The German Schlieffen Plan required the defeat of the French army before Germany turned eastward to face the larger, but slowly mobilizing Russian forces. The German plan considered the Ardennes region as too rugged and without a road network sufficient to support the large military movements required to face the French Army. Thus, the thirty-four divisions of the German First, Second, and Third Armies were to be funneled around Liège through the 16 km gap between the Netherlands and the Ardennes. Not wanting to pull The Netherlands into the conflict, the plan carefully remained south of the Dutch territory of Maastricht. Belgian resistance was expected to be little more than symbolic.
13 Siege of Liege
5 to 16 August 1914
A French Battlefields “Virtual Battlefield Tour” [This battlefield is not included in Fields of War.]
Summary: The German Army of the Meuse, commanded by General Otto von Emmich crossed the border on 4 August with six brigades of infantry and three cavalry divisions (II Calvary Corps under Generalleutnant Georg von der Marwitz). His orders were to capture the bridges over the Meuse River at Liège for use by larger following forces. The opening engagement of the First World War was on.
On 4 August, Fort Barchon was the first fortification attacked, but Infantry Regiment 53 was driven back with heavy losses. On 5 August, the 2nd and 4th Cavalry Divisions forded the Meuse to the north at Lixhe. Belgian troops were quick to destroy the bridges above and below the city and German efforts to construct temporary crossings came under fire from the fortifications.
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On 6 August, liaison officer Generalmajor Eric Ludendorff rode forward and took personal command of the 14th Brigade after its commander had been killed. Ludendorff led the troops to break through the Belgian lines between forts d’Évegnée and de Fléron to capture a height overlooking Liège. At that point, he sent a surrender demand to General Leman, who promptly refused. A small force attempted a quick raid against Leman’s headquarters, which pounded the main gate with shells but was driven off. Leman, believing that he faced a much larger force and not wanting the Belgian infantry to be surrounded, sent the 3rd Division troops back toward Brussels and moved his command into Fort de Loncin on the opposite side of the city.
Although the raid failed, Ludendorff now had troops within the ring of Belgian fortifications. On 7 August, Ludendorff and his driver proceeded to the outmoded Citadel de Liège. He pounded upon its gate demanding the fort’s surrender. It did. Ludendorff was awarded his country’s prestigious Pour le Mérite medal for his actions. The citadel’s dominant position gave Ludendorff control of the city and the remaining bridges over the Meuse. However, now he was trapped in the city without communications to the forces outside the ring of forts.
On 8 August, two light German howitzer batteries demolished the parapet of Fort Barchon and inflicted heavy losses to the garrison. It surrendered at 1630. The surrender of Fort d’Évegnée soon followed. However, accurate fire from the forts prohibited German use of the rail network and most forts held against German infantry and light cannon.
The German Army brought forward large siege artillery including two 420-mm ‘Big Bertha’ howitzers and Skoda-manufactured 305-mm howitzers borrowed from the Austro-Hungarian Army. The 420-mm monster was capable of firing a 800 Kgm shell upwards of 14 km. Their enormous shells, armed with delay fuses, did not explode until after penetrating up to two meters of concrete. Even the effect a near miss was incapacitating for a garrison.
Fort Pontisse was the 420-mm gun’s first victim, wrecked by a shell at 1230 on 13 August. Over the next two days, six more forts were reduced. Through Ludendorff’s control of the city, one of the Krupp guns was sited in one of the city’s squares. Fort de Loncin was utterly destroyed when a shell pierced its walls and exploded the powder magazine. General Leman was seriously injured at Fort Loncin and captured. One by one, the remaining fortification succumbed, the last being Fort Boncelles on 16 August.