Feature Articles - Brave Little Belgium - Retreat To The Gete
The fall of the Liege forts opened the way for the German 1st and 2nd Armies to swing through Belgium towards the French border, with the von Schlieffen intention to encircle Paris to the North. The 3rd Army would march on Dinant, the 4th on Sedan and the 6th on Verdun.
The right wing of the Belgian army stood fast at Namur, where the 4th Division reinforced the fortress. On the 5th August, the French had given assurances that necessary military support would be given whenever it was requested. The rest of the Belgian army was repositioned to defend the north of the country, to stem the German advance. The River Gete (Gette in French) was chosen as the first natural defence line behind Liege.
On the morning of the 7th, the Belgian military deputy in France reported to GHQ in Leuven with a message from Joffre. It said that the full French deployment would be complete by the 11th.
At this time, Joffre was still under the impression that Liege was securely in Belgian hands; he wanted it held until he could send four Corps to the Meuse valley from the direction of Namur. He insisted that if a retreat became necessary, it must be in a south-westerly direction (that is, towards France). But of course, as this message was received, the Germans were on both banks of the Meuse and the Belgian 3rd Division were beginning to withdraw to the Gete.
The French cavalry corps under General Sordet crossed into Belgium on the 6th. Their orders were not to give direct assistance to the Belgians at Liege, but to hold the Germans along the right bank.
The Belgian cavalry, which since the 4th had been stationed at Wavre, were ordered to cover troop movements to the north of Liege, and if necessary move towards Maastricht and Maaseik to hold the Germans from cutting the line of retreat. When the battle started at Liege, they moved to Hannuit, a central position from which to fire a barrage.
On the 6th, General de Witte moved them to Hallogne, where contact was made with the infantry of the 3rd Division. When, on the 7th, GHQ signalled that the direction of Huy was under attack and was becoming dangerous, the cavalry moved to Warnaut. Further order, however, indicated that in fact the more critical fighting was taking place to the north and north-west. Many German troops had been reported in Limburg and to the west of Tongeren.
De Witte therefore turned around and hastened to Sint-Truiden, and by the morning of the 8th, his troops lay to the south of the town. However, the strength of the German advance was palpably growing, and he was ordered on the 9th to take no risks and to fall back to the Gete line.
To the south of the cavalry, the Belgian army now held a more or less continuous line from Tienen to Jodoigne. In front, the 1st, 3rd and 5th Divisions. Behind them, the 2nd were at Leuven, the 6th at Hamme-Mille. The defence of Namur was left to the 4th Division, of which the 8th Mixed Brigade held the Meuse bridges at Huy and Andenne. When the last Liege forts fell, this Brigade withdrew, and the Germans crossed at these places on the 19th. The Armies of Von Kluck and Von Bulow had gained completely free passage at all the important Meuse bridges.
In fact, as early as the 8th, the 2nd and 4th German cavalry divisions under Von Marwitz had crossed by a temporary bridge at Lixhe, advancing to a position south of Tongeren which menaced the Liege troops from the rear. They moved on the old Roman town the next day, but a company of cyclists, with help from the burgerwacht (militia), drove off a complete Brigade of Liebeshuzaren, and they withdrew to Gothem. The German cavalry were never as bold after this shock, which had an important effect in slowing the general advance.
However, a stronger German force of cavalry did take Tongeren the next day. Von Marwitz, however, realised that he was in danger of being cut off, as the Belgian defence line solidified behind him, and between him and the rest of the German armies. He moved to escape by taking a northerly rout towards Diest. His troops came into regular contact with Belgian patrols and supply columns. A serious clash took place on the 10th near Orsmal, where the 3rd Belgian Lansiers attacked. Although the fire fight was only short, 28 Belgians died, as did an uncounted number of Germans. After a days rest, Von Marwitz moved towards Haelen.
A serious clash occurred at Haelen, on the 12th August. Units of the Belgian cavalry (the 4th and 5th Lansiers, plus a company of cyclists and another of pioneer engineers) under General de Witte ambushed the advanced squadrons of the German cavalry, in what was almost certainly the last fight between mounted cavalrymen, wearing the breastplates and helmets of a different era.
The battle lasted for most a the day, and drew in reinforcements from both sides. The Germans suffered a serious defeat in the village and in the surrounding farms, losing some 150 dead, 600 wounded and 200-300 prisoners. The number of dead horses was put at over 400. The Belgian losses totalled around 500. Von Marwitz withdrew, advancing days later with great caution. This battle grew in Belgian folklore as the 'Battle of the Silver Helmets'.
A large gap existed between the Belgians and the French 5th Army, that was only ordered to be closed on the 12th August when General Lanrezac, as a result of events at Liege, took up a defensive position on the Meuse between Namur and Givet. He used the 1st Corps under Franchet D'Esprey, who took an entire week to take up their position.
After the Belgian victory at Haelen, there followed several days of relative calm. The Belgian army, already shattered from the loss of Liege and much of the 3rd Division, had time to catch its breath.
Irregular machine gun fire from Diest broke De Witte's illusions of the chances of a further breakthrough, for Von Kluck had ordered the three Korps of his 1st Army to advance through central Belgium towards Diest and Tienen. A Reserve Korps followed each assault Korps, and thus an impenetrable and advancing curtain formed in front of the Belgians. The latter still faced this completely alone, for a connection with Lanrezac's Frenchmen had not yet been made, and the small British force (of which the Belgians knew very little) was still on its way to France. Steadily, the field grey occupied Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, the gin town of Hasselt, Genk and Mol, while masses continued to stream across the Meuse bridges. Belgium had already lost much of its industrial capacity, for the Limburg area was one where much of its coal and iron working took place.
On the morning of the 18th of August, German artillery fire opened on Haelen, and the nearby villages. The German infantry moved forward, and despite resistance from two sections of cyclists and a dismounted squadron of the 5th Lansiers, they took it quite quickly. This allowed the German cavalry to cross the Gete. The entire Belgian army in front of Leuven was now threatened by encirclement.
The Belgians had no choice but to slip quietly away to the north, while they still had the chance. The next natural defensive position was to occupy the banks of the River Dijle (Dyle).
In retreat, they put up stiff resistance, and units of the 3rd Division fought large scale defensive actions at Sint-Margriethe-Houthem (on the 18th) and Aarschot (19th). The action at Aarschot was notable for the violent reaction of the Germans. A single brigade of Belgian infantry, with one artillery battery, held up the German advance for several hours, but after suffering heavy losses and being attacked from three sides, they withdrew.
Inevitably the Germans took prisoners, mostly wounded men. A large number were marched to the banks of the River Demer, where they were shot. Those that escaped were thrown in the river to drown. The Germans then turned on the citizens of the Aarschot. 400 houses were plundered and set on fire, and 150 people executed. During the next few days, the fury continued, and the towns of Diest, Schaffen, and Tremelo were razed.
The loss of Aarschot endangered the Dijle position. Albert decided with reluctance to move GHQ from Leuven to Mechelen. He ordered the whole army to retire to within the fortress ring of Antwerp.
After a long and tense night march, the first units of the exhausted field army entered the fortress on the 20th August. Discouraged now by the fast retreat after the hopeful results of Haelen and Aarschot, they trekked through a growing stream of refugees to the harbour meadows.
The Germans capitalised quickly on the retreat. On the 19th, they took Leuven, and the German flag flew on the Stadhuis, which until just a few hours previously had housed King Albert and the General Staff of the Belgian army. On the 20th, they triumphantly entered Brussels, and watered their horses in the Grote Markt, and along the elegant boulevards of the capital.
From the 21st, the Germans began to renew their swing towards the south. They left only the 3rd Reserve Korps as a screen facing Antwerp, and they were positioned in the Vilvoorde - Haacht area to the north-east of the capital.
The German high command were now of the opinion that the Belgian army was a spent force, incapable of offensive action.
It became clear soon enough, however, that the Belgians posed a constant threat to the northern German flank as its advance units headed for Paris. The lateral communication lines and railways running across Belgium were an artery supplying the fighting front with materials and men from Germany. They were all too vulnerable to a sudden attack from Antwerp, and Von Kluck was eventually forced to strengthen the screen standing fast in front of the six Belgian divisions.
On the 20th August, the German high command ordered the 3rd Army, in contact with the 2nd Army under Von Bulow, to march on French troops between the Sambre and Meuse. While they advanced, the Belgian 4th Division, the solitary part of the Belgian army in the area, dug in to defend Namur. In the wide gap between the French 5th and 3rd Armies, under Lanrezac and Ruffey respectively, there was only one brigade, the 45th, of French infantry, who were ordered to support the Belgian defence. They would face German opposition of at least four times their combined strength.
The first probing attacks were made on the 20th, towards Fort de Marchovelette. The next morning, the German field guns opened up on many of the forts. The super-heavy mortars were in position, and made their first registering shots, on the 21st. By dusk, all telephone lines to the eastern forts were down. Marchovelette was constantly hit, and knocked out of action. The rest would gradually follow.
The bulk of the Germans reached the area of Namur on the 23rd, the same day that they clashed for the first time with the BEF, at Mons. The day before, they had clashed with the French near Charleroi and had taken Dinant. In the latter place, German kultur executed 85 citizens on the market square after dragging the congregation of a church from Mass. Women, children and the aged were assaulted by German troops, who also razed three quarters of the houses of the town.
Namur had fortifications similar to those at Liege. The city stands on a gentle bend of the River Meuse, at its confluence with the Sambre. It was surrounded by nine forts, at approximately five miles from the centre. The forts were linked, as at Liege, by trenches and barbed wire, although the condition of these was far from perfect. The German bombardment of the forts followed the pattern established at Liege.
The eastern facing forts were systematically destroyed by the 305mm and 420mm mortars. The German 38th, 3rd Guard, and 1st Guard Reserve Divisions moved in on the town during the afternoon of the 23rd. The Belgian 4th Division was ordered to try to slip away from the holocaust during the night, and although the rearguard was finally trapped at Ermeton-sur-Biert and taken prisoner, the order was - miraculously - carried out.
After their withdrawal from Namur, the 12,000 men of the 4th Division withdrew and crossed into French-held territory. They were collected and sent to Le Havre, where they sailed up the English Channel to disembark again at Oostende in time to join up - on the 5th September - with the other 5 Divisions moving backwards into West Flanders.
Namur was formally surrendered on 25th August.
Article contributed by Chris Baker, website.
"Hun" was a slang term used by the allies, to describe the Germans. "Boche" was another.
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