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.

Netflix Promises That The Office Isn't Going Anywhere, Despite Reports to the Contrary

NBCUniversal, Inc.
NBCUniversal, Inc.

With all of the streaming sites available, deciding which one to choose can sometimes be just as difficult as figuring out what to watch once you get there. But one thing is certain: For Netflix users, The Office never fails. Which explains why Dunder Mifflin devotees panicked when they heard that the NBC series would be leaving the streaming giant's library. Fortunately, Netflix quickly took to Twitter to reassure fans that the Steve Carell-starring comedy isn’t going anywhere ... until at least 2021.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that NBCUniversal might want to take back its rights to The Office in order to put the series on their own streaming site, which is not yet live. This, of course, sent fans into a frenzy. Many took to social media to share how upset they were that their favorite workplace comedy might be disappearing. (A similar situation happened with Friends, another one of Netflix's most popular shows, back in December.)

Although The Office aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief—at least for now—Marvel fans haven't been so lucky. Disney has started to remove its movies along with Netflix’s Marvel shows like The Punisher and Daredevil. The new streaming service Disney+ will drop in November and will feature Marvel films, as well as original series—plus the entire Star Wars franchise.

With all the changes, it’s not difficult to become paranoid that your favorite show might be taken off your preferred streaming service. Better to binge what you can now while it’s still available.

16 Jaw-Dropping Facts About Cirque du Soleil

Hannah Peters, Getty Images
Hannah Peters, Getty Images

Since its founding in 1984, the contemporary circus Cirque du Soleil has performed for more than 180 million people in 450 cities on every continent but Antarctica. In other words: There’s probably a Cirque show near you right now … or there will be soon.

For the uninitiated, Cirque du Soleil—which celebrates its 35th anniversary in July 2019—features a mix of circus acts, street performance, unparalleled acrobatic feats and the avant-garde. And no matter the show’s theme, technology always plays a role—the Montreal-based company, now one of the largest live theatrical companies in business, consistently ups its game with state-of-the-art stages, special effects and world-class stunts. Read on to learn even more jaw-dropping facts about Cirque du Soleil.

  1. Cirque du Soleil began as a troupe of 20 street performers.

Cirque du Soleil has its roots in Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul (the Baie-Saint-Paul Stiltwalkers), a group that performed acts like fire-breathing and juggling on the streets of Baie-Saint-Paul in Quebec, Canada, in the early 1980s. One of the troupe's members was Guy Laliberté, who eschewed a college education to join the group; in 1984, he presented a proposal to the Canadian government for a company of performers that would tour across the country to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada. Laliberté landed a $1 million contract to make the proposal a reality, which led to the incorporation of the group as a non-profit under the name Cirque du Soleil.

  1. The name Cirque du Soleil means "Circus of the Sun."

"When I need to take time to reenergize, I go somewhere by the ocean to sit back and watch the sunsets. That is where the idea of 'Soleil' came from, on a beach in Hawaii, and because the Sun is the symbol of youth and energy," Laliberté explained to Fortune in 2011.

  1. Las Vegas has six permanent Cirque du Soleil shows.

Cirque du Soleil's first show had 10 acts and hit 15 cities in Quebec. Now, there are 23 Cirque du Soleil shows worldwide, including six permanent shows in Las Vegas and 12 that are on tour. Though it's hard to determine the most popular show, Cirque du Soleil calls Alegría—which ran from 1994 to 2013 before being "reinterpreted in a renewed version" in 2019—one of its “most beloved shows,” with 6600 performances for more than 14 million audience members around the world. That’s a lot of tickets.

  1. Mystère is the longest-running Cirque du Soleil show.

Cirque’s first permanent show in Las Vegas, Mystère has also been on stage the longest of all Cirque productions. This lighthearted, family-friendly show opened in 1993 at Treasure Island and features a classic Cirque du Soleil mix of gymnastics and trapeze.

  1. Cirque du Soleil shows are incredibly expensive to produce.

For example, —which premiered in 2005—cost at least $165 million to create, making it one of the most expensive theatrical productions in history (to compare, the Spider-Man musical, Broadway’s most expensive show, had cost estimates about half that). Much of the budget was for technical feats, including a battle scene featuring acrobats on wires fighting vertically. Sadly, it was during the battle sequence that aerialist Sarah Guillot-Guyard died in 2013. It was Cirque du Soleil’s first onstage fatality.

  1. There’s even a Cirque du Soleil show on ice.

Crystal, Cirque’s “first experience on ice,” premiered in December 2017 in Quebec City and Montreal. It’s basically the choreographed stunts you’d expect from Cirque du Soleil but everybody’s on skates.

  1. Many Cirque du Soleil casts include former Olympians.

Cirque du Soleil employs 1300 performers from 50 different countries, and Cirque says about 40 percent of its artists come from disciplines like rhythmic gymnastics and diving. To that end, in 2016, Cirque had 22 Olympians (including two medalists) on stage in a variety of roles, from high-flying trampoline acts to synchronized swimmers. That’s not to mention the many performers who are recruited from national gymnastics teams.

  1. Cirque du Soleil cast members train extensively.

Before being cast in a specific show, prospective performers attend artistic and acrobatic training at Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters in Montreal. Depending on the show and the role, cast members then do daily training and warm-ups, sometimes lasting more than 90 minutes, along with regular rehearsals. The daily work-outs can include weight lifting, stretching, handstands, pull-ups, sit-ups, and rope work.

  1. The kitchens on Cirque du Soleil tours use up to 3000 pounds of food a week.

Traveling Cirque shows have a team of around five chefs who pump out meals for cast and crew each day. Menus change daily and incorporate local specialties in whatever city the show lands (think: bison in Denver; étouffée in Louisiana). In a 2017 interview, Cirque kitchen manager Paola Muller said that the kitchen can run through 2000 to 3000 pounds of food a week. A 2016 Thrillist article notes that 90 to 100 pounds of protein are served at each meal, and there’s a salad bar with 22 ingredients.

  1. Cirque du Soleil takes safety seriously—but the stunts are still dangerous.

Cirque du Soleil cast members pull off dangerous stunts on the regular. But even with stringent safety systems in place (some performers have called them “annoying”), injuries and accidents happen. According to Vanity Fair there were 53 injuries at the permanent Las Vegas shows in 2012, and in 2018, an aerialist was killed in Florida during a performance of Volta.

  1. Princess Diana was an early fan of Cirque du Soleil.

She took Princes Harry and William to an early performance by the group in 1990. In early 2019, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, attended a Cirque du Soleil charity performance; the duchess wore one of Diana's bracelets and a dress inspired by one of her late mother-in-law's looks.

  1. Cirque du Soleil has an outreach program based on the “social circus.”

Established in 1995, Cirque du Monde supports the philosophy that circus arts can be used as interventions for at-risk youth, creating confidence and community for kids who need it. This idea is referred to as “the social circus”; this and other global citizen campaigns have reached 100,000 kids in 50 countries.

  1. Some costume pieces in Cirque du Soleil's O are made out of shower curtains.

The costumes for all Cirque shows are unique in that they have to be not only stunning but also athletically practical and safe. Cirque’s Montreal Costume Workshop employs 300 full-time artisans, including shoemakers, milliners, and textile designers.

Each costume’s evolution requires a lot of ingenuity—and trial and error. Take, for instance, Cirque’s water show, O, in Las Vegas. Some costume pieces are made out of shower curtains, pipe cleaners, or bits of foam to make them float in the water. The wardrobe staff here does 60 loads of laundry a night to keep the 4800 costumes and accessories clean, and there’s a totally separate room dedicated to drying, complete with specialized heaters.

  1. Luzia is the first Cirque show in Spanish.

Although Cirque du Soleil shows don’t regularly rely on speaking parts (that’s what the mimes are for!), Luzia is the first show to be entirely en Español. Luzia’s title combines two Spanish words—luz for “light” and lluvia for “rain”—and features a state-of-the-art rain curtain and revolving stage.

  1. You can experience Cirque du Soleil in VR.

A natural extension of the Cirque experience? Virtual reality. In 2018, MK2, a Paris-based company specializing in VR cinemas, acquired distribution rights to four Cirque shows, co-produced by Canada’s Felix & Paul. Now, you can experience moments from , Kurios, Luzia, and O on Google Daydream, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and more.

  1. Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE has been onstage longer than the Beatles.

Cirque’s Beatles show, LOVE, has been on stage since 2006. The Beatles were together for around a decade, from 1960 (or '62, if you're going by when Ringo Starr joined, and when they released their first single) to 1970. LOVE remains a stalwart of the Cirque canon, regularly selling about 75 to 90 percent theater capacity, and is at the top of many Vegas “must dos.”

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