WHILE CONCENTRATION OF THE ARMIES was proceeding, advance groups of the German and French forces moved to the attack as if through a revolving door. The Germans entered from the east and the French from the west. Each opponent’s first move was to take place on his own extreme right on the rim of the revolving door’s perimeter, three hundred miles apart. The Germans would proceed, regardless of what the French did, to the assault of Liège and the reduction of its ring of twelve forts in order to open the roads across Belgium to the armies of their right wing. The French, equally regardless of what the enemy did, would charge into Upper Alsace in a move, more sentimental than strategic, designed to open the war upon a wave of national enthusiasm and encourage an uprising of the local population against Germany. Strategically its purpose was to anchor the French right on the Rhine.
Liège was the portcullis guarding the gateway into Belgium from Germany. Built upon a steep slope rising 500 feet up from the left bank of the Meuse, moated by the river, here nearly 200 yards wide, surrounded by a 30-mile circumference of forts, it was popularly considered the most formidable fortified position in Europe. Ten years ago Port Arthur had withstood a siege of nine months before surrender. World opinion expected Liège certainly to equal the record of Port Arthur if not to hold out indefinitely.
Seven German armies totaling over 1,500,000 men were being assembled along the Belgian and French frontiers. They ranged in numerical order from the First Army on the German extreme right opposite Liège to the Seventh Army on the extreme left in Alsace. The Sixth and Seventh Armies composed the German left wing of 16 divisions, the Fourth and Fifth Armies the center of 20 divisions, and the First, Second, and Third Armies made up the right wing of 34 divisions which was to move through Belgium. An independent cavalry corps of three divisions was attached to the right wing. The three armies of the right wing were commanded by Generals von Kluck, von Bülow, and von Hausen, all sixty-eight years old of whom the first two were veterans of 1870. The commander of the cavalry corps was General von Marwitz.
As von Kluck’s First Army had to travel the farthest, its progress was to regulate the pace of the general advance. Concentrating north of Aachen, it was to take the roads which crossed the Meuse over the five bridges of Liège whose capture was thus the vital first objective upon which all else depended. The guns of the forts of Liège dominated the gap between the Dutch frontier and the wooded and hilly Ardennes; its bridges provided the only multiple crossing of the Meuse; its junction of four railroad lines connecting Germany and Belgium with northern France was essential to the supply of the German armies on the march. Until it was taken and its forts put out of action, the German right wing could not move.
A special “Army of the Meuse” of six brigades commanded by General von Emmich was detached from the Second Army to open the way through Liège. It was expected, unless the Belgians offered serious resistance, to accomplish this while the main armies were still concentrating. In one of his prewar indiscretions, the Kaiser once said to a British officer at maneuvers, “I will go through Belgium like that!” cutting the air with a flip of his hand. Belgium’s declared intention to fight was, the Germans believed, no more than the “rage of dreaming sheep”—in the words a Prussian statesman once applied to his domestic opponents. When Liège had been taken and the First and Second Armies were on the roads on either side of it at a point level with the city, the main advance would begin.
Henri Brialmont, the greatest fortifications engineer of his time, had built the forts of Liège and of Namur in the 1880’s at the insistence of Leopold II. Located on high ground in a circle around each city, they were designed to hold the passage of the Meuse against invaders coming from either direction. The Liège forts were situated on both banks of the river at an average distance of four to five miles from the city and two to three miles from each other. Six were on the east bank facing Germany and six on the west reaching around and behind the city. Like medieval castles sunk underground, the forts showed nothing on the surface but a triangular mound from which protruded the cupolas for the disappearing gun turrets. Everything else was subterranean. Inclined tunnels led to the chambers underground and connected the turrets with the magazines and fire control rooms. The six larger forts and the six smaller fortins in between had a total of 400 guns of which the largest were 8-inch (210 mm.) howitzers. In the corners of the triangles were smaller turrets for quick-firing guns and for machine guns which covered the slopes immediately below. A dry moat 30 feet deep surrounded each fort. Each had a searchlight fitted to a steel observation tower which could be lowered underground like the guns. The garrisons of each of the larger forts numbered 400, composed of two companies of artillery and one of infantry. Intended as advance posts to defend the frontier rather than as last-ditch retreats to withstand a siege, the forts depended on the Field Army to hold the spaces in between.
Overconfident in the great work of Brialmont, the Belgians had done little to keep the forts up to date, leaving them to be manned by inadequate garrisons drawn from the oldest classes of reserves with one officer per company. For fear of giving Germany the least excuse to declare Belgium’s neutrality compromised, the order to construct trenches and barbed-wire barricades for defense of the intervals between the forts and to raze trees and houses in the way of the guns was not given until August 2. When the attack came these measures were barely begun.
On their part the Germans, believing the Belgians would yield to the ultimatum or at most offer a token resistance, had not brought up the surprise weapon they had in store in the form of gigantic siege cannon of such size and destructive power that it had not been thought possible such guns could be made mobile. One, built by Skoda, the Austrian munitions firm, was a 12-inch (305 mm.) mortar; the other, built by Krupp’s at Essen, was a monster of 16.5 inches (420 mm.) which together with its gun carriage was 24 feet long, weighed 98 tons, fired a shell a yard long weighing 1,800 pounds at a range of 9 miles and required a crew of 200 attendants. Until then the largest guns known were Britain’s 13.5-inch naval guns and the largest land guns 11-inch fixed howitzers of the coast artillery. Japan, after a six-month failure to reduce Port Arthur, had stripped her coasts of such weapons to use in the siege, but it had taken three more months under their fire before the Russian fortress surrendered.
The German schedule could allow no such period to reduce the Belgian forts. Moltke had told Conrad von Hötzendorff that he expected the decision in the West to take place by the 39th day and had promised to send German troops eastward to help Austria beginning on the 40th day. Although the Belgians were not expected to fight, nevertheless German thoroughness required that every contingency be provided for. The problem was to design the heaviest possible anti-fortification gun that could be transported overland. It had to be a mortar or short-barreled howitzer with high angle of fire capable of lobbing shells onto the tops of the forts and yet, without the rifling of a long barrel, have sufficient accuracy to hit a specific target.
Krupp’s, working in iron secrecy, was ready with a model of the 420 in 1909. The sawed-off bloated giant, though fired successfully, proved excessively cumbersome to move. It had to be transported by rail in two sections each requiring a locomotive to pull it. Spur tracks had to be laid to bring the gun to its emplacement pit which, owing to the tremendous downward thrust of the recoil, had to be dug several yards deep and filled with concrete in which the gun was embedded and from which it could only be released by blasting. The emplacement process required 6 hours. For four more years Krupp’s worked to construct a gun transportable by road by breaking it down into several sections. In February 1914 such a model was achieved and tested at the Kummersdorf proving ground much to the gratification of the Kaiser, who was invited for the occasion. Further tests over roads with steam and gasoline motors and even multiple horse teams as movers showed that improvements were necessary. A target date of October 1, 1914, was set.
The Austrian Skoda 305s, completed in 1910, had the advantage of superior mobility. Motor-drawn in three sections consisting of gun, mount, and portable foundation, they could travel 15 to 20 miles in a day. Instead of tires, their wheels wore continuous belts of what was then awesomely described as “iron feet.” At the point of emplacement the portable steel foundation was set down, the mount bolted to it, and the gun fitted to the mount, the whole process requiring 40 minutes. Disassembly could be achieved equally quickly, which made the guns proof against capture. They could be swung right or left to an angle of 6o degrees and had a range of 7 miles. Like the 420s they fired an armor-piercing shell with a delayed-action fuse allowing the explosion to take place after penetration of the target.
When war broke out in August, several of the Austrian 305s were in Germany, loaned by Conrad von Hötzendorff until the German model should be ready. Krupp’s had in existence at this time five 420s of the railroad model and two of the road model still waiting for the necessary improvements in transportation. Urgent orders to make them ready were issued on August 2. When the invasion of Belgium began, Krupp’s was working desperately day and night to assemble guns, mounts, motors, equipment, horse teams for emergencies, mechanics, truck drivers, and artillery personnel who had to be given last-minute training.
Moltke still hoped to get through without needing them. If, however, the Belgians were so misguided as to fight, the Germans expected that the forts could be taken by simple assault. No detail of the assault had been left to chance. Its planning had been the study of an officer who was Schlieffen’s most devoted disciple on the General Staff.
Gluttony for work and a granite character had overcome lack of a “von” to win for Captain Erich Ludendorff the right to wear the coveted red stripes of the General Staff whose ranks he entered at the age of thirty in 1895. Although his thick body, his blond mustache over a harsh down-curving mouth, his round double chin, and that bulge at the back of the neck which Emerson called the mark of the beast, characterized Ludendorff as belonging to the opposite physical type from the aristocratic Schlieffen, he modeled himself on Schlieffen’s hard, shut-in personality. Deliberately friendless and forbidding, the man who within two years was to exercise greater power over the people and fate of Germany than anyone since Frederick the Great, remained little known or liked. None of the usual reminiscences of friends and family or personal stories or sayings accumulated around him; even as he grew in eminence he moved without attendant anecdotes, a man without a shadow.
Regarding Schlieffen as “one of the greatest soldiers who ever lived,” Ludendorff, as a member and ultimately Chief of the Mobilization Section of the General Staff from 1904 to 1913, devoted himself to ensuring the success of his master’s plan. Of its soundness, he says, the entire Staff was convinced, for “nobody believed in Belgium’s neutrality.” In the event of war Ludendorff expected to become Chief of Military Operations, but in 1913, he came into conflict with the then Minister of War, General von Heeringen, and was removed from the Staff to a regimental command. In April 1914 he was promoted to general with orders, upon mobilization, to join the Second Army as Deputy Chief of Staff.* In that capacity, on August 2, he was assigned to Emmich’s Army of the Meuse for the attack upon Liège, charged with liaison between the assault force and the parent command.
On August 3 King Albert became Commander in Chief of the Belgian Army—without illusions. The plan he and Galet had drawn up to meet the hypothesis of a German invasion had been frustrated. They had wanted to bring up all six Belgian divisions to take a stand along the natural barrier of the Meuse where they could reinforce the fortified positions of Liège and Namur. But the General Staff and its new chief, General Selliers de Moranville, disinclined to let the young King and the low-ranking Captain Galet dictate strategy, and itself torn between offensive and defensive ideas, had made no arrangements to bring the army up behind the Meuse. In accordance with strict neutrality the six divisions were stationed before the war to face all comers: the Ist Division at Ghent facing England, the 2nd at Antwerp, the 3rd at Liège facing Germany, the 4th and 5th at Namur, Charleroi, and Mons facing France, the 6th and the Cavalry Division in the center at Brussels. General Selliers’ plan, once the enemy was identified, was to concentrate the army in the center of the country facing the invader, leaving the garrisons of Antwerp, Liège, and Namur to look after themselves. The impetus of existing plans is always stronger than the impulse to change. The Kaiser could not change Moltke’s plan nor could Kitchener alter Henry Wilson’s nor Lanrezac alter Joffre’s. By August 3 when King Albert, becoming officially Commander in Chief, took precedence over General Selliers, it was too late to organize deployment of the whole army along the Meuse. The strategy adopted was to concentrate the Belgian Army before Louvain on the river Gette about forty miles east of Brussels where it was now decided to make a defense. The best the King could do was to insist upon the 3rd Division remaining at Liège and the 4th at Namur to reinforce the frontier garrisons instead of joining the Field Army in the center of the country.
As commander of the 3rd Division and Governor of Liège, the King had obtained the appointment in January 1914 of his own nominee, General Leman, the sixty-three-year-old Commandant of the War College. A former officer of Engineers like Joffre, Leman had spent the last thirty years, except for a six-year interval on the Staff of the Engineers, at the War College where Albert had studied under him. He had had seven months to try to reorganize the defenses of the Liège forts without the support of the General Staff. When the crisis came, a conflict of orders broke over his head. On August 1 General Selliers ordered away one brigade of the 3rd Division, a third of its strength. On appeal from Leman the King countermanded the order. On August 3 General Selliers in his turn countermanded the King’s order for demolition of the bridges above Liège on the ground that they were needed for movements of the Belgian Army. Again on appeal from Leman, the King supported the General against the Chief of Staff and added a personal letter charging Leman to “hold to the end the position which you have been entrusted to defend.”
The will to defend the country outran the means. Of machine guns, the essential weapon for defense, the Belgian Army’s proportion per man was half that of the German Army. Of heavy field artillery, needed for the defensive positions between the forts, it had none at all. The planned increase in military service which was intended to bring the Field Army up to 150,000 with 70,000 reserves and the fortress troops to 130,000 by the year 1926, had hardly got under way. In August 1914 the Field Army mustered 117,000 with no trained reserves, all the remaining reserves being used to man the forts. The Civic Guard, a gentlemanly gendarmerie in top hats and bright green uniforms were pressed into active service; many of its duties were taken over by Boy Scouts. The active army had had no practice in entrenching and hardly any tools to dig with. Transport was lacking as were tents and field kitchens; cooking utensils had to be collected from farms and villages; telephone equipment was negligible. The army marched in a chaos of improvisation.
It marched also, or was borne along, on a crest of enthusiasm, haloed by a mist of illusion. Soldiers, suddenly popular, were overwhelmed by gifts of food and kisses and beer. They soon broke ranks and strolled through the streets, showing off their uniforms and greeting friends. Parents joined their sons to see what war was like. Magnificent limousines, requisitioned as transport, sped by piled with loaves and joints of meat. Cheers roared after them. Cheers greeted the machine guns pulled, like the milk carts of Flanders, by dogs.
Early on August 4, a quiet, clear, luminous morning, seventy miles to the east of Brussels, the first invaders, units of von Marwitz’s Cavalry, crossed into Belgium. Coming at a steady purposeful trot, they carried twelve-foot steel-headed lances and were otherwise hung about with an arsenal of sabers, pistols, and rifles. Harvesters looking up from the roadside fields, villagers peering from their windows, whispered “Uhlans!” The outlandish name, with its overtones of the savage Tartar horsemen from whom it derived, evoked Europe’s ancestral memory of barbarian invasion. The Germans, when engaged in their historic mission of bringing Kultur to their neighbors, showed a preference, as in the Kaiser’s use of the word “Huns,” for fearful models.
As vanguard of the invasion, the cavalry’s mission was to reconnoiter the position of the Belgian and French armies, to watch out for British landings, and to screen the German deployment against similar enemy reconnaissance. On the first day the duty of the advance squadrons, supported by infantry brought up in automobiles, was to seize the crossings of the Meuse before the bridges were destroyed and capture farms and villages as sources of food and forage. At Warsage, just inside the frontier, M. Flechet, the Burgomaster of seventy-two, wearing his scarf of office, stood in the village square as the horsemen clattered over the cobblestones of the Belgian pavé. Riding up, the squadron’s officer with a polite smile handed him a printed proclamation which expressed Germany’s “regret” at being “compelled by necessity” to enter Belgium. Though wishing to avoid combat, it said, “We must have a free road. Destruction of bridges, tunnels and railroads will be regarded as hostile acts.” In village squares all along the border from Holland to Luxembourg the Uhlans scattered the proclamations, hauled down the Belgian flag from the town halls, raised the black eagle of the German Empire, and moved on, confident in the assurance given them by their commanders that the Belgians would not fight.
Behind them, filling the roads that converged on Liège came the infantry of Emmich’s assault force, rank after rank. Only the red regimental number painted on helmet fronts broke the monotony of field-gray. Horse-drawn field artillery followed. The new leather of boots and harness creaked. Companies of cyclists sped ahead to seize road crossings and farmhouses and lay telephone wires. Automobiles honked their way through, carrying monocled Staff officers with orderlies holding drawn pistols sitting up front and trunks strapped on behind. Every regiment had its field kitchens on wheels, said to be inspired by one the Kaiser had seen at Russian maneuvers, with fires kindled and cooks standing up stirring the stew as the wagons moved. Such was the perfection of the equipment and the precision of the marching that the invaders appeared to be on parade.
Each soldier carried sixty-five pounds: rifle and ammunition, knapsack, canteen, extra boots, entrenching tools, knife and a multiplicity of implements and kits strapped to his coat. In one bag was his “iron ration” containing two cans of meat, two of vegetables, two packages of hardtack, one of ground coffee, and a flask of whisky which was only to be opened on permission of an officer and was inspected daily to determine if its owner had cheated. Another bag held thread, needles, bandages and adhesive tape; another held matches, chocolate, and tobacco. Around the officers’ necks hung binoculars and leather-bound maps covering the particular regiment’s designated line of march so that no German would ever be in the predicament of the British officer who complained that battle is a process which always takes place at the junction of two maps. As they marched, the Germans sang. They sang “Deutschland über Alles,” “Die Wacht am Rhein,” and “Heil dir im Siegeskranz.” They sang when they halted, when they billeted, when they caroused. Many who lived through the next thirty days of mounting combat, agony, and terror were to remember the sound of endless, repetitious masculine singing as the worst torment of the invasion.
General von Emmich’s brigades, converging upon Liège from the north, east, and south, discovered when they reached the Meuse that the bridges above and below the city had already been destroyed. When they attempted to cross on pontoons, Belgian infantry opened fire, and the Germans to their astonishment found themselves in actual combat, hit by live ammunition, wounded and dying. They had 60,000 men to the Belgians’ 25,000. By nightfall they had succeeded in crossing the river at Visé, north of the city; the brigades attacking from the south were held off; those attacking through the center where the river makes an inward bend reached the line of forts before reaching the river.
During the day as the boots and wheels and hoofs of the German ranks overran villages and trampled fields of ripe grain, the shooting increased and with it the vexation of the German troops, who had been told that the Belgians were “chocolate soldiers.” Surprised and enraged by the resistance, the German soldiers in the state of heightened nerves produced by the first experience of combat were immediately susceptible to the first cry of “Snipers”! At once they imagined enraged civilians shooting at them from behind every house and hedgerow. At once they raised the cry, “Man hat geschossen!” that was to be the signal for every reprisal upon civilians from Visé to the gates of Paris. From the first day, the figure of the terrible franc-tireur, remembered from 1870, which the Germans were to conjure into gigantic proportions, began to take shape.
The spirit of resistance, soon to find its voice in the famous clandestine newspaper Le Libre Belge, was barely awake that first morning among the inhabitants of the frontier towns. Their own government, knowing the nature of the enemy, had already distributed notices to be posted in every community ordering civilians to deposit arms with the town authorities and warning that if caught with arms by the Germans they might be subject to the death penalty. The placards instructed the people not to fight or insult the enemy and to remain indoors behind closed windows in order to avoid “any pretext for measures of repression resulting in bloodshed or pillage or massacre of the innocent population.” Thus sternly cautioned and awestruck at the sight of the invaders, the people were hardly prepared to try to halt the armored multitudes with individual rabbit guns.
Nevertheless on the first day of the invasion the Germans began the shooting not only of ordinary civilians but of Belgian priests, a more deliberate affair. On August 6, Major-General Karl Ulrich von Bülow,* brother of the ex-chancellor and commander of a cavalry division in the attack on Liège, told a brother officer that he disapproved of “the summary executions of Belgian priests which had taken place on the previous day.” The pretext that Belgian priesthood was engaged in a conspiracy to encourage franc-tireur warfare—organized within the first twenty-four hours and in defiance of the civil government—was designed for German consumption. For Belgian consumption the executions were meant as an exercise in frightfulness according to the theory developed by the Emperor Caligula: “Oderint dum metuant” (Let them hate us as long as they fear us).
On the first day too the Germans shot six hostages taken at Warsage and burned the village of Battice as an example. It was “burned out, completely gutted,” wrote a German officer who marched through it a few days later. “One could see through the frameless window openings into the interior of the rooms with their roasted remnants of iron bedsteads and furnishings. Broken bits of household utensils lay scattered about the street. Except for dogs and cats scavenging among the ruins, all signs of life had been extinguished by the fire. In the market square stood the roofless, spireless church.” In another place where, he was told, three German Hussars had been shot, “the whole village was in flames, cattle bellowed desperately in barns, half-burned chickens rushed about demented, two men in peasant smocks lay dead against a wall.”
“Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal,” Moltke wrote to Conrad on August 5, “but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in the way must take the consequences.” He did not have in mind the consequences to Germany. But the process which was to make Belgium the nemesis of Germany had begun.
On August 5 Emmich’s brigades opened the attack on the four easternmost forts of Liège with a cannonade by field artillery followed by infantry assault. The light shells made no impression on the forts, and the Belgian guns poured a hail of fire on the German troops, slaughtering their front ranks. Company after company came on, making for the spaces between the forts where the Belgian entrenchments had not been completed. At some points where they broke through, the Germans stormed up the slopes where the guns could not be depressed to reach them and were mowed down by the forts’ machine guns. The dead piled up in ridges a yard high. At Fort Barchon, Belgians, seeing the German lines waver, charged with the bayonet and threw them back. Again and again the Germans returned to the assault, spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses. “They made no attempt at deploying,” a Belgian officer described it later, “but came on line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped on top of each other in an awful barricade of dead and wounded that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble. So high did the barricade become that we did not know whether to fire through it or to go out and clear openings with our hands .… But would you believe it?—this veritable wall of dead and dying enabled those wonderful Germans to creep closer, and actually to charge up the glacis. They got no farther than halfway because our machine guns and rifles swept them back. Of course we had our losses but they were slight compared to the carnage we inflicted on our enemies.”
The prodigal spending of lives by all the belligerents that was to mount and mount in senseless excess to hundreds of thousands at the Somme, to over a million at Verdun began on that second day of the war at Liège. In their furious frustration at the first check, the Germans threw men recklessly against the forts in whatever numbers would be necessary to take the objective on schedule.
During the night of August 5 Emmich’s brigades reassembled on their separate roads for a renewed attack, scheduled to begin at midnight. General Ludendorff, accompanying the 14th Brigade which occupied the center of the German line, found the troops gloomy and “nervous.” Ahead the fortress guns loomed fearfully. Many officers doubted that infantry attack could prevail against them. Rumor reported that an entire cyclist company sent out to reconnoiter earlier in the day had been “annihilated.” A column taking the wrong road in the darkness bumped up against another, tangled, and came to a confused halt. Ludendorff riding up to find the cause of the trouble discovered the orderly of General von Wussow, commander of the 14th Brigade, leading the General’s horse with empty saddle. Von Wussow had been killed by machine-gun fire along the road ahead. Ludendorff with instant boldness seized opportunity by the throat. He took command of the Brigade and gave the signal for attack that was intended to pierce the interval between Fort Fleron and Fort d’Evegnée. As they advanced, men fell under fire and for the first time in his life Ludendorff heard the “peculiar thud of bullets striking human bodies.”
Through some quirk in the fortunes of war, the guns of Fort Fleron less than two miles away failed to open fire. In a village where house-to-house fighting developed, Ludendorff ordered up a field howitzer which “fired right and left into the houses” and soon cleared the way through. By two o’clock on the afternoon of the 6th the Brigade had broken through the ring of forts and reached the heights on the right bank of the Meuse from where they could see Liège and its Citadel, an imposing but disused fort, directly across the river. Here they were joined by General von Emmich, but although they waited in increasing anxiety, scanning the roads to north and south, no troops of the other brigades appeared. The 14th discovered itself isolated within the circle of forts. Its field guns were trained on the Citadel and fired as a signal to the other brigades as well as “to intimidate the governor of the fortress and the inhabitants.”
Angered at having to waste time and manpower fighting a people who, with ordinary common sense, should have let them pass, the Germans throughout the month of August were obsessed by the goal of “intimidating” the Belgians into giving up their stupid and futile resistance. Under a flag of truce the former German military attaché at Brussels who was personally known to General Leman had been sent the day before to persuade or, failing in that, to threaten him into surrender. Leman was told by the emissary that Zeppelins would destroy Liège if he did not let the Germans through. The parley failed of its purpose, and on August 6 the Zeppelin L-Z was duly sent from Cologne to bomb the city. The thirteen bombs it dropped, the nine civilians it killed, inaugurated a twentieth century practice.
After the bombardment Ludendorff sent another emissary under another flag of truce who also failed to persuade Leman to surrender. Ruse, too, was tried. In an effort to kidnap or kill the commander, a detachment of thirty men and six officers, disguised in unmarked uniforms resembling those of the British, drove up in automobiles to Leman’s headquarters on the Rue Sainte-Foi and asked to see the General. His aide, Major Marchand, coming to the door, cried, “They are not English; they’re Germans!” and was instantly shot down. He was immediately avenged by comrades who, in the spirited and unabashed reporting of 1914, “maddened at the dastardly violation of the rules of civilized warfare, spared not but slew.” In the confusion, General Leman escaped to Fort Loncin, west of the city, where he continued to direct the defense.
He realized, now that a German brigade had penetrated between the forts, that he could not expect to hold the city. If the brigades attacking from the north and south also succeeded in breaking through, Liège would be encircled and the 3rd Division cut off from the rest of the army, where it could be trapped and annihilated. Leman’s Intelligence had identified units of four German Army corps in the attacking force, which appeared to give Emmich the equivalent of eight divisions against Leman’s one. Actually, Emmich’s troops were not organized by corps but by detached brigades and now numbered, with the reinforcements hurriedly sent to him, about five divisions. The lone 3rd Division was not enough to save itself or Liège. On the morning of August 6, General Leman, knowing it was the King’s fixed purpose to preserve the Field Army in being and in contact with Antwerp regardless of what happened elsewhere, ordered the 3rd Division to fall back from Liège and join the rest of the army in front of Louvain. It meant that the city, though not the forts, would fall; but even for Liège a division could not be sacrificed, for beyond Liège was the independence of Belgium. Unless the King remained in command of an army on some corner of his own soil, he would be at the mercy not only of his enemies but of his Allies.
Brussels on August 6 went mad with excitement at news of the repulse administered to the Germans the day before. “Grande Victoire Belge!” proclaimed newspaper extras. Happy, ardent people crowded the cafés, congratulated one another, boasted of vengeance, stayed up all night to celebrate, and next morning delightedly read to each other a Belgian communiqué which said that 125,000 Germans had “completely failed to make any impression and three army corps engaged in the attack were cut up and useless.” Echoing the optimism, the Allied press reported the “German rout complete,” with several regiments having surrendered, many prisoners taken, 20,000 German casualties, the defenders everywhere successful, the “invaders decisively checked,” and their advance brought to a “standstill.” How the withdrawal of the Belgian 3rd Division, briefly mentioned, fitted into this picture was somehow left unexplained.
At Belgian Headquarters in the old Town Hall at Louvain confidence was as high as if the Belgian Army numbered thirty-four divisions and the German six instead of the other way around. The forward group within the General Staff “hummed with wild plans for an immediate offensive.”
The King vetoed it at once. He recognized in the size of the force attacking Liège, and in new reports of five German corps now identified, the outlines of the envelopment strategy of Schlieffen. There was still a chance, if he were reinforced by French and English forces in time, of halting the Germans at the river Gette midway between Antwerp and Namur. Already he had sent two urgent appeals to President Poincaré. At this stage he still expected, as did everyone in Belgium, to be joined on Belgian territory by his Allies. “Where are the French? Where are the English?” people everywhere asked one another. In one village a Belgian woman offered a bunch of flowers tied with the English colors to a soldier in a strange uniform which she thought was khaki. In some embarrassment he identified himself as German.
In France, Poincaré and Messimy who in his exuberance had instantly proposed to send five corps to help the Belgians were helpless against Joffre’s silent and stubborn refusal to change his plan of deployment by so much as a brigade. Three French cavalry divisions under General Sordet would enter Belgium on August 6 to reconnoiter German strength east of the Meuse, but only the nonappearance of the English, Joffre said, would induce him to extend his left wing. Late on the night of August 5 word came from London that the War Council, after an all-day meeting, had made up its mind to send an expeditionary force, but of only four divisions, plus cavalry, instead of six. Although this was disappointing, it did not induce Joffre to shift any divisions to his left to make up the British deficiency. He was keeping everything for the French offensive through the center. All he sent to Belgium, apart from the cavalry, was a single Staff officer, Colonel Brécard, with a letter to King Albert. It suggested that the Belgian Army should postpone decisive action and retreat upon Namur where it would make contact with the French and, when the French concentration was completed, join in a common offensive. Four French divisions, Joffre said, would be sent to Namur but would not reach there until August 15.
As Joffre saw it, the Belgian Army, ignoring purely Belgian interests for the sake of a common front, should act as a wing of the French Army in conformity with French strategy. As King Albert saw it, with his clearer sense of the danger of the German right wing, if he allowed the Belgian Army to make a stand at Namur it could be cut off from its base at Antwerp by the advancing Germans and pushed out of Belgium over the French border. More intent on holding the Belgian Army on Belgian soil than upon a common strategy, King Albert was determined to keep open his line of retreat to Antwerp. Purely military considerations pointed to Namur; historical and national reasons pointed to Antwerp even at the risk of the army being bottled up there where it could exercise no direct influence upon the war as a whole.
If compelled, the Belgian Army would retreat upon Antwerp, not Namur, the King told Colonel Brécard. Bitterly disappointed Brécard informed Joffre that the Belgians could not be expected to join the French in a combined offensive.
On August 7 the French Government, which had never been consulted about Plan 17 and was now prevented by its requirements from coming to the aid of Belgium, conferred the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor upon Liège and the Military Medal upon King Albert. The gesture, however inadequate in the circumstances, expressed something of the world’s startled admiration of Belgium’s fight. She is not only “defending the independence of Europe; she is the champion of honor,” declared the President of the French Chamber. She has won “immortal renown” by shattering the superstition that the German armies are invincible, declared The Times of London.
While the tributes multiplied, the people of Liège spent the first of the countless nights that twentieth century Europeans were to spend in cellars. Following the day of terror under the Zeppelin raid, Liège was pounded all night by the exploding shells of Ludendorff’s field artillery in an attempt to cow the city into surrender. The method was as fruitless as the long-range bombardment of Paris by the Big Berthas in 1918 or the Luftwaffe and V-2 bombings of London one war later.
After the preliminary softening up, Emmich and Ludendorff decided to enter the city without waiting for the other brigades to come up. Meeting no resistance, as the Belgian 3rd Division had by now been withdrawn, the 14th Brigade marched across two bridges which were still undestroyed. Ludendorff, thinking the Citadel had been taken by an advance guard sent ahead for that purpose, drove up the steep winding road in a Staff car with a single adjutant. Reaching the courtyard he found no German soldiers in possession, the advance guard having not yet arrived. He nevertheless unhesitatingly “banged on the gates” and on their being opened to him received the surrender of the Citadel from the remaining Belgian soldiers inside. He was forty-nine, twice the age of Bonaparte in 1793 and Liège was his Toulon.
Down below in the city, General Emmich, not finding Leman, arrested the burgomaster, who was told that Liège would be shelled and burned unless the forts surrendered, and was offered a safe conduct to obtain the surrender from General Leman or the King. He refused, and remained a prisoner. By evening three more German brigades had broken through the ring of forts to join the 14th inside the city.
At six that evening an officer of motor transport tore through the streets of Aachen bringing excited word to Second Army Headquarters that General Emmich was inside Liège and at that moment negotiating with the burgomaster. In the midst of shouts and “Hochs!” a telegram from Emmich to his wife was intercepted with the message, “Hurrah, in Liège!” At 8:00 P.M. a liaison officer brought word from Emmich that although General Leman had not been taken, the bishop and burgomaster were prisoners, the Citadel had surrendered, the city was evacuated by Belgian troops, but that he had no information about the forts.
In Berlin, where Supreme Headquarters, or Oberste Heeresleitung (hereafter OHL), remained until the end of the concentration period, the Kaiser was ecstatic. At the beginning, when it had appeared that the Belgians were going to fight after all, he had bitterly reproached Moltke, “Now you see you have brought the English down on me without any reason!” but at news of the fall of Liège, he called him his “dearest Julius” and, as Moltke recorded it, “I was rapturously kissed.” Still the English continued to worry the Kaiser. On August 10 the American ambassador, Mr. Gerard, who came to present an offer by President Wilson to mediate, found him “despondent.” Seated in the garden of the Palace at a green iron table under a sun umbrella with papers and telegraph forms scattered before him and two dachshunds lying at his feet, the Kaiser lamented, “The English change the whole situation—an obstinate people—they will keep up the war. It cannot end soon.”
The bitter truth that none of the forts had been taken was learned the day after the fall of the city when Ludendorff came out of Liège to report. He insisted that the siege cannon must be brought into action at once; the Belgians still showed no disposition to surrender. Already the advance of Kluck’s First Army, scheduled to be the first to start, had to be put off from the 10th to the 13th.
Meanwhile at Essen the hideous fat black siege mortars stood immobile while around them surged the frantic struggle to assemble the motor transport and trained gun crews. By August 9 the two road models were ready and that night were loaded onto freight cars to be transported as far as possible by railway to save their treads. The train left Essen on the 10th and reached Belgium by nightfall, but at Herbesthal, twenty miles east of Liège, at 11:00 P.M. came to a dead stop. The railroad tunnel, blown up by the Belgians, was blocked. Furious efforts failed to reopen it. The mammoth guns had to be unloaded and proceed by road. Though they had only eleven miles to cover to come within range of the forts, one breakdown after another thwarted their progress. Motors failed, harness broke, roads were blocked, passing troops had to be pressed into service to help haul them. All day the slow struggle with the two silent monsters went on.
While they were on their way, the German government made a last effort to persuade Belgium to yield passageway through her territory. On August 9 Mr. Gerard was asked to forward a note to his colleague in Brussels for presentation to the Belgian government. “Now that the Belgian Army has upheld its honor by heroic resistance to a very superior force,” it said, the German government “beg” the King of the Belgians and his government to spare Belgium “further horrors of war.” Germany was ready to make any compact with Belgium consistent with allowing her armies free passageway and would give her “solemn assurances” that she had no intention of taking Belgian territory and would evacuate the country as soon as the progress of war permitted. Both the American ministers in Brussels and at The Hague declined to be the bearer of such a proposal, but through the offices of the Dutch government it eventually reached King Albert on August 12. He refused.
His steadfastness, in view of the enormity of the threat to his country, did not seem entirely believable even to his Allies. No one had expected heroism from Belgium. “Yes,” said King Albert after the war, in reply to a French statesman’s praise of his conduct, “we were cornered into it.” In 1914 the French had their doubts, and on August 8 sent the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, M. Berthelot, to see the King on the basis of a rumor that he was going to arrange a truce with Germany. Berthelot was charged with the unhappy duty of explaining to the King that France would do everything in her power to help Belgium except interfere with her own plan of operations. Albert tried again to convey to the French his apprehension of the huge right wing that would be coming through Flanders and repeated his warning that the Belgian Army might have to withdraw to Antwerp. It would resume the offensive when, he delicately added, “the approach of the Allied armies makes itself felt.”
To the outside world it seemed, as, from his pinnacle of authority, the Military Correspondent of The Times announced, that the German force attacking Liège “has been very handsomely beaten.” For the moment this was approximately true. The vaunted German Army, which had expected to be so easily victorious over the “dreaming sheep,” had failed to take the forts by assault. It came to a pause after August 9 and waited for reinforcements—though not of the human kind. It waited for the siege guns.
In France General Joffre and his staff still had their minds closed as resolutely as ever to Flanders, still focused their thoughts as ardently as ever on the Rhine. The five French armies, totaling approximately the same seventy divisions that the Germans had on the Western Front, were arranged in order from the First Army on the right to the Fifth on the left. Divided by the fortified area of Verdun-Toul, they were concentrated in two groups in much the same proportion as the German armies were grouped on either side of Metz-Thionville. The First and Second Armies, facing the German Seventh and Sixth, in Alsace and Lorraine, together formed the French right wing whose mission was by vigorous attack to throw the Germans opposite them back upon the Rhine while driving a solid wedge between the German left and center.
Farthest to the right was stationed a special assault force like Emmich’s at Liège for the opening move into Alsace. Detached from the First Army and composed of the VIIth Corps and 8th Cavalry Division, it was to liberate Mulhouse and Colmar and anchor itself upon the Rhine in the corner where Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland meet.
Next to it was the First Army commanded by handsome General Dubail. Dubail, it was said, did not recognize the impossible, combined indomitable will with unlimited energy, and for some cause hidden in the intricate defiles of French Army politics was not on the best of terms with General de Castelnau, his immediate neighbor on the left. Castelnau had left the General Staff to become commander of the Second Army which held the crucial front around Nancy.
The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies were gathered on the other side of Verdun for the great offensive through the German center contemplated by Plan 17. Their deployment extended from Verdun to Hirson. The Fifth Army, which held the open end, faced northeast for offense through the Ardennes, rather than north to meet the descending forces of the German right wing. The position on the Fifth Army’s left, centering on the once strong but lately neglected fortress of Maubeuge, was expected to be held by the British, who, it was now learned, were not coming in the full strength originally planned. The deficiency, if it did not unduly worry Joffre and his Staff whose attention was centered elsewhere, hardly reassured the Fifth Army’s commander, General Lanrezac.
As he would have to bear the impact of the German right wing, General Lanrezac was all too conscious of the danger of his position. His predecessor in command of the Fifth Army had been Gallieni who, after tours of the terrain and failure to persuade the General Staff to modernize the fortifications of Maubeuge, had not been happy with it. When Gallieni reached the age limit in February 1914, Joffre had appointed Lanrezac, a “veritable lion” whose intellectual gifts he much admired and who had been one of his three choices for Deputy Chief of Staff in 1911. Because of his “keen intelligence” Lanrezac was considered a star at the General Staff, which forgave him his caustic manner and his tendency to bad temper and impolite language for the sake of the clarity, brilliance, and logic of his lectures. At sixty-two he fitted, like Joffre, Castelnau, and Pau, the heavy-mustached, heavy-paunched pattern for French generals.
In May 1914, when each of the generals of the five armies was given the pertinent section of Plan 17 that applied to him, Lanrezac immediately pointed out the dangers to his exposed flank if the Germans came down in strength west of the Meuse. His objections were ignored on the basic General Staff theory that the stronger the German right wing, “so much the better for us.” In the last days before mobilization, Lanrezac put his objections in a letter to Joffre which was to become a primary document in the mountain of criticism and controversy that after the war rose over the grave of Plan 17. Lanrezac’s tone in the letter, as a fellow officer said, was less a bold challenge of a dominant plan than a professor’s critique of a pupil’s thesis. It pointed out that the offensive planned for the Fifth Army was based on the assumption that the Germans would come through Sedan when in fact it was more likely that they would come around farther north through Namur, Dinant, and Givet. “Clearly,” expounded the professor, “once the Fifth Army is committed to an offensive in the direction of Neufchâteau [in the Ardennes] it will be unable to parry a German offensive further north.”
That was in fact the crucial point, but as if to cover himself Lanrezac reduced the force of his argument by adding, “it is noted here merely as a suggestion.” Joffre who received the letter on mobilization day, August 1, decided it was “entirely inopportune” and “in the midst of the important events that filled my day,” did not answer it. At the same time he dismissed the fears of General Ruffey, commander of the Third Army, who came to express concern about a possible German “parade through Belgium.” With characteristic economy Joffre replied “You are wrong.” In his opinion it was not for a generalissimo to explain but to give orders. It was not for a general to think but to carry out orders. Once a general had received his orders he should carry them out with a mind at rest, knowing it to be his duty.
On August 3, the day Germany declared war, the generals assembled in a meeting summoned by Joffre, hoping at last to hear him explain the totality of Plan 17 and of the strategy they were to carry out. The hope was vain; Joffre waited in benign silence for remarks. At last Dubail spoke up, saying that the offensive laid out for his army required reinforcements which were not allowed for. Joffre replied with one of his cryptic phrases, “That may be your plan; it is not mine.” As no one knew what this meant, Dubail, thinking he had been misunderstood, repeated his remark. Joffre, “with his customary beatific smile,” replied in the same words as before, “That may be your plan; it is not mine.” The truth was that to Joffre what counted in the immense chaos of war was not the plan but the energy and verve with which it was carried out. Victory he believed would come not out of the best plan but out of the strongest will and firmest confidence, and these, he had no doubt, were his.
On August 4 he established Staff headquarters, known as Grand Quartier Général (hereafter GQG), at Vitry-le-François on the Marne, about half way between Paris and Nancy where he would be within roughly equal distance, about eighty to ninety miles, of each of the five army headquarters. Unlike Moltke who during his brief tenure as Commander in Chief never went to the front or visited field armies’ headquarters, Joffre was in constant and personal contact with his commanders. Placidly ensconced in the back seat of his car, he would be driven on his rounds at seventy miles an hour by his appointed private chauffeur Georges Bouillot, three times winner of the Grand Prix auto race. German generals having been given a perfect plan to carry out were not expected to need constant guidance. French generals were expected, as Foch said, to think, but Joffre, always suspecting weakness of nerve or other personal failings, liked to keep them under close supervision. After the maneuvers in 1913 his dismissal of five generals from the active list had caused a public sensation and a shudder in every garrison in France; nothing like it had ever happened before. During August, under the terrible test of live ammunition, Joffre was to scatter generals like chaff at the first sign of what he considered incompetence or insufficient élan.
Elan was high at Vitry on the banks of the tranquil tree-bordered Marne shining green and gold in the August sun. In the school building taken over by GQG, an unbridgeable gulf separated Operations, the Troisième Bureau, which occupied the class rooms, from Intelligence, the Deuxième Bureau, which was installed in the gymnasium with the apparatus pushed against the walls and the rings tied up to the ceiling. All day the Deuxième Bureau collected information, interrogated prisoners, deciphered documents, put together ingenious conjectures and passed on its reports to its neighbors. Consistently these indicated German activity west of the Meuse. All day Troisième read the reports, handed them around, criticized, disputed, and refused to believe them if they pointed to conclusions that would require the French to modify their plan of offensive.
Every morning at eight o’clock Joffre presided at meetings of the section chiefs, a majestic and immobile arbiter but never the puppet of his entourage as outsiders, misled by his silence and his bare desk, supposed. He kept no papers on his desk and no map on his wall; he wrote nothing and said little. Plans were prepared for him, said Foch; “he weighs them and decides.” There were few who did not tremble in his presence. Anyone who was five minutes late at his mess was treated to a thunderous frown and remained an outcast for the remainder of the meal. Joffre ate in silence with a gourmet’s entire devotion to the food. He complained continuously of being kept in the dark by his staff. When an officer referred to an article in the latest issue of l’Illustration which Joffre had not seen he cried angrily, “You see, they hide everything from me!” He used to rub his forehead, murmuring “Poor Joffre!” which his staff came to recognize as his way of refusing to do something that was being urged upon him. He was angered by anyone who tried too openly to make him change his mind. Like Talleyrand he disapproved of too much zeal. Without the probing intellect of Lanrezac or the creative intellect of Foch, he was inclined by temperament to rely on those he had chosen for his staff. But he remained the master, almost a despot, jealous of his authority, resentful of the least encroachment upon it. When it was proposed that Gallieni, having been designated by Poincaré as Joffre’s successor in case of emergency, should be installed at GQG, Joffre, fearing to be in the shadow of his old commander, would have none of it. “He is difficult to place,” he confided to Messimy. “I have always been under his orders. Il m’a toujours fait mousser” (He has always made me foam), an admission of some significance in view of the part the personal relationship between Joffre and Gallieni was to play in the fateful hours before the Marne. As a result of Joffre’s refusal to have him at GQG, Gallieni was left in Paris with nothing to do.
The long-desired moment when the French flag would be raised again in Alsace had come. The covering troops, waiting among the thick, rich pines of the Vosges, trembled with readiness. These were the remembered mountains with their lakes and waterfalls and the damp delicious smell of the forests where fragrant ferns grew between the pines. Hilltop pastures, grazed by cattle, alternated with patches of forest. Ahead, the shadowed purple line of the Ballon d’Alsace, highest point in the Vosges, was hidden in mist. Patrols who ventured to the top could see down below the red-roofed villages of the lost territory, the gray church spires, and the tiny, gleaming line of the Moselle where, young and near its source, it was narrow enough to be waded. Squares of white potato blossom alternated with strips of scarlet-runner beans and gray-green-purple rows of cabbages. Haycocks like small fat pyramids dotted the fields as if arranged by a painter. The land was at its peak of fertility. The sun sparkled over all. Never had it looked so much worth fighting for. No wonder l’Illustration in its first issue of the war showed France in the person of a handsome poilusweeping the beautiful damsel Alsace off her feet into a rapturous embrace.
A proclamation addressed to the inhabitants had already been printed by the War Ministry ready for posting on the walls of liberated towns. Airplane reconnaissance showed the area to be lightly held, almost too lightly thought General Bonneau, commander of the VIIth Corps, who feared he was “walking into a mousetrap.” He sent an aide on the evening of August 6 to report to General Dubail that he considered the Mulhouse operation “delicate and hazardous” and was concerned for his right flank and rear. GQG, consulted by Dubail who had expressed similar concern at the meeting of generals on August 3, regarded all doubts as failure of the offensive spirit. Expressed at the start of an operation, a commander’s doubts, however valid, too often proved a formula for retreat. In French military doctrine seizure of the initiative was more important than careful appreciation of enemy strength. Success depended upon the fighting qualities of commanders, and to permit caution and hesitation to take hold at the outset would, in the view of Joffre and his entourage, have been ruinous. GQG insisted upon the attack in Alsace being launched as soon as possible. Obeying, Dubail called General Bonneau on the telephone, asked if he was “ready,” and on receiving an affirmative answer, ordered the attack for next morning.
At five o’clock on the morning of August 7, a few hours before Ludendorff led his brigade into Liège, General Bonneau’s VIIth Corps spilled over the crest of the Vosges, presenting arms as they crossed the frontier, and swept down in a classic bayonet charge upon Altkirch, a town of about 4,000 on the way to Mulhouse. They took Altkirch by assault in a battle lasting six hours with 100 casualties. It was not the last bayonet charge of a war whose symbol was soon to be a mud-filled trench, but it might as well have been. Executed in the finest style and spirit of theRèglement of 1913, it seemed the proof of cran, the apotheosis of la gloire.
The hour, as the French communiqué reported, “was one of indescribable emotion.” Frontier posts were torn from the ground and carried in triumph through the town. But General Bonneau, still uneasy, did not push on toward Mulhouse. Impatient at his lack of progress, GQG on the following morning issued an imperative order that Mulhouse be taken and the Rhine bridges destroyed that day. On August 8 the VIIth Corps entered Mulhouse without firing a shot about an hour after the last German troops, withdrawn to defend the frontier farther north, had left it.
The French cavalry in gleaming cuirasses and black horsehair plumes galloped through the streets. Almost dumbfounded at the sudden apparition, the people stood at first transfixed in silence or sobbing, then gradually broke into joy. A grand review of the French troops lasting two hours was held in the main square. The bands played “The Marseillaise” and the “Sambre et Meuse.” Guns were hung with flowers of red, white, and blue, Joffre’s proclamation vaunting his soldiers as “the vanguard of the great work of revanche … who carry in the folds of their flags the magic words ‘Right and Liberty’” was posted on the walls. Chocolates, pastries, and pipes of tobacco were thrust upon the soldiers. From all windows flags and handkerchiefs waved and even the roofs were covered with people.
Not all were welcomers. Many of the inhabitants were Germans who had settled there since 1870. One officer riding through the crowds noticed among them “grave and impassive faces, pipe in teeth, who looked as if they were counting us,”—as indeed they were, and afterward hastened away during the night to report on the strength of the French divisions.
German reinforcements hurriedly sent from Strasbourg were deployed around the city while the French were busy occupying it. General Bonneau, who lacked faith in success from the start, had made what dispositions he could to prevent envelopment. When battle began on the morning of August 9, his left at Cernay fought fiercely and stubbornly all day, but his right, holding too long to an unthreatened sector, was not brought around in time. Finally recognizing the necessity of reinforcements which had worried Dubail from the start, GQG sent up a reserve division, but at this stage to solidify the front two would have been required. For twenty-four hours the battle swayed until 7:00 A.M. on August 10 when the French, pushed back and fearing to be enveloped, withdrew.
Humiliating as it was to the army after the glorious rhetoric of the communiqués and proclamations and the accumulated yearning of forty-four years, the loss of Mulhouse was cruelest upon the inhabitants who were now left subject to German reprisals. Those who had been most enthusiastic in welcoming the French were informed upon by their German fellow citizens with unpleasant consequences. The VIIth Corps retreated to within ten miles of Belfort. At GQG the natural and eternal enmity of Staff officers for field officers flared. Confirmed in his belief of Bonneau’s lack of cran, Joffre began the roll of heads for which his regime was to become famous. General Bonneau became the first of the limogés, so-called because officers relieved of their commands reported at Limoges for rear duty. Blaming “faulty execution,” Joffre within three days also dismissed the commander of the 8th Cavalry and another general of division.
Intent upon the original plan of freeing Alsace and pinning German forces to that front, and without regard for reports coming out of Belgium, Joffre took one regular and three reserve divisions and added them to the VIIth Corps to form a special Army of Alsace for renewed action on his extreme right. General Pau was called out of retirement to command it. During the four days while it was assembling, heavy pressures were building up elsewhere. On August 14, the day Pau was to move forward, thirty storks were seen flying south over Belfort, leaving Alsace two months before their usual time.
The French nation was hardly aware of what had happened. GQG’s bulletins were masterpieces of the opaque. Joffre operated on the fixed principle that civilians should be told nothing. No journalists were allowed at the front; no names of generals or of casualties or of regiments were mentioned. In order to keep all useful information from the enemy, GQG adopted a principle from the Japanese, to wage war “silently and anonymously.” France was divided into a Zone of the Rear and a Zone of the Armies; in the latter Joffre was absolute dictator; no civilian, not even the President, much less the despised deputies, could enter it without his permission. It was his and not the President’s name that was signed to the proclamation addressed to the people of Alsace.
Ministers protested that they knew more of the movements of the German armies than of the French. Poincaré, to whom Joffre, considering himself independent of the Minister of War, reported directly, complained he was never told about reverses. On one occasion when a presidential visit to the Third Army was proposed, Joffre issued “strict orders” to its commander “not to discuss with the President any questions of strategy or foreign policy. A report of the conversation must be submitted.” All his generals were cautioned against explaining military operations to members of the government. “In the reports I forward,” Joffre told them, “I never make known the object of current operations or my intentions.”
His system was soon to break down under rising public pressure, but in August, when frontiers fell and nations were invaded and vast armies swayed in what was still a war of movement, and the earth shook under the thud of war from Serbia to Belgium, hard news from the front was rare indeed. History while it was happening in that month, despite a thousand eager chroniclers, was not easily pinned down. General Gallieni dining in civilian clothes at a small café in Paris on August 9 overheard an editor of Le Temps at the next table say to a companion, “I can tell you that General Gallieni has just entered Colmar with 30,000 men.” Leaning over to his friend, Gallieni said quietly, “That is how history is written.”
While the Germans at Liège waited for the siege guns, while the world marveled at the continued resistance of the forts and the London Daily Mail quoted a consensus of opinion that they “could never be taken,” while the assembling of the armies continued, some men waited in acute anxiety for the pattern of the German offensive to reveal itself. General Gallieni was one. “What is happening behind the German front?” he worried. “What massive concentration is gathering behind Liège? With the Germans one must always expect the gigantic.”
The answer to this question was what the French cavalry under General Sordet had been sent to find out. Yet so impetuous was the dash of the cuirassiers that it carried them too far too soon. They crossed into Belgium on August 6, riding along the Meuse to reconnoiter the strength and direction of the German concentration. Covering 110 miles in three days, nearly 40 miles a day, they passed Neufchâteau and reached within nine miles of Liège. As the French did not dismount or unsaddle during halts, the horses were exhausted by the forced pace. After a day’s rest, the cavalry continued their reconnaissance in the Ardennes and west of the Meuse as far as Charleroi, but everywhere they were too early to find evidence that the Germans had crossed the Meuse in any great strength, and everywhere active German cavalry screened the concentration of the armies building up behind the German border. The French found themselves foiled of the thrilling cavalry charge that was the traditional way to open wars. Although farther north where they were on the offensive toward Louvain and Brussels, the German cavalry used the shock tactics of the charge, here they avoided a direct fight and kept up an impenetrable screen, supported by cyclist battalions and Jagers in motor transport who held off the French with machine-gun fire.
It was disheartening. Cavalrymen on both sides still believed in the naked sword, the arme blanche, despite the experience of the American Civil War when Confederate General Morgan, employing his men as mounted infantry with rifles, would cry, “Here, boys, are those fools coming again with their sabers; give it to them!” In the Russo-Japanese War an English observer, the future General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported that the only thing the cavalry could do in the face of entrenched machine guns was to cook rice for the infantry, causing the War Office to wonder if his months in the Orient had not affected his mind. When Germany’s observer in the same war, the future General Max Hoffmann, reported a similar conclusion about the defensive power of entrenched machine guns, Moltke was inspired to comment, “There never was such a crazy way of making war!”
In 1914 the Germans’ avoidance of cavalry encounter and their use of machine guns proved an effective screen. Sordet’s reports of no large German masses coming down on the French left confirmed GQG in its preconceived ideas. But the outlines of a German right wing envelopment were already becoming clear to King Albert and General Lanrezac who, being in its path, were more disposed to see it. Another of these was General Fournier, governor of the French fortress of Maubeuge. He informed GQG that German cavalry on August 7 had entered Huy on the Meuse and that his reports indicated they were covering an advance of five or six corps. As Huy was the site of the only bridge between Liège and Namur, this enemy force was obviously intending to cross the Meuse. Maubeuge, its governor warned, was in no condition to resist such numbers. To GQG the report of five or six corps appeared as the frightened exaggeration of a defeatist mind. Weeding out the fainthearted was for Joffre in August the most vital requirement for success and he promptly relieved General Fournier of his command. Later, after an investigation the order was rescinded. Meanwhile it was discovered that it would take at least a fortnight to put Maubeuge in any state of effective defense.
The anxiety of General Lanrezac, who had also received the report from Huy, was increasing. On August 8 he sent his Chief of Staff, General Hely d’Oissel, to impress the threat of a German right wing outflanking movement upon GQG. General Lanrezac’s concern was “premature,” GQG replied, because such a movement was “out of proportion to the means at the enemy’s disposal.” Further evidence from Belgium kept coming in, but for each report the “chapel” of Plan 17 found an explanation: the brigades seen at Huy were on “some special mission” or the sources of information were “suspicious.” The attack on Liège had for its object “nothing more” than seizure of a bridgehead there. On August 10 GQG felt “confirmed in the impression that the principal German maneuver would not take place in Belgium.”
Committed to its own coming offensive, the French General Staff wanted to make sure that the Belgian Army would stand fast until it could be joined by the Fifth Army and the British. Joffre sent another emissary, Colonel Adelbert, with a personal letter from Poincaré to King Albert hoping for “concerted action” by both armies. This officer, who reached Brussels on August 11, received the same answer as his predecessors: that if a German advance straight across Belgium developed as the King foresaw, he would not permit his army to risk being cut off from Antwerp. Colonel Adelbert, an ardent apostle of élan, could not bring himself to transmit the King’s pessimism to GQG. He was saved the necessity by a battle next day from which the Belgians emerged drenched in glory.
The Uhlans, penetrating toward Louvain, were held up at the bridge at Haelen, by the massed fire of Belgian cavalry under General de Witte. Using his troops as dismounted riflemen supported by infantry, de Witte repeated General Morgan’s success in Tennessee. From eight in the morning until six in the evening his steady volleys of rifle fire repelled repeated German charges with lance and saber. Slaughtered Uhlans of von Marwitz’s finest squadrons covered the ground until at last a remnant turned back, leaving the field to the Belgians. The glorious victory, heralded by happy correspondents in Brussels as the decisive battle of the war, aroused the Belgian Staff and its French friends to transports of enthusiasm; they saw themselves in Berlin. Colonel Adelbert informed GQG it could regard the “retreat of the German cavalry as final and the projected attack through central Belgium as postponed or even abandoned.”
The optimism seemed justified by the continuing stand of the Liège forts. Every morning Belgian newspapers published the triumphant headline, “Les forts tiennent toujours!” On August 12, the same day as the Battle of Haelen, the great siege guns the Germans had been waiting for to put an end to that boast, arrived.
Liège was cut off from the outside world; when the great black weapons reached the outskirts within range of the forts, only the local inhabitants saw the advent of the monsters that to one observer looked like “overfed slugs.” Their squat barrels, doubled by the recoil cylinders that grew on their backs like tumors, pointed cavernous mouths upward at the sky. By late afternoon of August 12 one of them had been set up and aimed at Fort Pontisse. Its crew, wearing padding over eyes, ears, and mouth, lay flat on their stomachs ready for the firing which was done electrically at a distance of 300 yards. At 6:30 the first detonation thundered over Liège. The shell rose in an arc 4,000 feet high and took 6o seconds to reach its target. When it hit, a great conical cloud of dust, debris, and smoke rose a thousand feet in the air. Meanwhile the Skoda 305s had also been brought up, and began bombardment of other forts, “walked in” upon their targets by artillery observers stationed in church towers and balloons. Men of the Belgian garrisons heard the shells descending with a screaming whistle, felt the detonations coming each time more nearly overhead as the aiming was corrected until, as their terror mounted, the shells exploded upon them with deafening crash and the solid steel heads smashed through the concrete. Over and over the shells came, blowing men to bits, choking them with fumes released by the charge of high explosives. Ceilings fell in, galleries were blocked, fire, gas, and noise filled the underground chambers; men became “hysterical, even mad in the awful apprehension of the next shot.”
Before the guns went into action only one fort had been taken by assault. Fort Pontisse withstood forty-five shells in twenty-four hours of bombardment before it was sufficiently shattered to be taken by infantry attack on August 13. Two more forts fell that day, and by the 14th all the forts east and north of the city had fallen. Their guns were destroyed; the roads north of the city were open. The advance of von Kluck’s First Army began.
The siege mortars were then moved forward to be trained on the western forts. One of the 420s was dragged through the city itself to take aim on Fort Loncin. M. Célestin Demblon, deputy of Liège, was in the Place St. Pierre when he saw coming around the corner of the square “a piece of artillery so colossal that we could not believe our eyes .… The monster advanced in two parts, pulled by 36 horses. The pavement trembled. The crowd remained mute with consternation at the appearance of this phenomenal apparatus. Slowly it crossed the Place St. Lambert, turned into the Place du Théâtre, then along the Boulevards de la Sauveniere and d’Avroy attracting crowds of curious onlookers along its slow and heavy passage. Hannibal’s elephants could not have astonished the Romans more! The soldiers who accompanied it marched stiffly with an almost religious solemnity. It was the Belial of cannons! … In the Parc d’Avroy it was carefully mounted and scrupulously aimed. Then came the frightful explosion; the crowd was flung back, the earth shook like an earthquake and all the window panes in the vicinity were shattered .…”
By August 16 eleven of the twelve forts had fallen; only Fort Loncin still held out. In the intervals of bombardment the Germans sent emissaries under flags of truce to demand General Leman’s surrender. He refused. On the 16th Loncin was hit by a shell which exploded in the magazine and blew up the fort from inside. When the Germans entered through a tumble of broken cupolas and smoking concrete they found the apparently lifeless body of General Leman pinned beneath a block of masonry. “Respect the General, he is dead,” said an adjutant with blackened face who stood guard over the body. Leman was, however, alive but unconscious. Revived and carried to General von Emmich, he surrendered his sword saying: “I was taken unconscious. Be sure to put that in your dispatches.”
“Military honor has not been violated by your sword,” replied Emmich, handing it back. “Keep it.”
Later, from Germany where he was taken a prisoner, General Leman wrote to King Albert, “I would gladly have given my life, but Death would not have me.” His opponents, Generals von Emmich and Ludendorff, were both awarded the blue, white, and gold cross of Pour le Mérite,Germany’s highest military medal, to hang around their necks.
On the day after the fall of Fort Loncin the Second and Third Armies began their advance, bringing the whole mass of the German right wing into motion on its march across Belgium. As the march had not been scheduled to begin before August 15, Liège had held up the German offensive by two days, not two weeks as the world then believed. What Belgium gave the Allies was neither two days nor two weeks but a cause and an example.
* This title, which fits the functions of the post, is used in preference to the German title Quartiermeister, which is confusing to English-speaking readers.
* A different person from Generaloberst Karl von Bülow who commanded the Second Army.