Germany’s westward advance in 1914 contained some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments of the First World War. The following events occurred before the two sides settled in for four years of grueling trench warfare.
Faced with solid Belgian fortifications, the Germans wheeled out the superweapons of their era.
Created by the Krupp firm, Big Bertha was a 420 mm howitzer, named after the wife of the head of the family. Early models were so large they could be moved only by rail. At the start of the war, the Krupp works rushed to make a road transported version.
Big Bertha was accompanied by the 305 mm howitzers of the Austrian Skoda company. These had to be disassembled and towed by tractor to the battlefront. They took 40 minutes to reassemble.
Together, these guns smashed the supposedly impregnable Belgian forts in mere days.
The Royal Munster Rearguard
In late August, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers fought one of the war’s most effective rearguard actions.
They were given the task of holding their position while the rest of their Division withdrew. The Munsters held off a stronger German force, letting their comrades retreat without trouble. As they then pulled back, they drew the attention of much greater numbers of enemy troops.
Eventually cut off at Etreux on August 27, they were surrounded by an enemy force five or six times larger than their own. There they continued to fight for several more hours, keeping the Germans occupied.
At last, with their ammunition almost exhausted and most men injured, the Royal Munsters surrendered. The German soldiers taking them prisoner congratulated them on the way they had fought.
Swinging Under Bridges
In places, the British went to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent the German advance.
At the Battle of Mons, the British conducted an intense fighting retreat. Mons included several important bridges across a canal. Determined to prevent the Germans from taking them, before they withdrew the British set explosive charges on the bridges.
Unfortunately, triggering the charges was not as easy as setting them. At one bridge, Captain Wright of the Royal Engineers swung hand over hand back and forth beneath the bridge to connect the explosives. Despite his efforts, he was unable to destroy the bridge, and the Germans captured it.