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

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Short Destructive Life of Dicke Bertha

Contributed by Marc Romanych

In the first days of World War I, Germany unveiled a secret weapon—the 42cm M-Gerät siege gun. The howitzer was a mobile fort killer purposely designed to destroy Belgian and French fortifications that could either block the advance of field armies or tie forces down in protracted sieges. To the Allies, who had no similar weapon, the existence and destructive power of the howitzer was a shocking surprise.

When war was declared, the German Army had only two M-Gerät howitzers. Upon mobilization, both were rushed to Liège where they easily demolished two forts—Pontisse and Loncin—and brought the siege to a quick end. Jubilant over the success of the howitzers, the crews nicknamed them Dicke Bertha (in English, "Big" or "Fat" Bertha) after the owner of the armament works that built the howitzers. 

Target: Fort de Leveau, Maubeuge
Left: Two Barracks of the Fort Destroyed by a Single Shell (Former Door Frames Shown) Your Editor, Who Is 6ft, 2in, with an Unexploded Big Bertha Shell That Hit the Fort in 1914

The Big Berthas then moved on to Namur where they met up with eight mobile Austrian Škoda M.11 30.5cm mortars. Under intense fire from the siege guns, the forts fell like dominos and the fortress surrendered in just five days. During the bombardment the two M-Gerät howitzers proved more effective than the eight Škoda mortars; having fired fewer rounds (126 versus 573) to destroy as many forts. However, to protect the secrecy of the M-Gerät howitzers, the Škoda mortars were given credit for destroying the fortress.

Next, came the French fortress of Maubeuge. There, the Big Berthas and Škoda mortars were joined by several rail-transportable German 30.5cm Beta and 42cm Gamma guns which had been delayed en route by sabotaged railroads. Despite the great number of siege guns, ammunition shortages limited the intensity of the bombardment and ten days were needed to reduce the fortress and force its surrender. 

The final siege for 1914 was at Antwerp. Declared the strongest fortress in Europe, it fell in 12 days. The siege artillery, led by the mobile Big Berthas and Škoda mortars, relentlessly pounded several forts into rubble, opening a gap in the fortress ring. The Belgians conducted an aggressive defense, but the siege guns were unstoppable, and as more forts were destroyed, Belgian forces and British naval infantry abandoned the fortress. The rapid fall of Antwerp was attributed, by both Germans and Allies, to the devastating firepower of the 42cm M-Gerät and Gamma howitzers which were responsible for destroying most of the forts. 


In 1915, Big Bertha and the other siege guns repeated their feats of destruction on the Eastern Front at Przemyśl, Kovno, and Novogeorgievsk. But on the Western Front, the importance of the big guns waned with the spread of trench warfare until, at Verdun in 1916, the German siege artillery had its swan song. There, despite their large numbers, the siege guns failed to destroy the main French forts, which were more modern than the Belgian forts of 1914. 

The era of the siege gun had passed, and although they continued to operate on the both the Western and Eastern Fronts, little was heard of Big Bertha in the last years of the war.

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