WWI Centennial: 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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