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Belgian Border Fortifications

The low, flat terrain in northwest Europe has rendered countries like Belgium and the Netherlands particularly susceptible to invasion. Like their French neighbors, their geographic situation has stimulated them to devote considerable attention over the centuries to the problems of designing fortifications and barriers.

In the 19th Century, France, as is well known, was on the Belgian frontier, studded with fortresses. Belgium, on the contrary, was defenceless. The numerous fortresses in the Low Countries, so celebrated in former wars, had heen dismantled in the reign of (he Emperor Joseph ; and their destruction completed hy the French when they got possession of the country at the hattle of Fleurus, 1794, with the exception of Antwerp, Outend, and Nieuport, which they had kept up on account of their marine importance. These circumstances placed the two parties in very different situations hoth for security, and for facility of preparing and carrying into execution to measures either for attack or defence.

The French had maintained their own celehrated triple line of fortresses; extending, on that part of the frontier, from Dunkirk to Philipville, and which had heen put into a state of defence during the war in 1814 - these gave every facility for the concentration and formation of troops - for affording a supply of artillery, and every requisite for taking the field, and for concealing their movements - particularly from the French organization of their national guards, which enabled the latter immediately to take the garrison duties, or relieve and occupy the outposts along the frontiers - such was the relative situation of the frontiers at the period of Napoleon's return from Elba in 1815.

Ever since Belgium had gained her independence, plans for fortified defenses had engaged the attention of her best military engineers. The first proposal was laid before a military committee by General Chazel in 1845. Besides a reorganization of the army, he advocated the demolition of existing defenses that were in the wrong places, and the establishment of powerful entrenchments at Antwerp. Years later, when the plans were about to be put into execution, Napoleon III, who had climbed to power in the interim, vetoed the plan on the ground that he might some day be obliged to enter Belgium himself, in which case the forts it was proposed to demolish would be his last support. It was not till four years after the close of the Franco-Prussian War, when Brialmont became inspector-general of fortifications, and Napoleon had fallen, that the task was begun. He had already fortified Antwerp in 1868; by 1892 he had completed the forts at Liege and Namur.

The principal means of defense to which the Belgians had long pinned their faith was the elaborate system of fortifications thai guarded their frontiers. These forts were destined, in the early stage of the European War in 1914, to play a prominent and instructive part On the one hand, they stemmed the German invading avalanche for a week; on the other, they proved the utter uselessness of fortifications against modern artillery if the enemy is once permitted to approach within range.

Belgium's border defenses primarily consisted of more or less independent fortresses which, like barriers in many other countries, were nominally intended only to delay an attacker until reinforcements could arrive. In Belgium's case, the planned-for reinforcements were from France and Great Britain rather than only from its own mobilized reserves, but the principles for defense were the same as for a country depending on internal-mobilization.

In World War II combat, Germany employed the then-new methods of warfare to overcome, bypass, or ignore these obstacles so effectively that both Belgium and the Netherlands were forced into almost immediate surrender (less than 2 weeks in the case of Belgium, and only 5 days for the Netherlands).

The most spectacular failure of this Belgian fortress system in World War II, and the most spectacular demonstration of the dominance of the offensive forces, was seen in May 1940 with the 1-day German capture of Eben Emael, possibly the strongest single fort in the world at the time. Having methodically evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of Eben Emael, and convinced of the need to quickly subdue it, the German planners decided to assault it with their new and most mobile weapons, aerial bombing and strafing, and paratroop landings. When this planned assault was executed, the 1,200 men defending Eben Emael were totally surprised and demoralized by this rapid and unexpected means of attack. They quickly surrendered, even though they did not suffer significant casualties.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:05 ZULU