The war has started and soldiers are on the move. The Germans are ready to begin their march through Belgium but first they must deal with the formidable fortifications at Liege. Liege has some of the best fortifications in the world, but the Germans have a plan. The French are not idle and they execute their first attack of the war, to disappointing results.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 7. Last week we ended at war. Over the last month we have detailed the political movements all over Europe that resulted in a war between the countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, France, and Britain. This week we begin detailing the military events of the first and second weeks of August on a trek that will last longer than almost anybody thought it would and cost more lives than anybody could imagine. On an episode structure note we will be jumping around a bit more in time frame from here on out as we start grouping events primarily geographically. We will focus on the Western front over the next few episodes but don’t worry, we will catch up with the events in the east in a few weeks when the Russians begin invading East Prussia. There will also be a bunch of maps that correspond with what we talk about is almost all of the episodes moving forward posted with the show notes on HistoryoftheGreatWar.com which should help make sense of some of the events that are occurring.
In the first week of August France and Germany put into motion their war plans. The Germans were ready to sweep through Belgium and into Northern France while the French were preparing to thrust into Germany from the Swiss border in the South to the Luxembourg border in the north. We begin by looking at the German invasion of Belgium which began on August the 4th. We will then follow events south as the French launch their first attack of the war against the German city of Mulhouse.
As we discussed last week in our brief history of Belgium, in 1839 Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by several countries in Europe, including Britain, France, and Germany. However the Schlieffen plan dictated that Germany should attack France through Belgium as it was the easiest way into France. The plains of Belgium had long been the site of conflict including such notable battles as Waterloo in 1813. The Belgians knew that they were in a critical place on the continent and in 1913 they had begun some military reforms, they planned to increase the duration of conscription and also to restructure their army to more closely coincide with their European neighbors. These reforms were unfortunately just getting underway when the war started in 1914. The Belgians did not rule out attack by the French or British and therefore did not concentrate all of their strength facing East and toward the Germans. They decided to position their troops in a way that would allow them to face an attack from either the East or West, to accomplish this the Belgian government, led by King Albert decided to retreat most of their military forces into their national redoubt which was centered around Antwerp in northern Belgium while still keeping some forces in the fortified cities of Liege and Namur in southern Belgium. Namur and Liege were the primary Belgian border fortifications with Liege in the East facing Germany and Namur in the West facing France. While the primary Belgian forces stayed in Antwerp a division each from the army was sent to Liege and Namur. The Germans had 3 armies that would invade Belgium these were the First Army, led by Alexander von Kluck, the Second Army led by Karl von Bulow, and the Third Army led by Max von Hausen. These armies were arranged in order with the first army in the north and the third army in the south.
It would have been possible for the Germans to bypass Liege on their way through Belgium but it would have limited their mobility into Northern France and would have forced their troops through a far narrower corridor. By breaking through the fortifications, and occupying most of Belgium in the process, the Germans were allowed a much wider sweep through Belgium as well has wider, more secure, supply lines for their armies. Liege sat on the primary route into Belgium which included rail lines from Germany to Paris, rail lines that would play a critical role in keeping the German army supplied. It was located at the intersection of the Meuse and Ourthe Rivers about 20 miles west of Belgium’s border with Germany. The terrain around the city featured a lot of ravines and broken terrain making it difficult to attack but also difficult for the defenders to maintain a continuous line of defenses around the city. The primary fortifications were a ring of 12 fortresses that were built in the 1880s by Henri Alexis Brialmont who was considered one of the greatest defensive engineers of his day. The fortifications were all built out of concrete and embedded in the earth with a 30 foot ditch and lines of barbed wire surrounding them. The structures were impervious to all artillery when they were built and in 1914 they were still impervious to all normal artillery possessed by the German army. While the structures were fortified from all angles they were primarily positioned and armed to withstand frontal assaults. Each of the fortifications was armed with 78 guns of various calibers ranging from 2.2 to 8.3 inches. Some of the larger guns were also mounted in rotating cupolas that allowed them far greater areas of fire. The Belgian army had planned to increase the defensive structures between the fortifications but in 1914 these had not been completed, these unfinished projects would play a critical role in the fall of the forts to the German.
The Belgian forces that were stationed to defend Liege numbered around 36,000 and they were responsible for manning both the fortifications and the space between them. These troops were from the Belgian 3rd Division with an additional brigade, the 15th, from the 4th Division. These troops also included some fortress and local militia troops that were already garrisoned in the fortifications or in Liege at the time of the German attack. This amounted to about 1/6th the total strength of the Belgian army at the time, so to the Belgians it was not an insignificant force. This however was not enough men to maintain a 360 degree defensive perimeter and therefore the defense was concentrated in the South and East, facing Germany. These forces were commanded by General Leman who in 1914 was 63 years old and had spent the last several decades at the Belgian War College where he was the Commandant in 1914. He had a good relationship with King Albert 1 and was given instructions to hold Liege as long as possible.
The German army needed something that could damage the fortifications at Liege and they knew it was a tough nut to crack. To accomplish this task they had created some artillery pieces to make their job easier, these specially made guns had a caliber of 30.5 and 42 cm and fired 380 and 1000 kg shells respectively. These guns were created the Austrian copy Skoda and the German company Krupp and were the largest pieces of field artillery in use by any army in the world. They would be used by the special detachment of troops that were organized specifically to attack Liege made up of 6 Brigades which comes out to around 150,000 men. These were attached to the Second Army led by von Bulow but were designated and had trained for the assault. They were led by General Otto von Emmich who should, if everything went to plan, be able to take Liege in just 2 days, things would not go exactly as planned.
As the Germans approached the city of Liege the Belgian defenders took the rather prudent step of destroying the bridges to the north and to the south of the city. This would hamper German movements around the city in the coming weeks. When the Germans finally did arrive they requested that Liege surrender to their forces. The Belgian commander rejected this request, having been ordered to hold Liege as long as possible against German attacks. When the Germans received this rejection they attacked the fortifications around the city. The first waves of attacks were repulsed with heavy losses and to quote a Belgian Officer, as Max Hastings does in his recent book Catastrophe 1914, “As line after line of the German infantry advanced, we simply mowed them down…They made not attempt at deploying but came on….almost shoulder to shoulder, until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of the other, in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble.” When the news of the first attacks, and of the successful defense by the Belgian troops, reached the Belgian government they believed the battle to be won. This even caused some of the Belgian military leaders to suggest that the Belgian army should go over to the offensive and attack the Germans, this idea was quickly vetoed by King Albert. Over the next few days more and more attacks were mounted by the Germans, to much the same result.
It soon became apparent to General Leman, the commander of the Belgian troops at Liege, that he did not have the troops necessary to hold both the fortresses around Liege and the spaces between the fortresses. He then made the decision to withdraw his men into the 12 forts around Liege and to abandon the perimeter. Since the third division had been manning these positions they were no longer required for their role in the fighting so Leman sent them back to Antwerp where the rest of the Belgian army was stationed. While this was in a way admitting defeat Leman was determined to hold out for as long as possible to buy as much time as he could for the Belgian army and their French and British allies. With the fortresses still manned Liege was still a very formidable obstacle for the Germans. After the withdraw of the third division the Germans took the opportunity to infiltrate between the fortresses under the cover of darkness.
We now take a brief break from the action to introduce a person who will become one of the most important men in World War 1, and also one of the most powerful. This man was 44 years old in 1914 and was considered one of the most brilliant minds in the German Army. His name, and you will be hearing this name a lot, was Erich Ludendorf. In 1914 he was acting as liaison between the German second army and the force commanded by Emmich that had been tasked with taking Liege. While he was already known amongst the German military he would make a name for himself in the defense of East Prussia against the Russians later on in 1914 and by 1918 he will in essence be the de facto ruler of most of Germany. We will be discussing and following his rise to power over the coming years, but he got his start at Liege. On August 7th it was Ludendorf who took command of the 14th Brigade when their commander was killed and led the brigade on an attack into the city center. When the German troops arrived at the city center the Liege garrison surrendered to them bringing quite a bit of fame to Ludendorf back in Germany.
Even with the city of Liege captured the Belgian forts around the city continued their resistance. On August 8th the German troops were put under the command of General Karl Von Einem and they changed their tactics. Instead of assaulting the fortifications, which had been their strategy up to this point, they just surrounded them and waited for more artillery to arrive. This artillery was in the form of four batteries of the Austrian Skoda 305mm howitzer and 4 Krupp 420mm howitzers. The Skoda guns could be transported on the roadways but most of the Krupp guns had to be fired from specially built rail lines that were built right up to their firing positions. There were also road transportable versions of the Krupp monsters, but in early August these had not yet reached the front. The giant guns would arrive on August 12th and begin their bombardment of the Belgian defenses. These new arrivals were easily large enough to damage the Belgian defenses and here are even instances of single shots killing and injuring hundreds of the defenders. The Germans found that it generally required about 30 shells from these guns to cause each of the 12 Liege fortresses to surrender. Just 5 days later on August 13th all of the fortresses on the right bank of the Meuse had surrendered and they were joined just 3 days later but all of the ones on the left bank.
In total the siege of Liege had lasted 11 days and had cost the Germans over 5,000 casualties. The Belgian army, with the loss of its primary eastern defensive network, were firmly ensconced in Antwerp to await the German attack. When news of the victory reached the German home front the populace was delighted after hearing that the German army had managed to subdue the indestructible fortresses of Liege. This would be the first in a line of German successes that would not stop until September. The length of the siege did affect the German timetables for their advance, although not as much as the French believed. The Entente leaders believed that the Germans had planned to begin their advance on August 4th which would have meant a delay of a full two weeks. The Germans had instead planned to begin their general advance through Belgium on August 13th but they could not begin until Liege finally surrendered on August 15th, a delay of just 2 days. As the Germans began their advance the true heroes of Liege, the Skoda and Krupp guns were dismantled and sent on their way to Namur where in a few days they would perform the same job their as they had at Liege.
During the first few weeks of August while the primary action occurred around Liege there were cavalry troops moving all over Belgium. These of course included Belgian and German cavalry but also a French Cavalry detachment commanded by General Sordet. He had been sent into Belgium on August 6th to do some reconnaissance on the German troops and to determine the size of the force the Germans had sent into Belgium. During this time in Belgium Sordet became frustrated by the lack of direct action against the German cavalry, whose primary responsibility was not to fight Sordet but instead to just make sure he didn’t get close enough to the primary German troops to get any information. They did a very good job of screening Sordet from the main German forces, so good in fact that when Sordet would report back to Joffre with his findings he would report that he found no large German troop concentrations in Belgium. The German cavalry was also roving far and wide to gather intelligence and on August 7th they were seen as far as Huy on the Meuse between Liege and Namur. With the information that they had the French leaders did not believe that the German advance was going to come as far north as the Germans were indeed moving. They still believed that the primary advance of the Germans would come through very Southern Belgium and right into the waiting guns of the French Fifth army.
While the French and German cavalry mostly danced around each other there was a confrontation around the Belgian town of Haelen between the German Uhlans and the Belgian cavalry. The German units were on their way to Louvain on a reconnaissance mission and were commanded by General von Maritz. On their way to Louvain they ran into a group of Beglian cavalry under the command of General de Witte who, when confronted by the Germans, used his troops as dismounted riflemen. For 10 hours vollies from these dismounted cavalrymen and some supporting infantry repelled the German cavalry attacks. The Germans were attacking this rifle armed men with lances and sabers which resulted in a lot of casualties with very little gain for the Germans. Eventually after attacking for several hours without making any headway the Germans retreated. As was the case several times in the early weeks of the war this small action was blown completely out of proportion by the victors. Colonel Adelbert, a French military liaison to the Belgians, upon hearing of the Belgian victory at Haelen, reported to the French headquarters to and I quote regard the “retreat of the German cavalry as final and the projected attack through central Belgium as postponed or even abandoned.” While it is easy to laugh a bit at how off Colonel Adelbert was, several similar mistakes were made by the Belgian and French leaders before the true size of the German attack was realized.
Before we leave Belgium this week it is important that we touch on the sad subject of the atrocities experienced the Belgian people at the hands of the German military. During their occupation of Belgium, and especially in the early days of the war there are many instances of German troops killing Belgian civilians. In later years these actions would be termed the Rape of Belgium. These actions were, at least partially, a result of the German fear of franc-tireur, or civilian snipers, that the German soldiers during the Franco-Prussian war had been so familiar with. Due to the mythical nature of these attacks from 40 years prior the Germans would execute Belgian civilians on almost any pretext over the first few weeks of August. Often the troops were reacting to stories of resistance in local towns stories involving the death of some German cavalry troopers or a few infantry scouts who met their death at the hands of armed civilians. There are also unfortunate incidents of Belgian priests being targeted under the belief that they were organizing the Belgian resistance to the German occupiers and on the very first day of the German occupation of Belgium there are stories of priests being killed. Over the decades the extent of German actions against Belgian civilians would be masked by German actions attempting to justify or downplay the events. The events would be used as British propaganda during the war resulting in some exaggeration of the true events and the exact number of deaths may never be accurately determined but the death toll almost certainly extends into the thousands. While this was certainly not the only incident of civilians being targeted by soldiers it is a sobering reminder that at the front hardships extend far beyond the soldiers.
Far to the South of the events in Belgium the French were executing their first offensive action of the war around the small town of Mulhouse in Alsace. Mulhouse was located at the very far south of the French and German line in the Vosges mountains where the borders at the corner of Alsace, France, and Switzerland. The French planned to begin their attack on August the 7th and had created a special force for the effort under the command of General Bonneau. This force was comprised of the VIIth Corps and the 8th Cavalry Division and was detached from the First Army and numbered around 45,000. They were facing a German force that numbered around 30,000 men. The battle would begin at 5 o’clock on the morning of August the 7th with a bayonet charge by the French into the town of Altkirch. There was some resistance by the Germans and they held the defense for about 6 hours and caused around 100 casualties in the attacking French forces. The German forces in the town were just a skirmishing force and the primary German forces had been withdrawn to the east but this did not prevent the French from trumpeting the capture of Altkirch as a great success and the moment as indescribably emotional” according to one French communique.
The French commander Bonneau was hesitant to continue the attack out of concern for the lack of resistance by the Germans. He believed that the Germans were luring the French into a trap by drawing the French further into German territory before attacking, he was one hundred percent correct. He was however ordered the next day to continue with the advance and to take Mulhouse which the French did on August 8th. The German troops had left hours earlier and the French captured the town without firing a single shot. This was seen as a huge victory for the French and the French troops held a two hour review for the townspeople in the town square. Bonneau remained cautious and arrayed his troops around the town to defend against any German attack. On the next day, August 9th, the Germans would launch the attack. Fighting would continue throughout the entire day of August 9th and the French moved reserve forces up to reinforce the already engaged forces under Bonneau. Even with these reserves the French were forced to retreat the next day. Upon hearing of this setback Joffre relieved Bonneau of his command citing his hesitancy to attack as the reason for the failure of the French forces to hold Mulhouse. This would be the first such dismissal of a French commander by Joffre over the coming weeks. Joffre then reinforced the troops around Mulhouse and planned to attack again in a few days in conjunction with the rest of the French armies on August the 14th.
Next week we will follow the events of the French attacks as they fall upon the German troops from Switzerland all the way to Belgium. The Germans will not be completely on the defensive as their victory at Liege on August 15th unleashed the forces of the German First, Second, and Third army to begin their attack that would land on the French and British forces on the Meuse river between Belgian towns Namur and Mons. Next week we will be able to chronicle the events of the Battles of Lorraine, the Battle of the Ardennes, and the Battles of Charleroi as the French throw their entire weight against the awaiting German troops. We will find out why these attacks failed and why they resulted in August 1914 being the bloodiest month of the entire war for the French army.