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Fort de Loncin, Ans, Belgium (four miles NW of Liège).

Article about: Greetings all, Upfront, I must apologize for the length of this post. My intent was to share a recent visit with some friends and family on a forum where I could simply send them an .url’s l

  1. #1

    Default Fort de Loncin, Ans, Belgium (four miles NW of Liège).

    Greetings all,

    Upfront, I must apologize for the length of this post. My intent was to share a recent visit with some friends and family on a forum where I could simply send them an .url’s link and not send out a bunch of individual e-mails (like Facebook, but for a guy not on Facebook). In any case, I hope you enjoy the post.

    A few weeks back, I purchased a supplement (read: poster) from a December 5, 1914 issue of the Scientific American (see image below). The supplement’s imagery highlighted the recent use of the German’s 42cm gun upon the Belgian forts, which had defended Liège during the opening weeks of WWI.
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    The Scientific American’s supplement reminded me of the German propaganda poster, which used a similar graphic to show off the large 42cm round (see image below). Original copies of the German’s poster are rare as hen’s teeth (though there is a gentlemen offering an affordable reproduction on eBay.de). As such, when I viewed the Scientific American supplement’s version, I purchased it. I figured, this English language version would look great on the wall and would be a nice counter to the German one if I ever did happen upon an affordable original.
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    As a collector, I typically purchase WWI posters, which are already linen backed and ready for framing. In the Scientific American supplement’s case it was not. This caused me no small amount of drama as nowhere near where I live offers linen backing services. Yes, the local frame shops have no issue with gluing your poster onto foam board, but if you wish to keep your prints’ value, you go with linen backing in order to stabilize the prints themselves. Foam board bows and bends with time and you eventually get tears or bunching on your posters. All of which tanks their value when it comes time to move them on.

    As I was spending so much time with this poster (traveling to different art/frame shops) I found myself wondering if any of the original 12 forts surrounding Liège were worth a visit. Perhaps, one of the devastated Belgian forts pictured on the Scientific American’s supplement was a museum and I could possibly view a “now and then” scene. A few minutes on the internet and Fort de Loncin came up as having a museum and tours of the fort. While online, I did not read the history of the fort as I assumed I’d pick up the history of the fort once I actually visited.

    With this past weekend being the Ciney-Expo militaria show, I had my “excuse” to visit Fort de Loncin while enroute. I spent Saturday afternoon visiting the fort with the intention of going to the Ciney mititaria show early Sunday morning (show was OK, but a lot more reproduction outfitters than I remembered ever attending before).

    I arrived at the Museum at 1400hrs, which is when they open. They will open for pre-coordinated group tours, but alas, I was alone. The museum was small, but had the packed full of stuff/cabinet of curiosities vibe about it. Scale models exhibited the fort’s triangular (isosceles) layout and how it blended into the terrain and subtly rose above it. On one model, a push of a button and the fort’s exterior rose a foot or two revealing its subterranean construct of messing areas, offices, arms room, magazines, turret’s interiors, etc. Whomever made that scale model of the fort was a true craftsman (see the first image below). Various shells, fuzes, cartridge cases, artillery plotting devices were on exhibition as were additional cutaway models of cannons showing the intricacies of the fortresses’ turrets. There were period Belgian uniforms, small arms, bayonets, helmets, units’ flags, and military decorations/awards. There were some relics, which clearly came from surrounding fields and some pristine WWI German bayonets, helmets, and small arms. All in all a lot of objects placed in chronological order and well-exhibited.
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    In terms of objects on exhibit, the most unexpected was a full scale mockup of a pair of muzzled Belgian Mastiffs towing a Maxim machine gun’s cart (see below image). Apparently, this was a “cheaper than horses” money saving decision and nicely got the job done.
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    With the museum’s tour completed, I went back to the front desk. “English?” I was asked, I nodded and was handed an audio-tour device with a neck’s lanyard and a set of headphones. The helpful docent at the front desk proffered an English language tri-fold/flyer and using it, he showed me where we were currently located on an illustrated map. He slowly traced the visitors’ path through the various galleries and at first, I thought he was messing with me, because he was basically showing me I had way more access to the fort than I thought possible. I had panicked visions of getting lost and being “that guy” so, I started paying attention to his continuing visitor’s briefing. The museum’s rear door was opened for me and with a “viola,” I was on my way into one of the aforementioned 12 Belgian Forts of Liège.

    As with many of the WWI sites I’ve visited, I was alone and would in fact, not see another visitor until I was back inside the museum’s lobby. A blustery wind freshened, causing me to notice the rustling leaves, which had gathered at the base of the cyclone security fencing surrounding the fort. An indication of rain was given by the overcast sky yet, only one drop flecked the back of one ear. Oddly, the audio tour’s small foam earphones kept my ears pleasantly warm.
    I moved down a metal floored ramp which gave access to the fort’s main sally port (see image below). The date 1888 was proudly cast over the vaulted entrance and with that subtle date’s detail, I had a slight inkling things were not going to proceed well when facing contemporary (1914) German siege artillery.
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    The moment I entered the sally port, my headphones came alive with a conversation between a reporting soldier and his new comrades, “Well, who do we have here?” Off the first gallery’s corridor, the first room I entered had loud phone’s buzzers going off; interspersed with snippets of conversations about where within Belgium individual soldiers hailed from. Motion detectors caused an accompanying film loop to be projected onto one of the room’s walls displaying newspapers’ increasingly troubling headlines all of which portended war with Germany. More rooms followed, a kitchen, a larder, soldiers’ billeting, and a latrine. All the while, various narrations were triggered by my passage of certain points of interest within the fort. I’m not an overt fan of audio guides however, Fort de Loncin’s was well above par and greatly added to my visitor’s experience.
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    As I followed the posted directional arrows, which facilitated in determining where to go next (so much for my docent’s briefing, eh), I opened an exterior door, which led to an open-air 20ft deep trench that surrounds the fort’s interior. That location’s triggered conversation had the fort’s commander asking his men (in formation within the ditch) to pledge their steadfast loyalty to defend the fort. To this they unanimously did. There was a nearby sculpture of empty low-topped boots standing in a section’s formation, which subtly added context to the ongoing troop’s exhortations (see below image).
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    Following my directed path, I entered the second gallery’s door and shortly, the sound effects of shells hitting the fort began. This simulated the fort’s bombardment by the Germans in August of 1914. During three days of bombardment, Fort de Loncin’s garrison were on the receiving end of over 15,000 large caliber shells. Between the audio guide’s continued soldiers’ narrations and the structure’s ambient soundtrack of near and far detonations there was a level of immersion I have not experienced before outside of a video game.

    In the second gallery, the same arrangement of rooms off an adjoining main corridor were viewed with various artifacts and multilingual text panels identifying uses of each individual room. In this gallery, was situated Belgian General Gerard Mathieu Joseph Georges Leman’s (in charge of all of Liège’s forts) office/billet. In which, a projected video showed a reenactor dressed as the General pacing around a central desk (he appeared in deep thought). There was a blacksmith’s/sewing shop and the last room in this gallery was an arms’ room with simulated arms’ racks.
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    As I was about to depart, I realized that I had almost missed another section of the second gallery (once again, those humble directional arrows saved me). As I rounded the corner, I noticed a large black metal door. This door closed off any further passage through the corridor and appeared, out of place. The door, possessed a little window in it, the below image shows what I viewed when I peered through the viewport.
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    As I listened to the accompanying narration, it explained that the extensive damage I was viewing was caused by a direct hit on one of the fort’s two magazine by a 42cm projectile popularly known as a “Big Bertha” (more exactly an L/12, Type M-Gerät 14), (see image below).
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    During the third straight day of bombardment, at 1720hrs August 15, 1914 a single 42cm shell hit the fort passing easily through the earth and the “experimental” unreinforced concrete used in the fort’s construction (OK for use in 1888, not so much by 1914). When that shell hit the magazine 12.000Kg (a tad over 13 tons) of powder/explosives detonated; killing 350 of the fort’s compliment of 550 men.

    According to the fort’s commander Colonel Victor Naessens, "Under the effect of this titanic volcano, what remained of the concrete massif was dislocated and the greater part of the garrison was crushed by blocks of concrete, burned alive or asphyxiated." (Vaute, Paul (18 March 2008). Le fort de Loncin livre ses secrets. LaLibre.be – Gazette de Liege).
    Text panels indicated, there are at least forty-five soldiers still entombed under the above picture’s rubble.

    Since 1914, the fort has been their necropolis/memorial and those individuals whose mortal remains were recovered; were interred in a separate memorial gallery located in one section of the fort (the last significant stop of the tour). Incapacitated by the detonation, General Leman along with the surviving members of the garrison were shortly captured by advancing German infantry. Of the twelve forts, Fort de Loncin is the only one that did not (eventually) surrender to the Germans.

    Whenever I plan to visit a military cemetery, a quiet moment of reflection is de rigueur. However, if that visit occurs unexpectedly; there comes an almost reflexive repugnance rather than the planned for solemn reflection. In my case, a nonchalant curiosity behind the historical events depicted on a faded poster’s imagery now collided with the tense reality of the blasted and collapsed walls located on the other side of the seemingly innocuous viewing port. With the sounds of recorded explosions still reverberating off of the interiors’ walls, I departed the space and I felt palpable relief. Genuine relief at being discharged from that wholly unintentional crypt.

    It felt good to be outside in the breezy weather again. I now plodded up towards the fort’s topside using an earthen ramp, which had a handy set of stairs built above it. As I arrived at the halfway point, I came around a corner and was quite surprised to see a very large portion of the fort missing. I was now viewing the aboveground results of the magazine’s detonation. To give you an idea of the size of the damaged area, the below image shows image shows a Google Earth’s screen capture of the fort. It was as if a giant ice cream scoop descended from the sky and had removed a portion of the fort.
    I quickly recognized one of the askew turrets as being the same as printed on the Scientific American’s supplement (see below image).
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    Other than the removal of much of the spoil caused by the detonation, this fort had largely been left as it was. A few short days ago, I had no idea this place still existed and now, I was overcome by the amount of in situ devastation I was viewing. The earlier narration stated that the overpressure from the detonation had shot the turrets from their foundations like so many “cheap champagne bottles’ corks.” The large scale of the concrete blocks and steel cupolas, which had been tossed around by the explosion’s forces left me in awe. I stood there trying to make sense of the jumbled parts and all the while, not really believing I had not heard about this site before from likeminded battlefield aficionados/historians.

    I moved up past the massive crater and adjacent damaged areas (i.e. cracked concrete blocks/foundations) and arrived at the top of the fort’s center. With the Belgian colors proudly flapping overhead, I took additional pictures of various armored turrets (see images below). Some had clearly been blown out of their foundations and did not quite land squarely back into their barbettes. The energy from the magazine’s detonation was evident even in areas where there was no cratering or cracking of the surrounding concrete.
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    The museum staff have placed images of period German souvenir-postcards in front of locations where the photographs were originally taken. Smiling Germans astride unseated guns and turrets stare back at you with a self-satisfied look (many examples may be viewed if you search Google Images). This use of contemporary images at the actual location from where they were originally taken added an additional layer of interpretation, which I truly appreciated. I continued on the visitor’s trail to the memorial where the vast majority of the soldiers killed in the fort have their remains interred.

    The memorial itself had been another functional part of the fort, but was repurposed as a necropolis shortly after the fort’s surrender. The remains were placed in various rooms and their entrances permanently sealed. In those sealed rooms where the identification of remains were possible, their names are on plaques. Some plaques come with formal pictures of the individuals seated or standing in uniform. Most of those soldiers killed were not identifiable as a result of the extreme nature of their deaths.

    With my time in the memorial nearing an end, I followed the large interior ditch of the fort back to the main sally port. Interestingly, the museum staff have placed a 1 to 1 scale image of “Big Bertha” (using the same image I posted earlier, see below image).
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    Just outside of the fort’s footprint is an adjacent park which possesses the monument to the Defenders of Fort Loncin. The top statues face back and look in the direction of the fort, which is just to the rear of the memorial (see below image). It is a fitting memorial to those who defended Belgium from this location a 103 years ago.
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    If you do find yourself in Belgium and can spare the time from whatever may have originally brought you there. I would highly recommend a visit to this location. Fort de Loncin not only aptly demonstrates the power of WWI German siege artillery, but more importantly, a country’s continuing and respectful bond to its soldiers. In all of my travels and historical readings, I am a little ashamed, I had not heard of this amazing place before. Odd too, that it took a passing interest in a poster’s content to provide the motivation to make that discovery. Thank you, for taking the time to read this post.

    V/r Lance
    Last edited by rbminis; 11-02-2017 at 01:43 AM.

  2. #2

    Default

    An excellent post - most interesting.

  3. #3

    Thumbs up

    An excellent description of your visit ! I've often wished to see the Liege forts but haven't yet managed to . It seems that Belgium is able to preserve and display such historic sites very well ; my visit to Eben-Emael ( although a 'different war' ) was an unforgettable experience.

  4. #4

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    Quote by Martin Bull View Post
    An excellent description of your visit ! I've often wished to see the Liege forts but haven't yet managed to . It seems that Belgium is able to preserve and display such historic sites very well ; my visit to Eben-Emael ( although a 'different war' ) was an unforgettable experience.
    Agreed on Eben-Emael, running your fingers over the scarring upon the metal where the shape charges were used literally, allows you to place your hands upon history.

    V/r Lance

  5. #5

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    A very interesting account of your visit Lance. Too often at sites like this you don't really know what you are looking at. The museum has really thought out how best to present the story of the fort. The First World War is sometimes referred to (by historians) as the "machine gun war". But really it was Artillery that was the defining weapon of that tragic war.

  6. #6

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    Very interesting thread, Lance. Thanks for posting it.
    I really like these kinds of threads.
    gregM
    Live to ride -- Ride to live

    I was addicted to the "Hokey-Pokey" but I've turned
    myself around.

  7. #7
    MAP
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    Thoroughly enjoyed this Lance. Thanks!
    "Please", Thank You" and proper manners appreciated

    My greatest fear is that one day I will die and my wife will sell my guns for what I told her I paid for them

    "Don't tell me these are investments if you never intend to sell anything" (Quote: Wife)

  8. #8
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    Some more pics...

    It is indeed a great memorial/museum. The most impressive thing to me was the roof. It looks like it was lifted up two feet by a giant and dropped a foot to the right. The roof is like 5 meters massive concrete!

    On the outside, it looks like pointe du Hoc in Normandy, completly devastated.
    You should see the fortress back in the days. No trees in miles in order to fire all there canons...















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