August 5, 1914. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial German army has crashed across the Belgian border. Their mission: capture Paris in six weeks. Their problem: puny little Belgium might actually have something to say about their country being used as a road. The Germans assault the Belgian fortress of Liege in the first major battle of World War I, and the Guns of August echo across the hills.
This is the Guns of August Part 1. Some of you may have realized by now that I am just a bit obsessed with World War I. Well, this month, I’m giving over to my obsession and doing a full series on the first few weeks of the Great War. Don’t worry, it’s only five days. The first few weeks of World War I were some of the most world-changing military campaigns in human history, and it’s worth discussing them in detail. I’ll be doing a minimum of background, since I gave it all on July 28. If you want to reference that post, here it is:
A few days ago I talked about the outbreak of World War I, and how Germany faced the terrifying prospect of a two-front war at its beginning. The French to the west and the Russians to the east could squeeze the Reich between them like a pimple if they were given the time and space to prepare for war. Germany’s entire war plan revolved around hurling 90% of their army at France in the first weeks of the war, before the enormous Russian army could mobilize and launch its own steamroller attack, so that they could beat France then hurry their forces east to face Russia.
What this meant was that the entire German war machine was built on a strict series of timetables, since every day they lost in attacking and defeating France was another day the Russians would use to prepare and come roaring over the border – essentially pushing at an open door, since only a few German units were there to oppose them. The intricate and detailed plan to defeat France in only six weeks was known, after its originator who had died only a year before the war began, as the “Schlieffen Plan.”
There was one big issue: to defeat France in time to fend off the Russians, the German Army had to go through Belgium. Belgium in 1914 was in a position much like Switzerland is today: a country everyone regarded as neutrals, and everyone had signed a treaty agreeing that it would remain so. German military plans took this violation of neutrality as a matter of course. German troops had to pass through Belgium; there was no other way for Schlieffen’s plan to work, since the French eastern border was strongly fortified and the logistics situation would break down if Germany forced too many troops in there.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had spent much of the previous decade browbeating, cajoling, pleading and threatening Albert I, King of the Belgians, to allow his armies to march through the country. Albert steadfastly refused, but secretly began coordinating with the British in case Germany DID decide to violate Belgian neutrality. Before the war began, Britain repeatedly warned Germany that a violation of Belgian neutrality would result in their entering the war. In German eyes, though, the war would be over before Britain could do anything about it; besides, to Kaiser Wilhelm, the treaty was “just a scrap of paper.”
All the armies of World War I – except the British, which we’ll talk about later this month – were based on a system of mass conscription, with a hard core of professionals that would be dramatically enlarged in wartime by a process known as mobilization. Reservists of all stripes would be called in from civilian life, report to their designated depots, receive their weapons and equipment, and be shuttled around the country on an intricate system of trains, wagon rides, and short marches that would bring them to their final destination.
Mobilization was an enormous undertaking that was planned down to the minute in almost every country, but Germany was famous for the exactness of its mobilization plan. It was like a massively complex machine that could be fouled up so, so easily if the wrong thing went awry. Most German planners, rather than try to work out contingencies, doubled down on making the plan even more detailed in order to get it right in one go rather than figure out alternate methods. That was the approach taken by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, German Chief of the General Staff and the nephew of the famous Moltke that had won the Wars of Unification in the 1860s. Moltke the Younger would prove decidedly unequal to the task.
See, the German timetable didn’t just revolve around mobilizing as fast as possible – it revolved around attacking and overwhelming its enemies as fast as possible, since the whole process needed to be turned around 180 degrees in six weeks or less and sent back against Russia. If the enemy failed to cooperate, well, then they had a problem. The German planners assumed, for instance, that the invasion of Belgium would be a walkover. But what if it wasn’t?
On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and began its gigantic process of mobilization. Almost two million men across Germany reported, received their rifles and spiked caps and knapsacks and boots, and boarded trains for the French and Belgian frontiers. These men were piling up in front of the Belgian border within 24 hours. The next day, August 2, Germany sent an ultimatum to Belgium demanding passage through its territory. The German Army didn’t even bother declaring war or giving a chance to poor Luxembourg, and invaded that tiny country on the same day.
August 3 came and the final dominoes fell. Belgium refused the ultimatum, Britain declared a military guarantee of the neutral country, and Germany declared war on France. Within hours Britain was mobilizing as well. On August 4, Germany declared war on Belgium and Britain on Germany. All the players were laying down their cards, and the game was on.
While smaller armies fended off the French along the Franco-German border, the German Army launched a sledgehammer of a force into the daunting hills and forests of eastern Belgium. This force included three field armies, 34 infantry divisions and 5 cavalry divisions, with about 18,000 men per mile of front. Already the clock was ticking: as August 4 dawned, the Germans were supposed to be through a weak, passive Belgium in a matter of days. The German soldiers were told to expect no more than scattered resistance.
As much as the imagination tends to conjure iron-grey serpents of bayonets and mustaches when we think of the Imperial German Army, it may have been the most “civilian” of all the armies assembled in 1914. The German Army of the Kaisers was a complex organism that even from the beginning had a largely left-wing bent in its rank and file, with many of its foot soldiers socialists from the trade unions or liberals from the colleges and civil service. More than any other country, Germany expected its reservists to fight in the front line just like its veteran long-service soldiers. The Army was truly a people’s force, since everyone had to serve and go through training, and it was almost viewed as a German boy’s rite of passage into manhood. Many other nations – notably Britain – would see a much greater portion of their population into their armies as time went on, but the Germans saw this as a typical condition from the outset of World War I. That makes what happened in Belgium, in a way, somewhat more terrible.
The initial obstacle in the path of this German juggernaut was the Belgian fortress-city of Liege. Belgian military planning was based on the assumption that Germany was likely to invade in the near future, and King Albert and his generals had planned accordingly. Enormous modern fortress complexes had been built at key points like Liege and Namur, and Belgium’s sad mobilization – they could only muster up about 300,000 men in their whole country to deal with the 1,700,000 that were about to crash into them – was not meant to try to tackle the Germans head-on. Instead, they would pull back to the coast and wait for the British and French to come to the rescue, as their fortresses bought time for the Allies to come save them from the invader.
The Liege fortress ring composed twelve concrete forts with armored turrets containing heavy and light cannon, along with facilities for 500 men apiece. They were sited about 2 miles apart, meant to be mutually supporting. Unfortunately, the positions between the fortresses were unfinished, meaning that they were formidable on their own but could be picked off by infiltration. Liege was manned by about 32,000 men and 280 cannon, but was about to bear the whirlwind of a German collision.
The German planners had designated X Corps to undertake the encirclement and capture of Liege. On August 4, as the invasion began, German cavalry and bicyclists preceded the main units across the Belgian border, advancing to quickly secure river crossings and key junctions. Even from the beginning, roadblocks slowed German progress, and Belgian infantry fought delaying actions all along the hills in the border regions. Belgian troops blew up most of the bridges, but German progress continued regardless. Already there were reports of Belgian “guerrillas” that were sniping at German troops.
On August 5, 1914, the German Army began its attack on the fortress of Liege. Their first few infantry attacks were quickly broken up by heavy guns firing from the armored turrets of the fortresses. The Germans began to fight their way into surrounding villages, but by August 6 they were in retreat from the outer rings of the citadel. The Belgians seemed ready to make a fight of it. By afternoon on the 6th, the Germans had several footholds within the outer trench lines, but no great penetration had been made. Already the attacking units suffered high losses, and even a Zeppelin bombarding the city center – the first air attack on a city of World War I – failed to make a difference.
Even in the first few hours of the invasion of Belgium, German generals were receiving reports that their armies were being attacked by “civilians” or “guerrillas.” The vast majority of these were probably Belgian soldiers firing from houses or businesses. Many of the high-ranking German officers, however, remembered French guerrilla attacks from the Franco-Prussian War, and tended to report any attack by an unseen foe as “guerrillas” or “terrorists.” This would have dire repercussions in the near future.
As the Germans attacked again on August 7, this time they had someone new along. A staff officer named Erich Ludendorff took command of some of the attacking units after their officers were killed and managed to lead them through a gap in the Belgian fortress lines. Leading them inside the inner fortress ring, Ludendorff’s force was able to penetrate to the citadel, where he bluffed his way in by banging on the iron door to the great concrete bastion with the hilt of his saber and demanding a surrender. To everyone’s surprise – including Ludendorff’s – it worked, and the central fortress of the Liege complex surrendered. Ludendorff received Germany’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Merite – but soon he would have another mission in the East. (Tune in on August 30.)
Despite Ludendorff’s coup, the remaining fortresses still held out and refused to surrender. The Germans settled into a siege that lasted a day…then a week…then two weeks. The attackers had to resort to drastic measures; the clock was ticking. By August 12, only a couple of forts had fallen, but on that day a new tool arrived to speed things up. The Germans’ super-heavy artillery had arrived: 380mm coastal mortars, hastily removed from the North Sea defenses and shuttled down south, and the 420mm “Big Bertha” heavy guns that had been held in reserve. These massive guns – bigger than any in use today – split open the forts one after another. Desperate Belgian resistance still lasted until August 18, when the last fort was finally taken and the German advance could continue through Belgium.
The German delays had enraged and frustrated the generals, who had to deal with a massive pileup of troops that should already be moving forward even as the impudent little country of Belgium continued to resist – pointlessly, in their eyes. One of the German generals estimated that the Siege of Liege had cost him four days, four critical days that threw the entire Schlieffen Plan off schedule. As the timetables began to burn away and tension tightened, the Germans began to take out their frustration on the Belgians themselves.
The inexperience of many German troops, the frustration over Belgian resistance and the mistaken, paranoid belief that the whole population was turning “partisan” all contributed to a widespread wave of atrocities throughout August 1914. Especially in the areas around Liege, German troops burned homes and shot civilians throughout eastern and central Belgium, and rape became frequent. The worst incident was the sack of Leuven and the burning of its medieval library, full of 300,000 priceless texts and artifacts. Civilians homes were lit ablaze and civilians shot where they stood. In all, throughout August 1914 almost 6,000 Belgians were murdered by the German invaders in what became known as the “Rape of Belgium.”
Some historians have considered the German war crimes in Belgium exaggerated because of their use in Allied war propaganda, but sadly, the most effective propaganda is true. After the initial flurry of violence, though, very few events like Leuven took place after the initial invasion. The average German soldier never participated in such acts, and the actions of those that did, while inexcusable, are understandable. Civilians thrust into uniform, thrown into the maelstrom of modern combat, suspicious and hostile in a foreign land are apt to do things they never would have done in their old lives – especially under peer pressure. It’s more common than you’d think.
Belgium’s resistance to Germany had thrown off the whole plan, and the German army raced even harder to make up for lost time. The Reich was on a collision course with the French Republic, but the dancing flames of Leuven signified one thing above all: the old Europe was dying, gone forever as the guns of August bellowed across the blood-soaked fields and streets of Europe. Welcome to the Twentieth Century.
Part 2 will be on August 14, as the Germans and French collide in the bloodiest day of the war.