16 May 2023
Graham Caldwell explains how neutral Belgium threw a spanner in the works of the German Schlieffen Plan in WWI
As early as 1891 the German General Staff realised that if France and Russia cooperated against Germany, its ability to fight a war on two fronts would make victory impossible, unless France could be conquered quickly before Russia mobilised, which was estimated to take at least 10 weeks. To defeat France in under three months required a very daring plan to invade through neutral Luxemburg, Holland and Belgium with overwhelming force and approach the French border defences from the rear. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised and gave his name to a plan, whereby 80% of the German army would face the western frontier, but its three most northerly armies would advance in a south-easterly direction, sickle-like, utilising the Belgium and Luxemburg railway systems to place them behind the mass of the French forces facing east. The plan estimated that such a surprise move, with overwhelming strength, would defeat France within the 10-week period of grace required before Russia could move. Having secured their western flank, German forces would then turn east to deal with Russia, thus avoiding a war on two fronts. Speed and securing the rail and rolling stock of the neutral countries undamaged would be critical.
Left: A colour postcard view of Liège before the war
Newly promoted Major General Erich Ludendorff arrived at the German Second Army headquarters as a virtually unknown middle-ranking staff officer in early 1914 to take up the post of Deputy Chief of Staff to its commander, Colonel-General Karl von Bülow. Ludendorff’s appointment was important because Bulow had dual command of the two most northerly armies and was thus responsible for the invasion plan to work. Ludendorff had previously served on the High Command General Staff and discovered that the frontier city of Liège, with its ring of 12 sunken artillery forts, was the gateway into Belgium for the Schlieffen Plan to be successful. This was because Liège controlled the major rail and road crossings over the River Meuse. Using pre-war spies and duplicate plans, Ludendorff became intimate with the fort’s weaknesses and devised a plan for them to be taken by a coup de main in order to keep to the tight timetable. Ludendorff, in partnership with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, would go on to become Germany’s most successful strategist during the war.
Left: The British and French armies (bottom left) had time to move up to stop the advance into France due to the German delay at Liège
Invasion of Belgium
Because the speed of mobilisation depended entirely on rail transport, the German war machine’s first move was the invasion of Luxemburg and the capture of its railway system. After refusing Germany’s request for free passage on 3 August, Belgium was next to feel the weight of the German onslaught from its army’s best and largest force. This comprised the First Army of 14 divisions (General of Infantry Alexander von Kluck) Bülow‘s Second Army of 12 divisions (with Bülow initially supervising Kluck) and the Third Army of eight divisions (Colonel-General Max von Hausen) but Holland was spared. This was because Schlieffen’s plan had been substantially altered in the intervening years and now retained the Netherlands as a useful route for imports and exports and denying it to the British as a base of operations. Advancing only through Belgium meant that the German armies would lose the railway lines around Maastricht and would have to squeeze the 600,000 men of the First and Second armies through a gap only 12-miles wide, which made it vital that the Belgian railways were captured quickly and intact. However, von Bülow was surprised at the plucky Belgium resistance.
Right: A typical German troop train early in the war. It was vital for Germany to seize the Belgium railway system intact in order to keep to the tight timetable
Upon Belgium mobilisation, King Albert automatically became the C-in-C of his country’s army, with his Chief of General Staff, General Antonin de Selliers, as his principal military advisor. All the Meuse bridges were blown and four of the Belgium army’s six infantry divisions were kept 36 miles west of Liege in order to link up with the anticipated French and British reinforcements, plus a fifth division guarded Namur, leaving the 3rd Division under Lieutenant General Gérard Leman to defend Liège, who additionally had overall command of Liège’s ring of 12 sunken forts.
Left: A 1914 German colour postcard depicting infantry on the advance towards the Belgium and French borders (weaponsandwarfare.com)
Von Bülow delegated the capture of Liège and securing the roads into Belgium, to his X Corps commander, General of Infantry Otto von Emmich, who formed a provisional Army of the Meuse made up of six infantry brigades (each with a strength of 6,400 men) and three divisions of cavalry, each allocated from a different formation within Second Army. Ludendorff joined Emmich’s HQ as an Advisor to explain how to successfully attack the forts using infantry infiltration tactics and conventional field artillery. Ludendorff knew that no defensive construction had been built between the two-mile gaps of each fort, nor could they communicate with each other once the overland telephone wires were cut but, by the evening of the 6 August, Ludendorff’s planned coup de main had lost its element of surprise and the 48-hour timetable to take Liège was in tatters.
Right: The Belgium blue cut-away tunics worn at the Battle of Liège in 1914. Later khaki uniforms were issued, visible in the background, similar to the British army
On the 6 and 7 August the German brigades were counter attacked by the 26,000 soldiers and 72 field guns of the Belgium 3rd Division. The attacks on forts Pontisse and Liers by the German 34th Brigade was unsuccessful, which brigade alone suffered 1,180 casualties and retreated all the way back to the river. Nor did any of the other five brigades fare any better. Paul Hamelius, a Liège inhabitant, recounted: ‘The German storming parties marched up in the cold moonlight in thick lines as if steadily on parade, when long reports of (the fort) machine guns all fired together. The Germans were lying in a heap six and seven deep, wounded and killed mixed inextricably together.’
However, there was one outstanding success when Ludendorff personally led an assault to occupy the Citadel of Liège, bypassing the surrounding forts, best told in his own words: ‘The favourite recollection of my life as a soldier is the coup de main on Liège’s citadel in the centre of the city. Thinking that Colonel von Oven was in possession of the citadel, I went there with the brigade adjutant in a Belgian car which I had commandeered. When I arrived no German soldier was to be seen and the citadel was still in the hands of the enemy. I banged on the gates, which were locked. They were opened from inside. The few hundred Belgians who were there surrendered at my summons. The brigade now came up and took possession of the citadel, which I immediately put in a state of defence.’
Left: Belgium infantry take up a defensive position between the River Meuse and the city of Liège
Ludendorff’s bold action not only ensured he was awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest medal of honour, but also resulted in the city being taken before the defending forts were neutralised. Because intelligence reached Leman that Emmich’s command comprised detached brigades from five different corps, he assumed he would be facing the whole German Second Army by the morning of the 6 August, causing him to disengage his 3rd Division and send it to safety with the main field army, whilst he himself remained in command of the fortified area.
Right: A typical layout of an underground fort complex, identical to those built at Liège
The Liège forts
Built in 1891 to an 1880 design, the 12 concrete forts that ringed Liège (each between three and six miles distance from the city) were designed to withstand 21cm (8.3in) seize guns, the largest mobile artillery in 1890. The six large forts were quadrangular, named Loncin (General Leman’s HQ) Flemalle, Boncelles, Fleron, Barchon and Pontisse, whilst the six smaller forts of Liers, Lantin, Hollogne, Embourg, Chaudfontaine and Evegnee were triangular. Each had their superstructure buried deep underground and only the mounds of concrete, or retractable steel domed gun turrets (called cupolas) were visible. Gun calibres ranged from 2.2in, through 4.7in and 5.9in, to 8.3in; a total of 280 guns. Underground passages and rooms housed magazines, crew quarters for 500 men and electric generators for lighting. Over the course of the years the condition of the forts had been allowed to deteriorate and by 1914 they were in a sorry state. They were also vulnerable to attack from the rear, the direction from which the German bombardments were fired. After five bloody and exhausting days utilising his field artillery, Bülow had had enough and ordered two massive pieces of 42cm (16.5in) siege artillery, each weighing 43t that could fire 1800lb shells eight miles, from the Krupp Armouries in Essen. The technology had been kept secret, but were soon nicknamed Big Bertha. In addition the Austrians loaned their ally two 28t Skoda 30.5cm (12in) howitzers they had recently developed, which were designed to be road-transportable and assembled in 40 minutes. Nicknamed Skinny Emma’s, they fired an 840lb shell up to seven miles.
Left: Big Bertha in the firing position. The howitzer had a rate of fire of ten rounds-per-hour, firing a 2,052lb projectile up to a range of eight miles
Unimaginable explosive violence
The two specially adapted road transportable Big Bertha’s arrived on 12 August, which took each 140-man crew six hours to assemble. The two Skinny Emmas were supplemented by the German VII Corps heavy artillery. A few days before the super-sized siege artillery arrived, forts Barchon and Evegnee had been captured due to a combination of conventional German artillery and demoralised fortress troops, who had been pounded for hours on end. Major Wesener described the next stage in the siege plan using the first Big Bertha: ‘It was a memorable moment as the giant howitzer discharged the first shell on enemy soil against Fort Pontisse on 12 August. A hundred-fold cheer accompanied the delayed action shell as it howled and snorted along the high trajectory to its target. 60 seconds ticked by, the time needed for the shell to traverse its 4,340 yard-high plunge to the fort, then penetrate deep within its vitals before exploding. We watched at close range the column of smoke, earth and fire that climbed to the heavens.’
Right: Fort Loncin, General Leman’s HQ, after being shot to pieces by 42cm (16.5in) and 30.5 (12in) projectiles of the super-sized siege artillery
The violence of the first explosion convinced the Belgians that the magazine at Pontisse had blown up. The next morning her sister Big Bertha joined in, stripping away armour plate and blocks of concrete, cracking-open the 8ft thick concrete roof, destroying the underneath chambers lying deep in the earth. Steel cupolas were blown off and lay upside down many yards away, plus the air inside became poisoned with toxic fumes. The Belgium official report sums up the conditions inside Pontisse, which was typical of what the fortress troops experienced inside the other forts: ‘Ventilation: very bad; the men were seized with stomach pains, diarrhoea, nausea and an inability to hold back their urine. The fort was reeking with explosive fumes from the outside. Latrines: the garrison used stinking-boxes, which were emptied into the channel; it became blocked and the men were greatly inconvenienced’.
Left: German engineers standing on what’s left of a Liège fort after it had been pounded by 42cm shells from a Big Bertha situated in the city’s central square
The remainder of the forts were bombarded in similar fashion, until the last surrendered on 16 August which, ironically, was the day after when Russia was ready for war, its mobilisation taking only 15 days, not the six weeks that Germany predicted. General Leman had become captive when Fort Loncin was destroyed and when taken before Lieutenant General Kolewe, the Military Governor of Liege, he was astonished to be handed a sword by Kolewe as a token of the General’s esteem for never offering up surrender. The French government bestowed the Légion d’honneur on the city. The estimated 48 hours to deal with Liège eventually took 14 days, but because the city had been taken earlier than the forts, the actual delay to the Schlieffen Plan was nearer to five days. That was enough time for the French and British forces to deploy in the face of the northern German advance, thus scuppering the opportunity for Germany to swiftly knock France out of the war. This delay, ultimately, lead to the static trench warfare that set in for the next four bloody years.
Left: The victors stand on a demolished twin-gun cupola belonging to one of the Liège forts
Left: A triumphant German army seen entering Liège. This occurred several days before its defensive ring of forts surrendered, due to Ludendorff’s speedy capture of the city’s central citadel
The Liège Commemorative Medal was awarded in April 1920 to the military defenders of the city who took part in the Battle of Liège and to residents of the city who were condemned to imprisonment by a German tribunal following the battle. The obverse is an image of the Liège war memorial and bisecting the year ’19 - 14’. The inscription along the circumference translates as ‘The City of Liège to its Valiant Defenders’. The reverse depicts a battle scene, including soldiers fighting by a destroyed bunker on the bank of the Meuse River. Although unofficial in nature, such was the national pride and prestige surrounding the valiant 1914 defence of the city, the medal was allowed to be worn on military uniform. Classed as rare, nevertheless one or two can often be found on the internet or in specialist salesrooms for £40 to £90, dependant on condition.
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