Brave little Belgium and the Forts of the Frontiers

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.

 

 

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Over there, over there

The WW1HA is going to the battlefields again in May.

Come with me.

The tour will begin May 25 in Brussels and go to the fortress city of Liege, where brave little Belgium’s army held up the German advance for 12 days at the beginning of the war.

The group will move on to the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, to visit the Le Linge battlefield and museum, full of artifacts. More than 2 miles of trenches and fortifications are still in place. On to Hartmannswillerkopf and its incredible views — at nearly 1,000 meters above sea level — and memorials. The American Ambulance Services worked here.

Then to Verdun, the St. Mihiel Salient, Belleau Wood, Le Hamel — where American troops fought alongside Australians on July 4, 1918 — and a full day of exploring around Ypres, concluding with the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

To walk where they walked, to stand on the ground they fought so hard for is incredibly humbling.

To raise a glass to them while chomping frites — the best fries/chips you will ever eat — with the possibility of chocolate croissants for breakfast is incredibly fun.

Come on. I’ll meet you in Brussels and buy you a beer.

http://ww1ha.org/pdf/Battlefield-Tour-2013-Itinerary.pdf

http://www.examiner.com/article/french-world-war-i-trenches-of-le-linge-alsace

http://www.haute-alsacetourisme.com/en/sites-incontournables/hartmannswillerkopf-4.html

http://www.en.verdun-tourisme.com/

http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/stmihiel.htm

http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/b4/belleau_wood.htm

http://www.dva.gov.au/commems_oawg/OAWG/war_memorials/overseas_memorials/france/Documents/Battle_Le_Hamel.pdf

http://www.greatwar.co.uk/ypres-salient/battles-ypres-salient.htm

http://www.visitbelgium.com/?page=beer-lovers