Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reporting the Fall of Liége to the King

Today in history the battle for Liége ended when the last of the fortresses was smashed by the German super-heavy howitzers and General Gérard Leman was knocked out and captured, being found half buried in the rubble by the Germans. General Leman is regarded by all as the first hero of the Great War for his determined defense of his country and the Meuse fortresses. He was an old veteran of great courage and a true sense of duty to his King and the country. Because of that, he wanted it known especially that he had been found unconscious in the rubble and had not surrendered of his own will. Because of his duty he also knew, as they were taking him away to Germany as a prisoner of war, that he had to report to the King about what had happened. This was allowed because the Germans were very impressed by his courage and military skill, considering General Leman a gallant and worthy enemy. This was the letter the general wrote:

General Leman to King Albert I
After honourable engagements on August 4th, 5th, and 6th, I considered that the forts of Liege could only play the role of forts d'arret. I nevertheless maintained military government in order to coordinate the defence  as much as possible, and to exercise moral influence upon the garrison.
Your Majesty is not ignorant that I was at Fort Loncin on August 6th at noon. You will learn with grief that the fort was blown up yesterday at 5.20 p.m., the greater part of the garrison being buried under the ruins.
That I did not lose my life in that catastrophe is due to the fact that my escort, Commandant Collard, a sub-officer of infantry who unfortunately perished, the gendarme Thevenim and my two orderlies, Vanden Bossche and Jos Lecocq, drew me from a position of danger, where I was being asphyxiated by gas from the exploded powder.
I was carried into a trench, where a German captain named Guson gave me a drink, after which I was made a prisoner and taken to Liege in an ambulance. I am convinced that the honour of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts.
Deign, Sire, to pardon my defects in this letter. I am physically shattered by the explosion of Loncin. In Germany, whither I am proceeding, my thoughts will be, as they have ever been, of Belgium and the King. I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.

That, my friends is the words of a true and great Belgian patriot and he should be an example to all of us. I am sure the King was very proud of his general and his old teacher when he was delivered this letter. This is the spirit of those old veterans of 1914 that I admire so much and makes me regard them as the greatest heroes our country ever has produced.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The King Decides Strategy

When the war leadership of King Albert I is talked about, the thought remains for many that his position of commander-in-chief was really only symbolic or ceremonial and that he did not really have anything to do with making decisions on fighting the war. This of course is completely the opposite of reality. The King was not a military man by nature, he did not have the militaristic character in him but he was a trained military leader and had been prepared for the possibility of taking this position, as required by the law, and he always took his duties to heart. When the war first started, or was about to start with Germany demanding surrender or invasion, the King even then had to make a crucial decision on what strategy the Belgian army would pursue. He was presented by two very opposite plans of action by two accomplished military men and it was the King who had to decide which action to take and what the army would do in the face of the German attack. This was a very big decisions and many lives, even the fate of the country, depended on it.
The first plan was put forward by Lieutenant General Antonin Selliers de Moranville, the Chief of Staff of the army. He looked at the still outdated condition of the Belgian army, the innocence of the reserve troops quickly being called up and feared a horrific waste of life. He advocated that the army retreat beyond Brussels and leaving the river forts to hold out as best they could with the forces they had on hand. This was obviously the most cautious plan, perhaps the most realistic but would certainly have been far from popular.
The other plan came from the Deputy Chief of Staff General Baron Louis de Ryckel which was a somewhat more audacious approach to say the least of it. He actually wanted to take the Belgian army into an invasion of Germany, a surprise attack, to spoil the German offensive and, as the general said, to, "Send them back where they belong!" This was certainly the most daring plan, surely no one would have expected that to happen, for the Belgians to invade Germany, and had the most audacity.
Of course, it was also practically suicidal. King Albert I rejected the plan of his chief of staff, which seemed defeatist, giving up and retreating before the battle had started or the enemy was engaged. He also rejected the opposite extreme of the preemptive attack on Germany. Instead, he and his military staff worked out another option which was the strategy Belgium would adopt. To hold the force with supporting units between them while building up strength and if and when those forts fell to then fight a delaying action across the country to the "National Redoubt" of Antwerp where the big fight would be. It was he who decided to accept no Allied help until the Germans actually violated Belgian territory (to do otherwise would have played right into the hands of the Germans) and it was the King who ordered the destruction of the bridges over the Meuse and the destruction of the rail bridges at the Luxembourg border. It was the King who made all the big critical decisions of the conduct of the war, especially on those early days when Belgium was fighting totally alone. He never wanted to be battlefield commander or a soldier-king but when the crisis of the hour forced him into that position King Albert I proved to be the greatest.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Threat of War Comes

It was on August 2, 1914 that Germany sent their first demand to Belgium that they should be allowed to march through Belgium unopposed to attack the French. On August 3 the Belgian government sent a message in reply to Germany. The Germans had tried to justify their plan to invade Belgium by saying that France was about to do the same but the Belgian government replied that they had no information of this and that if France tried to violate Belgian neutrality we would defend ourselves and fight the French just as we would fight the Germans for violating Belgian territory. The government reminded the Germans of the promises they had made in international agreements to respect the neutrality and territorial integrity of Belgium and how faithful Belgium had always been to honoring international agreements. They said that to accept the German demands would be to dishonor the Belgian nation and betray their duty to the whole of Europe. It would make Belgium an accomplice in the crime of Germany's invasion of France. On the next day, August 4, King Albert I spoke to the Belgian parliament in one of the great stirring speeches of history. The King said that the whole country hoped for peace, "But if our hopes are betrayed, if we are forced to resist the invasion of our soil, and to defend our threatened homes, this duty, however hard it may be, will find us armed and resolved upon the greatest sacrifices."

This was the first great trial that Belgium had faced since independence. The country had put too much trust in international agreements and was not well prepared for war and Belgium was facing the most powerful and heavily armed military force in the world. In spite of the many difficulties, the people stood together as one to resist and to defend independence and the national integrity. When the Germans invaded Belgium they were going to be very surprised because they had expected that Belgium would not resist at all or could be easily swept aside with no difficulty. When the Belgian soldiers of 1914 held the forts, when they struck at the invaders, when they destroyed the bridges and fought constant rear-guard actions, the Germans became furious. Their timetable was thrown off, the first problem in their grand strategy for defeating France. The fierce Belgian resistance slowed the Germans down and then the British army at Mons slowed them down again and by the time they were approaching Paris the French were ready and the German plan was defeated. I have such great admiration for the awesome courage of the Belgian forces who stood directly in the path of the Imperial German war machine and stood their ground and fought them every step of the way. They were a small army but very huge heroes!