At seven o’clock on the evening of Sunday, August 2, the German
Minister at Brussels presented to the Belgian Secretary of State for
Foreign Affairs the Note from his Government demanding as an Act of
“friendly neutrality” a free passage through Belgium for the German
armies forming the main part of the expeditionary forces against France.
The Note promised to respect the independence and integrity of Belgium
at the conclusion of peace. It asked for the temporary surrender, on
military grounds, of the fortress of Namur. In the event of refusal,
the Note added, Germany would be compelled to treat Belgium as an
enemy. Twelve hours were given to the Belgian Government to reply.
The Belgian Cabinet were called together. During those fateful hours
the whole future of their country hung in the balance. Compliance with
the demand meant that Belgium must sink to a dependency of the German
Empire. If in the great War, already opened by Germany’s declaration
on July 31 of hostilities against Russia, Germany prevailed, as the
passive help of Belgium would assist her most materially to prevail,
Belgium, in effect an ally of Germany, would be forced to look to
Germany for protection, and to accept the conditions, whatever they
might be, on which that protection would be given. In any event, that
protection would afford an excuse for a continued, perhaps indefinite,
occupation by German troops. That implied, forms apart, the annexation
of Belgium. Forms apart, it implied the introduction of Prussian
methods and Prussian rule. The native genius of Belgium read, in the
brief and peremptory demand from Berlin, a destiny which would reduce
600 years’ struggle for freedom to naught.
Not easy is it to measure the anxiety of that Sunday night during which
King Albert and his Ministers weighed their decision. Few meetings
of statesmen have been more memorable or more momentous. Of the aims
of Germany there could be no doubt. On April 18, 1832, Prussia with
Austria had attached her signature to that Guarantee of the neutrality
and independence of Belgium which France and Great Britain had already
signed, and which Russia signed sixteen days after the acquiescence
of the Germanic Powers. By the Treaty of London in 1839, after the
settlement of the Luxemburg question between Belgium and Holland the
Guarantee was solemnly ratified. In the meantime Germany had come to
believe in what Count von Moltke the elder called “the oldest of all
rights, the right of the strongest.” Almost coincidently with the
presentation of the Note at Brussels the German Chancellor at Berlin
was, in conversation with the British Ambassador, describing the
Guarantee as “a scrap of paper.” Treaties and engagements are certainly
scraps of paper, just as promises are no more than breaths. But upon
such scraps of paper and breaths the fabric of civilisation has been
built, and without them its everyday activity would come to an end.
Of what value then was the promise embodied in the Ultimatum?
The promise had no value. Glance at the map of Belgium. It will be seen
that the fortress of Namur is as nearly as possible the geographical
centre of the country. What would be the substance of Belgian
independence if, by “the oldest of all rights,” that strong place was
kept by Germany presumably as a barrier against France; actually as the
central base of an occupation? Belgian independence would be a shadow.
In their extremity King Albert and his Ministers turned to Great
Britain. They had good reason. The independence of modern Belgium
is the work of British statesmanship. Great Britain had, in 1831,
initiated the Guarantee although France was the first Power to sign
it, and Great Britain had always looked upon the Guarantee as a solemn
obligation. “We are bound to defend Belgium,” Lord John (then Earl)
Russell said in the House of Lords in explaining the policy of the
Government in 1870. “I am told that may lead us into danger. I deny
that any great danger would exist if the country manfully declared
her intention to stand by her treaties, and not to shrink from the
performance of her engagements. When the choice is between infamy and
honour, I cannot doubt that her Majesty’s Government will pursue the
course of honour; the only one worthy of the British people. The main
thing is how we can assure Belgium, assure Europe, and assure the world
that the great name we have acquired by the constant observation of
truth and justice shall not be departed from, and that we shall be in
the future what we have been in the past.”
Without distinction of party that embodies the consistent attitude
British Ministers have taken up since the Guarantee was signed. It
proved, without distinction of party, to be the resolve of British
statesmen and the British people still. In the exchange of despatches
which took place between Brussels and London during this critical
sitting of the Belgian Cabinet, one thing at any rate was clear. The
undivided might and authority of Great Britain and her Empire was, come
what may, to be cast on the side of international right and on the side
of freedom. When the early light of that summer morning broke upon
their deliberations the Belgian Ministry had made up their mind. The
dawn after such a night symbolised the colours of their flag–through
darkness and trial to liberty. They would face the worst. At 4 a.m.
their answer was in the hands of the German Minister waiting to receive
it. It was: “No.”
The attack on the neutrality of Belgium, the reply declared, would be a
flagrant violation of the rights of nations. To agree to the proposal
of Germany meant a sacrifice of national honour. By every possible
means Belgium was resolved to resist aggression.[A]
Any other answer was impossible. That fact, however, does not detract
from the splendid bravery of the refusal. The Belgians have paid a high
price for freedom. Ever since commerce and the arts found there their
first foothold in Northern Europe, the flourishing cities and fertile
fields of Belgium have been the lodestar of political adventurers and
needy despoilers. They have been the sport of intrigues and royal
marriages. They have been fought for by Burgundian, Spaniard, Austrian,
Frenchman, Dutchman, and German. But throughout their chequered history
the spirit of freedom, and the hope of shaping their own destinies was
never crushed out.
In 1832 a new era began. This land, a marvel of human industry, where
beautiful cities rich in monuments of art and devotion had sprung up
amid ancient swamps; a land turned by patient labour from a desolation
into a garden, was at length assured of peace. It was happy in the
choice of public-spirited rulers. With unsparing energy and devotion
to the common good, Leopold the First threw himself into the work of
repairing the heavy ravages of war. He promoted the first railway on
the Continent of Europe. He encouraged industry and education. He
fostered commerce. Under his wise government the roads of Belgium
became the best in Europe. The navigable waterways and canals were
improved until they reached a total of over 1,000 miles. The rich
mineral resources of the country were opened up. The work thus begun by
the first King of the Belgians has been continued by his successors.
No record of public spirit and public service has added greater lustre
to a Royal House. “The people of Belgium,” said an English statesman,
“have been governed with wisdom, with fairness, and with due regard to
their national character, and they reward such treatment by devoted
loyalty to their king and firm attachment to their constitution.”
The decision now taken still to put freedom first meant undoing
all the results laboriously won during nearly eighty years of
tranquillity. Yet neither King Albert nor his Ministers wavered. And
the Belgian people were as firm as they. With Englishmen the love of
liberty is commonly passive. They feel their freedom to be secure.
Only when challenged does their love of freedom flame into passion.
But the Belgians know that their freedom lives under challenge. The
shadow of Prussian conscription lay athwart their door. That iron
and materialistic system which takes its steady toll of a country’s
manhood, and crushes national spirit like a Chinese boot, has been the
dread of Belgium, as it has been the dread of Holland for a generation.
It was not forgotten that the designs of Prussia upon Belgium were no
idea of yesterday. More than five months elapsed before diplomatic
pressure brought Prussia in 1832 to put her name to the “scrap of
paper” she has now repudiated. Count von Moltke made a special study
of Belgium and Holland as of Poland. The inference is obvious. Had it
not been for the firm front shown by Great Britain in 1870, the German
occupation of Belgium would long ago have been an accomplished fact.
In 1870 Prussia did not feel herself strong enough to face France
and Great Britain alone. Elated by the unexpected results of the war
of 1870, and attributing them wholly to her own prowess instead of
largely to the unpreparedness of France, her designs against the
Netherlands were revived. Not France was the obstacle feared, but Great
Britain. If we are to seek for the true reason of the anti-British
spirit fostered in Germany, and certainly not discountenanced by
official influence, it will be found in Great Britain standing in the
way of this design. Colonies and _welt-politik_ were the open talk of
Pan-Germanism, but expansion east and west on the Continent of Europe
was the definite objective of the plans so minutely prepared at Berlin;
and of the costly and extensive apparatus of espionage spread like
a network over Europe. This was the dream of riches before the eyes
of the German subaltern as he ate the meal of a few pence which his
“Spartan poverty” compelled him to take in a cheap café, and puzzled
how to live without falling into debt.
We need not search far for evidence. If the reader looks at the map
of western Germany he will see that a bunch of railway-lines stretch
to half a dozen points of the compass east of Aix-la-Chapelle like
the extended fingers of a hand. They link Aix with eastern, northern,
and southern Germany. Now Aix is not a great commercial centre. It
is merely a watering-place. There is no more reason why Aix should
be a huge railway-centre with vast sidings, and miles of platforms
than, say, Wiesbaden. But these are not commercial railways. So far as
ordinary traffic goes their construction represents almost a dead loss.
The railways are military and strategical. Regarding their construction
one or two interesting facts have to be noted. The first is that their
construction began just after the Boer War broke out; was almost
coincident indeed with the famous telegram of the Kaiser on British
reverses. The second fact is that the surveys, plans, and estimates for
these railways must have been made long before, and been waiting in a
pigeon-hole for a convenient opportunity.
Now ever since the days of the Great Elector Frederick William the
affairs of Prussia have been administered with an economy which might
almost be called parsimony. It is utterly foreign to Prussian spirit
and tradition to spend millions of money without very good reason for
it. Remarkably enough, another bunch of these railways, equally without
ordinary traffic, converge upon the frontier of Holland.
Just, as Scharnhorst was the inventor of the German universal service
system, and von Hindersin the organiser of their artillery, so von
Moltke was perhaps the first military man who appreciated thoroughly
the importance of railways in war, and their value in that rapid
hurling of masses of troops into a hostile country before its defence
can be put upon a war-footing, which is the corner-stone of German
No doubt, then, can be entertained as to the true object of these
railway enterprises. That they were not undertaken until it was
believed Great Britain had ceased to be a serious obstacle, at all
events in a land campaign, is confirmed by the nearly coincident change
in naval policy which led Germany into heavy ship-building programmes.
Great Britain was still a serious obstacle at sea. Therefore a navy
had to be built big enough to render her acquiescent. Great Britain
acquiescent, and Austria compliant, France and Russia, the remaining
signatories to the Guarantee, might be dealt with, it was thought,
without fear of the result.
The outlay was heavy, but the hoped-for return was great. The
Netherlands are a rich prize. Not merely their industrious and
ingenious population, but their taxable capacity would make the German
Empire easily the head State of Europe. If Holland has not the valuable
coal and iron mines of Belgium, she has an important mercantile
marine, and most valuable colonies, including a possession in India.
The economic importance of the Netherlands to Germany, and possession
of the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp, is manifest. A vast
expansion of over-sea trade; a host of new and lucrative employments
for German bureaucrats, made this sacrifice by a parsimonious people
seem well worth while.
But there are other considerations. Belgium has been the cockpit of
Europe, because Belgium, as a military base, has almost unrivalled
advantages. Possession or occupation of Belgium–they are much the same
thing–means command of its wealth of resources, and of its 3,400 or
more miles of excellent main roads. Seizure of these is a great weight
in the scale. A powerful army based on Belgium dominates France and
more especially Paris. France could be reduced by it to a state of
tutelage. Conversely, of course, a great French army based on Belgium
would have the Lower Rhine at its mercy, and could “bottle up” Germany
more effectively even than a blockade of her coast. That was, in part,
how Napoleon held down Prussia. Plainly the neutrality and independence
of Belgium is the one common-sense solution; and not less plainly the
interests of Great Britain are vitally involved.
Doubt as to the aims of Germany had long before been cleared up in
responsible quarters informed of the facts. “The cynical violation
of the neutrality of Belgium,” Mr. Asquith said in his speech at
the Guildhall, “was after all but a step–the first step–in a
deliberate policy of what, if not the _immediate_, the ultimate,
and the not far distant aim was to crush the independence and the
autonomy of the Free States of Europe. First Belgium, then Holland and
Switzerland–countries, like our own, imbued with and sustained by the
spirit of liberty–were one after another to be bent to the yoke.”
It was hardly necessary for General von Bernhardi, in his book “The
Next War,” to declare that the plan of the German General Staff was
to march upon France through Belgium. In truth, he disclosed a secret
that was as open as anything could be. The fortification by France of
her eastern frontier, threatening to convert a campaign against France
into a war of obstacles, at all events at the outset, defeated what has
already been alluded to as the corner-stone of German strategy. A war
of obstacles would not only allow France to gather her strength and to
dispose of it where it would be most effective, but it would enable her
to meet in the field a foe already shaken by the effort, and by the
inevitably heavy losses incurred in breaking the barrier. In a word,
the odds in such a campaign would be so much against the invader that
for Germany an attack made upon those lines was as good as hopeless.
That, of course, was as well-known in Paris as in Berlin. It was no
surprise, therefore, when von Bernhardi published his “disclosure.” The
real object of the disclosure was to prevent the statesmen concerned
from taking it seriously. So long as such a plan was with good reason
suspected of being entertained secretly at Berlin, it was to be
reckoned with. When it was given to the world in a frothy and bombastic
book, it would probably be felt to have lost its weight. The device
apparently succeeded. France, relying upon the neutrality of Belgium,
left her north-eastern frontier practically open. Of the barrier
fortresses, Maubeuge alone was adapted to resist a siege with modern
artillery. As a fact, we know now that the device of giving away the
secret did not succeed. On the contrary, it inspired the counter-plan
which led the German armies to disaster.
Nevertheless, until the ultimatum was presented to the Government of
Belgium few responsible men believed that Germany would go to the
length of tearing up her own pledge.
In the face of that ultimatum, a country not more than one-eighth the
area of Great Britain, and with a population less than that of Greater
London, had to face a mighty military Empire which had sedulously
spread the tradition that its armies were invincible. No wonder Germany
reckoned on compliance, and all that compliance implied. It was much
as if we ourselves had been suddenly challenged for national life and
liberty by the world at large, with the certainty added of an immediate
invasion. All the same, the Belgians did not flinch. They proved
themselves worthy of the spirit of their fathers.
All this was involved in that “Scrap of Paper.”
Germany’s rejoinder to Belgium was a declaration of war.
On August 3, German troops crossed the frontier at Dolhain,
Francochamps, and Stavelot. Already on the previous day a German
army, waiting at Treves, had crossed the Moselle at Wasserbillig,
Besselbrieck, and Remich, and in defiance of protests occupied
Luxemburg. These were the first military movements in the war.
Driving in the Belgian cavalry outposts along the frontier, the troops
from Aix, three army corps under the command of General von Emmich,
pushed forward to secure on the one hand a passage over the Meuse
before effective opposition could be offered, and on the other to
surprise Liége. The 9th corps was detached to seize Visé and the bridge
at that place; the 10th marched by way of Verviers with the object of
occupying the country to the south and approaching Liége along the
level ground between the Vesdre and the Ourthe; the 7th corps followed
the direct road from Aix to Liége.
On crossing the frontier, General von Emmich, in command of these
troops, distributed to the civilian population a proclamation declaring
the pacific intention of the invaders and promising protection for
person and property if no hostility was shown. This proclamation, it
is evident, had been drawn up and printed in anticipation of Belgian
compliance, and no time had been afforded for amending it.
Since the Belgian Government had only on July 31 ordered a partial
mobilisation, no considerable force, it was supposed, would be met
with south of the Meuse, nor was Liége likely in so short a time to
have been made ready for defence. The invading forces consequently
brought forward no heavy siege guns. Their equipment in siege artillery
was apparently limited to the twelve 5·9 howitzers, four to each army
corps, which represented their ordinary field outfit. During the
greater part of their advance, the 7th corps met with nothing more
formidable than a weak screen of cavalry.
But the Belgian Government had taken prompt and energetic measures. The
German troops sent to occupy Visé found on arrival there that, though
the Belgians had evacuated the main part of the town lying on the south
bank of the river, they had already blown up the bridge, and were
prepared from the suburb on the opposite bank seriously to dispute the
The Meuse at this point is fully 300 yards wide. Some sixty yards of
the bridge had been destroyed. It was necessary, therefore, for the
Germans to construct pontoon bridges, and to cover this operation by
shelling the Belgians out of their positions.
From well-covered entrenchments and loop-holed houses on the north
bank, however, the Belgians kept up a galling fire, and, although
out-weighted in the artillery duel, used their guns to good effect
in hampering the German engineers. Repeatedly, when on the point of
completion, the pontoon bridges were smashed by Belgian shells. The
Belgians successfully contested the passage of the river for three days.
It was when this combat was at its hottest, on August 5, that a
detachment of German cavalry was fired upon from the windows of some
houses on the south bank. Exasperated by the difficulties met with,
and their heavy casualties, the invaders forthwith drove out the
inhabitants and fired the town. Many of the men, as they came out of
the houses, were indiscriminately shot. The women and children were
driven before the German troops with marked barbarity. Visé was reduced
On the same day, the village of Argenteau, two miles up the river on
the same bank, was similarly destroyed and its population decimated.
There can be little doubt that this was an act of terrorism intended at
once to conceal the attempt to bridge the river at that point, and to
dispirit any defence of Liége.
To the Belgians the three days’ struggle for the passage of the Meuse
was of the utmost consequence. It gave General Leman the time necessary
to prepare Liége for that resistance which has become, and will remain,
one of the most famous episodes in European history.
Intrepid and resourceful, General Leman had thrown himself into Liége
with the 3rd division of the Belgian army, and a mixed brigade of
such troops as could be hastily got together. This force, of not more
than 25,000 men, was reinforced by the civic guard, of the city and
district, but it was still far short of the 50,000 troops needed to
make up a complete garrison.
Thousands of the civilian inhabitants were willingly employed along the
south and south-eastern suburbs in hastily digging trenches, across
the sectors between the forts. The troops blew up buildings likely to
afford cover for an attack; tore up and blocked the roads; laid wire
entanglements; mined the bridges across the Meuse, the Vesdre, and
the Ourthe; prepared landmines; placed quick-firing guns at points of
vantage, and installed searchlights and field telephones.
All this had to be done with the greatest possible expedition. The
completeness and rapidity with which the work was carried out formed a
surprising feat of skilful organisation.
When the advanced posts of the 7th German army corps came into touch
with the outworks of the defence they found that nothing short of an
assault in force would suffice. The prompt and effective fire of the
forts within range proved that Liége was ready and on the alert.
The German plan provided for a simultaneous attack from the north, the
south-east and the south-west, and if it had been carried out it is
difficult to see how the fortress could have resisted even the first
onset. The plan, however, miscarried.
In view of the time lost by the 9th corps in forcing a way across
the Meuse General von Emmich was obliged to hold off the intended
attack by the 7th corps. These troops unsupported were too weak to
risk such an operation. The advance, besides, of the 10th corps by way
of Verviers had not been so rapid as had been intended. Their march
through a stretch of country, hilly and for the most part well wooded,
had been actively harassed by a mobile force of Belgians intimately
acquainted with the defensive possibilities of the region.
In the meantime, the preparations for resistance were pushed forward
night and day, and General von Emmich knew that his task became tougher
with every hour that was lost.
He was well aware of the weak spots of the fortress. Of its
surrounding ring of twelve forts, six only were large and powerfully
armed; the remainder were smaller works. The latter, however, were
not regularly alternated with the larger forts. Two of the smaller
works, Chaudfontaine and Embourg, were placed close together on the
south-west; two others, Lantin and Liers, filled a gap of more than 10
miles across on the north-east; a fifth, Evegnée, was midway between
the larger forts of Barchon and Fleron on the south-east. These were
the three points selected for the assault. Fort Evegnée covered by the
fire of both Barchon and Fleron was the most difficult point of the
Needless to say, General Leman, equally well aware of the strong and
weak points, had taken his measures accordingly.
Evidently feeling that he could not afford delay, the German commander
on August 5 launched the 7th army corps against Fort Evegnée with the
object of taking it by storm. The bombardment had begun the day before,
following a demand for surrender which had been refused, but the German
howitzers were outranged by the heavy ordnance of the larger forts.
The fire of the latter, skilfully directed, had proved unexpectedly
Taking advantage of such cover as had been left by partly demolished
buildings, walls, and felled trees, the German infantry at the distance
for the final rush closed up into columns of attack and, with the
support of their artillery, endeavoured to carry the trenches on
both sides of Evegnée with the bayonet. Not only, however, were they
enfiladed by the guns of Barchon and Fleron, but they suffered huge
losses from land mines.
The tactics adopted by the Belgians were well advised. The troops in
the trenches held their fire until the attack fell into difficulties
with the entanglements, and then withered the assault by well-aimed
The onset, nevertheless, was too determined to be shaken. Despite their
heavy losses, the Germans negotiated the ditches, and though they were
mowed down in hundreds by the machine guns now turned upon them, some
gained the crest of the trenches. The earthworks were filled with dying
and dead, but the storming parties still advanced over the bodies of
their fallen comrades.
It was at this juncture that the Belgian troops received the order for
a counter-assault. Rushing from the trenches _en masse_ and in good
order, they drove back the storming columns by an irresistible onset.
In the pursuit, the German losses were enormous. The first attack had
failed. Eight hundred prisoners fell into the hands of the victors, and
were sent to Brussels as the first evidence of the national valour.
While that night the 7th army corps, withdrawn beyond the range of the
forts, was licking its wounds, the 9th corps, having won the passage of
the river below Visé, had advanced to the positions before the forts on
the north-east, and on August 6 a second attempt was made to carry the
fortress by storm.
The attack was, of course, made from the south-east and from the
north-east simultaneously. The sectors between the forts on the
north-east had been not less carefully entrenched, and although the
attack against fort Evegnée was again repulsed with losses to the
storming columns equal to, if not greater than, those inflicted on
the preceding day, some troops, apparently of the 9th corps, managed,
despite a fierce resistance, to break through the north-east defences.
Furious street fighting, however, forced them to retire. It was while
covering this perilous retreat that Prince William of Lippe fell at the
head of his regiment. The assault from the north-east, though carried
out with the greatest determination, broke before an appalling rifle
and machine-gun fire, and was turned into defeat by a counter-attack
made at the decisive moment.
A critical period in the fighting on this day was when a body of German
troops had penetrated as far as the bridge at Wandre. The bridge had
been mined, and before the invaders could obtain possession of it, it
was blown up. A superior force of Belgians regained the position.
The defence remained intact, and the terrible scenes in the trenches
bore testimony at once to its intrepidity and to the resolution of the
assault. German dead and wounded lay thick upon the ground up to the
very glacis of the forts. An evidence of the boldness of the enemy is
that exploit of eight uhlans, two officers, and six privates, who,
mistaken for Englishmen, rode during the fighting to the headquarters
of General Leman with the object of taking him prisoner. They were
killed or captured after a hand to hand struggle in the headquarters’
building with members of the Belgian staff aided by gendarmes.
But though two assaults had failed with heavy loss of life, a third,
even more desperate, was made the same night. This time it was
delivered from the south-east against fort Evegnée, and from the
south-west against forts Chaudfontaine and Embourg. The attack from
the latter quarter was carried out by the 10th corps, which had at
length come into position. The third assault against fort Evegnée was
open and supported by a heavy bombardment. That against Chaudfontaine
and Embourg was intended as a surprise. The troops of the 10th corps
advanced as silently as possible, hoping to steal up to the trenches
under cover of darkness. They waited until the attack upon Evegnée had
been going on for more than three hours.
The events of this anxious night in Liége have been admirably
described in the vivid narrative of Mr. Gerald Fortescue, the special
correspondent of the _Daily Telegraph_, who was an eye-witness of them.
There was a bright moonlight, and the Belgians took advantage of it to
strengthen still further their defensive preparations, more especially
to the south of the city. They were relieved from the necessity of
using lights which would have exposed them to the guns of the enemy.
Liége is undoubtedly most open to attack on the south-east and south,
and most of all by the flat approach between the Vesdre and the Ourthe.
This forms the industrial suburb. The great ironworks, the small-arms
and gun factory, the electric lighting works, and the railway depôts
in this quarter would make the seizure of it particularly valuable. On
the other hand the difficulties of preparing an effective defence were
serious. Forts Embourg and Chaudfontaine are here placed close together
in view of that fact. A practically complete line of entrenchments,
however, closed the enceinte between Forts Fleron and Boncelles. It
was, for the defenders, all to the good that these entrenchments and
the obstacles in advance of them had been so recently completed that
the Germans could have no reliable knowledge of their details.
The city lay without a light, its ancient citadel rising from amid
the sombrely moonlit forest of buildings like a great shadow. Only
the searchlights playing from the forts gave signs of life and
watchfulness. They travelled across the positions where the enemy had
placed his artillery; and swept fitfully over the intervals of trampled
country, where round ruined buildings and broken walls, in ditches, and
amid entanglements multitudes of dead remained unburied.
Of course, the German commander knew that great activity must be going
on in the fortress. That activity, if continued, meant ruin to the
chance of taking the place by storm.
Half-an-hour before midnight, a furious bombardment against the
south-east forts opened. High explosive shells burst with brilliant
flashes and sharp uproar on the very glacis of the forts; a storm of
shrapnel broke upon the trenches. The forts replied with energy. The
city shook under the thunder of the combat.
With little delay, heavy forces of German infantry advanced. The night
was favourable to such an attack. It was light enough for the troops
to see their way, and yet dark enough to give such cover as greatly to
diminish the risk. This was intended to be a bayonet fight. Though the
grey-green of the German uniforms was barely distinguishable in such a
light, the masses betrayed themselves by their movement. They could be
seen from the trenches creeping up for the last rush.
When it was made their columns flung themselves across the intervening
ground, and into the ditches with reckless resolution. But the fire of
the defenders was as steady as it was destructive. Notwithstanding that
the deadly lightning of the machine guns swept away whole ranks, men
fought their way to the parapet of the entrenchments. It was brave, but
it was vain.
Repeatedly the onslaught was renewed and repulsed. This, however, was
not the main attack. At 3 a.m., just before daybreak and when the night
was darkest, the assault suddenly opened, against forts Chaudfontaine
and Embourg. No artillery announced it. So far as they could, the
columns of the 10th army corps crept up silently, feeling their way.
They found the defence on the alert. In spite of the rifle fire from
the trenches supported by the guns of the forts, they rushed on in
close formation. Searchlights of the forts picked them out. They fell
by hundreds, but time and again scaled the slope of the entrenchments.
There were intervals of furious bayonet fighting. The brunt of the
struggle was borne by the 9th and 14th Belgian regiments. The 9th, says
Mr. Fortescue, fought like demons. Gun fire alone could not stop such
rushes. Only the unshakable bravery of the defending infantry saved the
situation, and not until the ditches were filled with their dead and
wounded did the Germans break and run.
The fury of the assault may be judged from the fact that the rushes
were continued for five successive hours. More than once, as assailants
and defenders mingled in fierce hand to hand combats and the trenches
at intervals became covered with masses of struggling men, the attack
seemed on the point of success. But as daylight broadened the weight
of the onset had spent itself. As the beaten foe sullenly withdrew, a
vigorous counter-attack from Wandre threw their shaken columns into
confusion. The pursuit was energetically pressed. Numbers of fugitives
sought safety over the Dutch border.
On the same day, General von Emmich asked for an armistice of
twenty-four hours to bury the German dead. It was refused. Liége had
won a brief respite.
Refusal of the armistice may seem a harsh measure, but the Belgians
doubtless remembered that it was by breach of the conditions of such
an armistice that the Prussians in 1866 had overpowered Hanover. Such
enemies were beyond the pale of confidence.
When, on August 4, King Albert read his speech to the joint meeting of
the Belgian Chamber and Senate, it might well have been thought that
the darkest hour had come in Belgium’s long and troubled history. But
the King spoke with unfaltering resolve. Come what might, the Belgian
people would maintain the freedom which was their birthright. In the
moment for action they would not shrink from sacrifices. “I have faith
in our destinies,” King Albert concluded. “A country which defends
itself wins respect, and cannot perish.”
The speech echoed the feelings of a united nation. In the face of
peril, party was no longer known. M. Emile Vandervelde, leader of the
Socialists, accepted a post in the Ministry. Without hesitation, the
two Houses voted the measures of emergency proposed by the Government.
The announcement by M. de Broqueville, the Prime Minister, that German
troops were already on Belgian soil caused deep emotion, but the
emotion was not born of fear. It was the realisation of how priceless
is the heritage of liberty.
On that stirring day in Brussels, which witnessed the departure of the
King to join his troops at the front, the sentiment uppermost was in
truth “faith in the nation’s destinies.” Great Britain had sent her
ultimatum to Berlin in defence of Belgian rights. Not merely reservists
called to the colours, but volunteers in multitudes were anxious to
take up arms. Crowds besieged the recruiting offices. The public
feeling in the Belgian capital reflected the public feeling everywhere.
The mobilisation of the defensive forces of the country had proceeded
smoothly and swiftly. Though it was common knowledge that in no part
of Europe had the espionage system worked from Berlin become more
elaborate, the national spirit was but intensified. Then came news of
the fighting, and of the dauntless resistance offered by the garrison
at Liége. Later came the first of many German prisoners of war.
Mistakes and miscalculations undoubtedly entered into the
German disaster at Liége, and above all the mistake of grossly
underestimating the quality and efficiency of the Belgian forces. That
mistake was persisted in during all the attempts to storm the fortress.
It cost thousands of German lives. Not certainly until this war is over
will the extent of the disaster be really known. But that it was a
disaster of the greatest magnitude is beyond any question.
From the merely military standpoint, the shattering of three army corps
is a huge price to pay even for victory. But the shattering of General
von Emmich’s army accomplished nothing. It had merely proved that to
hurl men in massed formation against positions defended by modern guns
and rifles is folly. Elementary common sense, however, would enforce
the same conclusion. As the assaults upon Liége showed, elementary
common sense is not a strong point of Prussian militarism. Because
massed formations were used with effect by Frederick the Great, massed
formations were the one idea of some of his would-be venerators.
The moral effect was greater than the military. It brought down in
three days all that edifice of prestige which Prussian diplomacy,
Prussian espionage, and Prussianised philosophy had been labouring for
a generation to build up. To say that Europe gasped with surprise is to
state the effect mildly. The peoples opposed to German ambitions woke
as from a spell. The aspect of the war had changed.
Here was an army, part of the great Fighting Machine in which war was
presumed to be practically embodied as an exact science, beginning
a campaign with the blunder of assuming that men fighting for their
country were no better than half-trained mercenaries. The resistance to
the passage of the Meuse; the resistance offered to the troops sent to
seize the country south of Liége was treated as negligible. A general
of resource and experience would have reckoned on that resistance as a
Neither Prussian strategy then, nor Prussian tactics, were the
perfection they had been taken to be. Both had broken at the first
test. Nowhere was the gravity of the moral effect better appreciated
than at Berlin. Henceforward the effort of Berlin was to efface it. In
that fact will be found the key to all the succeeding “severities” in
That in Berlin, at all events in official and informed quarters, the
surprise was as profound as elsewhere is proved by the fact that on
August 9, through the neutral channel of the Dutch Minister of Foreign
Affairs, the German Government made a second offer. The offer was in
The fortress of Liége has been taken by assault after a
courageous defence. The German Government regrets that as
a consequence of the attitude of the Belgian Government
against Germany such bloody encounters should have occurred.
Germany does not want an enemy in Belgium. It is only by the
force of events that she has been forced, by reason of the
military measures of France, to take the grave determination
of entering Belgium and occupying Liége as a base for her
further military operations. Now that the Belgian army has, in
a heroic resistance against a great superiority, maintained
the honour of its arms in the most brilliant fashion, the
German Government prays his Majesty the King and the Belgian
Government to avert from Belgium the further horrors of war.
The German Government is ready for any agreement with Belgium
which could be reconciled in any conceivable way with its
conflict with France. Once more Germany offers her solemn
assurance that she has not been actuated by any intention to
appropriate Belgian territory, and that that intention is far
from her. Germany is always ready to evacuate Belgium as soon
as the state of war will permit her.
Of course, the fortress of Liége had not been taken by assault,
though perhaps the Government of Berlin had been led to believe it
had. Coming from such a quarter the tribute to Belgian valour is
significant. Germany had fallen into a pit, and her “solemn assurance”
was not good enough to lift her out of it. The reply of the Belgian
Government was, a second time, an unhesitating refusal. Berlin must
take the consequences, and those consequences were serious.
The first necessity was to clear up the mess, and if possible to
conceal it; above all to conceal it from the troops who had to pass
over this same route. They must hear of nothing but victories.
Necessity for clearing up and concealment had a greater result in
delaying the German advance than even the successful resistance of the
Why, it may be asked, was the garrison withdrawn from Liége, leaving
only a force sufficient to man the fortifications? For that step there
were imperative reasons. To begin with, the defence of the city,
as distinct from the defence of the forts, had served its purpose.
It had not only delayed the German advance; it had inflicted grave
disorganisation. It was certain, however, that at the earliest moment
heavy German reinforcements would be brought up, and the defence
outside the forts overpowered by sheer weight of numbers. In the
violent fighting the garrison holding the trenches had suffered severe
losses, though these were light in comparison with the crushing
punishment they had inflicted. They formed, nevertheless, a body of
excellent troops still more than 20,000 strong. To have risked the loss
of these troops meant a reduction of the Belgian army in the field
which must seriously cripple its effective. The need of the moment was
a concentration of forces. Though the defence of Liége to the last was
important, still more important was the purpose which the Belgian army
was intended to serve throughout the campaign, and most important of
all the successful defence of Antwerp. Upon the defence of Antwerp hung
the nation’s independence.
While, therefore, the way was still open for retreat, Generals Bertrand
and Vermeulen, who had rendered conspicuous services and had proved,
like General Leman, that the Military School at Brussels is a nursery
of able and distinguished men, withdrew their forces and rejoined the
This measure was carried out with so much promptitude and secrecy that
the enemy, well-served as he was by spies, and in close observation
of the movements of the garrison, was not able to interfere. General
Leman remained to continue the defence of the permanent works. These
had been provisioned for a siege of at least two months.
Before evacuating the city the troops blew up all save two of the many
bridges which within the circle of fortifications cross the Meuse, the
Ourthe, and the Vesdre. At Liége, the Meuse divides. A considerable
district of the city is built on the island between the branches of the
river. The bridges left intact were a concession to public necessity,
but were those least likely to be of service to the enemy.
Destruction of the bridges greatly reduced the value of a hostile
occupation. The importance of Liége to the Germans as part of their
line of communications lay in command of the railways. These, however,
were dominated by the forts. So long, then, as the latter held out,
Liége, in any real military sense, was to the Germans valueless. In
view of the position of the Belgians it was therefore a well-advised
step to concentrate the strength of the defence on the works.
On August 8 and 9, the Germans before Liége were apparently quiescent.
But this seeming respite covered an unceasing activity. Masses of
wreckage mingled with dead bodies floating down stream bore testimony
to the severity of the struggle for the passage of the Meuse. As
rapidly as possible German engineers threw across the waterway beyond
the range of the Liége forts five floating bridges. The passage
secured, the enemy covered the country to the north with a screen of
cavalry, obstructing observation by the Belgian outposts and guarding
their bridge works against a surprise in force.
Evidently they were not certain that the departure of troops from Liége
might not be a ruse. Their severe handling had taught them caution.
Small bodies of uhlans stole into the city from the east on August
9. These, as usual, were men who had specially volunteered for the
service. Though they might never return, the ambition for the Iron
Cross is strong. They found the city and the entrenchments evidently
evacuated. No hostilities were offered.
Reports to the German headquarters of this state of things led to a
second demand for surrender. To secure protection for the defenceless
population a deputation of seventeen leading citizens sought an
interview with the German general. The deputation were seized as
On August 10, German troops marched in without resistance. The city was
put under martial law and a “fine” of £2,000,000 imposed upon it. But
the occupation was a hollow triumph. Liége, as a military possession,
was a husk from which the kernel had been carefully withdrawn.
The defence, followed by the continued resistance of the forts, had
created a formidable tangle of difficulties. As the forts, by the use
of reinforced concrete, had been adapted to resist modern artillery
the shells, even of the 5·9 howitzers, made no impression upon them.
It was necessary to bring up from Essen the 28 centimetre howitzers,
and even the still heavier guns, 42 centimetre, specially made for the
prospective siege of Paris.
Needless to say, with the strategical railways to Aix already working
at full pressure, the transport of these heavy pieces played havoc
with the cut and dried time-table. There was the necessity, too, not
calculated for at this stage, of sending wounded to the rear, and
of replacing by fresh troops the battalions broken in the attempted
assault. To hurry troops to the front, lest the Belgians should move in
force upon the Meuse, was urgent. The sending forward of supplies was,
in consequence, badly hung up. The commissariat became for the time
almost a chaos.
If we sum up their situation at the end of the first fortnight of
the war we find that the Germans had accomplished little or nothing.
They had expected by that time to be close upon Paris. All they had,
in fact, gained was a passage across the Meuse. It is impossible to
overrate the military importance of this delay. During that fortnight
the mobilisation of the French had been completed without interruption.
At the end of it the British Expeditionary Force had been landed at
Boulogne. The calculated advantages of secret preparation which had
inspired the ultimata launched from Berlin were nullified. The first
principle of German strategy had failed.
Important as a subsidiary means of communication, the floating bridges
across the Meuse were in no sense adequate for the supply of such a
force as it was intended to send through Belgium to defeat the armies
of France and Great Britain and to seize Paris. Command of the railways
was indispensable. But without a reduction of the forts at Liége that
was out of the question.
The forts at Liége held out until August 19. The larger works were each
triangular in formation, armed with both heavy and quick-firing guns
mounted in steel revolving turrets. Three of these turrets were of the
disappearing type. On the discharge of the guns a turret of this type
falls out of sight automatically. By means of telescopic and reflector
sights, the guns can be “laid” for the next shot while the turret is
hidden from outside view.
To storm the forts, as had been proved, was not practicable. They had
to be broken up by the shells of the huge ordnance brought along for
the purpose, and mounted on massive concrete beds.
One by one the forts were broken up. They offered, however, an
unyielding resistance. Their garrisons knew that they were called
upon to sell their lives for the Belgian fatherland. None deserted
their posts of duty. There have been many acts of heroism in this war.
The defenders of the forts at Liége deserve an honoured place in the
memories of an emancipated Europe.
General Leman, who had taken up his quarters in Fort Loncin, was in
the fort when it was blown up by a German shell, which had found its
way into the magazine. He was saved by a signal act of bravery. “That
I did not lose my life,” he wrote in that affecting letter sent later
from his place of confinement in Germany to the King of the Belgians,
“is due to my escort, who drew me from a stronghold while I was being
suffocated with gas from exploded powder. I was carried to a trench,
where I fell.”
Most of the garrison were buried under the ruins, but the few survivors
risked themselves in this act of devotion. No better evidence could be
offered of the spirit of Belgian defence.
A German captain found the intrepid commander helpless and after giving
him liquid refreshment carried him as a prisoner into the city. The
defence of Liége, however, had fulfilled its purpose.
Independently of delay, there was yet another reason for the defence
of the forts at Liége which compelled the enemy to break them up.
Their destruction meant that Liége _as a fortress_ had ceased for the
time to exist. For Belgium this was a heavy sacrifice. Its possible
bearing, however, in the later stages of the war on a German defence of
the Lower Rhine is manifest. As time goes by the trend of events makes
it clear that the strategy of the Allied Powers was from the outset
inspired by long views.
In consonance with those views the plan of the Belgian campaign was
consistently carried out. From the first it was never part of that plan
that the German inroad should be opposed in Belgium, where, close upon
its base, its strength would have been greatest, and that of the Allies
least. The purpose was to draw the German forces as far from their base
and to lengthen out their line of communications as much as possible,
and then, when they were at their weakest, and the Allies, in point of
position, at their strongest, to face and defeat them.
But manifestly that purpose had by every device to be concealed. It
was concealed. On the face of things all appearances lent colour to
the conclusion that the Belgian army meant to stand or to fall in an
endeavour to cover Brussels. There were announcements of the arrival
of strong French forces. In view of the sufferings entailed by the
invasion the French were indeed ready to send forward five army corps.
Those added to the six divisions of the Belgian army would have offered
a powerful opposition. But it would have been inferior strategy. In the
event of defeat, which has always to be reckoned with, the effective
and designed part of the Belgian army in the campaign must have been
seriously crippled. The situation of the country would have been
Remembering that the object of the Belgians was to safeguard their
independence, there was wisdom in the view, which weighed against
present sufferings the vision of a long and peaceful future, and
elected to act in co-operation with the larger scheme. It helps
to appreciate the depth of the love of freedom and the steadfast
fortitude which have justly won the admiration of liberal Europe.
Taking up his headquarters in Louvain, King Albert disposed his forces
along a line from Diest to Wavre. Between Wavre and Namur, with
headquarters at Gembloux, the country was watched by a division of
French cavalry. This line, it will be noted, describes an arc some 45
miles in extent, covering both Brussels and Antwerp. At this stage of
the hostilities the necessity was for a strong force of cavalry. That
of the Belgian army was in numbers inadequate. The French reinforcement
was consequently of the greatest value.
It has commonly been supposed that the Belgian army was somewhat
indifferent alike in discipline and in material. Such was the view then
entertained at Berlin. Apparently it was not there realised that the
time had long gone by when the Belgian as a soldier could justly be
described as a bad copy of the Frenchman. Certainly the Belgian army
was not trained upon the Prussian model. That, however, has proved to
be all to its advantage.
Military efficiency is a relative term, but in every essential the
Belgians were a highly efficient force. One of the best features of
their system is that every regiment has its military school, where
the men learn the elements of soldiering as an intelligent art. The
essence of the Prussian system has been that the rank and file are
taught to obey as machines. The Belgian recruit, on the other hand, had
his interest enlisted in his work. He was taught the reason for things.
In Germany, the conscript spent much of his time learning to march in
exact line at the parade step, every man with his rifle at the same
angle. Even the length of the parade step was measured to an inch. Woe
betide the _bursch_ who fell short, or shouldered his rifle out of the
correct slope. Points lost by officers at the inspection were passed
on with interest. There is a value in this instruction, but in the
Prussian system it was put before other things more valuable still.
The difference in essence between the Belgian army and the German lay
in the fact that the Belgian recruit was not politically suspect of his
superiors. He was a freeman serving his country, not an inferior in
training to support a dominant caste. He could without danger be made
something more than mechanically efficient.
Again his military education in actual field work was distinctly
practical. Belgium is a densely populated country, full of buildings,
hedgerows, and plantations affording excellent cover. Its army anyhow
would be called upon to face forces greatly superior in numbers.
The practical work kept those points in view. It was addressed to
successful ambuscades; to fighting in open order; to rapid changes of
position akin to guerilla tactics; to the defence of trenches, canals,
and bridges. The Belgian soldier was asked to be resourceful and alert.
If on manœuvres the army made none of the imposing show associated with
mimic warfare in Germany, for the purposes it was designed to serve
it was excellent. There could be no comparison, perhaps, between the
parade smartness of a German and a Belgian regiment of infantry, but in
essentials and for fighting on his own ground the Belgian was an easy
No better evidence of the business-like training of the Belgian army
need be offered than its making use of the admirable roads of the
country by organising those corps of cyclist scouts whose co-operation
with the cavalry proved invaluable.
These, then, were the forces the King had at his disposal. As to the
artillery its only fault was that there was not enough of it. It
was strong, however, in light field guns capable of being briskly
manœuvred, and forming a very serviceable and handy weapon of a recent
Hardly an expert is needed to reflect that with an army such as this
the very last thing a capable general would do would be to offer a
pitched battle against the ponderous legions of Germany, supported by
an overwhelming mass of heavy guns. To do that would be asking for
annihilation. The object of the Belgians was to harass, and wear down,
It was a warfare in which instances of individual bravery and prowess
and swift initiative established the value of the Belgian military
training, and indicated that the Germans had no easier work before them
than had Alva’s Spaniards.
The country south of the Meuse the Belgians advisedly made no effort
to defend. It is a country of deep valleys with rugged and precipitous
sides; of ravines and streams falling between steep and rocky banks.
The main mass of the Ardennes runs nearly south to north from Arlon
to Namur. For the most part the hills are covered with dense forests
alternating with marshy and wild plateaux and stretches of pastoral
uplands. Little subsistence could be found by an invader in such a
Into Belgian Luxemburg the Germans poured the army of Saxons commanded
by General von Hausen and the army commanded by Duke Albert of
Wurtemburg. The former fixed his headquarters at Marche, and the
latter at Neufchatel. At the same time the army of the Crown Prince of
Prussia established an advanced base in the city of Luxemburg.
The first purpose of these movements was to seize the railways–the
line from Verviers to Luxemburg, the line from Liége to Jemelle, and in
particular the main line from Namur through Arlon.
In possession of the line from Verviers the invaders at Luxemburg were
linked up with Aix, but until they were in command of Liége and the
junctions there the rest of the railways were of no value to them.
They were obliged to transport supplies at great labour and expense
over roads with heavy gradients. A further forward movement across
the French frontier was in such circumstances impossible. The defence
of Liége consequently held up the advance both north and south of the
Meuse, and imposed a huge and to all intents useless consumption of
resources. It also caused a severe congestion at Aix, where no fewer
than eight army corps were at that time massing for the advance north
of the Meuse across the Belgian plain.
Meanwhile north of the Meuse the Belgians were not idle. They destroyed
bridges, and tore up roads. The railway bridges over the Geer at
Warenne and Tongres were blown up; the railway junction at Landen
rendered useless. All the rolling stock was moved to behind their lines.
Partly to check these defensive measures, partly also to commandeer
much needed supplies as well as to gather information of the Belgian
dispositions and incidentally to overawe the population, the Germans
covered the country immediately to the north-east of Liége with
numerous parties of uhlans. These raiders speedily came into contact
with Belgian cavalry and scouts supported by light artillery and mobile
bodies of infantry expert as skirmishers.
The tactics adopted by the Belgians were skilful. Before a hostile
squadron or flying column they fell back, until what the Germans
thought to be a successful pursuit had been pushed far enough. Then
when the enemy turned to retreat he realised that he had been led into
a _cul-de-sac_, and was attacked in turn from both flanks and from
the rear. From every bit of cover along roads and from plantations
the retreating forces were shelled and sniped at. Their losses in
these running fights were in the aggregate gruelling. Frequently a
last remnant put up a desperate resistance to extermination from the
nearest barn or other building into which they could fling themselves
This unlooked-for experience was put down to the bitter hostility of
the population whom the Belgian Government were assumed to have armed
for the purposes of a guerilla warfare _à outrance_. It seems never
to have entered the German mind that there could be military tactics
different from their own. They still persisted in the belief that the
Belgians as a military force were contemptible. When the heavy losses
were realised, when numbers of their uhlans never returned, or were
found lying dead in woods and along roadsides; above all when, owing
to the danger of it, the requisitioning failed to give the supplies
expected, “reprisals” were resolved upon. The columns sent out were
strengthened, and reinforced by guns and infantry, with orders to lay
waste the villages and farms which had been the scenes of annihilations
and defeats. The “beasts” of Belgium were to be taught a severe lesson.
Very soon the country within sight of Liége was a blaze of devastation.
Without distinction of age or sex, those of the population who could
not escape were butchered. In this rapine, apparently, the German
troops were allowed a free hand.
From now the fighting presented many characteristics of a warfare of
savagery. On the one side, the Belgians were dealt with as “rebels,”
to be slain without mercy. On the other side, revenge inspired a
resistance still more daring. No doubt the reports brought in to the
German headquarters by survivors of the raids asserted that the losses
were mostly due to civilians. Very naturally they would be reluctant to
admit defeat by Belgian soldiery. Men flying for their lives are not
usually exact observers. Evidently on the part of those responsible
the belief prevailed that their men had not been lost in military
operations but had been waylaid and murdered. A policy of systematic
terrorism was entered upon.
At the back of this policy evidently was exasperation at the Belgian
resistance, and its grave results. The policy, however, only aggravated
matters. On the same day (August 10) on which they entered into
occupation of Liége, the invaders began their operations north of the
Meuse on a larger scale. They dispatched a flying column of 6,000
cavalry with artillery and infantry supports towards Limburg by way of
Tongres and Hasselt. At the same time, they attacked the passage over
the Meuse at Huy.
Tongres, held only by some Belgian outposts, was seized by the Limburg
column with little difficulty, but at Hasselt they were opposed by
a nearly equal force of Belgians. They were allowed to advance in
apparent security. Suddenly barricades of stones and carts thrown up
across the roads proved to be cleverly contrived concealments for
machine guns. An unexpected attack developed. The column hastily
deployed through woods and across fields. A strong body attempted to
push on through the town in order to secure the bridge. The attempt
was not successful. The supporting infantry were forced to retreat. In
covering that movement the cavalry lost heavily. A number were made
prisoners. Others dashed across the Dutch frontier into Maastricht. The
retreat was harassed on both flanks and rear as far as Tongres.
At Huy, where there were some fortifications of an unimportant
character, the Belgians held a bridge-head across the river giving
access to the country between Liége and Dinant. The Germans attacked
the works with heavy howitzers. The fort, however, held out until
August 12. Before evacuating the place the Belgians blew up the bridge.
The rearguard of the defenders rushed across under a rain of hostile
shells, closely pursued. A squadron of German cavalry heading the chase
were on the bridge when the part of the structure already mined crashed
skyward in a mass of dust and flame.
Next day (August 11) a reconnaissance in force was undertaken as far
as Tirlemont and Jodoigne by a flying German column some 2,000 strong.
These troops, advancing through Orsnaael and Landen, laid the country
waste in a methodical manner. Civilians arrested on charges of sniping
were shot on the wayside without ceremony. The population fled in
terror. The wake of the invasion was marked by the pall of smoke rising
from burning ricks, and homesteads, and ruined villages. What had been
a fruitful countryside was turned into a desolation. Even priests
administering the last unction to dying victims were cut down or
At Dormael the incursion was opposed by a body of Belgian lancers, who
fell back before it. The column pushed on as far as Bost, in sight of
Tirlemont. There the Belgian infantry closed in. Fearing an ambuscade
the Germans beat a retreat. They were chased through St. Trond and
Warenne to their lines near Liége. In this pursuit of over twenty miles
they lost a large proportion of their total force.
One effect of these checks was that in succeeding operations the enemy
made a confession of the efficiency of the Belgians by employing their
crack troops. In no modern army is the difference, and it may be added
the distinction, between crack regiments and the rest more marked than
in that of Germany. Out of the mass of the infantry the best shots
and the smartest men are picked to form the regiments of _jaegers_
(hunters) who are trained to fight in open as well as in close order.
This is a coveted promotion, but it leaves the ordinary line regiments
at a standard below modern ideas of real fighting efficiency. The
total strength of the _jaegers_ was, at the beginning of the war,
about 70,000. They form the only element in the Germany infantry which
can seriously compare with, say, British infantry. Taking the Belgian
infantry as a whole they were well up to the same level, and still
mustered close upon 90,000 men.
Admission to the German cavalry rests on a basis of class, but some of
the regiments are close corporations of the Prussian and Hanoverian
aristocracy. One of the most famous, and most exclusive, the Death’s
Head Hussars, a corps which gained its reputation during the Seven
Years’ War, boasted that it had never yet retreated save under orders.
Stories of its daring form part of the pabulum of every German
On August 12 began the biggest attempt so far made to find out the
disposition and strength of the Belgian main force. The energetic
measures taken by the Belgian Government to deal with the spy system
had evidently disorganised the practice. Nothing was known for certain
either of the Belgian main army’s movements or of its intentions, a
proof of the prudent ability of its command.
It was essential that the enemy should if possible obtain that
information. The importance to the Germans of manœuvring the Belgian
main army into a position which would uncover Antwerp, and, by forcing
it upon Brussels, exposing it to defeat in a situation which would
either compel it to retire across the French frontier or to surrender,
need not be insisted upon. If that could have been accomplished it
would not only affect the whole campaign in the western theatre of war,
but would restore the prestige already so badly damaged.
These considerations explain the attack made upon the Belgian lines on
August 12 and 13. The attack was directed to two points–Eghezée, to
the north of Namur, and Diest. The main German column was directed
against Diest in an attempted turning movement. The attack at Eghezée
was designed to assist that movement by compelling the Belgians to
carry out a general retirement westward.
The troops sent against Diest were a division of cavalry; a brigade
made up of _jaeger_ regiments, and a strong force of artillery. The
total strength was probably some 26,000 men, more than half of them
mounted. Of the cavalry one of the corps was the Death’s Head Hussars.
The force thrown forward to Eghezée was apparently a division, with
strong cavalry support, and a fleet of motor-cars carrying machine guns.
Neither attack accomplished its purpose. That directed against Diest
proved disastrous. With every inhabitant a scout for the defending
troops, it was impossible that, swift as its movement was, the
column could take the Belgians by surprise. Most of the country the
enemy passed through had been wasted, and was apparently deserted.
Appearances, however, are in that respect not to be relied upon. Timely
intimation was received in spite of all the precautions of German
scouts, and when the column reached the village of Zelck both its
strength was known and its objective accurately surmised.
The force divided for a simultaneous attack upon Diest and upon the
village of Haelen three miles to the south-east. The Belgians had
hastily got Haelen ready for a stout defence. They had loop-holed the
houses, and had masked a battery of guns in an ancient fort commanding
the main street. Seven hundred men held the position.
German cavalry tried to rush it. Mr. Wm. Maxwell, the special
correspondent of the _Daily Telegraph_, in a graphic account of the
affair, speaks of the headlong dash made by the German 17th Dragoons
along the main street, and up the glacis of the fort, which they tried
to mount on horseback. They were shot down from the houses, and from
the fort at the same time, and left the street encumbered with dead
and dying men and horses. As they retired they found their retreat cut
off and 300 of the survivors remained in the hands of the victors as
prisoners of war.
At Diest the like headlong tactics met with a similar fate. Evidently
the Germans thought they had worked a surprise, and that impression was
strengthened by their finding the bridge over the deep and sluggish
Dyle still intact. The bridge had been left standing as a ruse. It was
covered by well-hidden machine guns. When German horsemen tried to
race across they were shot down in masses.
In this attack upon Diest the Death’s Head Hussars maintained their
tradition, but at an appalling cost. Only a comparative remnant of the
corps returned alive. They lost the colours of the regiment, which were
afterwards for a time hung in the ancient church as a trophy.
Despite the disaster to the cavalry the attack was fiercely pressed. At
the height of the bombardment Lieut. van Donon, heading the men of the
town fire brigade, crept round to a ditch from which they were enabled
to enfilade a German battery, and shoot down the gunners.
As usual, the heaviest losses were sustained by the invaders during
their retreat. Along the roads and across the fields south of Diest
Belgian peasants found and buried some 2,800 German dead.
In this battle the Belgian force engaged was a cavalry division
reinforced by a brigade of all arms. It was mainly on both sides a
cavalry action, with the Belgian skill and resource in skirmishing
pitted against that of the enemy.
At Eghezée the German attack was intended to break through the French
cavalry. There, too, timely information had been received. At the
critical moment the Germans found themselves suddenly assailed on flank
by Belgian troops from Namur. The result was a severe repulse. Many of
the motor-cars, held up on the roads by troops in retreat, defending
themselves against dashing charges of the French horse, had to be