Monday, February 6, 2012

General Gerard Matheiu Leman

Gerard Matheiu Leman was a man defending his home town (Liège), the city he was born in and he was also the first big Allied hero of the Great War. He was a great soldier and one of my favorite heroes. Leman came from a military background, his father was an artillery captain who was an instructor at the École Militaire. When Gerard Leman began his training there he was a great cadet and was praised by his professors for his abilities. When he graduated in 1869 everyone expected him to become one of top military commanders of the Belgian army. In 1870 he served with the Belgian observation corps during the Franco-German War in which Belgian neutrality was expected. In 1882 he became an instructor at the military academy and later the head of the school and was known for shaping the minds of his students toward modern methods of warfare and for being a brilliant mathematician. His reputation was so great that he was chosen to be the tutor to the future King Albert I on military matters since the King would have to take command of the army if there was ever a war.

But, most people in Belgium, most especially in the government, did not believe there would ever be a war because they trusted in the treaties guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. General Gerard Leman was not one of those. I think because he had seen so closely the Franco-German War of 1870 and he knew that the two nations of France and Germany would eventually go to war again, it would be more vicious than the last time and Belgium, being between the two, could not hope to escape unscathed simply because France and Prussia had pledged to respect Belgian neutrality. In 1914 General Leman was given command of the fortress complex guarding the city of Liège (the city he was born in) along with command of the Belgian Third Army Division. General Leman was convinced that there would be a war and he would have to defend Liège against the German army. Some would have considered that a hopeless idea but General Leman worked hard and put his men to work to put up the best defense possible of his city. Over 18,000 workers were employed to build and improve defensive fortifications around the city. When one Belgian minister came to visit and said that he was worried these improvements would endanger Belgian neutrality. General Leman said that when war came Belgium would thank him for his efforts and that he no war came he would give up his rank.

General Leman was certainly right and only a few months later the German forces invaded and the German army under General Otto von Emmich arrived at Liège and demanded the city surrender. Taking the forts guarding the rivers in Belgium quickly was a critical part of the overall German strategy to race through the country, sweeping around by the coast to take Paris from the north and then come in behind the main French army on the Alsace-Lorraine border to surround and destroy them. Everything depending on Belgium being subdued as quickly as possible and the Germans had not really expected Belgium to resist at all. Naturally, General Leman resisted magnificently. He refused to surrender and the Germans began attacking. The new fortifications Leman had constructed proved useful and the German attacks were successfully repelled by the Belgians. Their invasion was stopped completely and they had to wait for the arrival of special super-heavy artillery (siege howitzers) to arrive to demolish the Belgian force from a great distance away.

Finally these massive guns arrived and they began shelling the Belgian forts, demolishing them one by one. Still, General Leman remained defiant and he and his men continued to repel German attacks on the forts but these forts were being reduced methodically by the special siege artillery. A German force even got through to Liège and expected Leman to surrender but he was not in the city, he was in one of the forts fighting alongside his men. He was in Fort Loncin and when the big German guns began shelling this fort things became very serious. Debris was falling everywhere, the air becoming too thick to breath and many men were being killed but General Leman was determined not to surrender. His orders were to hold his position and defend his country as long as possible and he was fully prepared to die in the performance of his duty. However, a German shell hit caused a collapse in the area General Leman was in and he was knocked unconscious and buried under a pile of rubble. The Germans came in and recovered him, taking him prisoner but treating him with great respect because of how impressed they were with his courage and military abilities. When he recovered General Leman was most concerned that the world know he had been knocked out when he was captured and had NOT surrendered. He was kept as a prisoner of war for most of the rest of the conflict until the Germans released him because of his poor health. He had been applauded as the first Allied hero of the Great War and Belgium greatly honored him when the war was finally won and he was able to go home. He died in 1920 at the age of 69.

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