns, limbers, and caissons still covered with the green boughs which had been used to mask their position from German aeroplanes. Gendarmes in giant bearskins, chasseurs in uniforms of green and yellow, carabineers with their shiny leather hats, grenadiers, infantry of the line, guides, lancers, sappers and miners with picks and spades, engineers with pontoon-wagons, machine-guns drawn by dogs, ambulances with huge Red Cross flags fluttering above them, and cars, cars, cars, all the dear old familiar American makes among them, contributed to form a mighty river flowing towards Antwerp. Malines formerly had a population of fifty thousand people, and forty-five thousand of these fled when they heard that the Germans were returning. The scenes along the road were heart-rending in their pathos. The very young and the very old, the rich and the well- to-do and the poverty-stricken, the lame and the sick and the blind, with the few belongings they had been able to save in sheet- wrapped bundles on their backs or piled in push-carts, clogged the roads and impeded the soldiery. These people were abandoning all that they held most dear to pillage and destruction. They were completely terrorized by the Germans. But the Belgian army was not terrorized. It was a retreating army but it was victorious in retreat. The soldiers were cool, confident, courageous, and gave me the feeling that if the German giant left himself unguarded a single instant little Belgium would drive home a solar-plexus blow.
For many days after its evacuation by the Belgians, Malines occupied an unhappy position midway between the contending armies, being alternately bombarded by the Belgians and the Germans. The latter, instead of endeavouring to avoid damaging the splendid cathedral, whose tower, three hundred and twenty-five feet high, is the most conspicuous landmark in the region, seemed to take a grim pleasure in directing their fire upon the ancient building. The great clock, the largest in Belgium, was destroyed; the famous stained-glass windows were broken; the exquisite carvings were shattered; and shells, crashing through the walls and roof, converted the beautiful interior into a heap of debris. As there were no Belgian troops in Malines at this time, and as this fact was perfectly well known to the Germans, this bombardment of an undefended city and the destruction of its historic monuments struck me as being peculiarly wanton and not induced by any military necessity. It was, of course, part and parcel of the German policy of terrorism and intimidation. The bombardment of cities, the destruction of historic monuments, the burning of villages, and, in many cases, the massacre of civilians was the price which the Belgians were forced to pay for resisting the invader.
In order to ascertain just what damage had been done to the city, and particularly to the cathedral, I ran into Malines in my car during a pause in the bombardment. As the streets were too narrow to permit of turning the car around, and as it was more than probable that we should have to get out in a hurry, Roos suggested that we run in backward, which we did, I standing up in the tonneau, field-glasses glued to my eyes, on the look-out for lurking Germans. I don't recall ever having had a more eerie experience than that surreptitious visit to Malines. The city was as silent and deserted as a cemetery; there was not a human being to be seen; and as we cautiously advanced through the narrow, winding streets, the vacant houses echoed the throbbing of the motor with a racket which was positively startling. Just as we reached the square in front of the cathedral a German shell came shrieking over the house-tops and burst with a shattering crash in the upper story of a building a few yards away. The whole front of that building came crashing down about us in a cascade of brick and plaster. We did not stay on the order of our going. No. We went out of that town faster than any automobile every went out of it before. We went so fast, in fact, that we struck and killed the only remaining inhabitant. He was a large yellow dog."
E. Alexander Powell, Fighting in Flanders, New York, 1914
(op 9 november 2012 ook verschenen op Mechelen Blogt)