Showing posts with label guerre grande. Show all posts
Showing posts with label guerre grande. Show all posts

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!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Franco-Belgian Friendship

King Albert I and Marshal of France Joffre

Marshal of France Joffre and King Albert I

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.

Monday, January 23, 2012

King Albert I at the Front Lines

The King greets and the Queen treats wounded soldiers back from the attack

The King gets information at the front on the withdrawal to the Yser

King Albert defending Antwerp (I think)

They shall not pass!

The King directing the troops against the enemy.

It is true, the role of the King was slightly glorified in order to inspire the army to resist and encourage the people not to lose hope in the most darkest hour of the national history. But also is true that no other monarch of the Great War was, from 1914 to 1918, so close so constantly to his army and none more shared their stress and discomfort. Albert I was the King who saved Belgium!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Great Military Paintings (third part)

Exhausted and some wounded Belgian soldiers falling back up the coast.

Belgian soldiers directed forward (this may only be maneuvers)

Proud old veterans of the 1830 Belgian Revolution

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Great Military Paintings (second part)

Belgian soldiers at army maneuvers in the dunes

Belgian artillery moved into position

The carnage of Flanders, the Great War

Monday, September 26, 2011

Great Military Paintings (first part)

 Belgian troops moving in the harsh conditions of the Flanders front

 Victorious Belgian troops parade through liberated Brussels in 1918

One of the brave defenders of the country, from the uniform probably early in 1914.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Address by King Albert to the Belgian Parliament, 4 August 1914


Never, since 1839, has a more solemn hour struck for Belgium: the integrity of our territory is threatened.

The very force of our righteous cause, the sympathy which Belgium, proud of her free institutions and her moral victories, has always received from other nations, and the necessity of our autonomous existence in respect of the equilibrium of Europe, make us still hopeful that the dreaded emergency will not be realized.

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.

Even now, in readiness for any eventuality, our valiant youth is up in arms, firmly resolved, with the traditional tenacity and composure of the Belgians, to defend our threatened country.

In the name of the nation, I give it a brotherly greeting. Everywhere in Flanders and Wallonia, in the towns and in the countryside, one single feeling binds all hearts together: the sense of patriotism.

One single vision fills all minds: that of our independence endangered. One single duty imposes itself upon our wills: the duty of stubborn resistance.

In these solemn circumstances two virtues are indispensable: a calm but unshaken courage, and the close union of all Belgians.

Both virtues have already asserted themselves, in a brilliant fashion, before the eyes of a nation full of enthusiasm.

The irreproachable mobilization of our army, the multitude of voluntary enlistments, the devotion of the civil population, the abnegation of our soldiers' families, have revealed in an unquestionable manner the reassuring courage which inspires the Belgian people.

It is the moment for action.

I have called you together, gentlemen, in order to enable the Legislative Chambers to associate themselves with the impulse of the people in one and the same sentiment of sacrifice.

You will understand, gentlemen, how to take all those immediate measures which the situation requires, in respect both of the war and of public order.

No one in this country will fail in his duty.

If the foreigner, in defiance of that neutrality whose demands we have always scrupulously observed, violates our territory, he will find all the Belgians gathered about their sovereign, who will never betray his constitutional oath, and their Government, invested with the absolute confidence of the entire nation.

I have faith in our destinies; a country which is defending itself conquers the respect of all; such a country does not perish!

Belgium Responds to German Ultimatum

Delivered by the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, M. Davignon, to the German Minister in Brussels, Herr von Below Saleske in response to German ultimatum demanding free passage of German troops through Belgium in order to attack France, claiming that France was preparing to do the same.

3 August 1914

This note has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government. The intentions attributed to France by Germany are in contradiction to the formal declarations made to us on August 1, in the name of the French Government.

Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, Belgian neutrality should be violated by France, Belgium intends to fulfil her international obligations and the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader.

The treaties of 1839, confirmed by the treaties of 1870 vouch for the independence and neutrality of Belgium under the guarantee of the Powers, and notably of the Government of His Majesty the King of Prussia.

Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality.

The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law.

The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.

Conscious of the part which Belgium has played for more than eighty years in the civilisation of the world, they refuse to believe that the independence of Belgium can only be preserved at the price of the violation of her neutrality.

If this hope is disappointed the Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Beast of Berlin

In 1918 Hollywood made a propaganda movie called "The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin" to show the American people just how evil and wicked was Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. Almost every detail in it was wrong but nobody cared, it was about the enemy! It is an interesting film to show how Allied propaganda worked in the First World War and it was made before the war ended so they could indulge their imagination as to how they thought things would work out for the Kaiser. What caused me to give my attention was the treatment of our King Albert I who is something of an avenger in the movie, so very interesting for that. I am obviously not happy that the Germans invaded Belgium and caused such atrocities and misery but this movie is really incorrect and King Albert was actually someone who wanted to just end the war without any more countries being ruined. I don't think he cared that much about having revenge on anyone.

In this movie the Kaiser is really a beast! He is vicious and cruel to everyone, his own people too, and he wants to cause as much pain and suffering as possible. The hero of the movie is Macas, a blacksmith in Louvain who has to save his daughter from being ravaged by a German soldier when the Kaiser orders Belgium to be invaded. The country is brutalized and it makes the Kaiser very happy. But, since this is a movie for American audience, the action quickly moves on from "plucky little Belgium" to scenes that involve the United States. A British ocean liner, Lusitania, is sunk by a German submarine drowning lots of American women and children. The Kaiser is so happy he gives a medal to the U-boot captain for killing so many civilians but the captain feels bad and later kills himself. The United States goes to war and the Kaiser boasts that when Germany wins the war he will see America broken up and destroyed. There are many scenes of German atrocities but the American army soon comes to France to save the day.

The ending is most interesting to me. No one making this movie thought there would be such a thing as the armistice. They have Germany being totally crushed and invaded by the Allied armies who march in to occupy Berlin and take the Kaiser prisoner. The Allied leaders and generals all meet in the Kaiser's palace to decide how to punish the war criminal who is such a monster. You think they will kill him? I thought this movie would do that but, maybe they thought that would make them too much like the Kaiser so they all decide that it is only justice for King Albert I of the Belgians to be given the Kaiser to deal with since Belgium was the innocent country Germany first invaded. King Albert decided it will be fitting punishment to keep the Kaiser in prison and he appoints the blacksmith Macas from Louvain to be his guard, a representative of the people who most suffered and now the shoe is on the other foot for the cruel Kaiser. Almost everything there is not true of course. The Kaiser did not order atrocities and though the ocean liner was sunk the captain did not get a medal for sinking it and he did not kill himself, he died in action later in the war I think. We also know the war did not end with the Allies in Berlin but this is an unashamed openly propaganda film and it caused a great deal of anti-German hatred as you can imagine. The involvement of King Albert, of course, I found interesting.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Belgian Cavalry Victory

The Belgian Cavalry Division was successful in winning the one total Belgian victory of the first stages of the Great War without any Allied help. General Leon de Witte commanded the Belgian horsemen against the larger German cavalry corps of General Georg von der Marwitz. The Belgians confronted the Germans at the battle of Haelen on 12 August 1914. His goal was to push back the German cavalry racing to cut off the line of retreat of the Belgian Field Army to Antwerp. The Germans wanted to cut off the Belgian army before they could reach the fortresses of Antwerp and could be easily destroyed in the open. General Leon de Witte had to prevent this with his outnumbered force of Belgian cavalry including regiments of guides, lancers, cyclists and the chasseurs a cheval. They defeated the German cavalry, inflicting heavier losses on the Germans and preventing them from stopping the Belgian army reaching Antwerp (and the Belgian army in Antwerp would be crucial to the Allied victory at the Marne though many ignore this contribution). The battle became known as the "Battle of the Silver Helmets" because of all the shining German cavalry helmets that littered the field of battle after it was over. You can read about this exciting battle of a victory by the Belgian cavalry at First World War and read the view of an American visiting the battlefield.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Belgians in the Trenches

This scene is from the movie "Indiana Jones and the Trenches of Hell". I should give background: Indiana Jones lied about his age and joined the Belgian army as "Henri Defense" to fight in World War I. Before this scene it is explained that his company had been through heavy fighting and all their officers and sergeants are killed. That is why the lieutenant and sergeant are French, they are temporary until Belgian replacements can arrive. The French nor Belgians are happy about this "our countries have had their differences" the lieutenant says but, I like the French general saying the Belgians "are hell on the enemy" (yes!) and they get into this heavy fighting seen here. It seems very realistic to me though I don't know about the Germans horses wearing gas-masks, I never saw that before, seems unreal. Good showing though of how hard the fighting was for the Belgian troops in World War I.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Belgians on the Russian Front

In the First Great War my highest respect must goes to those monarchs who gave leadership to their soldiers on the battlefield. The best examples of this were our own King Albert I and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. They both were sovereigns devoted to doing their duty by their country but with very different results. Because it was small, neutral Belgium which was liberated and the vast powerful, politically involved Russian Empire that collapsed. I have posted before on the history shared by Belgium and Russia, how Tsar Peter the Great visited Belgium and how Belgian King Leopold I fought in the Russian army against Napoleon. It is known because of the Great War that Belgium and Russia fought on the same side against the Germans but not so many people know that they actually fought side by side. It is a triviality not included in most history books but the Russian Tsar did send some troops over to France to fight on the Western Front. Not many people know that, and even less know that King Albert I also sent Belgian troops to fight on the Russian front.

Of course, clearly, it is obvious, Belgium did not have the resources to send over a large force or even as much as the other allied powers sent later, but there was a Belgian contribution and it came in the form of armored cars. Belgium had been an innovator in this area and before the other powers developed armored cars that made the very heavy and cumbersome machine guns of the period mobile. These were made by the Minerva Motor Car Company in Antwerp and they saw service during the German invasion of Belgium and the siege of Antwerp, racing down the roads, shooting their machine guns at the pickle heads and having a more glamorous part of a war becoming uglier every day. Of course, after Antwerp was abandoned and there was the battle of the Yser and a stalemate on the western front, clearly the Belgian army did not have much use for armored cars in the flooded box trenches of Flanders. It was suggested that these could instead be put to good use on the Russian front which was much more fluid and mobile than the west.
A Russian officer suggested it and of course King Albert I was always willing to help but the Tsar had to ask first because, since Belgium was a neutral country, the small kingdom and the massive empire were fighting on the same side but not exactly were allies in the strictest sense. Also, because of this, on paper at least, the Belgian troops were volunteers in the Russian Imperial Army rather than officially soldiers of the Belgian army for this special mission. In all there were over 300 men who went with the armored cars, motorcycles and bicycles to the Russian front, over time around 400 men were served as troops rotated out. They saw their biggest battles on the Galician front and their speed and firepower were proven to be very good at eliminating Austrian machine-guns positions. These brave men far from home fought even after the Germans had clearly gained the upper hand and they also kept on fighting and doing their duty even after the 1917 Revolution. It was not until the new Russian government made their own peace with the Germans that the Belgians decided it was time to go home.
That was difficult to do because of the revolutionary forces that viewed the Belgian forces as enemies and they blocked the way to all the major ports. The Belgian forces then because of this had to travel across the whole of Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific where they took a ship to San Francisco, California and then went by train across the United States, being much celebrated along the way, reaching New York and from there sailed across the Atlantic to finally reach Paris two weeks later. In all, their losses were few, only 16 men during all of their fighting and travels were killed. The last Belgian veteran of service in Russia died in 1992.