German troops invaded Belgium, violating its neutrality, in an attempt to capture France early in World War I. Leuven was captured on August 20 by a hastily mobilized Belgian army. Though Leuven was under German occupation, it lasted only a short period. Units of the German army posted outside the town were taken by surprise and fled back to Leuven. Some Germans in the city mistook their comrades for Belgians and shot and killed them.
When the Germans realized there was no serious attack and that the Belgians had been panicked, they took revenge on the people of Leuven. During the week of August 25th-30th, the occupants set fire to various buildings, completely destroying the 500-year-old Catholic University library and destroying the roof of Saint Peter’s Church. The city theatre was also destroyed. There were over 200 townspeople killed, most of whom were rounded up as “franc-tiereurs” (snipers, i.e., terrorists) and killed. Most were innocent, but some unfortunate enough to be caught with hunting rifles in their homes.