The World War One German invasion of Belgium… What happened next?

In the early days of World War One, the Germans planned to march through Belgium as part of their plan to win the war. The Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up much resistance; however, events did not quite turn out that way. In the second of a two-part article, Frank Jastrzembski continues from part 1 and tells the tale of the heroic Belgian defense of its homeland in 1914…

The World War One German invasion of Belgium… What happened next?

General Gerard Leman., the Belgian in charge of the defense of Liege.

General Leman set up his headquarters in Liege on July 31, 1914. On August 3, he ordered the destruction of the bridges, tunnels, and railways connected to Liege as the German forces began to flood across the small Belgian border. The next day the German Army of the Meuse arrayed for battle outside the ring of forts. An ultimatum was sent out to allow the Germans to enter Liege. Leman boldly refused the demand to surrender.

The Third Division occupying the trenches between the easternmost forts was attacked by the units of the Army of the Meuse. The German officers arrogantly launched their assault shoulder to shoulder as if organized on a parade ground against the sheltered Belgian defenders. The German assault was cut to pieces with the help of Belgian machine guns placed in the adjacent forts. At Fort Barchon, the Belgians mounted a counter strike and threw the wavering Germans back with their bayonets. The German attackers withdrew bloodied and completely stunned by the dogged Belgian resistance.

The Germans mounted a daring attempt to capture or assassinate Leman on August 6. A detachment of thirty German soldiers and nine officers dressed as British soldiers drove up to Leman’s headquarters. One of Leman’s aides, Major Marchand, soon caught on to the trap and alerted the headquarters, but was subsequently shot down. The surprise German attack carried Leman’s headquarters, but in the confusion Leman escaped to Fort Loncin, west of the city.


Closer to Liege

The German high command decided on the realignment of their strategy by focusing on capturing the city of Liege itself. Thousands of German reinforcements were soon flooding to the outskirts in an attempt to make a concentrated breakthrough past the forts into the city. After refusing to surrender once again, Liege was shelled on August 6 by a Zeppelin LZ-1, killing nine civilians. The Germans would become vilified for the atrocities committed against the Belgian population. With enough pressure, there was a breakthrough between Fort Fleron and Fort Evegnee on August 10, putting the Germans in range of Liege itself.

The Third Division was controversially sent to join the main Belgian Army in Louvain. The reasoning behind this move was that it would be better suited if it joined King Albert and the main army rather than being bottled up within the forts and surrounded. The movement of the Third Division to join Albert left Liege with weakened defenses as German reinforcements continued to strengthen their chokehold around the city.

The few Belgians in Liege were eventually forced to surrender the city. Even though the city was in German hands, the forts were still intact, and the guns of the forts controlled the roads coming in and out of Liege. The German’s held Liege with approximately 120,000 men, but could not move in and out of the city without being under persistent artillery from the forts. The Germans could only move undetected at night and in small parties.

In the meantime, the Allies sluggishly reacted to honor their guarantee to protect Belgian neutrality. The French, under General Joseph Joffre, were too infatuated with attacking through Alsace-Lorraine, and were indifferent to the genuine threat on their left in Belgium. The British, who decided on sending an expeditionary force of four divisions of infantry and cavalry, were slow in transporting these men across the channel to help the besieged Belgians.


A new weapon

General Erich Ludendorff, the new commander of the Fourteenth Brigade, realized the Belgian forts were not going to surrender even with Liege occupied. He decided on a method other than sacrificing his men in useless frontal assaults. He ordered up some 305 mm Skoda siege mortars borrowed from Austria, and a 402 mm howitzer produced by Krupp steelworks. None of these steel behemoths had been used in combat before. The 402mm Krupp weighed 75 tons and had to be transported by rail in five sections then set in concrete before going into action. It would fire up to ten 2,200 lb. projectiles per hour. It had a range of up to nine miles and was fired by an electric charge with a 200-man crew.

On August 12, the German government relayed another message to King Albert demanding the Belgians surrender. “Now that the Belgian Army has upheld its honor by heroic defense to a very superior force,” the Germans arrogantly indicated, they asked that the Belgians spare themselves from “further horrors of war.” King Albert refused to reply. The massive siege guns were soon unleashed on each fort in succession.

The forts had a major weakness in their design. They were vulnerable to artillery attacks from the rear. The siege guns took two days to assemble, and on August 12, they began to pound the remaining forts in detail.

The massive shells decimated the defending concrete and steel forts and buried the defenders. The forts could not return fire as the German guns were out of range. The defenders of each fort were forced to hunker down and withstand the bombardment. On August 13, three of the forts fell. Fort Pontisse withstood forty-five shells in 24 hours of bombardment before it was taken by an infantry assault. Fort Chaudfontaine surrendered with only 75 out of 408 still alive from the hellish shelling. By August 14, all forts east and north of the city had fallen.

After the eastern forts were reduced, the siege guns were brought up against the forts positioned to the west of the city. Fort Boncelles survived a 24-hour bombardment but soon fell on August 15 leaving little more than particles of concrete and scraps of metal. The bombardment left clouds of poisonous gas. By August 16, eleven of the twelve forts had fallen. Only Fort Loncin remained.


The last battle

General Leman had positioned himself in the last standing fort. The bombardment lasted for three days, from August 12-15. In an interval between the bombardments, the Germans sent emissaries under the white flag to try and convince Leman to surrender the garrison. Leman refused all demands. On August 16, Loncin was hit by a 420 mm shell that penetrated the magazine and exploded, demolishing the fortress.

German soldiers then entered on foot after the explosion. The majority of the garrison was buried in the debris, including their commander. Leman later vividly remembered the effects of the explosion as, “Poisonous gases seemed to grip my throat as in a vise.”

Hopeless as the situation was for the Belgians, they attempted to hold on to the fort. The last twenty-five or so Belgian defenders still able to stand were found in a corridor preparing for a last ditch effort to ward off the Germans. In another instance of tenacity, a corporal valiantly tried to drive the Germans back single-handily by firing his rifle in vain with one good arm, as his other arm was dangling wounded at his side. In a show of compassion, the Germans threw down their weapons and ran to the aid of the Belgian soldiers. Of the 500 defenders in Fort Loncin, 350 were dead and 150 wounded.


The World War One German invasion of Belgium… What happened next?

Fort Loncin in the aftermath of the battle.

The General

The Germans came upon the lifeless body of General Leman pinned beneath a block of stone. “Respect the General, he is dead,” uttered a nearby weeping Belgian adjutant. When it was realized that Leman was actually not dead, his lifeless body was carried out of the fort unconscious by German soldiers to General von Emmich. When he regained consciousness, Leman was said to have proudly pronounced, “It is as it is. The men fought valiantly. Put in your dispatches that I was unconscious.” Moved by his heroic proclamation, General von Emmich replied, “Military honor has not been violated by your sword. Keep it.”

Leman was transported to a prison in Germany. From his prison in Germany, Leman wrote to Albert pledging, “I am convinced that the honor of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts…I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.”

The day after the fall of Fort Loncin, the German Army resumed its march through Belgium toward France. Though unsuccessful at Liege, the Belgian forces had delayed the German advance for two priceless days in its sweep toward France. The German invasion was stopped dead in its tracks on the Marne River on the outskirts of Paris in September of 1914. The chance of a quick German victory faded away and trench warfare began in earnest.

Leman was kept as a prisoner of war until December 1917, when due to his failing health, he was released to travel to France. After the war, he returned to Belgium with a hero’s welcome for his heroic defense of Liege. He retired to the city he was born and fought to defend. He died on October 17, 1920.

Some may argue that the importance of the two-day defense of Liege is inconsequential. However, the Belgians helped to dramatically alter the outcome of the 1914 campaign. The Times of London declared that Belgium earned “immortal renown” by helping to shatter the superstition that the German armies were invincible.Today Fort Loncin is a grave to roughly 300 of those who died and remain buried in the wreckage.


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Further Reading

Davis, Paul K. Besieged: An Encyclopedia of Great Sieges from Ancient Times to the Present. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Donnell, Clayton. The Forts of the Meuse in World War I. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.

Horne, Charles F. The Great Events of the Great War Part Two. Volume II ed. The National Alumni, 1920.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2007.

Meyer, G. J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York City: Delacorte Press, 2007.

Pawly, Ronald, Pierre Lierneux, and Patrice Courcelle. The Belgian Army in World War I. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts. World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. 5 vols. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006.