Until August 1914, the city of Liège, and Belgium as a whole, represented a reality and existed in good and proper form only for a fairly limited section of international opinion. Of course, the mining engineers and colonial companies of Leopold II had contributed to Belgium's expansion and to making it known outside of Europe. However, the Kingdom was still difficult to identify as an entity, and likely totally unknown to an average American citizen, for example. To a large extent, the globalization of the concept of "Belgium" is due to the events of August 1914. They will attract the attention of leaders and populations on an international scale.
If the violation of Belgium's neutrality came as a thunderclap in a clear blue sky in the eyes of the circles of people said to be informed, the various acts of violence accompanying the penetration of German troops into Belgium strike a chord with international opinion. Belgian territory is subjected to the first assaults of the German army on August 4th, at 4 AM. It's the inauguration of the war on the western front. The next day, the siege of the city of Liège begins; it will continue until August 16th. The "Valiant city" was protected by a ring of 12 forts (six large – Barchon, Fléron, Boncelles, Flémalle, Loncin, Pontisse - and six small – Evegnée, Chaudfontaine, Embourg, Liers, Lantin, Hollogne), under the laws adopted in 1887 relative to the fortifications of the Meuse. The importance that King Albert 1st, commander-in-chief of the Belgian army, ascribes to the defence of the fortified location of Liège is clear from the person whom he decides to appoint as the head of the 3rd Division in charge of defending the zone, namely General Gérard Leman (1851-1920). This professor from the Brussels ERM (Royal Military Academy), specialising in mathematics, most notably contributed to the King's military education while the latter was still a cadet. As such, it would appear that holding Liège is of the highest symbolic importance.
This military feat quickly lends itself to allegory, ideal for the famous Epinal images and chromolithographs of all kinds that millions of children see in their first books as part of their early education. The whole world, and France in particular, will acknowledge that the resistance offered by Liège provided it with time to mobilise its troops, thereby gaining 10 precious days or so. Though this myth has now been called into question, it served as the roots of a tenacious legend for many long decades.
Belgium is on the road that leads to France
The initial hours of a worldwide conflict
With a fundamental infraction of the recently established rules of International law, that lawyers more familiarly refer to as a "violation", Belgium is invaded by German armies on 4 August 1914. If one were to describe the First World War metaphorically as a classical theatre piece, though the unity of time and space are hardly respected, one could say that the siege of the city of Liège provides the first act. Belgium is on the road that leads to France, the same country that, in 1894, signed an alliance with Imperial Russia, that some viewed as unholy. For 20 years, such close ties prevented the German Emperor Wilhelm II from advancing serenely. This amounts to the Reich being purely and simply encircled. This fear grows into an obsession. To reach France, of course, passing through Belgium seems inevitable. The siege of the fortified site of Liège begins on August 5th. The 3rd Division of Belgian General Leman (30,000 men, while Belgian could count on the mobilisation of 117,000 soldiers) must stand up to the 1st and 2nd German armies of Generals Otto Von Emmich and Erich Von Ludendorff (60,000 men). Though the Belgians can count on their fortified ring, it nevertheless has certain noteworthy weaknesses: absence of reinforced concrete, precarious gas evacuation system and poor communication installations. On the other hand, the short-range defence provides one of the system's strong points.
For the Belgian army, the defence of the Loncin Fort is as symbolic as the battle of Camarón for the Foreign Legion
The resistance of the forts
The Belgian army repels the initial assaults, and certain remarkable acts of valour must be pointed out on the side of the Liège civil guard. This unit, a "bourgeois" unit established in 1830, was a kind of compromise between the police and the regular army, that young men from the wealthier class could join in order to avoid their military service, where they could pay for a replacement (before a law from 1909). One of these civil guards, cavalry major "Puck" Chaudoir, manoeuvring in the space separating the forts of Liège, is notably credited with several military feats near Hermalle-sous-Argenteau, between Liège and Visé. Despite such resistance, on 7 August, the 14th German brigade enters Liège and the 27th and 165th Hanoverian regiments occupy the Provincial Palace in the Place Saint-Lambert, while many forts are still undergoing enemy assaults. These assaults will continue for nine more days. In this case, can one say that Liège has fallen? Clearly not since, on a purely military level, the City is symbolized by its ring of forts in all of the Kriegsspielen (various prepared battle plans) of the Schlieffen Plan in its various versions. They "are" the city. They must therefore capitulate. On August 15th, the new occupier demands a war tribute of 50 million francs from a provincial deputy of Liège, moderate liberal Gaston Grégoire. Unable to comply with this demand, this senior official is incarcerated on two occasions. He will become part of the popular and symbolic imagery of the resistance of Liège.
Faced with a situation with no headway, the Germans deploy their heavy means, with Skoda and Krupp 305 and 420 mm canons brought to bear on Liège. After sustained assaults, on August 15th, the last remaining fort, Loncin, is forced to stop fighting. The fort falls and General Leman, found unconscious by the Germans, is captured. He is incarcerated in Magdebourg on the other side of the Rhine, though as a sign of military recognition, he is authorised to keep his command sword with him. He will only return to Belgium in 1919, when he is knighted by the King. With its resistance to the final extremities, to the last vestiges of human strength, the fort of Loncin will in some ways become, for the Belgian army, what the defence at the battle of Camarón is for the Foreign Legion. Bloody episodes from the siege become part of the collective consciousness; how can one not recall the bombing of a powder magazine containing no less than 12,000 kg of powder, that resulted in the deaths of many men?
Guys, if we stay here, we'll not see our girls again
Characters such as the gunner named Bécue or soldier Digneffe became popular after the battle. Everyone remembered the first line from a melancholy song (Tout doucement on se balade - C’est la dernière promenade). As for Antoine Digneffe, many people recalled the words that he constantly repeated as the bombs fell, in Walloon, the language spoken by most of the soldiers from southern Belgium (Valet ci côp chal, nos s’abrèsseran n’oss crapaute – i.e. : Guys, if we stay here, we'll not see our girls again). The evacuation of the last defenders from the Loncin for sometimes offers quite pathetic scenes. How can one not recall their march through the community of Othée? Physically unrecognisable after a 10-day intensive siege, Belgian soldiers cross through Othée and realise that the inhabitants do not recognise them, nor greet them. They feel that their countrymen are ashamed of them. In fact, the shock of seeing them pass by in such pitiful condition could only inspire silence. The misunderstanding was complete. Faced with this oppressive silence, one of the soldiers addresses the small crowd in attendance with a weak voice, saying: Nos nè polans rin – There was nothing we could do. These are the words of utter confusion.
This geographical space will henceforth be more sensitive to the siren calls from France.
The Legion of honour
The siege of Liège marks not only the start of the conflict, but also the start of a myth that will extend as far as the United States, that of Poor Little Belgium. Repeated fundraising efforts are carried out across the Atlantic in an effort to help the Kingdom. Several American starlets take up the cause and sell apples in the middle of Wall Street, in support of Belgium. Official recognition, however, will come from France. Very quickly, in 1914, the city of Liège is very exceptionally awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour. In the initial weeks of the occupation, the Liège liberal politician Émile Digneffe travels to Bordeaux, to which the French government had pulled back in face of the threat of the occupation of Paris. He is very familiar with French statesmen such as Aristide Briand and Alexandre Ribot. The President of the Republic, Raymond Poincaré, even says to him: "France was saved by the resistance of Liège". During this interview, the French Head of state promises to Digneffe that he will travel to Liège at the end of the conflict, in order to solemnly award the Cross of the Legion of Honour to the city.
This exceptional ceremony takes place between 23 and 26 July 1919. Several Regiments of the Line will remain at attention from the Guillemins train station to the Place Saint-Lambert, where the festivities are held. Throughout the city, huge posters proclaiming Glory to France and Long live France! hang everywhere. The celebration is total. The names of the city's streets will also be marked by this conflict: names such as place de la République Française, Foch and Serbie streets are adopted. On the dais where the ceremony is being held, the population sees the assembled collection of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, President Poincaré, the King of the Belgians Albert 1st and his wife, Elisabeth, and, naturally, the authorities from Liège, including Deputy burgomaster Louis Fraigneux, showing the crowd the embroidered cushion to which the Legion of Honour has been pinned. Delirium reigns. It's the start of a new phase in the history of Liège and of Belgium. This geographical space, previously strongly subject to German influence, will now be much more sensitive to the siren calls from France.