Defence Of Liege
( Originally Published 1918 )
WE have briefly stated the German plan of campaign : its whole object was to throw twenty army corps into Northern France through Belgium, to strike quickly and to strike hard, to deal a crushing blow, to finish the French war in a month, and then to turn against Russia, which in the meantime would have been kept in check by Austria.
For the realization of that plan of campaign time was the one all-important element. And it was exactly the one element which the Belgian Army was able to control. For the Belgian plan of campaign originally was wholly dilatory and defensive. The Belgian Army seemed too small to take the offensive. On the other hand, Belgium happened to possess one of the strongest lines of defence in Europe. She could, therefore, hold back the German advance. She could give France time to come to the rescue. Once the French Army had reached the theatre of war, Belgium would have done her allotted part. Her army would have safely withdrawn behind the entrenched camp of Antwerp and, keeping in the rear of the invader, might still have kept ready for any further emergency.
The Belgian plan of campaign was extra-ordinarily simple, but it implied two assumptions. The Belgians were to limit themselves to a vigorous defensive ; the French were to follow up with a vigorous offensive. Both assumptions were falsified. Belgium did not limit herself to the defensive. Belgium diverted against herself the whole weight of the German attack. On the other hand, France did not at once take up a vigorous offensive. France made her imprudent and premature effort in the direction of Alsace-Lorraine. There may have been, as we suggested, sentimental and political reasons which prevented the advance on the Meuse. At the same time, it remains to this day an unexplained mystery why the French Army entirely failed to co-operate with the defence of Liége and Namur.
ON August 3 the German troops entered Belgium by three different routes. The Belgians were prepared to meet the aggressor. For Belgian mobilization had begun, before that of any other allied Power, and, as the country possesses a unique network of roads and rail-ways, it was practically completed on the arrival of the enemy.
From the outset the Germans revealed their secret plan of campaign by their very method of approach. In the first place, they threw against Visé a vanguard of 1,500 picked soldiers in one hundred and fifty motor-cars. In the second place, they did not trouble about their commissariat. They did not wait to bring up supplies. They expected to live on the country, with the result that their troops suffered from starvation, and that German straggling parties could be caught by the Walloon peasants with the offer of a loaf of bread. But, most important of all, they did not wait for their heavy siege guns to come up. Rather than delay action for several days, they were prepared to sacrifice thousands of lives in order to gain a brief advance in time.
Almost on entering Belgium the Germans began their attempt to reduce the population to submission by establishing a reign of terror. The civilian population unfortunately gave the invader an opportune pretext. The district contains a large population of gun-makers familiar with the use of fire-weapons and unfamiliar with the ways of warfare, and it seems proven that several citizens of Visé did take part in the hostilities and that they fired at the enemy. The Germans retaliated with ruthless severity, and the pretty little town of Visé may claim the melancholy distinction of having been the first Belgian city to be destroyed by the Teuton.
LIEGE is the industrial capital of Belgium, as Antwerp is the commercial capital, and Brussels the political capital. Its coal-mines, its extensive ironworks, the Cockerill Works of Seraing, which are only second to Krupp's, the famous glassworks of the Val Saint Lambert, all combine to make the Liége district one of the most flourishing centres of industry in Europe. But, quite apart from its economic importance, Liége is one of the most interesting historical cities in Belgium. It has probably more character and originality than any other. It cannot boast of the architectural marvels of Bruges and Ghent, but it has retained the undaunted spirit which in the Middle Ages produced those architectural marvels. It has a more homogeneous population than any other Belgian town. It has always been the centre of the Walloons, of whom it has been said that they are more French than the French. Situated between the Flemings on the west and the Germans on the east, the Liége people have a vivacity and a brightness which are more characteristic of the southern Frenchman than of the northern.
But, above all, Liége stands alone in Belgian history as having always been the seat of an independent State, with the exception of the brief interval of the French occupation during the Revolutionary Wars.
The Episcopal principality of Liége had never known the yoke of the foreigner. It was pleasant to live under the rule of the Prince-Bishops of Liége. Nowhere else were popular franchises better guaranteed. From the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth Belgian and foreign publicists continually pointed out the fact with remarkable unanimity. They all agreed in proclaiming that the Liégeois are the freest people in Europe. In contrast to the kings who claimed in the name of the Almighty the right of disposing arbitrarily of the lives and the property of their subjects, the Prince-Bishops of Liége considered themselves constitutional rulers, having no other rights than those which are conferred upon them by law. This is what one of them, Gerard de Groesbeek, has well said in the following terse formula : " A Prince-Bishop of Liége only gives a verdict through his judges. He does not issue decrees which are against the laws of the State, unless it be with the consent of the people themselves."
The Government of the Liége principality was the most paternal, the most patriarchal in the Low Countries, and its annals provide us with a thousand delightful episodes which go to prove that benevolent rule. In what other country could one have seen a sovereign engaged in a lawsuit before his own tribunals and condemned to pay expenses, as the Prince-Bishop Adolphe de la Marck was condemned by the Liége tribunals in 1340 ? In 1546 the Prince-Bishop asked the town of Liége, as any private citizen might have asked, permission to connect his palace with the water-supply of the town. The two burgomasters made inquiries to find out whether it was possible to comply with his request, and, the inquiry made, it was decided that the request of the Sovereign should be granted, on condition, however, that, in case of a drought, the Liégeois might withdraw the concession. About the time of the French Revolution the palace of the Prince-Bishop was hidden by a few mean houses, which he would have liked to demolish. " But," says a contemporary, the rights of property are sacred in Liége, and the houses remained standing." It is only in recent times that they have been demolished.
THE City of Liége is picturesquely situated on the left bank of the Meuse, and its position in the valley at the confluence of three rivers and in close proximity to the neutral State of Holland makes it one of the strongest natural positions in Europe. The position has been further strengthened by a system of fortifications built by General Brialmont. The Liége fortifications were the latest creation of the greatest military engineer of his day. They were only built after many years of opposition, and their history is one of the most curious episodes of recent Belgian history. Dismissed from active service, again and again in violent conflict with the Liberal leader, M. Frére-Orban, General Brialmont finally built Liége on the model of his own fortifications of Bucharest.
But he would never have achieved his end it it had not been for the strenuous support of King Leopold II.
" That our soldiers have not undergone their fate like sheep," says Professor Hamelius, of the University of Liége, in his interesting account of the siege, " is due, in the first place, to the foresight and courage of that unpopular monarch, King Leopold II. Let every Belgian and Englishman who has blamed his colonial methods of government (it would be a mistake to think that we Belgians were afraid of blaming him) do justice to the man's memory at the present hour. He clearly saw the impending cloud and made preparations for it. If we may repeat his own homely joke when taunting a member of our Parliament for opposing his contemplated fortifications of the Meuse :
Never go without an umbrella, sir ! '
" He initiated the two measures which have saved our nation from the shame of neglecting their duty as keepers of the peace and as warders of one of the highways of Europe. One was the building of the forts, the other was the reform and increase of our Army.
" As the fortress of Antwerp was built in the teeth of a violent opposition, so the forts of Liége were given to a reluctant country amid protests and complaints. The King had found in Brialmont the leading military engineer of the period, and he commissioned him to recast the whole system of defence. Up to about 188o it was a dogma of Belgian policy that in case of a foreign invasion our Government was to retire to Antwerp and hold that place until England and other Powers who had guaranteed our independence should come to our assistance. This settled idea had to be given up in favour of a new system, which consisted in strengthening the valley of the Meuse so as to prevent an army from crossing it either on its way from Germany to France or from France to Germany. The latter hypothesis has probably not been seriously contemplated, as the advantage of numbers was more and more on the German side.
" When the planning and building or the forts, under the supervision of Brialmont him-self, were finally carried, it was found that our Army was deficient in numbers and in quality. The latter defect was owing to an obsolete system of recruiting, which allowed any man called to barracks by the ballot, or drawing of lots (tirage au sort, as we still call it), to find a poorer man as a substitute, pay him a small sum of money (the sum never rose to £8o), and allow him to serve the country in his place.
" King Leopold decided that this antiquated system had to go, and that Belgian gentlemen and farmers must serve their country in their own person, as Germans and Frenchmen had long been doing. He was not afraid of making public speeches on the subject, and, notwithstanding the reluctance of his Parliamentary majority, he finally carried his point. The law doing away with substitutes in the Army was one of the last signed by him before his death. It must be pointed out that the Army that did so well in August last was recruited partly under the old system and partly under the new, only the younger men having come in after the Bill was put in force."
" THE works round Liége," Mr. Belloc writes, " consist of twelve isolated forts, forming the most perfect and most formidable ring of de-fences in Europe or in the world. The ideal ring fortress would be a town capable of ample provisioning and lying within an exact circle of heights, at an average of some 8000 yards distance, each with a self-contained closed work, and each such work within support of at least two others. No such absolutely exact conditions exist, of course, in reality, but skill and the relief of the soil combined have endowed Liége with a ring of forts very nearly combining these conditions. The circle, though not exact, is more nearly exact than in the case of any other ring-fortress. Its largest diameter is not 20 per cent. in excess of its shortest. The greatest distance between any two works is but 7000 yards, the average less than 4000. Each work is easily supported by two others, and often by three, and in one case by four."
The weakness of the Liége fortifications was, in the first place, the large interval between each individual fort. That deficiency had been obviated by the breastworks raised just before the arrival of the Germans. Fifty-three thousand Belgian sappers and navvies were employed in the task. Another weakness was the smallness of the garrison. When, in 1890, Sir George Clarke (now Lord Sydenham) reported on the Liége forts to King Leopold, he stated that the forts of Liége and Namur would require 74,000 men for their defence.
The garrison of one fort is astonishingly small some eighty men, gunners for long distance, and infantry for repulsing storming parties. Sixteen men working mitrailleuses are said to suffice for sweeping the surroundings of a fort clean of the enemy. They are said to suffer quite as much from the heat, the smoke, and the nervous commotions within as from the attack from outside. I met several men who had been fighting days and days in the forts. They all complained of having had neither food nor sleep, and yet when they were offered food they would refuse it. The lower jaw projected in an attitude of dogged de-termination, and they kept abusing the enemy, who was no longer there. Although they were physically exhausted, they showed no sign of yielding or fear. Probably their minds had lost their elasticity, and they just persisted in the moral attitude once taken up. Their Sense of discipline remained very strong. They dragged their guns along, though they could hardly stand, and thought only of obeying orders and doing as they had been told." (Hamelius, " The Siege of Liége," p. 45).
THE German theory was to rush one or two key-forts. This would be all the easier as the enemy was only too well aware of that in-adequacy of the garrison to which we have just referred. There can be no doubt that, if the Germans had been allowed to bring their heavy artillery into position from the beginning, they would have succeeded. But they could not afford the time, and they did not think the heavy artillery would be needed. They did not expect serious resistance, and they were quite prepared to make a heavy sacrifice. All through the war the German commanders have shown that they hold the lives of their soldiers very cheap.
The inadequacy of the garrison was largely compensated by the presence of a commander who from the very outset revealed himself to be one of the most resourceful soldiers of his time. A scientist of repute, and a former professor at the military school of Brussels, General Leman united the keen penetration of mind of the trained mathematician with those moral gifts which make the born leader of men, and which inspire absolute loyalty and confidence.
The three German army corps had been ordered to storm the fortress at whatever cost. They did pay the full cost, and did not win the prize. They advanced in close formation. They made one futile attack after another against Barchon, against Loncin, and especially against Boncelles. Time after time they were repelled. The big Belgian guns cut broad avenues in the German ranks. The attack of the mobile Belgian division followed up the murderous effect of the guns of the forts. Rifles were fired at fifty yards, and the bayonet completed the work of the rifle. Each onslaught was more desperate. Each repulse was more deadly. On the third day, in their advance against Fort Boncelles, the Germans lost 25,000 in killed and wounded. The German commander sued for an armistice of twenty-four hours to bury his dead. The armistice was refused.
" It was tragic," said a Belgian lancer inter-viewed by a Times correspondent, " the way in which these poor fellows were driven up to the guns of the forts. They came in massed formation, but so reluctantly. It was obvious that they came only under compulsion. They stood but five paces apart, with about fifteen paces between the ranks a solid mass which even a woman might hit. We simply couldn't miss them. Before our infantry had begun to charge, heaps of dead and dying lay in masses in the fields. I do not believe that anyone realizes what the spectacle was like. From accounts which I have heard, Port Arthur was nothing to it.
Our men charged repeatedly with fixed bayonets. They did not care. They saw red. Nothing seemed to stop them. Every time they charged, the German troops turned and ran. They were struck in the back and killed like cattle. It was horrible. Then the cavalry charged them. I have no recollection of what happened to me. I recollect nothing but a great rush and that my lance was broken. I do not know whether I killed a German or not."
With all its heroism the little garrison was unequal to its tremendous task. The thousand gunners might be sufficient to hold the forts. But they could not for long hold such a vast perimeter. Four days and four nights of ceaseless fighting left the defenders exhausted. The Belgians could not be relieved, whilst the Germans had inexhaustible reserves to draw upon. Sooner or later the enemy must slip through the intervals of the forts. Only a small force might pass, but a small force was all that was required. On the 6th a German detachment managed to cut its way through. Threatened in their line of retreat between the Germans inside and the German forces outside, the Belgian garrison had to retire on Tirlemont and Louvain. This retreat explains the paradox which was so unsettling to the lay mind, of the forts holding out long after the town itself had been occupied by the enemy. The purpose of the forts was not to hold the city, but to defend the river approaches. In this the forts were successful. Until about August 5 no considerable German forces were able to cross the Meuse. Time after time the German army threw pontoon-bridges above and below Liége. Time after time the bridges were destroyed by the fire of the forts and the Germans repulsed with heavy losses.
ONCE the Belgian garrison had withdrawn the end could not be indefinitely postponed. The fate of Liége was practically settled from the moment when the Germans were able to bring up their heavy siege artillery. The forts were not able to resist the 42 cm. howitzers. Later events the fall of Namur and the surrender of the French fortresses have abundantly proved that no Continental forts could ultimately resist their impact. No doubt, if a sufficiently strong mobile force could have prevented the Germans from placing their heavy artillery into position, the fate of Liége might have been warded off. It was not to be. In the second half of August all the Liége forts were in the hands of the enemy.
The object of the defence had been fully attained. The resistance of Liége is not only one of the most magnificent achievements in military annals, it is also, as we have already said, one of the decisive events in world history.
The narrative of the defence of Liége may be fittingly concluded with a letter which the heroic commander, General Leman, wrote to King Albert. General Leman was not allowed to see the end of a siege which was to hand down his name to posterity. He was wounded and made a prisoner after the explosion of the Fort of Loncin. From his prison he sent the following message to his Sovereign :
CC After a severe engagement fought on August 4, 5, and 6, I considered that the forts of Liége could not play any other part but that of stopping the advance of the enemy. I maintained the military government in order to co-ordinate the defence as much as possible and in order to exert a moral influence on the garrison.
" Your Majesty is aware that I was at the Fort of Loncin on August 6 at noon.
" Your Majesty will learn with sorrow that the fort exploded yesterday at 5.2o P.M., and that the greater part of the garrison is buried under the ruins. If I have not died in this catastrophe, it is owing to the fact that my work has removed me from the stronghold. Whilst I was being suffocated by the gases after the explosion of the powder, a German captain gave me a drink. I was then made a prisoner and brought to Liége. I am aware that this letter is lacking in sequence, but I am physically shaken by the explosion of the Fort of Loncin. For the honour of our armies I have refused to surrender the fortress and the forts. May your Majesty deign to forgive me. In Germany, where I am taken, my thoughts will be, as they have always been, with Belgium and her King. I would willingly have given my life better to serve them, but death has not been granted me.
(Signed) GENERAL LEMAN."