A war that has not ended

The first World War started a century ago on Monday. In one of the first towns to be attacked, at the start of a battle that Irish soldiers fought in, the scars still run deep

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

Driving along the quiet, secluded roads of southern Belgium, the towns of Liège, Dinant and Namur chequer the landscape, stopping points on the roads leading towards France, Luxembourg and Germany.

On Monday, heads of state from around the world, including President Michael D Higgins, the king of Belgium and the president of Germany, will gather in Liège to mark the outbreak of the first World War. Although the atmosphere is expected to be one of sombre commemoration and reconciliation, for many living in the area the question of how to commemorate a war whose scars still run deep is more complex.

As Paul Breyne, the director of the Belgian government’s commemorative programme, explains, finding a common vision of the war is not always easy. “There’s a phrase in French, la couche mémoriale. It means there is a history and then there is the memory of the history.”

The four-year conflict, which began 100 years ago on Monday, left a continent shattered and contained the seeds of another war, two decades later. Much of the fighting of the first World War took place in Belgium, and it was a key setting in the opening weeks.

A century on, the dominant image of the conflict is of trench warfare. By late 1914 the Western Front, running from the North Sea to Switzerland, had begun to take shape, and the conflict quickly slipped into stalemate and defence.

A spiral of loss, in which huge battles were fought for the sake of a few kilometres of ground, became the recurring pattern of the Great War. The Battle of Passchendaele, in which up to 500,000 men died in the autumn of 1917 as the Allies advanced eight kilometres into enemy territory – only for Germany to regain the ground five months later – illustrates the tactics’ failings.

But the opening months of the conflict represented a more traditional war of movement and conquest.

Martyr towns

The Battle of Liège, 50km from the German border, was the first set-to, when German troops entered the pretty fort town on the banks of the River Meuse.

Germany had long intended, in the event of war, to invade Belgium as a prelude to attacking France from the north. This was a cornerstone of the Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by the German general Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, should Russia mobilise its forces on the German border.

On August 4th German troops crossed into Belgium at six points on the border and headed for Liège. The town was ringed by 12 armed forts that had been constructed near the town in the late 19th century. Germany aimed to take the town in three days, but it took 11 days and ferocious shelling for Liège to fall. The fortress town of Namur fell on August 25th, after a five-day siege.

The attacks on the Belgian “martyr” towns in the early weeks of the war prompted wide condemnation and helped galvanise support for the war in Britain and the US.

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