Kermit loved the military architecture of the American West. I have fond memories of him leading a tour of Ft. Missoula that concluded with a demonstration firing of period fire arms by a colleague (fortunately not me this time) dressed up in the uniform of the famous Buffalo Soldiers (25th Infantry Regiment) who were deployed at Ft. Missoula in the late 19th century. He also brought his love of frontier forts into the classroom. One of his best lectures involved the saga of Ft. Fizzle, a comedic interlude in the otherwise unrelenting tragedy of the Nez Perce War.
In an effort to stop the Nez Perce Indians fleeing through Montana into Canada from forced (and illegal) resettlement, the U.S. Army—accompanied by the Governor of Montana and several hundred civilian volunteers—built a small log fort at what they considered a Thermopylae-type choke point in Lolo Canyon southwest of Missoula. When the Indians refused to surrender their weapons and ammunition, the governor and all the civilians skedaddled, leaving less than 100 soldiers against a force of warriors twice that size. Rather than attack the strongpoint, however, the Nez Perce contingent, which included 750 women and children as well as 2,000 horses, scaled the supposedly impregnable cliffs on either side of the redoubt and bypassed the garrison. The site of this ignominious affair became known to history as Ft. Fizzle.
Although I never caught Kermit’s enthusiasm for US frontier military architecture, I decided many years later that the term Ft. Fizzle is applicable to military architecture in general. However formidable defensive structures are when first constructed, they eventually fail. Fortunately for those of us addicted to large military artifacts, this stubborn truism continues to escape the notice of those in charge of building the next Ft. Fizzle.
MudGuide’s 2014 Battlefield tour proved rich in military architecture far more to my liking than Kermit’s. Europe’s semi-continuous wars since at least the beginning of recorded history have made it the premier locale for the Sisyphusian labor of establishing “impregnable” defensive systems. Over the course of a week, Team Mago explored numerous first rate fortification artifacts dating from 1870 to 1940. You can read all about one of these forts, Chateau Fort De Sedan in Sedan: A Battle Magnet.
Metz: Three Thousand Years of Sieges
Germanicus and I promised our spousal units a warless weekend in Metz. We lied. Since at least 450 BC there has been a fortified hill town between the Moselle and Seille rivers. After Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the town was named Divodorum and grew from a legionary camp at the intensection of several Roman military roads into an important Gallo-Roman city, enriched by the wine trade and boasting one of the largest amphitheaters in the province.
Despite its extensive Roman military architecture, Metz’s position athwart the classic invasion route used by nomadic barbarian tribes seeking land and plunder in the cultivated regions of Western Europe guaranteed its enrolment in the Ft. Fizzle hall of fame. The Alemanni, Franks, and Huns sacked the city in late antiquity and the Metz continued to suffer depredations during medieval religious wars and the French Revolution.
Beginning in the 19th century, Metz was passed back and forth between France and Germany depending on the fortunes of war. In 1870, the French Marshall François Bazaine surrendered the city fifty-five days after the disaster at Sedan, which was the result of French efforts to lift the siege at Metz. The Germans made significant additions to the city’s extensive defenses during their half-century of occupation, but had to hand the fortress back to France after World War I. The French then incorporated Metz into the ill-fated Maginot Line. The German re-annexed Metz shortly after the second disaster at Sedan. Four years later George Patton’s 3rd American Army conducted a bloody, but ultimately successful three month siege of the city.
As I said, we tried to up hold our gore-free guarantee to the ladies with extended visits to the Cathedrale Saint-Eienne, a Gothic masterpiece containing some of Marc Chagall’s most impressive stained glass works, and the wonderful Musees de la Cour d’Or—a little known jewel box of a museum devoted to Gallo-Roman antiquity that sits above the remains of Metz’s Roman baths. We squired our sweeties through one of France’s largest pedestrian zones that covers the bulk of the historic city center. Germanicus and I even gallantly imbibed some of Belgium’s best suds in the place d’Armes, while otherwise drinking in the facades of the cathedral and Hotel de Ville, allowing Freya and Patti could shop free of male impatience.
So it was not our fault when the French Armed Forces set up a huge recruiting exhibition on the place de la Republic. There were multiple exhibits containing an armored fighting vehicle, an artillery piece, a helicopter, and models of airplanes and war ships—to include a scaled replica of the Mistral Class amphibious assault ships that the French built under contract to Russia but eventually refused to deliver in response to Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and support for Ukrainian separatists.
We wandered around the exhibitions checking out weapons and partaking of the brats and beer that the recruiters employed to entice French youth into lending their ears to a recruiting pitch. No one tried to get Team Mago to sign up, but most of the young women and men in uniform seemed to appreciate our obvious interest in them and their equipment. It felt just like Memorial Day back at Fort Missoula (although it was actually Ascension day weekend in Metz).
Germanicus and I felt that between Jesus achieving escape velocity and la gloire militaire de la France we had been relieved of our pacifist vows. Securing a final brewski for the road, Team Mago visited the nearby Porte des Allemands, a key remnant of the city’s medieval defenses. This bridge castle still exhibits musket ball damage from the siege of Metz in 1552-1553 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, which ended in a rare defensive victory.
Our final foray in Metz was somewhat less successful. Germanicus had been researching the assault on Ft. Driant by Patton’s 3rd Army in late September 1944. Not one of Old Blood and Guts’ finest efforts, the U.S. 5th Infantry Division lost 798 men killed, wounded, and missing before Patton called off the attack. Ft. Driant did not surrender until two and a half weeks after the 3rd Army occupied Metz.
Germanicus was interested in this battle because he determined that a friend’s uncle had been killed in the fighting. Team Mago dutifully set out to find this redoubt that is named after Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant, an early pioneer of the military science fiction subgenre who died at Verdun in 1916. We got very close using Google Earth, but found the road blocked by a gate festooned with signs declaring that the fort lies on territory under the suzerainty of the French Army and that trespassing is both illegal and dangerous. Discretion being the better part of valor, we decided that Ft. Driant remained impregnable to Americans be they soldiers or travelers and retreated in the footsteps of the 5th Infantry Division.
One of the reasons that I remain an unrepentant fortification fanatic is all the cool stuff that the other side invents to knock them down or blow them up. From antiquity’s Helepolis through medieval trebuchets to the contemporary GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator, weapon designers have always found a way to obliterate stationary defensive structures. But the queen of redoubt reduction, in my humble opinion, was Big Bertha. My love affair with the Krupps 420mm howitzer began in adolescence when I first read Tuchman’s description of its electronic firing by a 200 man crew—tricked out in special headgear shielding their eyes, ears, and mouths while lying prone at a distance of three (American) football fields from the great beast. So naturally the scene of Bertha’s debutante ball at Liege Belgium was allocated a post of honor on MudGuide’s staff ride.
I was not, however, prepared for an equal level of enthusiasm for Dicke Bertha on my wife’s part. Patti caught the big gun bug from the same passage in Tuchman that had infected me so many years prior. Although she felt compelled to point out the incongruity of naming an obviously penis-shaped weapon after a fat woman (reportedly the doyenne of the Krupps industrial dynasty), Patti became expert at spotting pictures and models of Big Bertha in museums and was eager to view the site of its employment at the outset of World War I.
Liege lies in the center of the constellation Ft. Fizzle on the same barbarian byway as Metz and Sedan. The infamous German Schlieffen Plan bet the farm on an enormous right wing envelopment of French and British forces during the initial six weeks of war. This meant invading neutral Belgium at the onset of hostilities with 700,000 men plus all their animals and impedimenta. The key to this great turning movement was Liege, which barred the vital road and rail crossings of the Meuse River.
After a couple millennia of playing host to other nations’ wars, Belgium fortified Liege and nearby Namur in the late 19th century against both Teutonic and Gallic incursions. The work took place under the auspices of General Henri Brialmont, the leading military architect of his generation. Brialmont ringed Liege with a dozen state-of-the-art forts. These concrete structures consisted of subterrestrial tunnels and galleries surmounted by turret-studded triangular mesas encompassed by nine-meter deep dry moats. The fortification circuit bristled with 400 artillery pieces and many machine guns.
Twenty-three years after their construction, the Liege forts were still considered the strongest in Europe. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Like most fortifications throughout history, their garrisons were composed of old and poorly trained reservists. The forts themselves were made of incorrectly poured unreinforced concrete, while their guns fired black powder, their latrines were not vented, and vital elements such as showers, kitchens, and morgues were located above ground in the vulnerable counterscarps of their moats. From the outset of hostilities, the forts filled with a miasma of gas and dust mingled with the fetor of raw sewage and decomposing corpses.
The greatest vulnerability at Liege, however, stemmed from the fact that the individual redoubts had been designed for a battle in which the interval spaces were occupied by entrenched troops of Belgium’s field army. The Belgian high command allocated only a single active division to Liege and soon withdrew it to bolster the defense of Antwerp so that there were wide-open gaps between all of the forts encircling Liege.
On August 5, 1914 the Germans launched a series of ill-prepared human wave assaults on Liege that could have been lifted directly from one of Colonel Louis Grandmaison’s pre-war lectures at the French War College. Only a shoulder-to-shoulder infantry advance into the gaps between the forts could mask their critical deficiencies. German corpses stacked up like cordwood around Belgian strong points. By August 12 all the Germans had to show for over five thousand casualties was the capture of two forts and the city center of Liege. Three German field armies were still barred from the Belgian plain and the Schlieffen Plan was behind schedule.
It was time for the fat ladies to sing. Over the next four days, bombardment by Big Bertha and her Austrian ingénue cousin, Skinny Emma (or Schlanke Emma, Skoda’s only slightly less monstrous 305mm howitzer) forced the surrender of all but three of the Liege forts. The German press exalted over the coming out of these Wunderwaffe.
Liege was the first location on a guided tour that I had arranged with Claude Verhaeghe. An autodidact military historian, battlefield tour guide, chef, and restaurateur, Claude was the only guide of the many I contacted willing to arrange a tour consisting exclusively of 1914 venues. All the others responded to my queries with pedantic lectures on the paucity of sites sans trenches and then quickly changed the subject to push package tours comprising the greatest hits of the Somme and Flanders.
To be fair, Claude would certainly have preferred sticking to his area of expertise in the the Ploegsteert sector of the Ypres salient, but he proved to be flexible and Team Mago took full advantage of this by pushing him well outside his comfort zone. Rather than engage Claude to drive us in his specially equipped mini-van, we press ganged him into our vehicle and had him sit in the front seat with Patti while she drove us across Belgium. This not only saved us a few ducats, but it allowed us to pepper Claude with questions as we hurtled toward Liege. He was a very good sport about the whole thing. Although he did blanche occasionally in response to Patti’s aggressive driving (she beat his estimated travel time to Liege from Ypres by close to an hour), Claude got us into places we would not have been able to, added a great deal of contextual knowledge to the sites that we lacked, and still managed to give us a half-day tour around Ploegsteert Woods as a bonus.
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Our first stop at Liege was Ft. Loncin. On August 16 it was one of three forts still in action. Loncin was also the headquarters of the Belgian military governor of Liege, General Gerard Leman. Today the Loncin site is a museum and military cemetery. Claude arranged for a tour below the minimum of eight people and outside normal hours. The site is maintained and staffed by the Front de Sauvegarde du Fort de Loncin, a voluntary association that is supported by membership dues, the Belgian government, and local businesses. This amazing group of enthusiasts saved Ft. Loncin from neglect and vandalism, turning it into the premier World War I site in Belgium.
Thanks to Claude, MudGuide got a private three-hour guided tour of this remarkable artifact with Victor Vanderperren, whose father fought in the Belgian resistance during World War II and his grandfather served in the Belgian Army during World War I.
We started in the fort’s museum, a combination of old school displays containing uniforms and weapons—many recovered from the ruins of the fort—as well as plasma screens running films of live firing a 57mm cannon from a restored turret. There were also excellent cut away models of the Loncin complex that provided a great overview for the coming tour. But my favorite display was a full-scale replica of a Maxim machine gun towed by a pair of Belgian Mastifs. These large canines, traditionally employed as pack animals by thrifty Belgian peasants in lieu of expensive horses, were adopted as a cost saving measure and utilized by the Belgium army throughout the war. Two Mastifs could pull a machine gun with ammunition weighing around ninety kilograms at an eight kilometer per hour pace over long distances. In action, pack dogs had two advantages over horses: a lower profile allowed them to remain in closer proximity to the guns and their handlers required no specialized training as was the case with their equine counterparts.
The underground part of the tour took us through restored barracks, showers, the officers’ mess, and General Leman’s quarters. He probably chose Loncin as his command post because it was the only Liege fort equipped with forced ventilation fans at the start of the siege, allowing for some relief from the choking black powder gasses created by the fort’s artillery and the pulverized dust resulting from continuous German bombardment over the course of eleven days. Other highlights included the remains of the electrical generation plant, a mast-mounted searchlight that could be lowered into the bowels of the fort, and gun turret interiors.
The tour concluded with a re-enactment of Big Bertha’s coup de grace delivered at 5:20 PM on August 16. The howitzer fired a shell weighing almost a metric ton in a 1200-meter arc above the fort. Team Mago gathered in a pitch-dark underground gallery listening to a simulation of the shell descending on Ft. Loncin, breaking through the concrete dome above a nearby magazine, and then detonating 12,000 kilograms of black powder sending lethal shock waves down the adjoining corridors while literally blowing the top off the fort. We were so impressed by the realism and terror summoned by this sonic reproduction that we prevailed upon Victor to replay it for us twice.
General Leman was found insensate amidst the ruins of Loncin by advancing German infantry. When he recovered, he offered his sword to his German counterpart with the caveat that “I was taken unconscious. Be sure to put that in your dispatches.” In total three hundred and fifty men died in the explosion. Most of their remains have never been exhumed and all of them are permanently interred on the site.
Despite the dramatic underground replication of the cataclysm, you do cannot really understand the magnitude of this catastrophe without walking the surface of Ft. Loncin. Metal artillery cupolas and massive blocks of concrete, each weighing many metric tons, lie scattered and upended across the central massif of the Loncin triangle. The gun turret closest to the exploding magazine was blown ten feet straight up into the air and crashed back to earth essentially in its original position.
There are also several superb monuments erected amidst the ruins. The loftiest is Georges Petit’s duo of 3-meter tall Greek and Roman warriors atop an 18-meter tower. This classical theme is continued on a tablet whose text is modeled on Simonides’ epitaph to the Spartan dead at Thermopylae. The Flame of Remembrance, depicting a man’s face and arm emerging from the ground amidst a chaotic jumble of rubble holding a torch, is particularly moving. The Front de Sauvegarde du Fort de Loncin has even erected an enormous picture of Big Bertha herself on the moat’s counterscarp, a project underwritten by a local Liege bank.
Our second stop in Liege was Fort d’Embourg, one of Big Bertha’s early victims. This complex was smaller than Loncin and uncharacteristically rectangular. Ft. d’Embourg fell after forty-eight hours of Big Birtha bombardment on August 14, 1914. It was occupied and renovated by the Germans during World War I. Once the Belgians got it back, they upgraded d’Embourg in the 1930s with a positive pressure ventilation system to nullify chemical weapons, more powerful terrestrial and anti-aircraft artillery, and better sanitary facilities. A lot of this work was carried out by Krupps and other German firms, as had been the case prior to World War I, giving the eventual attackers a pretty good idea as to what they would be facing. Ft. Fizzle’s redux occurred on May 16, 1940 when the d’Embourg garrison surrendered after four days of continuous artillery and air bombardment.
The d’Embourg tour was a very interesting contrast to Loncin. At least it was for me. Our spousal units had had their fill of cold and damp underground venues for the day and opted to stay outside in the sunshine. Even Germanicus felt that our time might have been better spent at other sites in the area.
The society maintaining Ft. d’Embourg is composed of a youngish bunch of fortification geeks cum caving enthusiasts, who would rather host Halloween and role-playing parties in the bowels of the redoubt than fund raise for extensive renovation and commemoration a la Loncin. The interior of the fort is nothing like Loncin, consisting of unadorned passageways and galleries, some of which contain especially nasty spiders. Think an abandoned and somewhat neglected Indiana Jones movie set. I enjoyed learning about the interwar upgrades from our tour guide, who was very knowledgeable about that particular period of d’Embourg’s history. He spoke only French, however, and Claude kindly provided a two-hour running translation.
Germanicus perked up when we reached the site’s museum at the end of the tour. More of a huge memorabilia agglomeration than a museum in the proper sense of the word, there was room after room of weapons, uniforms, and other military artifacts from both World Wars. Germanicus has a large collection of historical firearms and he regaled Claude with details concerning serial numbers on Mauser rifles, armory stamps on various types of bayonets, the peculiarities of the artillery Luger pistol, and many other arcane factoids until Claude threw in the towel and began translating Germanicus into French for the benefit of the guide and two other tourists who had joined us.
If Kermit had been along on this part of the tour we would still be there. The museum area reminded me of his house in Missoula, except that Kermit’s cataloguing system is far more rigorous. For those who do not want to brave the damp and spiders, some or all of d’Embourg’s holdings can be rented for historical displays or private functions.
For my part, I was struck by the “evolution” of small arms during the First World War on display at Ft. d’Embourg. All the combatants began the conflict in cloth uniforms with headgear that could not stop a well-thrown rock. Their primary small arms were pistols, rifles and largely ceremonial swords. Within a year these had given way to an assortment of helmets, body armor, gas masks, short and nasty edged weapons—such as trench knives, sharpened spades and steel gloves extruding six-inch stiletto spikes—as well as grenades and other bombs. The military gear in the trenches took on a decidedly medieval aspect—even the gas masks and improvised grenades seemed to conjure the soldiers of the Hundred Years War rather than those at the dawn of the 20th century. The trenches of the Western Front forced the combatants underground and back in time to the sieges of Harfleur and Meaux in the 15th century.
If you can visit only one of the Liege forts, then Loncin is by far the most interesting of the World War I crop. Should you make Liege your base of operations for a couple days, however, there are many interesting fortifications in the area of Charlemagne’s hometown. Team Mago marked Liege down as worthy of a longer stay based on its Sunday market and frequent festivities that involve drinking a lot of beer—e.g., the Saint Nicholas festival wherein university students decked out in filthy lab-coats are granted 24 hours of legal begging to support a bender that coincides with the end of exams. A future stay in Liege will also involve a visit to the Second World War fort at Eben-Emael, another infamous Belgian Ft. Fizzle. The largest such fortification in the world at the time, Eben-Emael was considered impregnable, but it fell to a combined glider and infantry assault in a little over twenty-four hours.