The Full Wiki

More info on Battle of Liège

Battle of Liège: Map


Wikipedia article:

Map showing all locations mentioned on Wikipedia article:

The Battle of Liège was the opening battle of the Germanmarker invasion into Belgiummarker, and the first battle of World War I. The attack on the city began on August 4 and lasted until 16 August when the last fort finally surrendered.

Historical Setting

Germany, honoring her alliance with Austria, declared war on Russia on 1 August, then sent an ultimatum to France (Russia’s ally via the Triple Entente) on 2 August.

Another ultimatum also went to King Albert of Belgiummarker, for Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (developed over the previous two decades) called for a vast sweep of manpower around the concentration of French armies along the Alsacemarker frontier. That flanking maneuver, designed to bypass both the French forces and the rugged terrain of the Ardennesmarker, necessitated German violation of Belgian neutrality. Belgium could have offered no resistance and allowed German troops through her lands on their way to France. Indeed, much of the German planning depended on them doing so; anything else would be nothing more than “the rage of dreaming sheep,” according to one Prussian officer. Unfortunately for German plans, Belgium proved all too willing to defend her sovereignty. Unfortunately for the Belgians, their resources did not match their elan.

Belgium’s fixed defenses and planning were predicated on defending from any potential enemy: France, Germany, or Britain. At the beginning of August 1914 her armies were on the perimeters of the country, as they had been for years. When Albert received the ultimatum from Berlin, his chief of staff General Selliers de Moranville began implementing the standing contingency plans: to concentrate the army in the center of the country while allowing fortifications at Liège and Namurmarker to slow down, if not stop, the German advance. Liège straddled the primary road through Belgium toward France. To the south the ground was rugged, to the north it was open but less than a dozen miles from the Netherlandsmarker, which Germany did not want to enter. Both Liège and Namur possessed outstanding fortifications, but also had serious shortcomings.

The city of Liège was surrounded by a dozen forts, designed and built by Henri Alexis Brialmont, the leading engineer of the latter nineteenth century. Rejecting the Star forts of the French master Vauban, he designed forts to resist newer rifled cannon. They existed mainly underground, exposing only mounds of concrete, masonry, and dirt. Each fort possessed a series of retractable cupolas that held guns ranging in size up to 6 inches. While state-of-the-art upon their completion in 1892, they had not been well maintained. Brialmont also called for smaller fortifications and trench lines to be built linking and protecting the main forts, but the Belgian government had not done that either. Their garrisons were not at full strength and many were drawn from the local guard units and possessed minimal training.

On 2 August King Albert responded to Germany’s ultimatum by ordering work to begin on support works, as well as the army to be mobilized and brought up to paper strength. The commander of the Liège fortress, General Gerard Leman, was ordered to "hold to the end with your division the position which you have been entrusted to defend."

There was little opportunity for the Belgian forces to finish all the preparations, for the German invasion entered the country early on 4 August. The German force detailed to occupy Liège was a provisional unit called the Army of the Meuse, consisting of eight brigades commanded by General Otto von Emmich. Emmich commanded primarily infantry and cavalry and was detailed to seize the bridges across the Meusemarker at Liège and seize the town if it offered any resistance. When his troops reached the river and found many of the bridges destroyed, they began work on pontoon bridges. When those came under fire, the Germans came to the realization that they would indeed be forced to fight for Liege.

The Schlieffen plan

As Imperial Germany feared a long war against France and the Russian Empiremarker, the Schlieffen plan was conceived which suggested a quick strike to beat France first, as was done successfully in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In order to do this, neutral Belgium had to be attacked and crossed within a few days.

However, there were two problems with this plan. The violation of the neutrality of Belgium would possibly make the United Kingdommarker enter the war on France's side. Also, the highly fortified city of Liègemarker was in the path of the German forces.


Diagram of the fortresses of Liege.

Liège Forts

(Clockwise from N)

The Belgian city of Liègemarker lies at the confluence of the Meusemarker and the Ourthemarker rivers, between the Ardennes Forestmarker to the south and Maastrichtmarker of the Netherlandsmarker, and the flat plain of Flanders to the north and west. The Meuse flowed through a deep ravine at Liège, posing a significant barrier to the German advance.

It lay on the main rail line leading from Germany to Brusselsmarker, and eventually to Paris – the same railway that von Schlieffen and von Moltke had planned to use as transport into France. There were massive industrial facilities, factories, and other facilities that would assist the modern defense of the city.

In addition, a ring of twelve forts, built by the great Belgian military engineer, General Henri Alexis Brialmont, had been completed in an 6–10 km radius around the city in 1891. The forts overlapped each other's protective zones of fire, and were designed so that if any one fort were attacked, the two neighboring forts could provide artillery support. They were approximately 4 km apart.

The forts were triangular or quadrangular in shape, with a surrounding ditch and barb-wire entanglements. They were made entirely of concrete and armed with 210 mm howitzers, 150 mm 120 mm cannons, and 57 mm rapid-fire cannons for approach defense. The fort was defended from attack by infantry with rifles and machine guns. The main guns were mounted in steel turrets that revolved 360 degrees. Only the 57 mm turret could be elevated to fire. In total the forts had 78 pieces of artillery. The forts contained magazines for ammunition, crew quarters for up to 500 men, and electric motors for lighting. The forts were not linked together and communicated with each other by above-ground telephone or telegraph wire.

The forts had several weaknesses. The terrain was difficult to completely cover since many ravines ran between the forts. Interval defenses were constructed just before the battle and were inadequate to stop the Germans from infiltrating into the city. The forts were weak in the rear, the direction from which the German bombardments would eventually come. The ventilation and sanitary conditions were very bad, resulting in the lack of air and terrible odors. Finally, the concrete was not the best quality and the forts were built to withstand assault from 210 mm guns, the largest mobile guns available in 1890. Lieutenant General Gérard Mathieu Leman had been personally selected to command the 3rd Division and the Liège fortifications, and he was under orders from King Albert I to hold the fortress system to the end. Leman had a force of about 30,000 soldiers to defend the intervals, and about 6,000 fortress troops, including members of the civic guard, to man the defenses.

Belgian order of battle

The 3rd Belgian Division defended the city of Liège; it was commanded by Lieutenant General Gérard Leman. Within the division, there were four brigades and various other formations:
  • 9th Mixed Brigade, including the 9th and 29th Infantry Regiments, along with the 43rd, 44th, and 45th Artillery Batteries
  • 11th Mixed Brigade, including the 11th and 31st Infantry Regiments, along with the 37th, 38th, and 39th Artillery Batteries
  • 12th Mixed Brigade, including the 12th and 32nd Infantry Regiments, along with the 40th, 41st, and 42nd Artillery Batteries
  • 14th Mixed Brigade, including the 14th and 34th Infantry Regiments, along with the 46th, 47th, and 48th Artillery Batteries
  • 15th Mixed Brigade (5 August), including the 1st and 4th Chausseur Regiments, along with the 61st, 62nd, and 63rd Artillery Batteries
  • The Fortress Guards, including the 9th, 11th, 12th, and 14th Reserve Infantry Regiments, an Artillery Regiment, four reserve batteries, and various other troops
  • 3rd Artillery Regiment, including the 40th, 49th, and 51st Artillery Batteries
  • 3rd Engineer Battalion
  • 3rd Telegraphist Section
  • 2nd Regiment of Lancers

Overall, there were about 36,000 troops and 252 artillery pieces to face the German invasion.

German order of battle

The German attack force (named The Army of the Meuse) consisted of:

  • 11th Infantry Brigade of the III Corps, commanded by Major-General Von Watcher.
  • 14th Infantry Brigade of the IV Corps, commanded by Major-General Von Wussow.
  • 27th Infantry Brigade of the VII Corps, commanded by Colonel Von Massow.
  • 34th Infantry Brigade of the IX Corps,commanded by Major-General Von Krawewll.
  • 38th Infantry Brigade of the X Corps, commanded by Colonel Von Oertzen.
  • 43rd Infantry Brigade of the XI Corps, commanded by Major-General Von Hulsen.
  • II Cavalry Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Von der Marwitz, consisting of the 2nd (Major-General Von Krane), 4th (Lieutenant General Von Garnier) and 9th (Major-General Von Bulow) cavalry divisions.

Overall, the force consisted of about 59,800 troops and 100 artillery pieces. These were placed under the command of General Otto von Emmich, accompanied by Erich Ludendorff as an observer for the Generall Staff.

The battle

War was declared on Belgium on the morning of 3 August, and the lead elements of Army of the Meuse crossed the border at 0800 on the 4th. The cavalry advanced to the Meuse river, but found that the bridges had been destroyed. By the late afternoon of 4 August, however, German cavalry forces had crossed the Meuse to the north at Visémarker and encountered troops of the 12th Brigade, who fought a valiant retreat to the fortress line. German forces were held in check in the north for the night.

The Belgian 3rd Division guarded the town from behind hastily constructed earthworks, and on the same day they successfully repulsed attacks by German infantry passing between the forts. An attack against Fort Barchon was beaten back with heavy losses due to machine-gun and artillery fire. After this failed attack, the Germans performed the first air raid in history by using a Zeppelin to drop bombs on Liège. Meanwhile cavalry moved south from Visé to encircle the town. With the town likely to be invested soon, Leman now ordered the 3rd Division to withdraw from the town and rejoin the mobilizing Belgian army to the west.

On August 6, General Ludendorff rode forward to find that the commander of the 14th Brigade had been killed. Ludendorff now took command of the 14th brigade, ordered up a field howitzer to provide fire support, and fought through the village of Queue-de-Bois to a high point from where he could look down into Liège. Ludendorff sent a party forward under flag of truce to demand Leman's surrender (which was refused). A raiding force that followed was shot down at the door of Leman's HQ. This sally prompted Leman to leave the city of Liège, and take refuge in Fort Loncin on the West side of the ring of forts. The outer ring of forts continued to hold out, blocking German advance due to their interdiction of the railroad lines. The forts endured steady bombardment and attack by the German forces, but most of the forts continued to repulse enemy attacks. Only Fort Fleron was put out of action, its cupola-hoisting mechanism being destroyed by shell fire. The only fort to be captured by infantry assault would be Fort Barchon, taken on 10 August.

To reduce these fortifications, the Germans would have to employ their massive siege artillery. These would include the Krupp "Big Bertha" 420 mm howitzer and some loaned Austro-Hungarian 305 mm mortars build by Škoda. At the time of the construction of the forts it was assumed that the largest guns that could be moved overland were 21 cm howitzers, so they had never been designed to withstand the enormous shells from the bigger guns. The shells from these guns landed on the forts from directly above, penetrating the concrete sides and then detonating inside by means of a delayed fuse. One by one the forts were bombarded into submission, with the last, Fort Boncelles, capitulating on 16 August. On the 15 August Leman was injured at Fort Loncin, and he was carried out unconscious to become a prisoner of the Germans.

Some had suggested the valiant ten-day stand made at Liège served to knock the German timetable off by two days, buying time for the Allies. However, German commanders denied that the siege significantly delayed the schedule of their still-mobilizing army. The ten day siege did, however, serve as a morale boost to Allied forces, and the French President would bestow the cross of the légion d'honneur on the town for their resistance.


The passage of the German Second and Third Armies through Belgium had originally been scheduled to begin on 10 August. They finally began to move on the 13th, but could not pass through Liege until the 17th. The resistance of the six large and six small forts ringing Liege had bought just a few days’ respite for the French and British, but it proved vital. Although many at the war’s beginning had hoped that Liege’s forts would last the nine months the Russian forts at Port Arthur had held out against the Japanese in 19041905, even this relatively short delay in the German timetable was critical. It was enough, although barely enough, to give the French and British armies time to redeploy at the Marne Rivermarker for the defense of Parismarker. Although the logistics of the German advance also slowed their progress, the First Battle of the Marne was such a near-run thing that a German attack a few days earlier could well have given them the French capital and victory in World War I.

Just as important was the psychological effect the Belgian resistance had on the rest of Europe. Germany, whose army had possessed an air of invincibility ever since their crushing defeat of France in 1870, now seemed all too human. The Belgian army continued to resist as it fell back on the city of Antwerpmarker, and that stiffened the resolve of both the French and British citizenry and governments. No one had expected the Belgians to fight at all, certainly not to fight heroically. Could the major powers of Europe not fight to the end if tiny Belgium had? “The triumph was moral—an advertisement to the world that the ancient faiths of country and duty could still nerve the arm for battle, and that the German idol, for all its splendour, had feet of clay” (Buchan, A History of the Great War, p. 134).


  • Paul Hamelius, The Siege of Liège: A Personal Narrative (London, 1914)
  • J. M. Kennedy, "The Campaign around Liège," in Daily Chronicle War Books (London, 1914)


  • Griess, Thomas E., The Great War, Avery Publishing, 1986.
  • Marshall, S.L.A., World War I, American Heritage, 1964.
  • Reynolds, F. J., The Story of the Great War, Vol. III, P.F. Collier & Son, New York, 1916.
  • Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books, 2000.


External links

Embed code:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address