11-15 August 1914
The Fall of Liège

The Fall of Liège, 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 Liège 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 Liège 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.

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