Siege of Liege, 5-16 August 1914 (Belgium)

One of the most important battles of the early days of the First World War. The fortifications of Liege were considered to be amongst the strongest in Europe, with twelve modern forts surrounding the city, and the German plan adopted in 1914 required those fortifications to be neutralised, to allow the strong German right wing to wheel through Belgium into northern France. The initial plan allowed two days for this, in part in the expectation that any resistance by Belgium would be largely symbolic. This idea was soon found to be false. Liege guarded the crossings over the River Meuse, a strong barrier, there running through a deep ravine. Moreover, the defence of Liege had been entrusted to General Gerard Leman, a long service soldier, and former military tutor of the king of Belgium, who was determined to hold as long as possible. Facing him was a German task force under General Otto von Emmich containing six infantry brigades, three cavalry divisions and five light infantry battalions. Recognising the importance of this task, this force was largely composed of regular peacetime soldiers rather than the newly mobilised conscripts. Their task was made easier by the attitude of both the British and French, neither of whom had any plans to relieve Liege.

German Officers in Liege Town, August 1914
German Officers in
Liege Town,
August 1914

This task force entered Belgium, and it's advance scouts reached Liege on the same day, to find most of the river bridges blown, and a much more real resistance than expected. The next day, after a demand for surrender was refused, the German bombardment of Liege began. However, a overnight assault on 5-6 August resulted in high German casualties and no gains. The next day, the key personality in the siege appeared on the scene. Erich von Ludendorff, then a liaison officer, found the 14th Brigade without a commander, and taking over, managed to break though the Belgium lines to the east of the city, while remaining, at least initially, undetected. He then sent a party to the city, first to demand it's surrender, once again refused, and then on a quick raid against Leman's HQ.

Damaged Belgian Fort at Liege, 1914
Damaged Belgian Fort at Liege, 1914

The main result of this was to scare Leman into moving into Fort Loncin, west of the city, and also to send much of his garrison back to Brussels, under the misapprehension that he faced several times more troops than he actually did. However, despite this, and despite Ludendorff's force at loose within the line of forts, the defenders still held all twelve forts, and the city itself.

Belgian Soldiers resting after Siege of Liege, 1914
Belgian Soldiers
resting after
Siege of Liege, 1914
This was soon to change. On 7 August Ludendorff advanced against the out of date Citadel of Liege, which surrendered without fighting, giving Ludendorff control of the city, and more importantly, of intact bridges across the Meuse. Meanwhile, the first two forts fell, Fort Barchon on 8 August and then Fort Evegnee, adjacent forts to the east of the city. The fate of the remaining forts was settled on 12 August, with the arrival of the first Krupp 420 mm Howitzer, designed to be capable of smashing these very forts. The first fort to be bombarded, Fort Pontisse, was wrecked by 12.30 on 13 August, and six more forts were reduced over the next two days, ending with Fort Loncin, reduced to rubble after a shell hit the magazine. Within the ruins of the fort, General Leman was found, knocked out by the blast. The remaining two forts surrendered without a fight on 16 August.

The fall of Liege removed the main obstacle to the German advance through Belgium, and also reduced the faith of all sides in the value of formal fixed fortifications, which led the French to weaken the fortresses surrounding Verdun. However, this was a false message, and when Verdun came under attack in 1916 it was found that well constructed modern forts could play a very valuable part in an active defence.

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coverThe First World War , John Keegan. An excellent narrative history of the First World War, especially strong on the buildup to war. Good on detail without losing the overall picture. Keegan keeps to a factual account of the war, leaving out the judgement calls that dominate some books. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (14 March 2001 ), Siege of Liege, 5-16 August 1914,

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