Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914 — Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914
By Clayton Donnell
Published by Pen and Sword, 2014

Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German Army's General Staff, laid out his plan for defeating France with the Roman-Carthaginian battle of Cannae as a basis. In that battle, the Carthaginian leader Hannibal faced a vastly superior Roman force that would have undoubtedly annihilated his army if he attacked it frontally. Hannibal chose instead to avoid the Roman center and concentrate on moving around its flanks and crushing it from the rear and sides. Von Schlieffen was faced with a similar problem: the Belgian and French border fortresses of Liège, Namur, Maubeuge, Givet, Longwy, Verdun, Toul, and Épinal. Von Schlieffen reasoned that the fortress line was an Allied center which, if the Germans approached it frontally, would annihilate their divisions with the superior firepower protected by impregnable fortifications. As a result of this observation, he decided that the best way to avoid slaughter and bring it to the enemy was to outflank the line and come up in its rear. In the 1890s, when von Schlieffen first wrote his plan, his assessment of the fortress line may have been valid, but by 1914 weapons improvements made them less formidable. Regrettably, the new General Staff under Helmuth von Moltke and his field commanders failed to adjust to those facts.

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Clayton Donnell's book is one of those rare works that reports the facts without embellishment or generalities. And the facts are in the thousands. At times, I found my mind as equally besieged as the fortresses by the overwhelming bombardment of facts. The author, a retired Air Force officer who spent tours in Europe and had many opportunities to visit the fortresses he talks about in his work, starts each chapter, which is dedicated to one of the sieges, by painstakingly describing each fortress that the invading German Army encountered in their August–October 1914 drive across Belgium and northern France. Not only can a statistician find a complete list of armaments and manpower, down to the company level, but also the fortress' origins and the many improvements they received since the first brick was laid up to the date the siege began. From this information, enhanced by a plethora of maps and photographic images from archives and museums across northern Europe, the reader quickly discovers that the fortress line, with the exception of the Belgian fortresses and the French fortifications south of Verdun, was not as formidable as it had been in the 1890s. Budgetary concerns had delayed outer protection upgrades from brick to concrete, stripped the ramparts of manpower in an effort to furnish men for attack rather than defense, and failed to update armaments, some of which  still used black powder or still stood openly on ramparts.

With the information about the defenders minutely detailed, the author launches into the same precise description of the besieging force. Key among this data is the armaments that the Germans brought to the siege. Belgian engineers had designed the forts of Liège and Namur to withstand bombardment by 21cm cannon, the largest caliber believed to exist in the last 1890s. Unknown to the world, the munitions makers of Germany and Austria-Hungary had brought into existence cannons of 32cm and 42cm with ranges that allowed their placements to be well beyond the ranges of the Belgian and French fortress cannons.

Then the author sets out a day-by-day account of the siege itself that he gleaned from some of the best primary sources available from French and Belgian records. There's data on how many shots of what caliber landed where and in what frequency (at times as many as four 42cm shells weighing 1026 kg hit one Namur fort at one time) as well as which company mounted the assault and which company resisted. In these accounts the reader will find the first mistakes made by the besieging forces. For instance, at Liège, the first fortress town to come under fire, German artillery commanders brought as many forts under fire as possible instead of concentrating on one area. But the most glaring mistake was the ordering of infantry assaults after a preliminary bombardment that incapacitated some of the forts but not the majority. The result was repulse after repulse with high casualties. By the time the Germans encountered their last objective, Antwerp, their tactics had changed to allowing the cannons do their work fully before the infantry attacked.

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Damage at Fort Maizeret, Smallest in the Namur Zone

Donnell writes an excellent analysis on whether the fortresses accomplished their primary mission — that is, did they hold up the German armies long enough for the Allies to formulate a defense and organize a counteroffensive? Entering into his answer to that question, which is contained in the last chapter, are many factors. At first I read his answers with reservations. They appeared to be just so many "the French, Belgians, or Germans could have done such and such to avoid this or that." But on reflection, Donnell's analysis did more than answer the question with a resounding yes. His discussion boiled down to the age-old axiom that many of us who delve into the reasons for the extraordinarily high casualties of the early days of the Great War have found in our research or casual reading: neither side's leaders understood how to conduct war with the weapons they had at their disposal or how to coordinate one system with the other. Efficiency came as a result of trial and error which, regrettably, cost lives.

Breaking the Fortress Line, 1914 does not romantically transform fortresses into people with distinct personalities, nor does it create bigger-than-life heroes who stand on the ramparts defying shot and shell or bang sabers against doors demanding surrender. Yet this is a book that will stand as a source to artillery and fortifications buffs and researchers for many years to come. The information contained in the pages is without measure.

Michael Kihntopf

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