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Brave Belgium – The Battle of Liège August 5, 1914

Updated on June 15, 2015
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.

The 1839 Treaty of London signed by England, Germany (Prussia), Austria, France and Russia had declared that Belgium was a neutral state in perpetuity.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Britain had declared that it would come to Belgium’s aid should either France or Germany ever violate Belgium’s neutrality.

Belgium was about to be violated.

The War on the Western Front Begins

The stage was set.

Despite the telegrams that had flown between Czar, Kings, Kaiser and government officials in a multitude of countries in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the war had begun. Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia. France and Germany declared war on each other. And now Britain and her Empire had entered the war. The 1st world war had begun.

Germany had Belgium firmly in its sights. It needed to traverse Belgium in order to see its war plan against the French succeed. As more German troops poured into Luxembourg August 2nd, 1914, Belgium ordered its troops, which had already mobilized on July 31st, to be on guard and to defend its borders against any hostile forces. Belgium refused Germany’s “request” to allow it passage through Belgium, and the Germans ignored Belgium’s response. Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4th, 1914 – a mere formality considering the wheels that were already in motion.

Five Facts About The Battle of Liège

1. Overall, the Battle slowed the Germans down by four or five days. This bought the French and English forces more time to mobilize.

2. The location of the 12 forts ringing the city was evenly split between the banks of the Meuse River – six on one side, six on the other.

3. Zeppelins were used to drop bombs on Liège and its Citadel.

4. Field Marshal Karl von Bulow was the man in charge of the German 2nd army laying siege to Liège.

5. The largest siege cannon used by the Germans against the forts was a massive 42 centimeters; the largest land gun up to that point was a puny 28 centimeters.

A Belgian Outpost

Photo from The Illustrated London News August 15, 1914
Photo from The Illustrated London News August 15, 1914 | Source

Belgian Army 1914

Belgium’s army was ill-equipped to face any army, let alone that of Germany. Belgium had always assumed that the signatories to the Treaty of London would keep their word and not violate her borders.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Britain had formally declared that it would come to Belgium’s aid if either France or Germany should ever invade Belgium. And as late as 1911, Britain had discussed the possibility of landing its troops in Belgium should war break out in Europe, leading Belgium to believe that Britain considered it to be a sort of protectorate.

It was Belgium’s aim to maintain her neutrality.


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By how many days were the German forces slowed down by the Battle of Liège?

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Battle of Liège – First of the WW1 Battles on The Western Front

The timing of the war could not have been worse for tiny Belgium. Her standing army of 350,000 men was in the midst of being reorganized when Germany declared war. The Belgians were caught way short, as the reorganization of their armed forces was not planned to be completed until 1926.

The Germans would not wait. They attacked the Belgian fortified city of Liège on August 5th, 1914.

Liège had been fortified after the Franco-Prussian War to fend off German forces in case they decided to fight a future war with France – everyone assumed it would happen again – on Belgian soil. The plan was relatively simple, with a ring of 12 main forts protecting the city of Liège itself. In case of attack, the forts were meant to slow down invaders in order to give the Belgian army time to mobilize.

The forts were designed in either a triangular or quadrangular shape, and were constructed of concrete that was not reinforced, concrete being a relatively new building material at the time. They were also moated and had barbed wire encircling them. The thick concrete walls were designed to resist shelling by the heaviest guns any of the forts were outfitted with, those being 21 cm howitzers. The forts each had a small plant to generate electricity, and were garrisoned and provisioned to withstand a one-month enemy siege.


Belgian Lancers above Visé in the line of the German advance on Liège

Illustration from The London Illustrated News, August 15, 1914
Illustration from The London Illustrated News, August 15, 1914 | Source

Battle of Liège lasted 12 days - one day for every fort

The German attack against Liège lasted 12 days, with the last of the 12 forts surrendering on August 16th, 1914. They were no match against the German guns, particularly the heavy 42 cm howitzers. Pounded by German artillery, walls crumbled and the German troops were able to penetrate the ring of forts and attack them from both the front and the rear.

Liège Falls

The design of the forts protecting the city proved to be their undoing. The Belgian troops inside the forts were literally unable to breathe as the air became thick with concrete dust and powder residue from the weapons.

One after another, the forts surrendered. Having breached the area between forts, the Germans slipped through and captured Liège itself before the very first fort had fallen.


Battle of Liège

Germany's Schlieffen Plan was behind schedule thanks to Brave Belgium.

The Germans had to finish Liège quickly. They needed the main railway lines in the Eastern part of Belgium to move their own troops. The railway through Liège was shut down for the duration of the 12 day siege. The Germans had planned on taking Liège in 2 days.

The brave Belgian troops who withstood the onslaught by the Germans paid dearly. Estimates of the number of Belgian dead start at 3,000 men over the 12-day period, with many more taken prisoner.

Fort Loncin After German Bombardment

Source

"A month ago, Belgium was a land of lovely, dreamlike towns, smiling fields of harvest, and busy industrial centres. Now many of her bravest sons lie in huddled heaps amid the ungathered corn, amid the burnt ruins of villages, with their faithful horses stretched in death beside them. And this horrible thing has happened because the Belgians put their national honour above bribery, because they stood out against the mendacious, ferocious savages of Prussia, for the sanctity of treaties on which civilisation depends."

From The War Illustrated Vol. 1 No. 2 for the week ending August 29, 1914

© 2014 Kaili Bisson

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    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 2 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Kaili, another excellent testament of the predatory nature of man. Unfortunately; war is a necessary evil. But if only we could channel all that ingenuity, passion and cunning to create, instead of destroy, this would be quite a remarkable place indeed. Poor old Belgium, always in the middle.

      Your article is like watching a really interesting documentary. Exceptional work as always.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
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      Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

      Hi Jo and thank you so much for reading and commenting...war does not make for easy reading, especially in summer.

      You are so right...if only we could all just work together. All these spats over what? And millions dead and nothing really resolved. So sad.

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      I don't like to glorify fighting, but to defend your homes against an invading force is always right, and especially brave when the attackers have a superior force. It reminds me of the Finnish in WW2 when faced by the Soviets. That last quote sums it up well. Their sacrifice may have determined the entire outcome of the war.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

      Hi Thomas. These brave souls gave it their all, even though they were facing a much bigger foe. Standing up for what was right and what they held dear.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      Even though hardships prevailed, I admire the courage of the Belgians. I never knew the zeppelins were such a part of the war effort there. Great share on this topic and interesting.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

      Hi teaches and thank you for reading and commenting. What happened in Belgium was a real call to arms; people wouldn't stand for treaties being ignored. Loncin - the photo at the bottom - was actually the last fort to fall.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Another excellent hub in the series by you!

      There is so much to know--We have read about the World Wars in our books, or seen movies based on them. But there are so many things we still do not know. In addition there are different interpretations too!

      Great informative hub. Voted up and shared on HP!

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

      Hi Chitrangada and thank you for reading, voting and sharing. I am working on a few more hubs on WW1, and trying to find the time to finish one. There were so many things going on in the background in WW1.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The Belgians foiled the Germans, since it took Liege twelve days to fall. All in all, they put up a good fight. Maybe if it wasn't for the concrete dust overtaking them, they might have successfully defended themselves.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
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      Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

      Hi Deb, the Belgians put up a heck of a fight; even their allies had not thought they would stand and fight. If it had been just troops laying siege to the forts, the Belgians would have done far better. But nobody stood a chance against those massive siege guns the Germans had.

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