There is a certain romance in doomed resistances. Battles like the Alamo or Thermopylae capture the imagination, and inspire a whole genre of national myth. However, I’ve often wondered what it feels like to be one of those doomed defenders. What would go through your head as you went off to a war you knew you couldn’t win? What if that war was probably going to cost your life?
The soldiers of the Belgian army in 1914 could probably answer these questions. As the Germans streamed across their border in August, the Belgians defiantly fought back. They blew up bridges, cut telegraph wires, destroyed railway tracks, and made ready to defend themselves in a series of complex forts. One of the main sites of this defense was situated at Liège: a town surrounded by forts; a town that was to become the focal point in a national myth of doomed resistance.
And doomed they were. The Belgians couldn’t have been under any illusions about their ability to win the war—the gargantuan German Army was the most powerful in Europe. Tiny Belgium, with its relatively small, poorly equipped army, was very clearly overmatched. The Belgians knew this, but to their credit they grimly swore to make the Germans pay for their invasion. When attacked, they put up a resistance which far exceeded the expectations of German military planners, many of whom had confidently dismissed the Belgian army as an army of “chocolate soldiers”. On the 5th and 6th of August, the Germans impetuously launched a massive assault upon the forts of Liège. Quite unexpectedly, however, the battle turned into a massacre. A Belgian officer would later write of this assault:
“They [the Germans] made no attempt at deploying, but came on line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until 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 the 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 further 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.” (1)
The German attack was repulsed with a spectacular loss of life, and the Belgians proved that they could not be walked over. That day the Germans learned the first of the Great War’s brutal lessons: even the most resolute courage cannot protect a frontal charge from machine-guns and shell-fire. A different strategy was required.
For the Belgians, their victory celebration was to be short; the Germans had a secret weapon. Built in secret for just this occasion, “Big Bertha” was a monstrous siege cannon that fired shells which weighed almost a metric ton. If the Germans could not assault the forts, they were resolved to flatten them. On the 15th of August, that is exactly what they did. General Leman, the Belgian Commander who organized the defense of Liège wrote:
“On the 11th the Germans started bombarding us with 7- and 10-centimeter cannon. On the 12th and 13th they brought their 21-centimeter guns into action. But it was not until the 14th that they opened their heaviest fire and began their destruction of the outer works. On that day, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a German officer approached to within 200 yards of the fort with a signaling flag in his hand; and shortly afterwards, the siege gunners, having adjusted their range, began a fearful firing, that lasted a couple of hours. The battery on the left slope was destroyed, the enemy keeping [sic] on pounding away exclusively with their 21-centimeter cannons.
The third phase of the bombardment began at 5 o’clock in the morning of the 15th, firing being kept up without a break until two in the afternoon. Grenade wrecked the arcade under which the general staff were sheltering. All light was extinguished by the force of the explosion, and the officers ran the risk of asphyxiation by the horrible gases emitted from the shell. When firing ceased, I ventured out on a tour of inspection on the external slopes, which I found had been reduced to a rubble heap. A few minutes later, the bombardment was resumed. It seemed as though all the German batteries were together firing salvoes. Nobody will ever be able to form any adequate idea of what the reality was like. I have only learned since that when the big siege mortars [were] entered into action they hurled against us shells weighing 1,000 kilos (nearly a ton), the explosive force of which surpasses anything known hitherto. Their approach was to be heard in an acute buzzing; and they burst with a thunderous roar, raising clouds of missiles, stones and dust.
After some time passed amid these horrors, I wished to return to my observation tower; but I had hardly advanced a few feet into the gallery when a great blast passed by, and I was thrown violently to the ground. I managed to rise, and continued on my way, only to be stopped by a choking cloud of poisonous gas. It was a mixture of the gas from an explosion and the smoke of a fire in the troop quarters. We were driven back, half-suffocated. Looking out of a peep hole, I saw to my horror that the fort had fallen, slopes and counter-slopes being a chaos of rubbish, while huge tongues of flame were shooting forth from the throat of the fortress. My first and last thought was to try and save the remnant of the garrison. I rushed out to give orders, and saw some soldiers, whom I mistook for Belgian gendarmes. I called them, then fell again. Poisonous gases seemed to grip my throat as in a vise. On recovering consciousness, I found my aide-de-camp, Captain Colland, standing over me, also a German officer, who offered me a glass of water. They told me I had swooned, and that the soldiery I had taken for Belgian gendarmes were, in fact, the first band of German troops who had set foot inside the forts.” (2)
The Belgian stand at Liège was nothing short of heroic. These men knew they couldn’t win, but manned their positions anyways—in many cases, dying to the last man. They defended their country with a desperate ferocity wholly unexpected by anyone. However, we should be careful not to romanticize this doomed resistance too much, lest we gloss over what it really meant to those who experienced it.
From the comfort of our homes, far removed from the horrors of battle, we may see the heroism and romance of the moment, but to the individual soldier in those collapsing forts, there was no glamour—only the sweat, the terror, and the ominous sound of an “acute buzzing” followed by the immense crash of the earth falling in. Choking to death on fumes and crushed helplessly by the stones of the very fortress they were defending, the last moments of many of the Belgian soldiers were, no doubt, passed in the greatest misery. It always amazes me what humans can do, and what they can endure.
1. The Times History of the War: Vol 1, “The Story of Liège” (London: The Times, 1914), 336 – 337.
2. WW1 in Belgium: The First Days, “11-15 August 1914: The Fall of Liege,” http://pages.uoregon.edu/kimball/WW1.BELGIUM.htm.
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