The Prussian Machine  -  Battles

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* Dates:  1 - 16 August 1914 


Background: In accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, the German First, Second and Third Armies were to invade through neutral Belgium and then turn south to envelop Paris and the French armies.  Germany's first move was for elements of the Fourth Army to march into Luxembourg and seize the Grand Duchy's railway services. The First and Second Armies were then to force their way through the Condroz Gap, the area from Maastricht, Netherlands south to the Ardennes Forest. As the Germans attempted to pierce through this gap, the first obstacle in their way was the city of Liege, encircled by twelve fortresses. The plan of this coup de main (surprise attack) was the brainchild of Major General Erich Ludendorff, chief of the general staff's Operations Section from 1908 to 1913.
Memorandum from German Chief of General Staff, Helmut von Moltke (1911):

"Inconvenient though it is, the advance must proceed through Belgium without violating Dutch territory. A prerequisite is the possession of Liege. This fortress must therefore be taken at the outset. I believe that it is quite possible to reduce it by a coup de main. The advance forts are sited so badly that they cannot see or command any of the intervals..."

* The Germans:   Since the First Army was far too unwieldy for capturing the Liege fortresses, General of Infantry Otto von Emmich (X. Army Corps commander) was selected to head up the vanguard of the invasion force, the Army of the Meuse.  Under the overall supervision of Second Army commander Karl von Buelow, Emmich's forces were comprised of six composite infantry brigades drawn from six different army corps. Each brigade consisted of two infantry regiments [34th Bde had 3 inf rgts], one Jaeger  (chasseur) battalion,  one cavalry squadron, one company of Pioniere (combat engineers), and one artillery battalion equipped with either howitzers or field guns. He additionally had Marwitz's 2nd Cavalry Corps (three cav divisions), two heavy mortar batteries and a squadron of aircraft at his disposal. Emmich's total force of approximately 60,000 troops expected to face about 6,000 defenders from the Liege garrison, but Belgian Lt. General Gerard Leman, commander of the Liege garrison, had closer to 36,000 at his disposal. At one point, however, Leman concluded that he was facing five German corps and thus withdrew his 3rd Division and 15th Brigade on 6 August.


Army of the

  Gen.d.Inf. Otto von Emmich
     (CoS: Oberst Gustav v.d. Wenge Graf von Lambsdorff)
   11th Brigade (III.AK)   Genmaj. von Wachter
20th Inf Rgt                  3rd Jaeger Bn
        35th Fusiliers               3rd Hussars (5th cav sqdn) 
   14th Brigade (IV.AK)   Genmaj. von Wussow
      27th Inf Rgt                  4th Jaeger Bn
      165th Inf Rgt                10th Hussars (1st cav sqdn) 
   27th Brigade (VII.AK)   Oberst von Massow
      16th Inf Rgt                  7th Jaeger Bn
53rd Inf Rgt                16th Hussars (2nd cav sqdn) 
   34th Brigade (IX.AK)   Genmaj. Richard von Kraewel
      25th Inf Rgt                  9th Jaeger Bn
        89th Grenadiers         16th Dragoons (5th cav sqdn) 
        90th Fusiliers
   38th Brigade (X.AK)   Oberst von Oertzen
      73rd Fusiliers             10th Jaeger Bn
        74th Inf Rgt                17th Hussars (17th cav sqdn) 
   43rd Brigade (XI.AK)   Genmaj. von Hulsen
      82nd Inf Rgt                 6th Cuirassiers (1st cav sqdn)
        83rd  Inf Rgt


HH.K.K. 2

  Gen.d.Kav. Georg von der Marwitz
     (CoS: Major Hoffmann von Waldau)
   2nd Cav. Division   Genmaj. Friedrich FH von Krane
   4th Cav. Division   Genlt. Otto von Garnier
   9th Cav. Division   Genmaj. Eberhard Graf von Schmettow

* The Battle:  On 1 August, a few minutes before 7:00 pm, when Germany's 16th Infantry Division was due to move into Luxembourg, the Kaiser sent an order to division HQ in Trier specifying that on no account should any element cross the frontier. The order had arrived too late. Lieutenant Feldmann's infantry company from the 69th Infantry Regiment had already taken the Trois-Vierges, a junction of rail and telegraph lines between Germany and Belgium. At 7:30 pm, the Kaiser sent another message ordering the 16th Division, commanded by Lt. General Georg Fuchs, not to cross the Luxembourg border. This order was countermanded by Chief of General Staff von Moltke, and on 2 August the 16th violated the frontier. By that evening, Luxembourg was completely occupied by the Fourth Army.

Requesting free passage through King Albert's Belgium, the Germans used the pretext of French troops violating the his borders; if Albert's forces were incapable of stopping the French, the Germans would have to do it. On 3 August, King Albert issued his flat refusal, and the two countries were officially at war. Albert immediately ordered the destruction of all rail bridges and tunnels on the border with Luxembourg, as well as the bridges crossing the 200-yard wide River Meuse which flowed through Liege. The tiny, under-equipped Belgian Army was due to face 34 German divisions. The key to Belgium was obviously Liege, situated directly in the line of advance of the German First and Second Armies. Liege was surrounded by twelve forts, six on the east side of the River Meuse: Barchon, Evegnee, Fleron, Chaudfontaine, Embourg, and Boncelles...and six forts on the west bank: Pontisse, Liers, Lantin, Loncin, Hollogne, and Flemalle. The forts formed a 52 km perimeter around the city and were built of reinforced concrete to withstand 210mm shells.

von Emmich


General Otto von Emmich and his Army of the Meuse crossed into Belgium along a two-mile front during the early hours of 4 August. An advance guard of Marwitz's cavalry had crossed the frontier at Gemmenich on the previous day in order to capture the bridges along the Meuse and to secure railway lines and tunnels before they could be destroyed. Emmich's forces were to then clear a path for the First and Second Armies by subduing Liege's forts within a 48-hour period. The cavalry troops found the bridge at Vise, eight miles north of Liege at Vise, had already been blown. Two Hussar regiments were then sent three miles further north to cross the river at Lixhe. The Belgians were thus outflanked and forced to retreat back to Liege. The Germans also completed a similar maneuver to the south of Liege. Emmich arrived at Tongres on 5 August and immediately sent Captain Brinckmann to Leman's Headquarters in order to demand free passage through Liege and the rest of Belgium. Leman refused and thus began the siege of Liege.

* click to enlarge
(thanks to Hubertus Ochsler for use of this map)



5 August:  German artillery begins shelling the forts Embourg and Boncelles in the southern sector. German infantry from the 38th and 43rd Infantry Brigades are mown down by machine gun fire as they unsuccessfully attempt to penetrate the gap between the two forts along the Ourthe River. Similar actions were likewise taking place in the southeast as the Germans attack Fleron and Chaudfontaine

*  6 August:  In the early morning hours, the 34th Infantry Brigade begins to penetrate the gap between forts Liers and Pontisse, located in the northern sector. Although coming under fire from Pontisse, they succeed in pushing the Belgian defenders back to the Citadel as the 9th Jaeger Battalion follows them into the city. The Germans bombarded the Citadel throughout the day, finally forcing the Belgian 3rd Division to evacuate the city. Leman learned that elements of five separate corps were present in von Emmich's mixed force, and thus assumed that all five corps were converging on Liege. 14th Infantry Brigade attempts to penetrate gap between Evegnee and Fleron. In the face of the unexpectedly tough Belgian opposition, 14th Brigade commander von Wussow is killed in action near Retinne. On his own initiative, Second Army staff officer Ludendorff, accompanying von Wussow as an observer, takes command of the 14th and fights his way through the village of Queue-du-Bois, finally emerging with a mere 1,500 troops.

*  7 August:   In the early morning hours, Ludendorff sends Colonel von Oven's forces into the city to capture the Citadel. Ludendorff later drives up to the Citadel and knocks on the door under the false belief that it is now in German hands. The frightened defenders, however, were only happy to surrender. 

* 8 August:  German troops now occupy the city. Although von Emmich reported to Supreme Command that Liege had fallen, all twelve forts remained under Belgian control. German artillery units (27th Brigade) move 150mm guns into position to bomb forts on the eastern bank of the Meuse. At 1640 hours, Barchon becomes the first fort to surrender.

* 9 August:  Elements of the German Second Army begin to arrive in the area; 13th and 40th Infantry Division troops arrive at Pepinster, while 17th Infantry Division joins with the 34th Brigade north of the city.

* 10 August:  German 210mm guns continue pounding forts Pontisse and Evegnee on the eastern bank. Two 420mm siege howitzers, nick-named Big Bertha, leave the Krupp Works via the Essen railway station on their way to Liege.

* 11 August:  Evegnee, a "fortin" (smaller fort) becomes the second fort to surrender.

* 12 August:  Fleron and Chaudfontaine in the east and Pontisse in the north are bombarded throughout the day by 250mm mortars. In the evening, German artillery begins to pound Pontisse with their newly arrived 420mm guns, emplaced near Mortier. At this point, Third Army commander General von Einem assumes command of the second, or siege stage of the operation against Liege.

* 13 August:  The fortins Chaudfontaine (0900 hours) and Embourg (1730 hours) become the third and fifth forts to capitulate;  Fort Pontisse in the north surrenders at 1230 hours and gives the Germans a much freer passage into the city. During the day, the German batteries also continue bombing Fleron, Liers and Lantin.

* 14 August:  At 0945 hours, Fleron becomes the sixth fort to fall, giving German troops unobstructed passage from the east. At the same time, the fortin Liers, located at the extreme north of Liege, also surrenders. German artillery commences bombing Boncelles in the extreme south, the final fortress located on the east bank of the Meuse which is still occupied by Belgian forces.

* 15 August:  Boncelles is pounded throughout the night and finally surrenders early in the morning, the eighth fort to do so. This allows the 38th Brigade to cross the Meuse from the south and into the city. The 420mm gun continues its attack on Loncin and the fortin Lantin in the northwest, compelling those two forts to become number nine and ten on the surrender list. General Leman, now based at Loncin, is carried out battered and unconcious -- but still alive. Military governor of Liege Lt. General Kolewe gives Leman a sword as a token of the Germans' esteem. German delegations unsuccessfully attempt to convince the remaining to forts to give up by offering to give the Belgians a close and personal view of what the 420mm had done to the other forts. Scratching their heads at the defenders' brave obstinacy, German artillery reluctantly begins bombing Flemalle, located in the southwestern sector.

* 16 August:  In the early morning hours and after eleven days of bombardment, Flemalle and Hollogne become the eleventh and twelfth forts to fall, the defending Belgian troops marching into captivity with full military honors.

The German plan had allowed ample time to invest Liege, and the move of its main armies into Belgium was not delayed by the full term of the two weeks resistance by the forts. Since German Army mobilization was completed on 13 August, and they crossed the Belgian borders in force on the 14th, the calculated period that they had to wait before moving through the Condroz Gap would stand at one or two days. In the circumstances of August 1914, the justification of brave little Belgium's stunning sacrifice at Liege thus remains an open question.


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