With the centennial of World War One in full swing, there’s a lot of press repeating the received truths about the war. If one listens to the UK media, it sounds like the British dealt with the Germans almost single-handed, saving Brave Little Belgium with a bit of help from the French and of course the Commonwealth allies.
American media coverage, such as it is, stresses the American role, while glossing over the first three years they missed. Neither of these national media spend much time on the wide diversity of people involved in the conflict.
After the initial couple of months of World War One, the front stagnated and both sides began to dig in. The war settled in for four years of trench warfare. While trench warfare was nothing new — the American Civil War, Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars all saw the use of trenches — this was on an unprecedented scale.
The new situation called for new measures. None of the participating armies had an adequate number of grenades and it took a year for supply to catch up with demand. Some countries never managed to produce enough. Artillery commanders discovered that shrapnel, deadly in the open battles of the past, did little against entrenched enemies unless the gunners were lucky enough to score a direct hit. There was a long lag before enough high explosive shells made it to the front.
At the start of World War One, the armies of Europe were still thinking in the terms of the nineteenth century. Many soldiers sported colorful uniforms more suitable for the age of black powder, radio operators broadcast in the clear not thinking anyone would be listening, generals still advocated cavalry and bayonet charges and sneered at newfangled inventions such as the airplane, and forts were considered the best way to defend a country.
Belgium was officially a neutral country. Still, it feared invasion from its more powerful neighbors. It built a string of forts at Liège and Namur to protect against attack from the Germans and French respectively. When the Germans attacked Belgium in their daring sweep to take Paris, they brought heavy siege artillery in order to deal with these forts.
When we think of the Western Front during World War One, we tend to think of the static killing grounds of trench warfare. While this was true for many grueling years of war, during its first months in 1914, WWI was a war of movement.
The German offensive in August 1914 involved a sweep through Belgium in an attempt to take Paris and knock France out of the war before its ally, Russia, could mobilize. What the Germans didn’t expect was the fierce resistence put up by the Belgians. Its small but determined army slowed down the German advance, aided by a string of outdated but stubbornly defended forts.