MoboReader > Literature > The Wonder of War on Land


The Wonder of War on Land By Francis Rolt-Wheeler Characters: 47938

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The whistling shells burst over Fort Embourg, near by, with ever-increasing frequency, while the surgeon, oblivious to their menace, worked over the wounded boy. The vibrations of the 6-inch guns, as the forts replied, shook the house, but no one flinched or spoke while the doctor busied himself with his patient. At last, having rebandaged the wound, he stepped back and said,

"There, now, I think he'll do."

"Where shall we take him, Doctor?" queried the master. "There isn't any hospital in Embourg, nor in Beaufays, and Liége will have sufficient problems to face in taking care of its own wounded."

"The boy can stay here," the doctor replied. "Father will treat him and Mother will do all the nursing necessary."

He looked off into the distance with lowered eyebrows.

"If all comes true that people have prophesied about the terrors of modern war," the surgeon continued, thoughtfully, "it's likely that every woman in Belgium will have to become a nurse."

"Couldn't I stay and help to take care of Deschamps, sir?" asked Horace.

"No," the master answered, "you're within the zone of fire as it is. You must return to Beaufays without delay."

Horace would have protested but that he knew the master's words were not to be gainsaid.

"Did you say that you were on your way to Liége?" asked the doctor abruptly, turning to the old reservist.

"Yes," was the reply.

"Let us go together, then," the doctor said, "for Belgium will need my case of surgical instruments as much as she will need your rifle. Wait a moment until I call Father."

He returned a minute or two later accompanied by a small and withered but keen-eyed old man, whom he introduced to the master and Horace, and to whom he described with technical detail the injuries suffered by the lad who was still extended, motionless, on the operating table.

"Very well, Hilaire," answered the old man, in a high, reedy voice, "leave the patient to me, my son. I have not forgotten all that I once knew. Not yet, oh, no!"

He turned to the master.

"My son, Monsieur, my son!" he said, paternally. "It is something of which we may be proud, is it not, when our children carry on the work which we have begun?"

The old man patted the young surgeon on the arm, talking garrulously the while.

"A good boy, Monsieur, a good boy," he said. "I was the first to teach him, but he has outstripped me. Then, too, his wrist has the steadiness of youth, while mine-"

He held out a shaking hand.

"But the brain is clear still, Monsieur," he went on, "do not fear. Your pupil shall have the best of care."

He walked feebly to the operating table. There, his whole figure changed. Unconsciously his back straightened, his hand ceased to tremble, and, as he bent over the patient, his eyes narrowed with the penetration that they must have borne twenty years before.

The master observed him closely.

"The lad is in good hands," he said, in a low voice; "come, let us go."

He turned to the aged physician.

"Monsieur," he said, "I feel it is an honor that we of the older generation can still serve Belgium. The first young victim of this war is in your keeping. I-" he paused, "I have no children, only the children of my school. It is my child, therefore, Monsieur, that I leave with you."

"He shall be as a child of mine," the old man answered.

Father and son embraced and the little party of three left the doctor's house.

At the gate the master paused.

"Monroe," he said, "you must get back to Beaufays as quickly as you can. Try to be there before it is altogether dark. Lose no time, but do not go by the road. Strike south across the fields from here until you come to the river (Ourthe), then follow the banks as far as the road from Tilff, whence it will be safe to take the Beaufays road."

"Why do you suggest such a roundabout way?" asked the surgeon. "The lad won't escape danger by making a circuit. Shells drop anywhere and everywhere. You can't dodge them by taking to the fields instead of the road."

The reservist shook his head.

"There you are wrong, Doctor," he said. "How many shells have fallen in Embourg Village? None. Yet we are but three-quarters of a mile from the fort. It is only in the immediate neighborhood of the fort that there is danger. Strange though it may seem to say so, I could wish that shells were dropping in the village."

"Why?" asked the surgeon sharply.

"Because," the master rejoined, "it would demonstrate that the Germans do not possess the exact range of the fort. Their very accuracy proves that they do. For that reason, at a distance of half a mile from the fort, the lad will be safe. Nevertheless, Monroe," he added, "if you should hear a wild shell coming in your direction, throw yourself flat on the ground. The burst of an explosion is always upwards."

"I'll be careful, sir," answered the boy.

"Will you please tell Mme. Maubin that I went on to Liége in the company of Dr. Mallorbes? Say that I do not wish her to come and see Deschamps, for I am sure she will wish to do so, and give as my reason that the road running below the fort is not safe."

"I will tell her, sir," said Horace.

"You will also inform the school to-morrow about Deschamps," the master continued. "It is a matter of pride to Beaufays, I feel, that Belgium's first wounded boy hero should be a lad from our own school. And so, good-bye!"

"Good-bye, sir; good-bye, Dr. Mallorbes," responded Horace.

He hesitated a moment, as though he would have said something more, then plunged across the fields, as the master had bidden him, back to the little village of Beaufays.

The two men watched him for a moment, until his figure was lost in the shadows of the wood on the other side of the field, then set their faces for Liége and-it might be-death.

"I am a good deal disturbed," the doctor began, as they swung out upon the road, "by your suggestion that the Germans possess the exact range of our forts. Where could they get the information?"

"Spies," the master answered. "Belgium is honeycombed with them, has been for years. You know-all the world knows-that Germany spends millions of marks yearly on her secret service system and nearly all her agents are military spies. The exact location of our forts cannot be hidden. It is not a secret. They are plain to see. What is easier for a spy than to search the neighborhood of a fort thoroughly, perhaps on a Sunday morning walk, to find some well-hidden position for a gun of a certain caliber, and to calculate, to the last inch, the exact distance of that position from the fort? It is simplicity itself."

"What of that," said the doctor, "when the gun itself is not there?"

"But when the gun is there!" the master retorted. "When the invasion is accomplished, think of the advantage which such information gives! There is no need to send out scouting parties to bring back estimates of distances; there is no need to waste energy, time, and ammunition in trial shots, during which time the battery might be subjected to fire from the guns of the fort. None of that. Secretly and silently, probably during the night or behind a screen of cavalry, a howitzer may be dragged up to the place selected by the spy and marked in detail on a large scale map. The officer commanding the battery knows the exact direction in which the fort bears and has already worked out the exact angle of elevation for the range. He has nothing to do but to order the aim and elevation and to fire, knowing, in advance, that his shells can fall nowhere but on the fort itself. It is not marksmanship, it is mathematics."

Belgian Official Photograph.

Armored Train Defending Antwerp.

Belgian Official Photograph.

Armored Car Harassing Invaders.

"You think this has been done with the forts at Liége!" ejaculated the doctor.

"That is evident," was the reply. "See, this is a night bombardment. There are no advance posts, no aeroplanes to report back the results of gun-fire. Yet the German shells are falling on the forts with deadly precision, falling on forts which the gunners have never seen. I doubt if there is a single fortified place in Belgium of which the Germans do not possess accurate plans."

"Then you think they will break through?"

"We cannot hope to prevent it," the master answered. "The Kaiser's generals would never attack Liége unless they were confident of success. Since they know exactly what we possess for defense, they would not be sure of success unless they knew that they possessed an infinitely stronger force of attack."

"But I have heard that the forts of Liége were impregnable!"

"They were when they were built," the master answered, "but that is twenty years ago. Against the guns of that period, notably the 6-inch howitzer, they were impregnable, for every possible gun-position for a weapon of that range was covered by the guns of the fort. But if pieces of heavier power can bombard the forts from positions outside the range of the fortress guns, then impregnability is gone. You must remember, Doctor, that the power of a gun increases as the cube of its caliber or diameter of its bore. Thus a 12-inch gun is not twice as powerful as a 6-inch gun, but eight times as powerful."

"Are there such heavy guns?"

"There are," was the answer. "Field guns of 8.4-inch and 10-inch caliber are known to exist, and the German War Party is reported to hold the secret of still more powerful engines of destruction, of which, as yet, the outer world knows nothing."

"Look, you, M. Maubin," said the surgeon, "you seem to know quite a lot about these things, while I've concerned myself mainly with my medical books and haven't paid much attention to military affairs. Explain to me, if you will be so good, the significance of this contest between the fortifications of Liége and the new German guns."

"It is the death-grapple which will decide the fate of Belgium-perhaps that of Europe-within a week," the master answered. "Its outcome will settle the greatest military controversy of our times. One way or the other, it will change the face of war forever. This question is whether modern artillery has become so powerful that no permanent masonry fortification can resist it. If so, the development of two thousand years of fortification must be thrown aside as useless and defense must become mobile.

"Liége is what is known as a ring fortress, that is, the city itself is not fortified but it is ringed round with twelve forts, between two and three miles apart from each other and averaging a distance of five miles from the city. Thus the forts form a circumference of 32 miles, so arranged that if any one fort is silenced the cross-fire of the forts on either side controls the gap. Six are forts of the first order, Pontisse, Barchon, and Fléron on the north and east, Loncin, Flemalles, and Boncelles on the west and south. The other six are fortins or small forts, like Embourg."

"Are they strongly armed?" the doctor asked.

"Moderately so. They have modern guns, though not of the largest caliber. There are four hundred guns in all the forts combined, mainly 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns and 8-inch mortars. The big 9-inch guns, which were ordered from Krupp's for delivery more than three years ago, have never reached us. We see, now, that Germany would not allow them to be delivered. She did not intend to run the risk of invading a well-armed Belgium."

"But isn't a 6-inch a fairly big gun?"

"Not for permanent works," the master replied. "The United States has two 16-inch guns in her coast defenses and there are plenty of 12-inch guns in permanent fortifications. Naval guns, of course, are bigger. They have to be. You can't 'take cover' at sea and long ranges therefore are necessary. Modern super-Dreadnoughts,[3] armed with 15-inch guns, regard their 6-inch batteries as merely secondary.

"Our principal weakness," he continued, "is that Brialmont's full design of infantry trenches and sunken emplacements for light artillery has never been completed. Besides, our army is in a state of transition, as you know, for it is only a year and a half since a new system was put into operation. That makes it difficult for us to mobilize quickly, while Germany has been completely mobilized for some time."

"Still," responded the doctor, trying to find some hope in the outlook, "we have the advantage of being on the defensive. I've read, somewhere, that it takes three times as many men to drive an attack as to hold a line of defense."

"That is true," agreed the master.

"They can't be more than three to one," said the doctor, "so as fast as they come, we'll smash them."

"Perhaps we might have a better chance," the old reservist said, doubtfully, "if General Leman and our Third Division were here. But it's not the German soldiers of which I'm afraid, but these new howitzers."

"Why?" asked the doctor. "Isn't a howitzer a gun? What's the difference between them, anyway?"

"I'll show you the difference in a minute," the master replied, "but I want, first, to give you a clear idea of one of our big forts, so that you can realize the problem that the Germans must tackle. Each of the six main forts around Liége is built in the form of a triangle, each is placed in a commanding natural position, and each, in addition, is approached by a steep artificial mound, in the interior of which lie the works of the fort. At the top of the earth slope, the edge drops suddenly into a deep ditch, of which the counterscarp is a massive masonry wall topped with wire entanglements. The entire earth slope and wall is exposed to the guns of the fort, throwing shrapnel, and to fire from machine guns and rifles."

"Before the Germans get a footing in the fort, then," said the doctor, "they will have to storm a stretch of ground absolutely riddled with fire."

"They will."

"That means a heavy loss of life."

"A terrible loss of life," the master agreed. "Moreover, even should they advance in such masses that we could not kill them fast enough and thus they should storm the slope and win the ditch, they would be in a still worse plight. Powerful quick-firing guns, mounted in cupolas at each angle of the triangle, sweep the sunken ditch with an enfilading fire. No troops could live through such an inferno of bullets.

"On the main inner triangle is the infantry parapet, shaped somewhat like a heart, pierced for rifle fire and with machine-gun emplacements at the angles. In the hollow of that heart-like space rises a solid central mass of concrete, on and in which are the shelters and gun cupolas. The mortar cupolas rise from the floor of the hollow, outside the central mass. These are invisible to the foe until raised by machinery within, when they command the entire neighborhood and can fire their 6-inch shells in any direction."

The doctor rubbed his hands briskly.

"If that's the way our forts are built," he said, "and if they are well provisioned and have plenty of ammunition, we ought to be able to snap our fingers at the Kaiser. All we have to do is to wait for the Germans to come and shoot them down by thousands. They'll go packing back to Germany quick enough if we give them a reception like that."

"Perhaps," said the old reservist, "but you have forgotten about the howitzers."

"Why, yes, so I had," the doctor answered, more gravely; "you were going to tell me about them."

"The difference in principle between a gun and a howitzer or a mortar," explained the master, "is that a gun depends for its destructiveness on its striking velocity, while a howitzer depends on the power of the exploding charge of its shell. An armor-piercing shell, fired from a 15-inch naval gun, will go through the heaviest and hardest steel known, because of the terrific speed at which it travels, with a muzzle velocity of three thousand feet a second or thirty-four miles a minute. In order not to lose speed, therefore, it must travel in as straight a line as possible. In other words, a missile from a gun must have a long low curve or trajectory."

"Yes," said the doctor, "I can see that."

"A howitzer, on the other hand," the master explained, "does not require any more velocity than just to carry the high-explosive shell to the point designed. Moreover, in order that their terrible effects may be the more destructive, mortars and howitzers drop their shells from overhead upon the object of fire by lobbing them up in the air with a very high trajectory. A howitzer generally looks as though it were shooting at the moon. It can be placed in a valley and fire over the hill. But, as you can see, its range is restricted. A naval gun throwing an 8-inch shell may have a range of sixteen miles, while the 8-inch howitzer operates best from three or four miles away.

"You see, Doctor," he continued, "if our defenses have been constructed upon the basis of attack from heavy field-guns and light howitzers-which is the system of most European armies-if our energy has been spent on disappearing cupolas and sunken masonry works which will resist gun-fire, is there not a terrible danger if we are attacked by heavy howitzers, dropping high explosive shells from overhead? To such shells it will make no difference whether the cupolas be raised or lowered.

"If it be true," the old reservist added, his voice rising with a note of presage, "if it be true what is whispered about these new German siege howitzers, then destruction will rain upon the forts of Liége as though the skies were a mouth of flame.

"Perhaps never before, in the history of the world, has so much hung upon the range and power of a modern weapon. We await the eruption of a man-forged volcano which may engulf us all in its fiery lava."

The doctor passed his hand over his face and looked up unconsciously, half in fear as though the doom was on them.

"You make it very ugly," he said.

The master paced on through the late dusk, a glow from the distant gunfire mingling with the faint starlight on his face.

"It matters very little if the End be ugly," he replied, "so long as the road be that of heroism."

The two men walked silently some little space, each following the trend of his own ideas, until, where the road branched off to Chénée, two men joined them.

"Have you any late news?" the master asked.

"The Ninth Regiment has been ordered forward between Fléron and Chaudfontaine," said the older of the newcomers, "and the Fourteenth is to be sent here, to cover Embourg and Boncelles."

"And you-where do you go?"

"To report," the stranger answered; "there will be work enough for us all to do."

"Have you any idea of what numbers we will have to face?"

The other shrugged his shoulders.

"Maybe one army corps, maybe two-maybe all Germany. Who knows?"

Darkness closed down upon Liége, the darkness of that August Fourth, such as even that ancient city had never known, a somber pall of shadow pierced with vivid streaks from the flaming fortress guns. Powerful searchlights hunted the countryside with their malevolent eyes. Death screamed and screeched in the trees. The horrible and cruel work of war hid its unloveliness that first night in the shelter of the woods surrounding the eastern forts of Liége.

The four men soon reached military headquarters. Already casualty cases had begun to arrive and Dr. Mallorbes was promptly assigned to one of the hospitals. The two reservists from Chénée were sent to the shallow trenches defending the approaches to Fort Chaudfontaine, and, at his earnest request, the master was allowed to join his battery at Boncelles.

When, however, the master found himself actually in the fort and under military discipline, much of his pessimism passed away. He fell, naturally, into the fatalism of the soldier, and, as he remarked the extraordinarily powerful machinery and defenses of the fort, said to his neighbor,

"They're counting on our not being ready. But everything here seems up to the minute!"

His fellow-gunner, also an old reservist who had served with the battery before, chuckled as he answered,

"Our silent general has fooled them. General Leman has reached here with the Third Division."

"But the Third was at Diest, eighty miles away, the day before yesterday!" exclaimed the master.

"It is here now, and taking up positions. And the Germans, for all their spies, don't know it. They'll try to rush the forts to-morrow, expecting to find them lightly held, and then we'll pepper them finely."

"How many men does that give us here at Liége?" the master asked.

"About twenty-two thousand."

"And the Germans?"

"Three army corps, probably; a hundred thousand men, at least,[4] and as many more as they like to bring."

"And all confident of breaking through?"

"Quite," said the other, nodding. "There was a young German officer captured yesterday at Visé who jeered at the mere idea of our daring to oppose them.

"'It is the idea of little children that Belgium can resist,' he said. 'In two days we take Liége, in a week we are before Paris. It is all arranged. It is like a time-table. Nothing can prevent victory. Nothing will stop us. If any one hinders, we will roll them into the sea.'"

"Time-tables have been disarranged before now," said the master thoughtfully, "and it is worth remembering that the more rigid is the organization the more hopeless is the confusion when something goes wrong."

"If we can check them here-"

"Then," said the master, "they will never get to Paris."

So, under the plucky but inadequate fire of their forts, the 22,500 Belgians awaited the attack of 120,000 Germans. They knew, those heroes, those martyrs to the ideals of honor, that Germany had untold millions to roll up against them, should their resistance prove to be an obstacle.

It was almost dawn when the first attack began at Evegnée and Barchon. There, the sentries on duty, watching the hillsides opposite to them, saw what seemed to be an undulation of the earth, as though the soil were heaving like the sea. As the morning light cleared the mists away, these waves were seen to be vast bodies of infantry, their iron-gray uniforms indistinguishable against the dawn-lighted grass.

Came a sharp order to fire.

Red mouths of death opened. From trench[5] and fort, rifle-fire ran its crackling harmony to the crash of the 6-inch guns and the insistent rattle of the ear-rasping machine gun. In this hideous repertory of noise, the Hotchkiss machine-guns, used in the forts, and the Berthier guns, used by the infantry and drawn by a dog team, joined their concert of destruction.

It was no discredit to the German soldiers that they fell back. No one, neither General von Emmich, his officers, nor his men, expected to find the Belgian trenches so strongly held. The check was only momentary, however, merely long enough to allow the face of the hills to grow a little brighter, long enough to show clearly to the gallant defenders the tremendous odds they had to face.

The iron-gray masses of the German infantry advanced stolidly into that maw of death. It was unlike all the parade conceptions of battle. There were no flaming colors, no horses curveting around a golden-tasseled standard, no blare of bands, none of the pomp and panoply of war. Only, above the hills which circled the forts, rose the slowly deepening rose of the dawn; only, on the ground below, crept the steady ant-like advance of thousands of men who would be dead before the rising sun had risen.

Courtesy of "Panorama de la Guerre."

The First Clash.

Belgians with the dog-drawn machine guns, disputing the invasion of their country by the hordes of the Hun. Note the open warfare without cover or trenches.

"As line after line of the German infantry advanced," wrote a Belgian officer, when describing this first day's

fighting, "we simply mowed them down. It was all too terribly easy, and I turned to a brother officer of mine more than once and said to him,

"'Voila! They are coming on again in a dense, close formation! They must be mad!'

"They made no attempt at deploying, but came on, line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of another, in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble.

"I thought of Napoleon's saying-if he ever said it, and I doubt it, for he had no care of human life-

"'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre!' (Magnificent! But it is not War!)

"No, that plunge forward of the German infantry that day was not war, it was slaughter-just slaughter.

"So high became the barricade of dead and wounded that we did not know whether to fire through it or to go out and clear openings with our hands. We would have liked to extricate some of the wounded from the dead, but we dared not. A stiff wind carried away the smoke of the guns quickly, and we could see some of the wounded men trying to release themselves from their terrible position. I will confess I crossed myself and could have wished that the smoke had remained!

"But, would you believe it, this veritable wall of dead and dying actually enabled those wonderful Germans to creep closer and actually charge up the glacis (slope of the fort). Of course, they got no further than half way, for our Maxims and rifles swept them back. We had our own losses, but they were slight compared with the carnage inflicted on our enemies."

No, it was not war that day, it was slaughter.

What did this waste of life mean? What reason, what excuse could there be which would justify the reckless sacrifice of men against the gunfire, the machine-gun-fire and the rifle-fire of the forts of Liége?

There is only one answer. General von Emmich, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Meuse, had been entrusted with the task of breaking through Liége quickly, at all hazards. Everything must be made subservient to speed. The loss of a few thousand men would not cripple Germany. The loss of a few days spelled failure.

Counting mainly on the element of surprise, for it was only thirty-four hours before that Germany announced her intention of violating neutrality, the Army of the Meuse was traveling light. It had not been hampered in its onward drive with the heavy siege guns. Those monsters were being laboriously dragged on to Namur, as lighter guns, it was thought, would suffice to reduce Liége, taken as it was by surprise.

Moreover, Von Emmich knew that General Leman and the Third Belgian Division had been far away the day before. Every hour, undoubtedly, brought them nearer; every hour rendered the element of surprise less valuable. Wherefore, as an advocate of the German theory of war which declares that any place can be rushed, no matter how strongly defended, if the attacking force be large enough and sacrifice of life is not counted, Von Emmich hurled his men forward ruthlessly and regardlessly into a revelry of carnage.

If Germany was staggered at her dead, the commander of the Army of the Meuse did not show it that day. From morning until evening the iron-gray infantry charged, were mown down, fell back and charged again. Wave after wave of men swept up those slopes, never to return. The human tide seemed endless. For not one moment, in all that day, did the billows of soldier victims cease to pound forward to their bloody doom; for not one moment, in all that day, did the Belgians, though with smoke-bleared eyes and dropping from exhaustion, fail to answer. Since morning there had been no respite, not even for a meal. At evening, the piles of German dead and wounded rose five feet high in long lines over the rolling landscape.

When night fell upon the Fifth of August, German power had suffered a severe blow. That first day's fighting of the war in the west had shown that 22,500 Belgians, though hastily mobilized, could hold back 120,000 Germans, prepared to the last detail. It disproved, forever, the German theory that masses of men can overcome machine-gun-fire by sheer weight of numbers. It displayed that the German system of firing from the hip, instead of from the shoulder, resulted in bad marksmanship and a reckless waste of ammunition. It revealed that the German soldier fights with dogged and relentless driving force in a mass, but is weak as an individual and will not face cold steel. Most important of all, it shattered the reputation of the Kaiser's generals for infallibility and of the Kaiser's army for invincibility.

The first day's fighting was a German defeat. That, at least, stood out clear. To cap the triumph, two Belgian counter-attacks had been successful. German outposts were scattered by an assault on the heights of Wandre, the Garde Civique cut up and practically destroyed an attacking force near Boncelles, while the Belgian Lancers covered themselves with glory when, with one squadron, they charged upon six squadrons of German cavalry and put them to rout.

On the other hand, this one day's conflict justified the German theory of the power of high-explosive shell against permanent fortifications. The bombardment continued all day and all night without cessation. With an army of only 22,500 men, there was no relief. Every man was on continuous duty. It was evident from the first that the forts finally must fall, for the attacking 8.4-inch howitzers fired from points out of reach of the fortress guns and the destructive force of their shells was such that it gradually but surely reduced the strongest armor-steel and concrete masonry to ruins.

Yet, although the forts were doomed, they were not destined to immediate fall. The Germans had miscalculated. They had not deemed it necessary to bring their biggest siege guns to the demolition of Liége. Indeed, they could not spare them. Those monstrous behemoths of ordnance could only crawl, even when dragged by thirteen traction engines, and they were needed at Namur, which the Germans rightly expected would be defended by the French Army and would be a harder nut to crack.

A full moon rose on the night of the Fifth of August, revealing the artillery duel in savage continuance. At the end of nearly twenty-four hours' fighting, the master, at his post of duty in Fort Boncelles, was at the point of exhaustion. He realized that age was a serious handicap. Though as full of spirit and fire as the younger men, the physical stamina would hardly bear the strain. He winced at every shell that struck, and, though his watchfulness was as keen and his ardor not abated, the frame was breaking down.

The commander of the fort, himself well on in years, touched the old reservist kindly on the arm.

"It is the courage of the old which stirs the young," he said. "To be able to give the last flare of our spirits to our country-ah, that is worth while."

But he found a corner where the old patriot might snatch a few hours' troubled sleep.

In order that the Belgian troops might not have a chance to rest, Von Emmich made feint after feint all through the night. The exhausted and harassed Belgians were rushed from point to point to fill in the defense as best they could. It was cruel, driving, killing work, when the muscles clicked from sheer fatigue and the men moved leadenly as in a dream. Under such overstrain, men could not last, but every hour of delay meant ruin to Germany and gain to the Allies.

During the night, more and more German guns were put in place, and by the morning of August 6, several score 8.4-inch howitzers were hurling their shells directly on Forts Fléron and Evegnée. When daylight broke, Evegnée was a ruin and the Belgian infantry had fallen back. At eight o'clock, one of the huge shells shattered the gun machinery of Fort Fléron.

General Leman ordered the retreat of the Belgian army from its advanced position, realizing that it was absolutely impossible to defend a line 33 miles long with an exhausted army, now reduced by losses to 18,000 men. He summoned his officers to a military council to lay down the new dispositions on the farther side of the Meuse, under cover of the western forts.

Suddenly, during the council, the general was startled by loud shouting and the sounds of a struggle outside. Knowing that the Germans were hammering at the gates of the city and that Fléron had fallen, he feared an advance cavalry patrol. He ran down-stairs and out of the door, to find himself confronted by eight men in German uniform.

The general darted back.

"A pistol!" he cried.

The Germans surged forward to seize the general, a crowd of Belgian civilians behind. They did not dare to touch the invaders, knowing that any effort would be deemed a "hostile act by non-combatants" which would afford excuse to the Germans for making reprisals.

With a quick movement, General Leman slipped sidewise past his would-be captors, the crowd opening to let him through. The Germans plunged into the crowd after him, but a brother officer of the general caught up his chief bodily and slung him over a neighboring wall, which chanced to be the boundary of a foundry yard. At the same instant, the rest of the officers who had been at the council came clattering out. Swords flashed out. Three of the Germans were killed and, some members of the Garde Civique being attracted by the commotion, the rest were made prisoners. They were found to be spies, who had secreted German uniforms and arms in a house next door to military headquarters, with this very intention of capturing the Belgian commanders in a moment of surprise.

With the withdrawal of the troops from the advance trenches, the holding of the eastern forts became an impossibility. Thus, on receiving news of the retreat, Major Mameche, the Commandant of Fort Chaudfontaine, the strategic value of which lay in its controlling the entrance to the Chaudfontaine railway tunnel, blocked the tunnel by colliding several engines at its mouth and then fired his powder-magazine, blowing up the fort.

Towards midday a message was received from General von Emmich, demanding the surrender of the city. The civil authorities were willing, in order to save the city from destruction, but General Leman, as Military Commandant, curtly refused to abandon the forts. He was fighting for time. Already two days had passed and only one of the six larger forts had fallen. To France and to England-which had entered the war because of Germany's violation of Belgium-every day gained then was worth a week later.

A panic followed upon General Leman's refusal, citizens who feared the results of the bombardment of the city jamming every out-bound train. Every possible influence was brought to bear on the Military Commandant. His only answer was,

"The forts must hold."

At 6 o'clock that evening a slight bombardment began, not enough to damage the city seriously, but heavy enough to denote the fate that would come to Liége if a destructive bombardment were undertaken.

Steadily, with the persistence of final doom, the high-explosive shells dropped their volcanic furies upon the doomed forts. The continuous hail of bombs served a double purpose, not only wrecking the forts themselves but breaking down human resistance in the defenders.

On the morning of August 7 a small party of Germans appeared in front of the fort of Boncelles, and carrying a white flag.

"I don't trust them," growled the master.

"Oh, come," said his comrade, "that's a little too strong! Even the Germans wouldn't be so dishonorable as to violate a flag of truce. That's respected even by savages who fight with assegai and shield."

"I'm not so sure," was the master's reply, but he went with the party of twenty which sallied from the fort to receive the surrender of the Germans.

Suspiciously the Belgians approached, for the master's incertitude was shared by several of the men, but, as they came near, the Germans held up their hands.

"Kamerad!" they cried, in token of surrender.

Instantly, as though the throwing up of the hands had been a prearranged signal, a murderous cross-fire from the woods on either side was poured upon the advancing Belgians. Only seven of the twenty, the master among them, returned to the fort alive.

The commandant of the fort was livid with rage, and the Belgian infantry in the shallow trenches near by, in a crisis of fury, charged the woods with infinitely inferior numbers and slew every lurking German found there. No quarter was given that day.

Meanwhile, through the gap in the defenses formed by the fall of Forts Fléron and Evegnée, the Germans advanced into Liége. They occupied the town without opposition, and yet-and yet-five of the great forts remained unsilenced. The unique capture of a city when its defenses were still untaken was only possible because the Belgians, for patriotic reasons, did not wish to fire upon the town. Fort Barchon, one of the eastern forts, isolated from the new line of defense, fell later in the day.

Into the city poured the iron-gray masses of the German troops, but the satisfaction of the rank and file was not shared by the officers. They knew the truth of failure. It was the third day, already, and Forts Pontisse, Loncin, Flemalles and Boncelles were still holding out. Moreover, if the little Belgian army had defied them on a long line, it would be still better able to do so when holding a line only a third as long and re?nforced by fresh troops. Von Emmich was savage, and his savagery showed itself later. True, he was in Liége, but that did him little good. Brussels and Paris were not far away, but Fort Loncin protected the main railway line to Brussels and Forts Flemalles and Boncelles defended the main railway line to Paris. The path was not yet clear.

British Official Photograph.

Taking Soup to the Firing-Line.

Dangerous duty, for the bearer cannot lie down on the approach of a shell. Note bags of grenades carried in case of surprise.

General Leman's army, with its numbers brought up to 36,000 men by re?nforcements, now formed a dangerous menace to the advance. The Belgian general had out-maneuvered the German commander at every turn, and, in taking up a position on the farther side of the Meuse, he was prepared to make things still hotter for the invaders. He was not trying to stop the progress of the army but had concentrated his energies on the defense of the forts, for he knew that, as long as the forts stood, the German Army dared not debouch into the plain, leaving behind it an imperiled line of communication.

The German enveloping movement now extended northward to Fort Pontisse, bombarding it, however, from the eastern bank of the Meuse. For field-gun fire, however, the forts were well protected and there were no hidden positions available for the 8.4-inch howitzers. If the Germans were to take Pontisse, they must cross the Meuse. Over and over again they stormed the crossing, fighting like madmen. Ten pontoon bridges, one after the other, were built across the river in the face of an appalling gun fire, but, each time, the fortress guns succeeded in destroying them and those troops which had crossed were cut off and killed to a man.

Similar flanking strategy was attempted to the south, where Fort Flemalles was attacked, also from the eastern bank of the river. Here, after several hours of sharp fighting, the Germans secured a landing on the western bank, but could not bring over any heavy artillery. The little army of defense contested every foot of ground with reckless and gay bravery, and the larger howitzers were compelled to remain on the eastern side of the river.

Fort Boncelles, as the Commandant himself was heard to describe it, was "like the stoke-hold of hell." It had no river to support its defenses. All the forts to the east of it, save Embourg, had fallen, allowing a terrific concentration of enemy artillery. On the other hand, the ground around Boncelles was well adapted to the sweep of the larger fortress guns. If there was the slightest pause in the German attack, a cupola would rise and send a storm of shrapnel into the enemy's ranks. Then the tempest of death would sweep down upon Boncelles once more. Von Emmich was in Liége with 120,000 men, but little Belgium shook her fist in his face and he dared not go on.

The demolition of the forts began on August 13. On that day, the heavy siege guns (two, it is believed), which the Germans had not intended to bring into action against Liége, entered the city and crawled through it to take up positions against the western forts. So affrighting were these engines of war that the German artillery did not attempt to operate them. They were handled by mechanics from the Krupp factory, the artillery officers merely working out the ranges.

Prior to this time, such guns had never been dreamed of save in artillerists' nightmares. The weight of the great German siege gun is 71 tons. It is transported in four pieces, each part being dragged by three traction engines on caterpillar wheels, a thirteenth and larger engine going ahead to test the road and to assist each section in going up hills. The caliber of the gun is 16.4-inch (42-centimeter). The shell stands as high as a man's chin and weighs 1684 pounds. The percussion fuse is of mercury fulminate, which in its turn explodes nitro-glycerine, which explodes picric-acid powder, thus giving the bursting charge to the terrible force of an explosion of tri-nitro-toluol, one of the most destructive explosives known. About 280 pounds of this inconceivably powerful destructive is contained in the shell.[6]

Nothing so terrible had ever before been seen in war as the effect of these great shells. Men were not simply killed and wounded, they were blackened, burnt, smashed into indistinguishable pulp of bone and flesh.

When these engines of devastation arrived, General Leman knew that the end was near. Although severely wounded three days before, his spirit knew no thought of surrender. In Fort Loncin with a handful of men, he awaited the bombardment which could mean nothing but death. The fall of Fort Loncin was described by a German infantry officer who was attached to the Army of the Meuse.

"General Leman's defense of Liége," he wrote admiringly, "combined all that is noble and all that is tragic.

"As long as possible, he inspected the forts daily to see that everything was in order. By a piece of falling masonry, dislodged by our guns, both General Leman's legs were crushed. Undaunted, he visited the forts in an automobile. In the strong Fort Loncin, General Leman decided to hold his ground or die.

"When the end was inevitable, the Belgians disabled the last three guns and exploded the supply of shells kept in readiness by the guns. Before this, General Leman destroyed all plans, maps and papers relating to the defenses. The food supplies also were destroyed. With about 100 men, General Leman attempted to retire to another fort, but we had cut off their retreat.

"By this time our heaviest guns were in position and a well-placed shell tore through the cracked and battered masonry and exploded in the main magazine. With a thunderous crash, the mighty walls of the fort fell. Pieces of stone and concrete 25 cubic meters in size (as big as a large room) were hurled into the air.

"When the dust and fumes passed away, we stormed the fort across ground literally strewn with the bodies of troops who had gone out before to storm the fort and never returned. All the men left alive in the fort were wounded and most were unconscious. A corporal, with one arm shattered, valiantly tried to drive us back by firing his rifle. Buried in the débris and pinned beneath a massive beam was General Leman.

"'Respect for the general! He is dead!' said a Belgian aide-de-camp.

"With gentleness and care, which showed they respected the man who had resisted them so valiantly and stubbornly, our infantry released the general's wounded form and carried him away. We thought him dead, but he recovered consciousness, and looking round, said,

"'It is as it is. The men fought bravely.'

"Then, turning to us, he added,

"'Put in your dispatches that I was unconscious.'

"We brought him to our commander, General von Emmich, and the two generals saluted. We tried to speak words of comfort, but he was silent-he is known as the silent general.

"'I was unconscious. Be sure and put that in your dispatches.'

"More he would not say."

Fort Boncelles disputed with Fort Loncin the honor of being the last to fall. It is not known, definitely, which of the two resisted longest.

The night before the fall of Fort Loncin, the electric-lighting system of Boncelles was destroyed. The men-the master among them-fought all night through in utter darkness, groping for the machinery of their guns and in momentary expectation of suffocation and death from the German shells.

The high-explosive charges tore and shattered the armor-steel and masonry as though they had been cardboard, and shortly before dawn, wide breaches in the walls showed the peaceful starlight shining through. Though the fort was a wreck, three guns were working still.

A fragment of shell struck the master. He fell.

His comrade, dropping to one knee beside him, heard the dying man whisper,

"Take this to my wife!"

The comrade reached his hand to the designated pocket, took out the little packet, put it inside his tunic and returned to his gun.

An hour after sunrise a shell tore through the rear cupola of Boncelles and plucked it up as a weed is torn up by its roots. The German officer who was directing the attack offered to accept a surrender.

The Belgian commandant answered,

"We have still two guns to fight with!"

Only one shell more fell on Fort Boncelles, but it landed full in the middle of the ruined structure, and was one of the shells from the 11-inch howitzers. The inner concrete walls fell to dust, pieces of armor-steel and gun shelters were hurled a quarter of a mile away and both the remaining guns were silenced.

Eleven men remained to surrender the fort, not one of them unwounded, all nearly crazed with the endurance of nine days and nights of the most terrific bombardment known to man. Dazed, deaf and exhausted to the verge of insanity, they were brought before their captors. Only three were able to speak, one of them the master's comrade.

"What have you there?" asked a junior officer, as the Belgian feebly resisted search.

A German soldier snatched the packet from his tunic.

"Only a message from a comrade," the Belgian mumbled, his words thick with collapse.

The officer opened the packet, ran his eye through the letter, looked at Mme. Maubin's photograph, and, with a contemptuous exclamation, tossed the photograph and letter into a little stream that flowed by the roadside.

The Belgian, enraged at this callous action, for the moment forgetful of his wounds and the lassitude of prostration, lurched forward to seize the officer's throat. He was promptly seized, and, as he was held there, almost swooning, a captive and unarmed, the officer drew his pistol and shot him dead.

In this wise the Germans took Liége.

* * *


[3] The Queen Elizabeth, under the British flag, the most powerful vessel at the opening of the war, carried eight 15-inch guns and sixteen 6-inch guns as an auxiliary battery.

[4] General Von Emmich's advance force, irrespective of reserves, was 120,000 men.

[5] This does not mean the trench of modern trench warfare, but the old-fashioned shallow rifle-pit.

[6] These figures are not official, but are careful estimates from known facts by leading artillerists of the Allies.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top