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Remembered Today:

Forts at Liege


penguy83

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I'm a beginning researcher on the subject of WWI and I am so glad I found this site. I have a question reguarding the Liege forts.

I understand that the 12 forts were built to protect the city, but I cannot find out WHY they were built? What was so important of Liege that it needed to be guarded so heavily?

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I don't think that the forts of Liege were built only to guard the city, although having regard to the importance of Liege as an industrial center, that may be part of it. The strategic location of Liege, anticipating a German invasion of Belgium and a possible advance through Belgium (Schiefflein Plan) against France was probably the underlying motive for their construction. Multiple forts of that period were generally laid out in such a way that they could provide mutual support, as with the French Verdun fortifications. There are many excellent books with fine illustrations available to help you understand military construction of the period.

regards

khaki

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The whole answer will lie in the various treaties and agreements made throughout the 19th C. by the major European powers. Roughly, any attempt to dominate Europe would entail holding Belgium and/or Holland. These countries were declared neutral and any attempt to breach that neutrality would be met with combined resistance from the guaranteeing powers. Holland and Belgium were only allowed a defensive military capability and their neutrality required them to make no aggressive treaties in return for freedom from invasion. Ironically, the initial setting up of the neutral states was primarily aimed at French aggrandizement which is why Prussia was a guarantor. A new century, a new aggressor.

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I don't think that the forts of Liege were built only to guard the city, although having regard to the importance of Liege as an industrial center, that may be part of it. The strategic location of Liege, anticipating a German invasion of Belgium and a possible advance through Belgium (Schiefflein Plan) against France was probably the underlying motive for their construction. Multiple forts of that period were generally laid out in such a way that they could provide mutual support, as with the French Verdun fortifications. There are many excellent books with fine illustrations available to help you understand military construction of the period.

regards

khaki

Could you please give me the names of a couple of those books to help get me started? I'd really like to have the reasons why those forts were built in my research. BTW, thanks for the fast response.:thumbsup:

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The whole answer will lie in the various treaties and agreements made throughout the 19th C. by the major European powers.

I have to agree with you there. I'm sure there was an underlying reason somewhere in the many agreements that the countries of Europe have had over the centuries, but my biggest problem is finding which ones. Could they might have anything to do with the Franco-Prussian war?

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The idea of building fortifications around the villages Luik, Antwerpen and Namen, growed during the aftermath of the 1870-71 war between Germany and France.

These fortifications were guarding the frontieres AND all major roads. To avoid a free walk through neutral Belgium.

General Brialmont did this between 1880 and 1890.

Did you know that the first WW1 trenches were build at these forts at Liege (Luik)? :thumbsup:

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To move (and support) a sizeable army through Belgium and on to France with speed required control of key parts of the railway network rather than roads. Liege was strategic for this. However this railway system also allowed big guns to be brought up quickly to pound the forts.

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I have to agree with you there. I'm sure there was an underlying reason somewhere in the many agreements that the countries of Europe have had over the centuries, but my biggest problem is finding which ones. Could they might have anything to do with the Franco-Prussian war?

Certainly. No war between great powers with such devastating consequences could fail to echo throughout Europe. At the same time, the Franco-Prussian war saw at least the start of a revised idea of who the main aggressor in Europe was likely to be. Behind all European agreements and treaties of the 19th century lay England. Her policy was to ensure that no one nation could totally dominate Europe. For well over a hundred years, the one to watch had been France, with Louis Quatorze, Quinze, Boney ( rounds 1 & 2) then Napoleon III. The neutral Low Countries, the Cockpit of Europe, were the key to hegemony. ( Long before railways were built ). Making sure that they had defence works in place, a small citizens' army capable of holding on until the guaranteeing powers got there to do the real fighting, was a major piece of the plan to keep Europe as a set of jostling competitors for the championship while making sure no one of them was ever powerful enough to win it. The defeat of the French, the object of most of the exercises, had left one of the Guarantors as the real villain. A gamekeeper turned poacher. I am afraid that this thread is only marginally on topic. The fortification of Belgium, and indeed the creation of the country itself, had nothing to do with The Great War. It was a result of a centuries long struggle.

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As with most things Belgian this is rather complicated.

The Franco-Prussian war has its influence on these fortifications. A British guarantee and a properly equipped and organised Belgian army (for once !) saved Belgian neutrality that time. In the aftermath of the war both France and Imperial Germany fortified their borders. Both countries soon realised that easiest invasion routes for both countries was through the Samber Meuse valley in neutral Belgium. Germany (which had greater political influence and greater good-will in Belgium ) (after all all through the 19 th century France had been a great threat to Belgian independence) gave from 1875 strong suggestions that there should be fortifications to cover this route (see for instance LADEMACHER Die Belgische neutralität... on this topic)

A major crisis arose in 1886 with the affair of the French general Boulanger. This coincided with articles in the English press sayingthat Great Britain was now a lot less inclined to protect Belgian neutrality. The plans for fortifications around Namur and Liège soon took a practical form. A group of forts which were state of the art in the 1890's but obsolete by 1914 were built.

So there you have it. The fortifications around Liège and Namur served to stop France from using Belgium as a short cut towards Germany AND to stop Germany from using Belgium as a short cut towards France.

Carl

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If you read this account http://www.landships.freeservers.com/new_pages/liege-fort_rr.htm of which I am one of the authors you will see two things

  • The main forts were not built until the 1880s (well after the Franco Prussian War)
  • They did not so much defend Liege as block any advance along the railway and still had to be taken after Liege its self had fallen

It was Moltke who said "Don't build forts build railways"

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As with most things Belgian this is rather complicated.

The Franco-Prussian war has its influence on these fortifications. A British guarantee and a properly equipped and organised Belgian army (for once !) saved Belgian neutrality that time. In the aftermath of the war both France and Imperial Germany fortified their borders. Both countries soon realised that easiest invasion routes for both countries was through the Samber Meuse valley in neutral Belgium. Germany (which had greater political influence and greater good-will in Belgium ) (after all all through the 19 th century France had been a great threat to Belgian independence) gave from 1875 strong suggestions that there should be fortifications to cover this route (see for instance LADEMACHER Die Belgische neutralität... on this topic)

A major crisis arose in 1886 with the affair of the French general Boulanger. This coincided with articles in the English press sayingthat Great Britain was now a lot less inclined to protect Belgian neutrality. The plans for fortifications around Namur and Liège soon took a practical form. A group of forts which were state of the art in the 1890's but obsolete by 1914 were built.

So there you have it. The fortifications around Liège and Namur served to stop France from using Belgium as a short cut towards Germany AND to stop Germany from using Belgium as a short cut towards France.

Carl

Exactly, Carl!

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Joris, you are absolutely right that the Liège forts were designed to protect the road network as well as the railway. The German advance into Belgium was predicated on the roads, not the railway in the first instance. It was assumed that the rail bridges would be destroyed by the Belgians. The armies were equipped with extra supplies to enable them to be as independent of the railway as possible. In the event, track, bridges and tunnels were destroyed but the German rail repair teams were able to make quite rapid progress. During the advance to Liège, the limited railway track from Aachen towards Liège, was used to create supply dumps for the advancing troops. The vast majority of forces, including heavy guns, travelled by the three major roads.

Carl, thank you for your points about the rationale for expanding the number of forts around Liège. Just as the fortifications were designed to hold back the French or the Germans, the dispositions of the Belgian forces at the start of the war were designed to counter the British, French and Germans.

Robert

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Joris, you are absolutely right that the Liège forts were designed to protect the road network as well as the railway. The German advance into Belgium was predicated on the roads, not the railway in the first instance.

Schlieffen and von Moltke had always planned to use the main rail line leading from Germany to Brussels, and eventually to Paris as transport into France (Moltke always planned on using the railways for in no other way could the German army move fast enough to hit the French before they completed mobilisation). It was the task of the cavalry to ensure that bridges were not destroyed (a task very largely achieved). This main line runs through the Meuse valley and Brialmont was ordered to fortify this in such a way that an enemy advancing from the south or east might at least be delayed until other nations could come to the help of Belgium. The obvious point for doing this is Liege for not only does this line run through but is joined there by other lines running all over Belgium. The Belgian commander at Liege stated that he regarded the forts as stopping forts.

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The use of railways was an integral part of German military planning, across all sectors of the front. The same applied to all the major combatants on the Western Front. Joffre's appointment, for example, resulted in his review of the railway timetables in order to prevent the Germans steeling a march during the mobilisation phase. The use of railways during mobilisation is, however, completely different from the notion of their use during a war of movement.

General von Kuhl, Chief of Staff for von Kluck's First Army, wrote:

"The general principles governing troop movements which were at that time [August 1914] accepted in the German Army, were applied in these arrangements [to advance into Belgium] and proved entirely adequate. The arrangements made were based on a policy which prescribed that, from the beginning of the advance, on August 13, to the crossing of the Meuse, the troops should not consume any of the rations carried on the person, in the ration wagons, forage wagons, and subsistence companies; this to assure that the further advance beyond the Meuse could be effected rapidly and with [horse-drawn supply] trains fully loaded. It was, therefore, necessary to make special arrangements for the subsistence of the troops for about a week.

For this purpose subsistence (railway) trains were despatched to suitable points along the line of advance, southwest of Aix-la-Chapelle [Aachen]. To these places the several army corps sent ahead the necessary supply personnel charged with the establishment of distributing points. Such localities were, for example, the railway stations of Bleyberg, Moresnet, Henry Chapelle, later on also Vise, Argenteau, and Wandre. In addition to the above, rations were brought up by means of motor transport companies of the communications zone to several places, for instance to Berneau (northeast of Vise) and to Julemont (southeast of Vise). Every day the various army corps were informed as to the exact location of the distributing points at which rations were to be issued."

As I mentioned previously, there were major concerns about the destruction that would be wrought in the event of a Belgian retreat. These concerns were not driven primarily by the idea of getting to Paris. The concerns were the standard routine concerns of any army that had to advance into foreign territory. Linking these concerns with von Schlieffen and von Moltke gives the wrong impression, leaving aside the significant debates about whether Paris was indeed a military target. Railway bridges were obvious points of vulnerability. I would be very interested to know where you got information about the German cavalry being responsible for capturing intact the railway bridges in the Liège area. The cavalry was extremely vulnerable to the guns in the various fortresses. This is why HKK2 [2nd Cavalry Corps] crossed the Meuse at and north of Vise. When the advanced elements of HKK2 reached the river, they found that the [non-rail] bridges were already blown.

Von Poseck, in his book 'Die Deutsche Kavallerie in Belgien und Frankreich 1914' [which was translated reasonably well as 'The German Cavalry in Belgium and France 1914'], noted that the roles of HKK2 included the destruction of the Belgian railway lines that led from Brussels, Namur and Dinant to Liège.

As to the comment "that bridges were not destroyed (a task very largely achieved)", von Kuhl noted:

"The crossing of the Meuse necessitated special arrangements on the part of army headquarters. At the beginning of the advance all the bridge trains [horse-drawn, not railway] of the leading army corps were brought up to march with, or at least in rear of, their leading divisions. The reconnaissance of the Meuse to determine existing bridges and requirements in new construction had already been entrusted to the leading corps commanders in army orders of August 12, the boundaries of the reconnaissance zones being fixed between the army corps. It was found that the bridges over the Meuse at Vise and Argenteau had been destroyed and that the bridge at Herstal could be used only for light traffic. The central control over the restoration and construction of bridges rested with the chief of engineers of the First Army. The required military and emergency bridges were completed at the proper time, without causing any delay in the advance of the various army corps."

In the city itself, the capture of the bridges was effected by General von Emmich's infantry forces.

The pressure exerted on the Belgian Army resulted from pinning the Liège defenders while the cavalry performed their outflanking manoeuvres. As von Kuhl wrote:

"The fact that the railway demolitions in the northern and central parts of Belgium were only of minor consequence, greatly favored thè operations of the entire [German] right wing. Demolitions on a large scale must be prepared long beforehand, but our surprisingly rapid advance did not leave the Belgians the necessary time for that. Nor did the French and Belgians think it possible that our right wing would extend so far north, and that we would advance north of the Meuse. Consequently, the demolitions, executed on the Belgian railway lines in the beginning, were mostly of a temporary nature, thorough and lasting destructions being encountered very rarely. Destruction of tracks by means of explosives, destruction of telegraph and telephone lines, and damaging of installations and equipment in railway stations were the usual demolitions resorted to. Tunnels were blocked by causing wild trains to crash into one another or to be de-railed. Obstructions of this nature could usually be removed in a short space of time."

This meant that the contingencies put in place to rebuild demolished railway bridges were not needed in the First and Second Army sectors until France was reached. Nevertheless, the other contingencies for ensuring the resupply of the troops advancing by roads were required. Von Kuhl again:

"As a rule, subsistence was effected in accordance with original plans [huge stores that were captured in Brussels and Amiens proved enormously important in this regard, along with the food and forage that was available along the way]. Special difficulties arose on account of the extraordinary rapidity of the advance, with which the reconstruction of the railways was unable to keep up. Moreover, the assignment of motor transport companies, as originally planned, proved inadequate. The army relieved the situation by making use of a volunteer motor transport park, which had been organized at Aix-la-Chapelle.

In this connection, mention should be made of the fact that the First Army, at the beginning of its advance towards the Meuse, was materially assisted by the volunteer motor transport park which, as stated before, had been assembled by an enterprising citizen of Aix-la-Chapelle. It consisted of all types of motor trucks, passenger cars and busses, totalling nearly 300 vehicles, which were appropriately organized. This park of motor vehicles was utilized for the transportation of ammunition, subsistence, and the sick and wounded."

As to the railway actually supporting the rapid advance of troops, as opposed to supplies, into Belgium and France, von Kuhl pointed out:

"I have stated before that the bringing up of personnel replacements by rail was beset with difficulties. However, it did not become really vital until after the Battle of the Marne."

Robert

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As with most things Belgian this is rather complicated.

The Franco-Prussian war has its influence on these fortifications. A British guarantee and a properly equipped and organised Belgian army (for once !) saved Belgian neutrality that time. In the aftermath of the war both France and Imperial Germany fortified their borders. Both countries soon realised that easiest invasion routes for both countries was through the Samber Meuse valley in neutral Belgium. Germany (which had greater political influence and greater good-will in Belgium ) (after all all through the 19 th century France had been a great threat to Belgian independence) gave from 1875 strong suggestions that there should be fortifications to cover this route (see for instance LADEMACHER Die Belgische neutralität... on this topic)

A major crisis arose in 1886 with the affair of the French general Boulanger. This coincided with articles in the English press sayingthat Great Britain was now a lot less inclined to protect Belgian neutrality. The plans for fortifications around Namur and Liège soon took a practical form. A group of forts which were state of the art in the 1890's but obsolete by 1914 were built.

So there you have it. The fortifications around Liège and Namur served to stop France from using Belgium as a short cut towards Germany AND to stop Germany from using Belgium as a short cut towards France.

Carl

I believe that this is the best answer of the whole topic. Thanks Carl.

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If you read this account http://www.landships...ege-fort_rr.htm of which I am one of the authors you will see two things

  • The main forts were not built until the 1880s (well after the Franco Prussian War)
  • They did not so much defend Liege as block any advance along the railway and still had to be taken after Liege its self had fallen

It was Moltke who said "Don't build forts build railways"

I read the article, it's very educational, thank you for posting that.

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Could you please give me the names of a couple of those books to help get me started? I'd really like to have the reasons why those forts were built in my research. BTW, thanks for the fast response.:thumbsup:

If you are looking for a book The Forts of the Meuse in World War 1 by Clayton Donnell published by Osprey will give you an overview of the history design and operations of the forts at both Liege and Namur.

Tim B

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There is a good summary from a German perspective in "Lüttich-Namur", which was part of 'Der große Krieg...' series.

Robert

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Sorry to come in a bit late on the conversation--not on the forum much these days.

Two points:

The Germans (Moltke the younger) planned to take Liege by a coup de main, not by relying on the heaviest siege howitzers. He felt the forts were poorly placed and could be taken in this way.

If Liege had not fallen by the 12th day of mobilization the Germans still planned to go through Holland--violating Dutch neutrality was not off the table.

Paul

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Well , the handstreich was not really an overwhelming succes :hypocrite: , was it not ?

Paul, do you have references for the possible violation of Dutch neutrality ?

Carl

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Well , the handstreich was not really an overwhelming succes :hypocrite: , was it not ?

Paul, do you have references for the possible violation of Dutch neutrality ?

Carl

Well, taking troops that have never been in combat before into an enterprise like that...

The reference to Holland is taken from the Aufmarschplan 1913/14, reproduced in Ehlert, et al.,

Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumente (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2006), p. 472.

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Thank you Paul

Well, contrary to the Belgian soldiers the German soldiers at least had had some proper training !

Carl

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Thank you Paul

Well, contrary to the Belgian soldiers the German soldiers at least had had some proper training !

Carl

Hi Carl,

The German were definitely trained, but probably not too much in taking a fortress by coup de main. In prewar instructions what they tried was not recommended, in fact is was warned against. It's not surprising it almost failed. What the Germans accomplished in 1914 against the fortresses and forts of France and Belgium was almost exclusively the result of their heaviest guns. Most of the tactics and techniques that were practiced in peace-time were disregarded. This worked well in 1914, it didn't work so well at Verdun in 1916.

Paul

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A few comments.

Recently have been reading von Moltke's memos on Liege. His plan for a Handstreich or coupe de main had the flaw that he assumed that the forts could not properly cover the terrain between them, and forces could probably infiltrate between them and capture the poorly protected central city (Correct!), and that if the central city was captured the surrounding forts would somehow naturally fall without much more effort (Incorrect; surprisingly that von Moltke just assumed that!). In fact, after a few attempts German forces were able to occupy much of the central city, but this went largely unnoticed by the forts, and in fact some of the German forces then left the city. (However, one important effect of the capture of the central city was the fact that the buried phone lines from each fort ran to a central exchange in town, and as far as I have been able to find out there were no lateral lines running between the forts ringing Liege; capturing the exchange, the Germans effectively largely cut the forts off from contact with each other).

The forces originally allocated to take the Fortified Place by a sudden strike only included two batteries of heavy howitzers (not the super-heavy siege guns), and when the forts did not fall immediately it was necessary to bring up the "heaviest batteries", but the four models or sub-models of those guns could not travel long distances other than by rail, and two of those models could not even be transported short distances by road; the standard organization of a rail-born battery for one of those guns included not only guns, munitions, crew, but also a set of narrow-gauge field railroad gear sufficient to carry the battery some hundreds of meters from the full-gauge line to a firing position. Therefore the rail blockages were very effective for a short while (at one critical rail tunnel the Belgians crashed 17 locomotives together, one by one, creating a huge mess), but unfortunately the demolition efforts were almost always not that thorough (for example, in possibly every case bridges were destroyed by blowing one or more spans, but not damaging the piers; the German Pioniere were quickly able to span over the gaps in the bridging using the intact piers.)

As to the sudden use of cavalry to sieze bridges, I agree that they usually would not be sufficient to take a given river crossing; the Belgians usually did have protective forces at each bridge, and some provision for demolition; there was a critical bridge complex north of Liege itself on the Meuse that the Germans planned to suddenly sieze by a force of infantry brought there rapidly on 150 trucks assembled in nearby Aachen, but the trucks had to be private vehicles requisitioned in case of war, and their assembly did not occur quickly enough.

I agree that the principal reason for the fortress complex was to prevent both Germany and France from using Belgium as a convenient corridor to attack the other, but I have studied an interesting Belgian controversery in about 1880 about artillery; various parties favored the purchase of French artillery, German (mostly Krupp) artillery, or developing a major Belgian artillery industry; critics of the latter course pointed out that the industry would probably be established in Liege, the center of the sizable Belgian small-arms industry, and if it was established, and at Liege, it could be captured and then used by the occupier against Belgium and Belgian interests. So the defense of the Belgian defense industry was a secondary advantage of the fort complex. Likewise, the Antwerp complex protected the principal Belgian stockpile of materiel at that city.

The design specifications for Belgian and French fortresses of the period called for the forts to be able to hold out for three months, even with only minimal support from forces outside the fort. But this goal was based on the assumption that the largest guns of the besieging forces would be 21 cm. Based on the study of over 20 beseiged Belgian and French forts in 1914; when aggressively shelled by German and Austrian 42 cm and 30.5 cm batteries, most forts fell in about three days (not three months), sometimes blowing up, sometimes just ruined, and often causing minor or major problems with the morale of the garrisons, sometimes even large-scale uprisings or mass flights of the garrison. The steady bombardment with shells up to 2500 lbs, which could penetrate 40 feet into the fort before exploding, was literally maddening for many, and the bizarre nature of many of the injuries from these shells seriously affected morale.

Wandered about a bit here (it's 5 AM), but I hope that that was interesting and useful.

Bob Lembke

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