My previous two WW1 posts focused on the Belgian city of Li̬ge (the Forts of Li̬ge & the Railways of Li̬ge). The Battle of Li̬ge was the first major engagement of the war on the western front, and the ring of so-called Brialmont fortifications around the city held out longer than many, including the Germans, had expected. But, when Li̬ge finally fell on the morning of the 16th of August 1914, after an 11 day siege, it enabled two things to happen 100 years ago today (the 20th of August 1914 Рthe fall of Brussels, and the start of Siege of Namur. Like Li̬ge, Namur was protected by a ring of Brialmont forts, and they would be the focal points around which the siege revolved.


The map above shows the ring of forts around Namur (you can download the KML file to view the map in Google Earth).

For context, remember that the whole reason the Germans invaded Belgium was to attack France by the back door Рthe idea being to quickly subdue Belgium and then race down and take Paris from the north before the French had time to prepare a proper defence. Between Germany and the French border stood two fortified Belgian cities РLi̬ge and Namur, both on the river Meuse, and both vital transport hubs with major road and rail connections.

While much of the German army would be heading south from Liège, not all of it would be. German forces also set out east from Liège with the intention of forcing a quick Belgian surrender. This would give them the use of Belgium’s infrastructure to supply their armies in France, and control of the important port city of Antwerp.

You might expect Belgian defences would be focussed on protecting the capital, Brussels, but they were not. The first line of defence from an attack from the east was the two fortified cities of Liège, but once that line was broken, the plan was to retreat to the outer of two rings of fortifications around Antwerp. The fortifications around Antwerp are on an altogether different scale to Liège and Namur. The day after Liège fell (17 August), the Belgian government abandoned Brussels and moved to Antwerp. The Belgian field army followed them, so Brussels was effectively undefended when the Germans took it 100 years ago today. While it must have been a real psychological blow to lose the capital, it wasn’t important militarily.

Getting back to Namur, the siege started 100 years ago today on the 20th of August and lasted for five days. The world remembers the brave defenders of Liège and how they held back the German army for a surprisingly long time, yet the world seems to have forgotten about Namur. The battle in Namur was much more one-sided, but that’s not a reflection on the quality of the fortifications, or of the bravery of the defenders. The key difference was that the Germans had learned from Liège, and now knew how to attack Brialmont forts effectively.

The tactic was staggeringly simple – bring in your biggest artillery, the so-called Big Berthas, and position them out of range of the fort’s smaller guns. If you can rain down a hail of 419mm shells on your enemies while their guns can’t reach your artillery positions at all, the outcome is inevitable – you are going to win, no matter how bravely the defenders fight!

Namur is located at the confluence of the rivers Sambre and Meuse. While the battle in Namur raged, there were important battles happening just to the west, along the line of the Sambre as far as Charleroi, and then along a line of canals running from Charleroi to Mons and on towards Condé. The French would fight and lose the battle of Charleroi between the 21st and 23rd of August, and their retreat would make life very difficult for the British during their first major engagement of the war at the battle of Mons on the 23rd.

I get the feeling the Belgians prefer to forget Namur, while Liège is remembered and revered. Of the twelve WW1 forts around Liège, seven are open to the public today. By contrast, not a single one of the nine around Namur is. In fact, one of the nine, St. Héribert, has literally been buried! It strikes me as unfair that Liège seems to get all the credit for slowing the Germans down and enabling the French to mount a defence and halt the German advance before it reached Paris. I think you should look at the two fortified cities together, as the single defensive line they were, and say that between them, Liège and Namur gave the French the time they needed to prepare their defence.