The 2013 WWI Battlefields Tour reached Liege, Belgium, last night, and today we toured the one fort — of the 12 the Germans encountered in August 1914 — that has been preserved, the Fortress of Loncin.
The Schlieffen Plan, conceived by the German military leader whose name it has, called for the German Army to sweep through Belgium, get around behind Paris and force France to surrender — in time to turn and face the Russians, who presumably would take longer to mobilize. However, as the Germans prepared to launch it when the war was declared, they discovered three limitations:
1) They couldn’t easily fight through the Ardennes Forest — and remember, speed was essential;
2) They didn’t want to anger the neutral Dutch, because they would need the port of Rotterdam to fight the British,
3) Albert, King of the Belgians, said: We are a neutral country, but we will defend ourselves against any invader and we will never surrender.
The Germans were so unimpressed by his defiance that although they had only a narrow corridor through which to attack, they gave themselves until Aug. 10 to conquer Brussels. “Chocolate soldiers,” that’s what they called the Belgians. Instead, they finally took Brussels in October, and by then the Schlieffen plan had crumbled.
Liege was one of the cities in their way. It was attacked on Aug. 6 and taken by the Germans while several of its forts continued to hold out. Loncin was under continuous bombardment for three days while its garrison of 550 troops went on fighting. Finally, at 5:20 p.m. on Aug. 15, the Germans hit the fort with 25 shells from Big Bertha. One of them hit the powder room and most of the fort exploded, killing more than 80 percent of the garrison. Most of them still lay under the ruins, and the site is considered a grave. The Germans kept the fort until the end of the war, walling off the interior where the worst damage occurred. The fort, in ruins, has been well-preserved, and you can walk around inside much of it. Then you come out on top, and you can see the horrific devastation.
The Belgians are very proud of Loncin. It never did surrender; its commanding officer was pulled out of the wreckage and taken prisoner while he was unconscious.
Most people think of Big Bertha as the Paris gun, the massive artillery piece that shelled Paris from 70 miles away and could only be moved by railway. In fact, Big Bertha was a mortar that fired 42-cm. shells. Loncin was the first time it had been used in combat.
I took lots of photos. Tomorrow we’re traveling to the Vosges Mountains and the southernmost end of the Western Front. I’ll post some Liege photos tomorrow night.