This is the centenary year of World War I and virtually every day of 2014 will mark some particular event, the impact of which has affected us ever since. Fifteenth August 1914 marks the collapse of the final forts around the city of Liège in Belgium. Why should a defeat be remembered?
On 3rd August 2014, President François Hollande of France and Germany's President Joachim Gauck, each gave speeches on the 100th anniversary of Germany's declaration of war against France. Both Presidents remarked that "their grandfathers had fought each other" before exchanging a token embrace of reconciliation.
The ceremony took place at Hartmannswillerkopf War Cemetery in France's Vosges Mountains overlooking the country's Rhine frontier with Germany. This rocky, strategic spur in Alsace, though little known to the likes of the British, was bitterly fought over. The area witnessed the first battles between Germany and France and in this area of the Vosges, intensified throughout 1915 with each side suffering some 15,000 casualties. During the ceremony, the Presidents stood in a crypt containing the unidentified remains of over 12,000 of the fallen from both countries.
Next day on 4th August, when a hundred years before Britain had issued Germany with an ultimatum to respect Belgium's neutrality by midnight or both countries would be at war, the Prince of Wales, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron, gathered in Glasgow Cathedral with over a thousand others. During a speech made by the Prime Minister and after he acknowledged the terrible suffering, Mr Cameron very rightly reminded us that the War also changed the world for the better:
"...The emancipation of women, the fact that women then got the vote, participated more in the workplace; there were changes in medicine, massive improvements in our world..."
He could have added that it eventually established a liberal democracy, in Western Europe and not least Germany, the type of which would never have been enjoyed had Germany, Austria and Turkey won the war.
Cautionary alliances had formed prior to 1914 alarmed by a Germany that appeared to be belligerent and bellicose in foreign policy, aggressively nationalist domestically and ruled by a military-political Junker class after Bismarck's Prussian and German Empire.
With Bismarck's forced resignation in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II, gifted with much less political savvy than his former mentor, was determined to make his own position more authoritarian and attain his country's rightful "place in the sun".
Alexandra Richie in her book Faust's Metropolis, A History of Berlin (1998) explains the consequences of Bismarck's dismissal:
"...Unlike his successors he (Bismarck) despised the Pan-Germanism and unpleasant chauvinism which swept the country at the end of the century. He had masterminded three wars but he never believed in Germany's inherent right to dominate her enemies," and quotes Bismarck's (ideal) strategy: 'always be part of an alliance of three.'
The likelihood of a major war however then increased because the Iron Chancellor had always "...managed to maintain a retrogressive political structure in an otherwise modern German state", a complexity which none of his successors could perpetuate.
Otto von Bismarck died in December 1897 and it was noted by many, his enemies and opponents included, that he had been denied a state funeral, a cause for some disquiet as Ms Richie explains:
"With Bismarck finally buried there was nothing to keep William in check; there was no imperial Cabinet, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary could merely advise him, he had complete control over the army...it was a ridiculous state of affairs in a modern industrial state. Dazzled by his own omnipotence, surrounded by sycophants who did not dare to criticize him, and convinced of his personal link to God, William II set out on the road to war to become, as his uncle Edward VII would say, 'the most brilliant failure in history'."
If this points the main finger of blame at Germany for World War I, others disagree. Richard Norton-Taylor writing in The Guardian on 31st July: "In Europe 1914 every leading player had his hand on a smoking gun", uses quotes from World War I books to back up his title. One quote that surprised me is The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark (2013):
"There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character...The crisis that brought war in 1914 was the fruit of a shared political culture."
Awkward, not just because I find this difficult to agree with and not least because I've read Mr Clark's Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (2006):
"As for the organs that administered the army in peacetime and at war, these were completely independent from the structures of civil authority."
Mr Clark goes on to instance the uprising between 1904 and 1907 of the Herero people in Germany's colony of South West Africa (Namibia) when Governor Leutwein of the colony seeks dialogue with the Herero is completely undermined by General Lotha von Trotha whose policy is to execute the men and drive the women and children into the Namib Desert.
At the very least 24,000 Herero died and later, 10,000 Nama people using the same methods. German Chancellor and Minister President Bernhard von Bülow advised the Kaiser (after the event as the Governor reported to von Bülow after being relieved, "too lenient" it seems) that the General's actions were "...contrary to Christian and humanitarian principles..."
Neither colony Governor nor the highest civilian in Germany had the authority to countermand the military. In principle Wilhelm agreed with his Chancellor but it took many more months over details between civil and military bodies before a solution was found: many survivors were placed in a concentration camp and used as slave labour.
Between Bismarck's death and the 1914 July Crisis, the German General Staff and its offshoots had completely outmanoeuvred even the Kaiser. It is this same body which, under Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), insists that Austria must reject the acceptance of its own grossly humiliating terms imposed upon Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. These, Serbia had agreed to swallow at the insistence of Russia's War Minister, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, who had told the Czar and his Council that Russia was unready to take on Austria-Hungary, never mind Germany!
Germany's stance by both military and civilian authorities (Chancellor Bethmann- Hollweg and Foreign Minister von Jagow to name two) is taken out of fear that Russia's military reforms and infrastructure plans (Great Military Programme) will give it parity with Germany by 1917.
Last-minute proposals to avert war were made by Britain's Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey with the help of his friend the German Ambassador, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, who implored his Government to accept Britain's offer. These proposals were kept from the Kaiser until hostilities were already under way against Serbia and that imminent mobilisation was too late to stop. The rest as they say is history.
Germany's Army commenced hostilities against France on 4 August 1914 on the Alsace-Lorraine front. The contentious part of their Schlieffen Plan however, called for forces in the north to proceed through neutral Belgium. France would be enveloped in a giant pincer from the north and the east and be defeated in 42 days from the start of fighting.
Entry into neutral Luxembourg was made on 1 August – everybody forgets Luxembourg! Belgium was expected to immediately capitulate and would become part of the German Empire. Even should Belgium resist, two days had been allotted for its defeat.
The problem for Germany was to meet resistance where and when it was not expected – there never was a "Plan B" – and on 3 August, the Belgian Government refused passage to Germany's armies.
The 12 forts around Liège withstood a siege lasting from 5th August until 16th August. Militarily, the Germans lost about 5,000 dead and were unable to start repairs on the railways and affect passage until the 15th when their First, Second and Third Armies were able to proceed to the French frontier. The Belgians sustained about 20,000 casualties.
Namur's nine forts were taken between 20th and 25th August at little cost to the Germans but the Belgians lost a further 15,000 casualties.
Antwerp (the National Redoubt) was under siege from 28th September until 10th October and required the Germans to deploy 66,000 troops. The Belgians lost 33,000 of their army having to flee into neutral Netherlands on the city's fall, to be interred there for the duration of the War, plus those dead, wounded and taken prisoner.
King Albert I of Belgium made his way with some 65,000 of what was left of Belgium's Army and unoccupied territory, to dig in around the banks of the River Yser and the town of De Panne. There, supported by a French infantry division and 6,500 Marins Fusiliers, King Albert fought in the front line with his troops against 12 German divisions at the Battle of Yser (16th – 31st October). The battle was won but at enormous cost and the sea dykes had to be opened. There were about 40,000 Allied casualties against some 75,000 German ones.
Belgium's gallant resistance in the face of the world's finest army is often overlooked, if not forgotten. Many military historians agree that the Battle of Liège delayed the Germans by only four or five days in the execution of their Schlieffen Plan though my The Pageant of the Century (Associate Editor Guy Ramsey, 1933) claims that the Germans "expected a walk-over...The ten days' delay it achieved gave the Allies just the time needed to formulate a plan of campaign and re-assemble their forces...".
Which delay is correct did not matter to the Germans, both figures threw their lightning campaign strategy off course. Added to having to hive off divisions to deal with Belgian resistance and troops tied down in what became a most harsh occupation, gaps soon opened between the German armies and their supply lines, not to mention shortages at home beginning to impact before the end of 1914!
King Albert remained on the Yser Front with his troops for the War's duration as did Queen Elizabeth who set up a nursing corps and herself, tended the wounded, both winning the adoration of their people.
With all the French area of Belgium under occupation and most of the remaining Army being Flemish, a consequence of World War I saw a great revival of the Flemish (Dutch) language and pride in Flemish culture in Belgium. This has been the cause of intense friction between the two communities ever since, at times the institution of the Monarchy alone, stopping the country splitting apart.
The twists and turns of war never cease to amaze!