WW1 in Belgium: The First Days

11-15 August 1914
The Fall of Liege

The Fall of Liege, by General Leman

On the 11th the Germans started bombarding us with 7- and 10-centimeter cannon. On the 12th and 13th they brought their 21-centimeter guns into action. But it was not until the 14th that they opened their heaviest fire and began their destruction of the outer works. On that day, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, a German officer approached to within 200 yards of the fort with a signaling flag in his hand; and shortly afterwards, the siege gunners, having adjusted their range, began a fearful firing, that lasted a couple of hours. The battery on the left slope was destroyed, the enemy keeping on pounding away exclusively with their 21-centimeter cannons.

The third phase of the bombardment began at 5 o'clock in the morning of the 15th, firing being kept up without a break until two in the afternoon. Grenade wrecked the arcade under which the general staff were sheltering. All light was extinguished by the force of the explosion, and the officers ran the risk of asphyxiation by the horrible gases emitted from the shell. When firing ceased, I ventured out on a tour of inspection on the external slopes, which I found had been reduced to a rubble heap. A few minutes later, the bombardment was resumed. It seemed as though all the German batteries were together firing salvoes. Nobody will ever be able to form any adequate idea of what the reality was like. I have only learned since that when the big siege mortars entered into action they hurled against us shells weighing 1,000 kilos (nearly a ton), the explosive force of which surpasses anything known hitherto. Their approach was to be heard in an acute buzzing; and they burst with a thunderous roar, raising clouds of missiles, stones and dust.

After some time passed amid these horrors, I wished to return to my observation tower; but I had hardly advanced a few feet into the gallery when a great blast passed by, and I was thrown violently to the ground. I managed to rise, and continued on my way, only to be stopped by a choking cloud of poisonous gas. It was a mixture of the gas from an explosion and the smoke of a fire in the troop quarters. We were driven back, half-suffocated. Looking out of a peep hole, I saw to my horror that the fort had fallen, slopes and counter-slopes being a chaos of rubbish, while huge tongues of flame were shooting forth from the throat of the fortress. My first and last thought was to try and save the remnant of the garrison I rushed out to give orders, and saw some soldiers, whom I mistook for Belgian gendarmes. I called them, then fell again. Poisonous gases seemed to grip my throat as in a vise. On recovering consciousness, I found my aide-de-camp, Captain Colland, standing over me, also a German officer, who offered me a glass of water. They told me I had swooned, and that the soldiery I had taken for Belgian gendarmes were, in fact, the first band of German troops who had set foot inside the forts. In recognition of our courage, the Germans allowed me to retain my sword.


General Leman's Letter to Albert, King of the Belgians

Sir: -- After honorable engagements on August 4th, 5th and 6th, I considered that the forts of Liиge could only play the "role" of "fort d'arret." I nevertheless maintained military government in order to coordinate the defense as much as possible, and to exercise moral influence upon the garrison.

Your Majesty is not ignorant that I was at Fort Loncin on August 6th at noon. You will learn with grief that the fort was blown up yesterday at 5.20 p.m., the greater part of the garrison being buried under the ruins. That I did not lose my life in that catastrophe is due to the fact that my escort, Commandant Collard, a sub-officer of infantry who unfortunately perished, the gendarme, Thevenim, and my two orderlies, Vanden Bosche and Jos Lecocq, drew me from a position of danger, where I was being asphyxiated by gas from the exploded powder. I was carried into a trench, where a German captain named Guson gave me a drink, after which I was made prisoner and taken to Liиge in an ambulance. I am convinced that the honor of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts. Deign, Sire, to pardon my defects in this letter. I am physically shattered by the explosion of Loncin. In Germany, whither I am proceeding, my thoughts will be, as they have ever been, of Belgium and the King. I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.


20 - 21 August, 1914
The Fall of Brussels

The Germans Enter Brussels
By Richard Harding Davis

The entrance of the German army into Brussels has lost the human quality. It was lost as soon as the three soldiers who led the army bicycled into the Boulevard du Régent and asked the way to the Gare du Nord. When they passed, the human note passed with them. What came after them, and twenty-four hours later is still coming, is not men marching, but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks. At this minute it is rolling through Brussels as the swollen waters of the Conemaugh Valley swept through Johnstown.

At the sight of the first few regiments of the enemy we were thrilled with interest. After they had passed for three hours in one unbroken steel-gray column were bored. But when hour after hour passed and there was no halt, no breathing time, no open spaces in the ranks, the thing became uncanny, inhuman. You returned to watch it, fascinated. It held the mystery and menace of fog rolling toward you across the sea.

The gray of the uniforms worn by both officers and men helped this air of mystery. Only the sharpest eye could detect among the thousands that passed the slightest difference. All moved under a cloak of in visibility. Only after the most numerous and severe tests, with all materials and combinations of color that give forth no color, could this gray have been discovered. That it was selected to clothe and disguise the German when he fights is typical of the German Staff in striving for efficiency to leave nothing to chance, to neglect no detail.

After you have seen this service uniform under conditions entirely opposite you are convinced that for the German soldier it is his strongest weapon. Even the most expert marksman cannot hit the target unless he can see. It is a gray-green, not the blue-gray of our Confederates. It is the gray of the hour just before daybreak, the gray of unpolished steel, of mist among green trees.

I saw it first in the Grand Place in front of the Hotel de Ville. It was impossible to tell if in that noble square there was a regiment or a brigade. You saw only a fog that melted into the stones, blended with the ancient house fronts, that shifted and drifted, but left you nothing at which you could point.

Later, as the army passed below my window, under the trees of the Botanical Park, it merged and was lost against the green leaves. It is no exaggeration to say that at a hundred yards you can see the horses on which the Uhlans ride, but cannot see the men who ride them.

If I appear to overemphasize this disguising uniform it is because of all the details of the German out fit it appealed to me as one of the most remarkable. The other day, when I was with the rear guard of the French Dragoons and Cuirassiers and they threw out pickets, we could distinguish them against the yellow wheat or green gorse at half a mile, while these men passing in the street, when they have reached the next crossing, become merged into the gray of the paving stones and the earth swallows them. In comparison the yellow khaki of our own American Army is about as invisible as the flag of Spain.

Yesterday Major General von Jarotsky, the German Military Governor of Brussels, assured Burgomaster Max that the German army would not occupy the city, but would pass through it. It is still passing. I have followed in campaigns six armies, but excepting not even our own, the Japanese or the British, 1 have not seen one so thoroughly equipped. I am not speaking of the fighting qualities of any army, only of the equipment and organization. The German army moved into this city as smoothly and as compactly as an Empire State Express. There were no halts, no open place, no stragglers.

This army has been on active service three weeks, and so far there is not apparently a chin-strap or a horseshoe missing. It came in with the smoke pouring from cookstoves on wheels, and in an hour had set up post office wagons, from which mounted messengers galloped along the line of column distributing letters and at which soldiers posted picture post-cards.

The infantry came in in files of five, two hundred men to each company; the lancers in columns of four, with not a pennant missing. The quick-firing guns and field pieces were one hour at a time in passing, each gun with its caisson and ammunition wagon taking twenty seconds in which to pass.

The men of the infantry sang "Fatherland, My Fatherland." Between each line of song they took three steps. At times two thousand men were singing together in absolute rhythm and beat. When the, melody gave way the silence was broken only by the stamp of ironshod boots, and then again the song rose. When the singing ceased the bands played marches. They were followed by the rumbles of siege guns, the creaking of wheels and of chains clanking against the cobble-stones and the sharp bell-like voices of the bugles.

For seven hours the army passed in such solid column that not once might a taxicab or trolley car pass through the city. Like a river of steel it flowed, gray and ghostlike. Then, as dusk came and a thousands of horses' hoofs and thousands of iron boots continued to tramp forward, they struck tiny sparks from the stones, but the horses and men who beat out the sparks were invisible.

At midnight pack wagons and siege guns were still passing. At seven this morning I was awakened by the tramp of men and bands playing jauntily. Whether they marched all day or not I do not know; but for twenty six hours the gray army rumbled with the mystery of fog and the pertinacity of a steam roller.


Neue Preussische Zeitung, August 22, 1914.

The coming of the German troops was kept a secret from the people of Brussels until the last minute. The proclamation of the mayor hit the people like a clap of thunder. The mayor went out to meet the troops and upon their appearance had a white flag held aloft. He talked then with a German officer and received from the latter the assurance that nothing would happen to the people if they would give up all acts of violence towards the Germans. The entry of the Germans led to scenes of panicky fright among the people in the villages near Brussels. Brussels itself is like a dead city; in the environs the people are in great fear that they will be held responsible and punished energetically because of the destruction of German business houses in Brussels.

The bad conscience of the people of Brussels is indicated by the fact that in the last few days they have hurriedly removed the barricades and barbed-wire defenses, for the understandable order came that it was useless to defend the open city.

Brussels is completely cut off from the outer world. The citizens are in deathly fear, which is heightened through continually misleading newspaper reports. Until the last day the newspapers stated that the Germans were reluctant to fight. Even noble families have begun to flee from their castles, and they sat, just like the poor folks, on their baggage in the North Station, in order to escape via Ostend to England. Railway service was soon halted; moreover, it became impossible to obtain automobiles.

26 August, 1914
The Burning of Louvain

New York Tribune, August 31, 1914, Reported from Louvain by Richard Harding Davis.

London, August 30 -- I left Brussels on Thursday afternoon and have just arrived in London. For two hours on Thursday night I was in what for six hundred years has been the city of Louvain. The Germans were burning it, and to hide their work kept us locked in the railway carriages. But the story was written against the sky, was told to us by German soldiers incoherent with excesses; and we could read it in the faces of women and children being led to concentration camps and of citizens on their way to be shot.

The Germans sentenced Louvain on Wednesday to become a wilderness and with the German system and love of thoroughness they left Louvain an empty and blackened shell. The reason for this appeal to the torch and the execution of noncombatants, as given to me on Thursday morning by General von Lutwitz, military governor of Brussels, was this: on Wednesday, while the German military commander of the troops of Louvain was at the Hotel de Ville talking to the Burgomaster, a son of the Burgomaster with an automatic pistol shot the chief of staff and German staff surgeons.

Lutwitz claims this was the signal for the civil guard, in civilian clothes on roofs, to fire upon the German soldiers in the open square below. He said also the Belgians had quick-firing guns, brought from Antwerp. As for a week the Germans had occupied Louvain and closely guarded all approaches, the story that there was any gunrunning is absurd.

Fifty Germans were killed and wounded. For that, said Lutwitz, Louvain must be wiped out. So in pantomime with his fist he swept the papers across his table.

"The Hotel de Ville," he added, "was a beautiful building; it is a pity it must be destroyed."

Ten days ago I was in Louvain when it was occupied by Belgian troops and King Albert and his staff. The city dates from the eleventh century, and the population was 42,000. The citizens were brewers, lacemakers, and manu facturers of ornaments for churches. The university was the most celebrated in European cities, and still is, or was, headquarters of the Jesuits.

In the Louvain college many priests now in America have been educated, and ten days ago over the green walls of the college, I saw hanging two American flags. I found the city clean, sleepy, and pretty, with narrow twisting streets and smart shops and cafes set in flower gardens of the houses, with red roofs, green shutters, and white walls.

Over those that faced south had been trained pear trees; their branches heavy with fruit spread out against the walls like branches of candelabra. The Town Hall was very old and very beautiful, an example of Gothic archi tecture, in detail and design more celebrated even than the Town Hall of Bruges or Brussels. It was five hundred years old, and lately had been repaired with great taste and at great cost.

Opposite was the Church of St. Pierre, dating from the fifteenth century a very noble building, with many chapels filled with carvings of the time of the Renaissance in wood, stone, and iron. In the university were 150,000 volumes.

Near it was the bronze statue of Father Damien, priest of the leper colony in the South Pacific, of which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. All these buildings are now empty, exploding cartridges. Statues, pictures, carvings, parchments, archives -- all are gone.

No one defends the sniper. But because ignorant Mexicans when their city was invaded fired upon our sailors, we did not destroy Vera Cruz. Even had we bombarded Vera Cruz, money could have restored it. Money can never restore Louvain. Great architects, dead these six hundred years, made it beautiful, and their handiwork belonged to the world. With torch and dynamite the Germans have turned these masterpieces into ashes, and all the Kaiser's horses and all his men cannot bring them back again.

When by troop train we reached Louvain, the entire heart of the city was destroyed and fire had reached the Boulevard Tirlemont, which faces the railroad station. The night was windless, and the sparks rose in steady, leisurely pillars, falling back into the furnace from which they sprang. In their work the soldiers were moving from the heart of the city to the outskirts, street by street, from house to house....

In other wars I have watched men on one hilltop, with out haste, without heat, fire at men on another hill, and in consequence on both sides good men were wasted. But in those fights there were no women and children, and the shells struck only vacant stretches of veldt or uninhabited mountainsides.

At Louvain it was war upon the defenseless, war upon churches, colleges, shops of milliners and lacemakers; war brought to the bedside and fireside; against women harvesting in the fields, against children in wooden shoes at play in the streets.

At Louvain that night the Germans were like men after an orgy.

There were fifty English prisoners, erect and soldierly. In the ocean of gray the little patch of khaki looked pitifully lonely, but they regarded the men who had outnumbered, but not defeated, them with calm and uncurious eyes. In one way I was glad to see them there. Later they will bear witness as to how the enemy makes a wilderness and calls it war. It was a most weird picture.

On the high ground rose the broken spires of the Church of St. Pierre and the Hotel de Ville, and descending like steps were row beneath row of houses, those on the Boulevard de Jodigne. Some of these were already cold, but others sent up steady, straight columns of flame. In others at the third and fourth stories the window curtains still hung, flowers still filled the window boxes, while on the first floor the torch had just passed and the flames were leaping. Fire had destroyed the electric plant, but at times the flames made the station so light that you could see the secondhand of your watch, and again all was darkness, lit only by candles.

You could tell when an officer passed by the electric torch he carried strapped to his chest. In the darkness the gray uniforms filled the station with an army of ghosts. You distinguished men only when pipes hanging from their teeth glowed red or their bayonets flashed.

Outside the station in the public square the people of Louvain passed in an unending procession, women bareheaded, weeping, men carrying the children asleep on their shoulders, all hemmed in by the shadowy army of gray wolves. Once they were halted, and among them marched a line of men. They well knew their fellow townsmen. These were on their way to be shot. And better to point the moral an officer halted both processions and, climbing to a cart, explained why the men were going to die. He warned others not to bring down upon themselves a like vengeance.

As those being led to spend the night in the fields looked across to those marked for death they saw old friends, neighbors of long standing, men of their own household. The officer bellowing at them from the cart was illuminated by the headlights of an automobile. He looked like an actor held in a spotlight on a darkened stage. It was all like a scene upon the stage, so unreal, so inhuman, you felt that it could not be true, that the curtain of fire, purring and crackling and sending up hot sparks to meet the kind, calm stars, was only a painted backdrop; that the reports of rifles from the dark rooms came from blank cartridges, and that these trembling shopkeepers and peasants ringed in bayonets would not in a few minutes really die, but that they themselves and their homes would be restored to their wives and children. You felt it was only a nightmare, cruel and uncivilized. And then you remembered that the German Emperor has told us what it is. It is his Holy War.


Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals
to the Civilized World

As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence -- in a struggle that has been forced on her.

The iron mouth of events has proved the untruth of the fictitious German defeats; consequently misrepresentation and calumny are all the more eagerly at work. As heralds of truth we raise our voices against these.

It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the Government, nor the "Kaiser" wanted war....

It is not true that we trespassed in neutral Belgium. It has been proved that France and England had resolved on such a trespass, and it has likewise been proved that Belgium had agreed to their doing so. It would have been suicide on our part not to have been beforehand.

It is not true that the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was injured by our soldiers without the bitterest defense having made it necessary....

It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire a part of the town, as punishment. The greatest part of Louvain has been preserved....

It is not true that our warfare pays no respects to international laws. It knows no undisciplined cruelty. But in the east, the earth is saturated with the blood of women and children unmercifully butchered by the wild Russian troops, and in the west, dumdum bullets mutilate the breasts of our soldiers....

It is not true that the combat against our so-called militarism is not a combat against our civilization, as our enemies hypocritically pretend it is. Were it not for German militarism, German civilization would long since have been extirpated....

We cannot wrest the poisonous weapon -- the lie -- out of the hands of our enemies. All we can do is proclaim to all the world, that our enemies are giving false witness against us....

Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant, is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.

EMIL VON BEHRING, Professor of Medicine, Marburg
Prof. PAUL EHRLICH, Frankfort on the Main
FRITZ HABR, Professor of Chemistry, Berlin
ERNST HAECKL, Professor of Zoology, Jena
Prof. ADOLF VON HARNACK, General Director of the Royal Library, Berlin
KARL LAMPRECHT, Professor of History, Leipzig
MAX PLANCK, Professor of Physics, Berlin
Prof. MAX REINHARDT, Director of the German Theatre, Berlin
WILHELM ROENTGEN, Professor of Physics, Munich
GUSTAV VON SCHMOLLER, Professor of National Economy, Berlin....