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Bloodbath at Liège

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 138th installment in the series.

August 5-12, 1914: Bloodbath at Liège

While the most enduring images of World War I come from the long period of trench warfare, the bloodiest phases were actually the shorter “war of movement” at the beginning and end of the conflict. On the Western Front, the first clashes in August and September 1914, known as the Battle of the Frontiers, resulted in breathtaking casualties: By early September, the French Army had suffered roughly 330,000 casualties, including around 80,000 dead, while the much smaller British Expeditionary Force sustained around 30,000 casualties, nearly half its total strength. German casualties were almost as high, topping 300,000 by the end of the first week of September (including the First Battle of the Marne).

The Siege of Liège

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.

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.

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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.

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…

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.

Battle of Halen, German Atrocities

While 100,000 men from the German First Army were laying siege to Liège, German Uhlans (cavalry) pressed ahead into northern and central Belgium to conduct a reconnaissance in force, only to meet more Belgian resistance at the small town of Halen, where they were hoping to secure a bridge over the Rive Gete. After Belgian engineers dynamited the bridge—only partially destroying it—on August 12 the outnumbered Belgian cavaliers dismounted and greeted the Germans who managed to cross the bridge with massed rifle fire. The Germans made some progress, bringing up field artillery and forcing the Belgians back into corn fields west of the town, but eventually retreated after suffering about a thousand casualties, including 150 dead, with the Belgians losing a similar number.

Continuing Belgian resistance infuriated German soldiers, who were already on edge thanks to warnings that Belgian civilians would engage in guerrilla warfare, summoning nightmarish memories of the irregular “francs-tireurs” who tormented Prussian troops in the Franco-Prussian War. In fact there is little evidence that Belgian civilians actually mounted armed resistance, but that didn’t stop the Germans from seeing snipers everywhere, along with women, children, and even priests mutilating and killing wounded German soldiers. Walter Bloem, a captain in the German Army, described how rumors primed soldiers heading to the front to expect the worst:

We bought the morning papers at a wayside station and read, amazed, of the experiences of those of our troops already across the Belgian frontier – of priests, armed, at the head of marauding bands of Belgian civilians, committing every kind of atrocity, and putting the deeds of 1870 into the shade; of treacherous ambushes on patrols, and sentries found later with eyes pierced and tongues cut off, of poisoned wells and other horrors. Such was the first breath of war, full of venom, that, as it were, blew in our faces as we rolled on towards it.

In actuality, in at least some cases supposed francs-tireurs attacks were the result of friendly fire or Belgian regular forces firing from houses during street warfare. But whatever the truth may have been, soldiers and officers at all levels of the German Army were convinced that civilians were shooting at them and responded with a series of horrific atrocities—collective reprisals against the civilian population that permanently damaged Germany’s image around the world, including in important neutral countries such as U.S.

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According to the official Belgian history, the atrocities began on August 5 and then peaked from August 18 and 23, as German forces advanced through central Belgium. The tally includes 484 incidents that left 5,521 Belgian civilians dead and inflicted widespread destruction, extending to the razing of entire villages; hundreds if not thousands of Belgian women were raped, and some of them later murdered. One of the most notorious incidents occurred on August 25, 1914, at Leuven (Louvain), where German soldiers massacred 278 inhabitants and burned the town, destroying its famous medieval library, which contained thousands of priceless manuscripts. Elsewhere the Germans killed 156 civilians at Aarschot on August 19; 211 at Andenne on August 20, 383 at Tamines on August 21, and 674 at Dinant on August 23.

French Take Mulhouse, Abandon, Repeat

French strategy, as set forth in chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII, centered on a direct frontal attack across the German frontier to recapture the “lost provinces” of Alsace and Lorraine, annexed by Germany following its defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Joffre designated two armies to carry out this attack, with the First Army advancing from the vicinity of Epinal and Belfort, and the Second Army advancing from south of Nancy. Facing them were the German Seventh Army in Alsace and the German Sixth Army in Lorraine.

Beginning August 7, 1914, the French First Army under General Auguste Dubail advanced along a broad front, with the southern wing heading for Mülhausen (Mulhouse in French) in Alsace and the northern wing moving in the direction of Saarburg (Sarrebourg) in Lorraine.

At first the southern attack in Alsace seemed to be going well, as the First Army’s VII Corps captured Mulhouse on August 7-8 after meeting basically no resistance. Across France people celebrated the liberation of Alsace, but the Alsatians themselves were a bit more skeptical—and rightly so. On August 9 German reinforcements arrived from Strasbourg, and the outnumbered French had to withdraw from Mulhouse. Indeed, casualties in the First Battle of Mulhouse were actually relatively low, as it really wasn’t much of a battle, with both sides retreating before superior forces in turn.

Now Joffre sacked the commander of the VII Corps, General Bonneau—the first of many French commanders to be unceremoniously dumped for lacking “élan” and “cran” (spirit and guts)—and replaced him with General Paul Pau, commanding a reinforced VII corps now operating as the newly-formed, independent Army of Alsace. After a rather inglorious beginning, the French would return to the attack in Alsace on August 14, leading to a second short-lived occupation of Mulhouse later in the month.

Behind the Lines

During the early days of August 1914, civilians living behind the lines could only hold their breath, hanging on every word of (often cryptic or misleading) official bulletins. Governments of all the belligerent nations wasted no time instituting official censorship of newspapers—supposedly in order to protect military secrets, but in reality also to control public opinion by playing up victories and minimizing defeats.

Despite government attempts to shape public opinion in favor of the war, many ordinary people retained their ability to think critically and—patriotic feeling notwithstanding—were often scathing in their views of officialdom, who they blamed for dragging them into the war. Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat, left Britain with her husband aboard the same ship as the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, and recorded the attitude of some of her fellow passengers:

They all blamed the officials in Berlin, who had, they said, grossly mismanaged the negotiations. It had been an obsession in some of the German officials’ minds for years past, that Russia meant to attack them. “Well then,” said someone of the party, “why not wait until they do it? Why commit suicide to avoid being killed?” “What chance have we,” said someone else, attacked practically on every side?” “Is no one friendly to Germany?” asked another. “Siam is friendly, I am told,” was the bitter reply.

Similarly “Piermarini,” an anonymous correspondent who visited Berlin around this time, quoted a German officer: “Our army has been a success [but]… Our diplomats seem busy making mistake after mistake; we have lost the sympathies of all countries on earth, even of those who were formerly our friends.”

Dreaming Awake

Regardless of what side they were on, a common feeling expressed by soldiers and civilians alike was the sense of unreality brought by the war, which was often described as like living in a dream (or, increasingly, nightmare). Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent covering the war in France, reached for a narcotic metaphor:

It was a strange kind of melodrama that experience in the first two months of the war. Looking back upon it now, it has just the effect of a prolonged nightmare stimulated by hasheesh or bang—fantastic, full of confused dreams, changing kaleidoscopically from one scene to another, with vivid clear-cut pictures, intensely imagined, between gulfs of dim twilight memories, full of shadow figures, faces seen a little while and then lost, conversations begun abruptly and then ended raggedly, poignant emotions lasting for brief moments and merging into others as strong but of a different quality, gusts of laughter rising between moods of horrible depression, tears sometimes welling from the heart and then choked back by a brutal touch of farce, beauty and ugliness in sudden clashing contrasts, the sorrow of a nation, the fear of a great people, the misery of women and children, the intolerable anguish of multitudes of individuals each with a separate agony, making a dark background to this too real dream from which there was no awakening.

The dream was about to become more complicated: on August 12 the British Expeditionary Force began to land in France. Meanwhile the commander of the French Fifth Army, Charles Lanrezac, warned chief of the general staff Joffre that German troops appeared to be invading central Belgium, which meant they were heading much further west than expected, indicating an attempt to envelop French forces from the rear. However Joffre brushed off Lanrezac’s request to move the Fifth Army west to meet them—the first in a series of disastrous decisions.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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