Brave Belgium: The Battle of Liège August 5, 1914
The 1839 Treaty of London signed by England, Germany (Prussia), Austria, France and Russia had declared that Belgium was a neutral state in perpetuity.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Britain had declared that it would come to Belgium’s aid should either France or Germany ever violate Belgium’s neutrality.
Belgium was about to be violated.
The War on the Western Front Begins
The stage was set.
Despite the telegrams that had flown between Czar, Kings, Kaiser and government officials in a multitude of countries in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the war had begun. Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia. France and Germany declared war on each other. And now Britain and her Empire had entered the war. The 1st world war had begun.
Germany had Belgium firmly in its sights. It needed to traverse Belgium in order to see its war plan against the French succeed. As more German troops poured into Luxembourg August 2nd, 1914, Belgium ordered its troops, which had already mobilized on July 31st, to be on guard and to defend its borders against any hostile forces. Belgium refused Germany’s “request” to allow it passage through Belgium, and the Germans ignored Belgium’s response. Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4th, 1914 – a mere formality considering the wheels that were already in motion.
Five Facts About The Battle of Liège
- Overall, the Battle slowed the Germans down by four or five days. This bought the French and English forces more time to mobilize.
- The location of the 12 forts ringing the city was evenly split between the banks of the Meuse River – six on one side, six on the other.
- Zeppelins were used to drop bombs on Liège and its Citadel.
- Field Marshal Karl von Bulow was the man in charge of the German 2nd army laying siege to Liège.
- The largest siege cannon used by the Germans against the forts was a massive 42 centimeters; the largest land gun up to that point was a puny 28 centimeters.
A Belgian Outpost
Belgian Army 1914
Belgium’s army was ill-equipped to face any army, let alone that of Germany. Belgium had always assumed that the signatories to the Treaty of London would keep their word and not violate her borders.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Britain had formally declared that it would come to Belgium’s aid if either France or Germany should ever invade Belgium. And as late as 1911, Britain had discussed the possibility of landing its troops in Belgium should war break out in Europe, leading Belgium to believe that Britain considered it to be a sort of protectorate.
It was Belgium’s aim to maintain her neutrality.
Test your knowledge (answer found on this page)
By how many days were the German forces slowed down by the Battle of Liège?
Battle of Liège – First of the WW1 Battles on The Western Front
The timing of the war could not have been worse for tiny Belgium. Her standing army of 350,000 men was in the midst of being reorganized when Germany declared war. The Belgians were caught way short, as the reorganization of their armed forces was not planned to be completed until 1926.
The Germans would not wait. They attacked the Belgian fortified city of Liège on August 5th, 1914.
Liège had been fortified after the Franco-Prussian War to fend off German forces in case they decided to fight a future war with France – everyone assumed it would happen again – on Belgian soil. The plan was relatively simple, with a ring of 12 main forts protecting the city of Liège itself. In case of attack, the forts were meant to slow down invaders in order to give the Belgian army time to mobilize.
The forts were designed in either a triangular or quadrangular shape, and were constructed of concrete that was not reinforced, concrete being a relatively new building material at the time. They were also moated and had barbed wire encircling them. The thick concrete walls were designed to resist shelling by the heaviest guns any of the forts were outfitted with, those being 21 cm howitzers. The forts each had a small plant to generate electricity, and were garrisoned and provisioned to withstand a one-month enemy siege.
Belgian Lancers Above Visé in the line of the German Advance on Liège
Battle of Liège Lasted 12 days - one day for every fort
The German attack against Liège lasted 12 days, with the last of the 12 forts surrendering on August 16th, 1914. They were no match against the German guns, particularly the heavy 42 cm howitzers. Pounded by German artillery, walls crumbled and the German troops were able to penetrate the ring of forts and attack them from both the front and the rear.
The design of the forts protecting the city proved to be their undoing. The Belgian troops inside the forts were literally unable to breathe as the air became thick with concrete dust and powder residue from the weapons.
One after another, the forts surrendered. Having breached the area between forts, the Germans slipped through and captured Liège itself before the very first fort had fallen.
Battle of Liège and the Schlieffen Plan
Germany's Schlieffen Plan was Behind Schedule Thanks to Brave Belgium.
The Germans had to finish Liège quickly. They needed the main railway lines in the Eastern part of Belgium to move their own troops. The railway through Liège was shut down for the duration of the 12 day siege. The Germans had planned on taking Liège in 2 days.
The brave Belgian troops who withstood the onslaught by the Germans paid dearly. Estimates of the number of Belgian dead start at 3,000 men over the 12-day period, with many more taken prisoner.
Fort Loncin After German Bombardment
"A month ago, Belgium was a land of lovely, dreamlike towns, smiling fields of harvest, and busy industrial centres. Now many of her bravest sons lie in huddled heaps amid the ungathered corn, amid the burnt ruins of villages, with their faithful horses stretched in death beside them. And this horrible thing has happened because the Belgians put their national honour above bribery, because they stood out against the mendacious, ferocious savages of Prussia, for the sanctity of treaties on which civilisation depends."
From The War Illustrated Vol. 1 No. 2 for the week ending August 29, 1914
- Anon. (1923) Source Records of the Great War, Volume I. Canada: National Alumni, The Great War Veterans Association of Canada
- Tuchman, Barbara. (1962) The Guns of August. New York NY: Macmillan Company
- Anon. (1914-1921) History of the War, Volume I. London UK: The Times
© 2014 Kaili Bisson