Bravery at Liege

I have always enjoyed reading of heroes, who stood against all odds in defense of their family and homeland. I expect that is why the story of the siege of Liege has such powerful meaning to me...

...On the morning of August 4, 1914, the sentinels pacing the ancient citadel of Liège, where the infantry barracks were situated, cast, no doubt, many anxious glances eastwards, where the Vesdre wound, through Verviers and Limbourg, to the German frontier. They could see in that direction, and to the south, in the direction of Luxembourg, now, they knew, in German hands, long rolling stretches of wooded upland, rising gradually to where the heights of the Ardennes bounded the prospect. The journey between London and Cologne had no stretch more charming than the twenty-five miles, dotted with pretty country-houses, picturesque villages, and busy manufactories, traversed by a stream winding along a deep and beautiful valley, between Liège and Herbesthal. In the opposite direction, to west and to north, spread the broad and fertile plains of Hesbaye and Dutch Limbourg, broken by hilly stretches. The morning was sultry and cloudy. The panorama that lay below, magnificent as it was, could not be seen to best advantage. The broad Meuse, joined to the south of the city by the Vesdre and the Ourthe, lost itself in haze. Visé, ten miles to the north, could be discerned dimly upon the east bank. The soldier's eye could pick out the forts which girdled the city: Fleron and Evegnée, dominating their villages, lay nearest the German frontier. Below, descending by steep curved streets and stairways, and intersected by numerous canals and streams, was Liège itself...

As an American it is almost impossible to feel the utter terror of an invasion by another country. Anxiety about one's family, one's home, one's life all come into perfect focus.

...Liège, lying in a richly cultivated valley, is strikingly picturesque. The towers of numerous old churches, some dating back to the tenth century, grace the left bank of the river, where the principal part of the city is placed. The chimneys of many factories and foundries rise upon the right bank, the Outremeuse, the quarters of the artisan inhabitants. Innumerable barges line the Mouse near the iron-works and coal-pits of Seraing. The river is spanned by several remarkably fine bridges. The Liégeois who, on August 3, discussed in their tree-lined boulevards and their cafes the national crisis that had arisen with the delivery of Cermany's ultimatum, could regard with complacency many historic buildings and invariably well laid-out streets. That ultimatum had, indeed, placed their country and themselves in a terrible position. Events had been moving rapidly for some days. A fever of anticipation and of preparation had settled upon the city. The Belgian army had begun to mobilize. The Garde Civique had been called up. Then reservists were summoned in the middle of the night by knocks at their doors and by the ringing of church bells. Horses and vehicles of all sorts were commandeered. Even the dogs harnessed to the milkmen's and bakers' carts were taken off, wagging their tails in the prevailing excitement, to draw the machine-guns of the infantry. Carrier-pigeons also were requisitioned. A food panic commenced...

The German timetable for the invasion of France required that the right wing of the army cross into Belguim, violating a 75 year treaty of neutrality, which was to the Germans merely a "scrap of paper." standing in the way of course was the Belgian Army whom the Germans believed would put up only a token resistance and then melt before the superior forces. The didn't count on the Belgians. Belgians were made of sterner stuff. On August 2, 1914 the German Empire had required Belguim to allow free free passage of it's troops through Belguim. The Belgian King refused. 2 days later the Germans passed through Luxumbourg and into Belguim.

The fortifications of Liege were considered to be amongst the strongest in Europe, with twelve modern forts surrounding the city. The German plan, having been adopted in 1914 required those fortifications to be neutralised thus allowing the strong German right wing to wheel through Belgium into northern France. The idea was soon found to be false that Belguim would just roll over. The Germans had allowed only two days for the subjection of Belguim.

Liege guarded the crossings over the River Meuse River a strong barrier. At Liege the Meuse runs through a deep ravine. Crossing the Meuse would now take time that the Germans could ill afford. Since the 12 forts surrounding Liege defended the crossings it was imperative that the Germans reduce them. One by one.

The defence of Liege had been entrusted to General Gerard Leman, a long service soldier, former military tutor of the king of Belgium, who was determined to hold as long as possible.

Opposing Leman was a German force under General Otto von Emmich which contained six infantry brigades, three cavalry divisions and five light infantry battalions. Recognising the importance of this task, these troops were mainly regular peacetime soldiers rather than the newly mobilised conscripts. Their objective was made easier by the attitude of both the British and French, neither of which had any plans to relieve Belgium.

The advance scouts reached Liege on August 3, finding most of the bridges blown up, and a more real resistance than expected. The next day August 4, after a demand for surrender was refused, the German bombardment of Liege began. Overnight an assault on 5-6 August resulted only in high German casualties and no gains. On August 6 the General Erich Ludendorff a liaison officer, found the 14th Brigade without a commander, taking command he managed to break though the Belgium lines to the east of the city remaining undetected. He then sent a party to the city, first to demand it's surrender, which was once again refused, and then on a quick raid against Leman's HQ.

The main result of this was to scare Leman into moving from Liege into Fort Loncin, west of the city, and also to send much of his garrison back to Brussels, believing he faced several times more troops than he actually did. Despite this, and in disregard of Ludendorff's brigade loose within the line of forts, the defenders still held all twelve forts, and the city itself.

On 7 August Ludendorff advanced against the out of date Citadel of Liege, which surrendered without fighting, giving Ludendorff control of the city, and more importantly, of intact bridges across the Meuse. Meanwhile, the first two forts fell, Fort Barchon on 8 August and then Fort Evegnee, adjacent forts to the east of the city. The fate of the remaining forts was settled on 12 August, with the arrival of the first Krupp 420 mm Howitzer, designed to be capable of smashing these very forts. The first fort to be bombarded, Fort Pontisse, was wrecked by 12.30 on 13 August, and six more forts were reduced over the next two days, ending with Fort Loncin, reduced to rubble after a shell hit the magazine. Within the ruins of the fort, General Leman was found, knocked out by the blast. The remaining two forts surrendered without a fight on 16 August.

The German timetable for the defeat of France was falling behind.

A contemporary writes ...General Leman, who had taken up his quarters in Fort Loncin, was in the fort when it was blown up by a German shell, which had found its way into the magazine. He was saved by a signal act of bravery. "That I did not lose my life," he wrote in that affecting letter sent later from his place of confinement in Germany to the King of the Belgians, "is due to my escort, who drew me from a stronghold while I was being suffocated with gas from exploded powder. I was carried to a trench, where I fell."

Most of the garrison were buried under the ruins, but the few survivors risked themselves in this act of devotion. No better evidence could be offered of the spirit of Belgian defence.

A German captain found the intrepid commander helpless and after giving him liquid refreshment carried him as a prisoner into the city. The defence of Liége, however, had fulfilled its purpose...

General Leman required the German Officer to sign a letter stating that Leman had been captured while unconscious, and not from cowardice...

Text of General Leman's letter while in captivity to King Albert I

General Leman to King Albert I


After honourable engagements on August 4th, 5th and 6th, I considered that the forts of Liege could only play the role of forts d'arret(1). I nevertheless maintained military government in order to coordinate the defence as much as possible, and to exercise moral influence upon the garrison.

Your Majesty is not ignorant that I was at Fort Loncin on August 6th at noon. You will learn with grief that the fort was blown up yesterday at 5.20 p.m.(2), the greater part of the garrison being buried under the ruins.

That I did not lose my life in that catastrophe is due to the fact that my escort, Commandant Collard, a sub-officer of infantry who unfortunately perished, the gendarme Thevenim and my two orderlies, Vanden Bossche and Jos Lecocq, drew me from a position of danger, where I was being asphyxiated by gas from the exploded powder.

I was carried into a trench, where a German captain named Guson gave me a drink, after which I was made prisoner and taken to Liege in an ambulance. I am convinced that the honour of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts.

Deign, Sire, to pardon my defects in this letter. I am physically shattered by the explosion of Loncin. In Germany, whither I am proceeding, my thoughts will be, as they have ever been, of Belgium and the King. I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.

Eventually Belgium was mostly occupied by the Germans, but Belgium never surrendered.


(1) Basically "to stop", what is meant here is an archaic term meant to convey that the forts created a delaying action.
(2) August 15, 1914


Matterhorn said...

Wow, thank you! Such a magnificent story and I always love that letter of Leman, so touching.

I, Richard, said...

Magnificent Bravery, the kind I am afraid we do not see very often in leaders.