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Belgian Fortifications in the Great War

The obligation on Great Britain to come to the aid of Belgium against invasion seemed likely on more than one occasion during the reign of Leopold I, and again in 1870 and 1875 during that of his son and successor, Leopold II, to be translated into effective action. On each and all of these occasions the assumption was that the British co-operating force was to proceed to Antwerp up the Scheldt.

Though Belgium realized that her principal danger of attack lay with Germany, she did not wish to become so dependent on England's protection in case of this attack as to lose her independent position. Belgian military preparations for the defense of her neutrality, instead of being impartially directed against the possibility of attack from any of the powers, were made entirely against Germany. This, it was alleged, made it justifiable to consider the Belgian preparations in the nature of a political cooperation with France and England against Germany, and removes from them entirely the character of an attempt on Belgium's part to live up to her obligations by defending her neutrality.

It was sometimes alleged by German writers that Belgium forfeited her position as a perpetually neutral state by her construction of fortifications; and in support of this view reference is made to Article III of the Treaty of London of May 11, 1867, establishing the neutrality of Luxemburg, according to the terms of which article the fortresses of Luxemburg were declared to be 'without object because of Luxemburg's neutralization, and that hence they will be destroyed.' In point of fact, this provision received unanimous acceptance by the plenipotentiaries at the London Conference only because of the annexed protocol, containing a declaration of the Belgian plenipotentiary, that this article could not be considered in any way to limit the right of another neutral [neutralized state] to construct fortifications and make other provision for its defense.

Given the obligation of Belgium herself to provide in the first instance for the maintenance of her own neutrality, it must be admitted that she should have taken care to dispose her means of defense on all sides impartially, so as to protect herself against the possibility of attack from every direction. By so doing she would have indicated the perfect impartiality of her policy, and have prevented any inference that a possibility of attack and consequent violation of the solemn treaty obligation on the part of one nation was more probable than from another. She would thus have silenced the assertion that her neutrality was being weakened because of political affiliation with certain of the guarantor powers in opposition to others.

It is not, however, fair to say that Belgium was fortified toward Germany only, since, as the Belgian Minister pointed out, the fortress of Namur was directed against France and commands the entrance by Chimay, considered a particularly vulnerable spot in the French frontier.

On 31 July 1914 the French Minister at Brussels told the Belgian Foreign Minister that there would be no incursion of French troops into Belgium, even if important forces should be massed on its frontier. The Government of the Republic, it added, would respect the neutrality of Belgium, and would only modify its attitude if another Power should not respect it. The Secretary-General of the Belgian Foreign Office then held an important conversation with the German Minister at Brussels. The former referred the German Minister to an assurance given in 1911, when the question of Dutch fortifications on the Scheldt was under consideration, that in the event of a Franco-German war, Germany would not violate Belgian neutrality. The German Chancellor had given similar assurances, and in 1913 the German Foreign Secretary had made like statements before the Budget Committee of the Reichstag. The German Minister said that "the sentiments expressed at that time had not changed."

On 04 August 1914 the German armies broke into Belgium. At the outbreak of the Great War the Germans, in their march through Belgium, were, on the evening of August 4, 1914, closing in on Liege, which lies astride the Meuse River near the eastern boundary of Belgium. The first German attacks, unsupported by siege guns, on the Liege forts were repulsed, and until they were brought up there seemed every probability that at least the left bank forts might hold out for a long period.

The fortifications of Liege had been constructed by Brialment, a Belgian officer, who also designed the fortifications of Namur and Antwerp. They were completed in 1892, and consisted of a circle of forts commanding the main approaches to the city and about 4 miles therefrom. There were six main forts of the pentagonal type and six smaller, triangular in shape; the greatest distance between forts was 7,000 yards, and the average less than 4,000 yards. Each fort had a garrison of about 80 men and an armament of two 6-inch guns, four 4.7-inch guns, two 8-inch mortars, and three or four quick-fire guns, the total number of guns in the 12 forts being about 400. It was intended to construct between the forts lines of trenches and redoubts for infantry and gun pits for artillery, but this had not been done. The fort itself consisted of a low mound of concrete or masonry, roofed with concrete and covered with earth; a deep ditch surrounded the mound, the top of the latter barely showing above the margin of the ditch. The top was pierced with circular pits, in which "cupolas " or gun turrets moved up and down. Within the mound there were quarters, machinery, stores, etc.

When the Germans appeared the Belgian mobilization was still in progress, and it is probable that the garrison, instead of being 30,000 as was intended, was only 20,000. The Germans, numbering about 30,000, concentrated the attack on the four forts at the southeast sector and opened up with field guns on the night of August 4-5. One of the forts was silenced by this fire on the 5th, and on the 6th the Germans brought up their 8.4-inch howitzers and probably some 11-inch mortars, outranging the Belgian guns. Shells are said to have gone through 12 feet of concrete. The accurate firing of the Germans showed that the forts could not long withstand, and in the afternoon of the 6th the Belgian field force was withdrawn from the city and all the forts abandoned except the northern ones. The Germans left the remaining forts in peace until the 13th, when the 11-inch mortars opened on them, and by the loth all had been captured. The cupolas had been smashed and shells had penetrated the roofs and exploded the magazines.

Namur was defended by a ring of nine forts, 2 miles from the city, with an armament similar to that in the Liege forts. The garrison of 26,000 had prepared the defense of the intervals by intrenchments and wire entanglements, and a vigorous defense was intended, as French help was expected. The Germans brought up 32 modern siege pieces, including the 42-centimeter howitzer, its first appearance, and the Austrian 12-inch mortar, and placed them 3 miles from the Belgian lines. The attack began August 20. On the next day the Belgians had to withdraw from the advanced trenches owing to their inability to reply to the German fire; two forts fell; three others were silenced after an attack of two hours. On the 23d Namur was occupied, and on the 25th the last fort had fallen. One fort had fired only 10 times and was itself struck by 1,200 shells fired at the rate of 20 per minute. The speedy fall of Namur came near playing havoc with the allies' plans, as with the delay caused by its resistance they had intended to complete the concentration along the Belgian frontier.

The smashing effect of the German siege guns was not fully realized until the attack on Namur, when it was altogether too late to make any fresh disposition, but the fate of its forts reduced to ruins without any chance of their guns making an adequate reply carried a mournful foreboding, to every intelligent Belgian acquainted with the true situation, as to what must happen at Antwerp if attacked in a similar manner.

Other fortified places, such as Lille, Laon, La Fere, and Kheims, along the northeastern French boundary fell before the advancing Germans without striking a blow. The advance was on such a broad front that an attempt at defense would have endangered the safety of the garrisons, and it was imperative that the garrisons join the field army. By August 28 Mauberge of all the northern strongholds alone held out. The defenses had been brought to a high state of efficiency, the intervals well prepared with an armored train running on a track encircling the main line of defenses. The German infantry invested the place August 27, but the siege guns did not go into action until September 3. The place fell September 8 with a loss of 40,000 men.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:13 ZULU