Battle of Liège

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The Battle of Liège (French: Bataille de Liège) was the opening engagement of the German invasion of Belgium and the first battle of World War I. The attack on the city began on 5 August 1914 and lasted until 16 August when the last fort surrendered.

  • Date: 5-16 August 1914
  • Allies:
    • Belligerents: Belgium
    • Commanders: Gérard Leman
    •  Strength:
      • 36,000 troops
      • 252 guns
  • Central Powers:
    • Belligerents: German Empire
    • Commanders: Otto von Emmich and Erich Ludendorff
    • Strength:
      • 59,800 troops
      • 100 guns
  • Result:
    • Successful Belgian delaying action
    • German victory, Liège captured
  • Casualties and losses
    • Allies: 6,000–20,000 casualties, including 4,000 captured
    • Central Powers: 5,300 (as of 8 August; total unknown)

The war of movement got off to a slow start for the German Second Army, which had the unenviable mission of capturing the Belgian fortress complex at Liège. One of Belgium’s main industrial cities, Liège controlled the major rail and road crossings over the River Meuse, and was protected by a ring of 12 forts built from 1889 to 1891; these were mostly subterranean, leaving only rotating, heavily-armored gun turrets exposed, and widely thought impervious to bombardment by contemporary artillery.

Battle-of-Liege-1Picture 1: Triangular and pentagonal Brialmont forts, 1914

No one reckoned on the new, top-secret 42-centimeter howitzers (below), nicknamed “Big Berthas,” developed for the German Army by Krupp in the final years before the war. The Big Berthas weighed 43 tons and fired 1800-pound shells up to eight miles. When the war began the Germans also had access to two 30.5-centimeter “Skinny Emmas” manufactured by Austria’s Skoda words, which fired an 840-pound shell up to 7.5 miles.

But these huge guns were incredibly challenging to move: After being disassembled, they had to be packed on special rail flatcars for transportation to the combat zone, then pulled into position by giant tractors or scores of horses or oxen, then reassembled—a process requiring up to 200 men per gun in the case of the Big Berthas. To make things even more difficult, the Belgians dynamited a rail tunnel near at Herbesthal, so the guns had to be dragged over roads the rest of the way.

So while the Germans were waiting for the siege guns to arrive, beginning on August 5 they mounted several ill-advised frontal assaults and quickly discovered the advantage enjoyed by well-entrenched defenders (above)—the main, baleful lesson of the Great War. The Belgian garrisons, numbering around 40,000, had connected the forts with hastily dug trenches studded at intervals with machine guns (typically pulled by dogs, below), which along with massed rifle fire inflicted horrific casualties on German troops approaching in dense formation. One inhabitant of Liège, Paul Hamelius, recounted a night attack:

“The German storming parties marched up in thick lines, as steadily as if on parade, in the cold moonlight. The Belgian onlookers began to be anxious lest the enemy should be allowed to come to near, when a single long report of mitrailleuses [machine guns], all firing together, sent them to the other world at a single puff. This was repeated time after time… People who went near the forts later on said they had seen the Germans lying in a heap, six and seven deep, wounded and killed mixed inextricably together, so numerous that their names and numbers could not possibly be collected… [later] Germans and Belgians were heaped up separately, often in the trenches in which they had been fighting, and covered with quicklime, over which water was poured.”

Gladys Lloyd, an Englishwoman traveling in Belgium, recorded this account from a young Belgian who’d been acting as a spy and courier: “‘This morning I have just come from Liège… The German dead were piled up each side of my path, ghastly lolling corpses, one on the top of each other.’ He puts his hand up higher than his head. ‘It was the most awful sight I have ever seen, and then the odour.’ And the poor spy is literally sick in the village street.”

Impatient with this slow progress, on August 7 Erich Ludendorff—a member of the general staff who was sent to the field because of his difficult personality, and who would go on to become one of Germany Army’s most successful commanders—staged a daring raid into Liège itself. After dashing into the city Ludendorff strode up to the gate of the citadel (an obsolete fortress in the center of town) and simply knocked on the door, demanding its surrender, which he received. The fall of the citadel gave the Germans control of the town, including the all-important bridges across the Meuse, which the Belgians probably would have dynamited before withdrawing. Ludendorff’s “single-handed” capture of the citadel quickly became a thing of legend, propelling him to the top of the short list of officers waiting for army commands.

Battle-of-Liege-2Picture 2: Ruins of Fort Loucin in the Fortress of Liege, shot to pieces by a German 42 cm mortar

Over the next few days, the Germans did succeed in overwhelming several forts east of the city, but these gains came at great cost and the remaining forts showed no sign of giving in. However the tide was about to turn against the Belgian defenders: on August 12 the first of the 42-centimeter siege guns finally arrived, and later that day the first shell fell on Fort Pontisse, piercing its 8-foot thick concrete roof to explode in the bowels of the structure (the shells were equipped with time-delayed fuses). The impact was spectacular, according to Irvin Cobb, an American writer working for The Saturday Evening Post, who later saw the aftermath of bombardment in a field at Maubeuge, France:

“I would have said it was some planetic force, some convulsion of natural forces, and not an agency of human devisement… For where a 42-centimeter shell falls it does more than merely alter landscape; almost you might say it alters geography… Spaced very neatly at intervals apart of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards a series of craters broke the surface of the earth… We measured roughly a typical specimen.  Across the top it was between fifty and sixty feet in diameter, and it sloped down evenly for a depth of eighteen feet in the chalky soil to a pointed bottom… Of the earth which had been dispossessed from the crevasse, amounting to a great many wagonloads, no sign remained.  It was not heaped up about the lips of the funnel…  So far as we might tell it was utterly gone…”

Battle-of-Liege-3Picture 3: German troops outside the Palace of the Prince-Bishops in Liège

Cobb also met a German officer who described the effect on soldiers in forts that were bombarded, noting that it “rips their nerves to tatters.  Some seem numbed and dazed; others develop an acute hysteria.” After the bombardment, the officer went on,

“All of a sudden, men began to come out of the tunnel… They were crazy men – crazy for the time being, and still crazy, I expect, some of them. They came out staggering, choking, falling down and getting up again.  You see, their nerves were gone. The fumes, the gases, the shock, the fire, what they had endured and what they had escaped–all these had distracted them. They danced, sang, wept, laughed, shouted in a sort of maudlin frenzy, spun about deliriously until they dropped.  They were deafened, and some of them could not see but had to grope their way. I don’t care to see anything like that again – even if it is my enemies that suffer it.”

After these guns arrived at Liège, it was only a matter of time.