There is no reason why the Battle of Liège, the first battle of the First World War, should not fascinate military history enthusiasts. The Schlieffen Plan has long been the subject of intense interest and debate, and who can help but marvel at super-heavy “Big Bertha” style siege guns? The German invasion of neutral Belgium was a dramatic moment in history, opening one of the most horrific conflicts the world has ever seen. Despite all of this, quality studies of the Battle of Liège are few and far between. Terence Zuber seeks to remedy this by providing a definitive, comprehensive account of World War I’s opening battle in his new book Ten Days in August: The Siege of Liège 1914.
Zuber, who holds a doctorate from the University of Wuerzburg (Germany) and has twenty years’ experience as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, begins his book by explaining why the Battle of Liège has not been adequately studied. Critical records about the German units who fought at Liège were destroyed by a British firebomb raid in April 1945. Belgian records too were destroyed during World War II—these in Dunkirk five years earlier. Zuber is therefore forced to wade carefully through surviving sources. He dismisses many as being biased and inaccurate, while others he deemsinvaluable.
One of the strengths of this book is the solid context presented early on. Zuber explores the history of Belgian fortifications and provides a good analysis of fortress tactics. Built by Henri Alexis Brialmont between 1888 and 1892, the ring of twelve forts was designed in keeping with accepted military doctrine of the day. Yet by 1914 it was completely obsolete. Possibly most detrimental was the failure to make use of machine gun technology. Zuber laments: “There were no MG positions. In 1914 there was not a single MG in either the fortifications or fortress regiments at Liège.” He also cites poor ventilation within the fort system, lousy training among troops, and a general, inexcusable ill-preparedness. So critical is Zuber, he seems to paint the impression that the battle is over before it begins.
Belgian and German mobilization is discussed in-depth. While broader issues of geopolitics are occasionally integrated, Zuber mostly sticks to a narrow focus, describing troop movements within pre-planned timetables. In this sense, the book is very much a traditional military history. Notable figures like Alfred von Schlieffen, Erich Ludendorff, the Moltkes, and the Belgian commander at Liège, General Leman, make their way into the narrative, but do not have an overwhelming presence. The assault on Liège, lasting from August 5-16, is described in precise detail. Attention is given to each of the twelve forts.
Zuber’s book is a double-edged sword. His primary (and stated) aim is to correct the myths surrounding the siege of Liège, namely that the German super-heavy 42cm guns were primarily responsible for the fortress’ fall. In this area he succeeds. He points out that “nine of the twelve Liège forts were destroyed by just thirty-two German 21cm mortars, exactly the gun caliber that Liège was designed to defeat.” In fact, only one fort—Loncin, fell to a 42cm gun. As much the “Big Bertha” style siege guns tend to capture the imagination, Zuber insists their effectiveness at Liège has been overestimated by years of “common knowledge.” Instead, Zuber attributes the fall of Liège to failure in design and tactics. Unfortunately, these important contributions are overshadowed by the fact that this book is exceptionally tedious. The reading is more dry than most military histories—and I don’t make this claim often. The book is heavy on military doctrine, almost to the point of being overwhelming. The maps are helpful, but extremely advanced. This book is well-suited for someone who is an expert on World War I military theory, but the average military history reader is likely to find this book burdensome. Because of this, Ten Days in August falls short. Zuber’s treatment of the Belgian Army also comes off as unduly harsh. While some have hailed the Belgian defense at Liège as a valiant effort that delayed the German invasion of France and bought time for the Triple Entente, Zuber regards this as of no consequence. Ten Days in August is a well-researched, vital contribution, albeit a difficult book to read. Most readers will have to struggle through it, and arrive at their own conclusions.
Reviewed by Nate Sullivan for War History Online
Ten Days in August: The Siege of Liège 1914.
By Terence Zuber
The History Press