Liège WW I and WW II - 2h45 drive from Calais:
Both during WWI and WW II, Liège had to face, in less than a generation, the most unexpectedly violent attacks from the German troops. Built in the 19th century, the Liege Defence Line ‘Position fortifiée de Liège' had the very sad privilege of being on the front row of the attacker's assault and of their attempts to invade Western Europe. Most of the forts (Loncin, Eben-Emael ...) are very well-preserved.
The Liège forts
The dubious distinction of being the city where hostilities began belongs to Liège, which lay directly in Germany’s ‘invasion corridor’ to the inadequately defended section of the French frontline. Having declared war on France on 3 August 1914, the Kaiser ordered his troops to march across the Belgian border the following day, drawing Britain into the hostilities because Belgium’s neutrality had been violated. The Germans’ first objective was neutralising the key industrial city of Liège. They thought the task would be straightforward, but they were wrong. Belgium might have lacked Germany’s military muscle, but its courageous resistance was crucial in giving Britain time to move an expeditionary force across the Channel.
A quarter of a century earlier, Belgium had prepared for a future invasion by constructing a dozen concrete forts in a belt around Liège, equipped with their own generators, telephone and air conditioning systems, and fortified with German-made guns. But by August 1914, the forts were no longer fit for purpose. The unreinforced concrete was not strong enough to resist the Germans’ heavy artillery, including their new supergun, the ‘Big Bertha’ howitzer.
The place where this oversight was most tragically exposed was Fort de Loncin, 7km north-west of Liège. It was built in 1888, when the designers had no idea how quickly armament technology would advance. After withstanding a three-day bombardment, one of the fort’s magazines, containing 12,000kg of gunpowder, was struck by a shell from Big Bertha at 5:20pm on 15 August 1914. The main structure collapsed in apocalyptic fashion. Its interior fabric was torn apart, and its heavy guns shattered and dispersed like petals blown from a flower. Three hundred and fifty of the 550-strong garrison were killed instantly or buried alive.
Big Bertha fired 420mm shells weighing 800kg with a range of about six miles. The gun became widely celebrated in Germany, and its bulls-eye at Fort de Loncin was used as a powerful propaganda tool. An eye-witness described the incoming shells as sounding “like an express train entering Victoria Station”.
The bodies recovered from the rubble are buried in a crypt, but more than 100 were never found, and the site is now a military cemetery as well as a ‘living museum.’
Today, much of the damaged masonry and gun emplacements have been left just as they were. One 40-tonne gun lies on its back, having been tossed into the air like a pancake. Massive gun turrets lean at crazy angles. Whole sections of the fortified wall were displaced, with the cracks and fissures plain to see, exposing the inadequacy of the concrete used to bind the structure together. Even today, with grass and flowers softening the scene, the extent of the devastation is chilling.
Some of the fort is unsafe for visitors, but there’s plenty to see. There are waxwork displays showing what life was like for the soldiers – a bakery, butcher’s and kitchenhave been re-created to depict everyday life for the underground defenders. Every few minutes, loudspeakers recreate the sound of the ear-piercing explosions. Nearly a century later, Fort de Loncin triggers extremes of emotion. Among its many artistic monuments to the dead is the flamme du souvenir, the figure of a male torso thrusting a torch into daylight from beneath the earth.