Breaking the Fortress Line 1914

By Clayton Donnell

Pen & Sword, 2013

Breaking the fortress lineWhilst the centenary of the 1914 campaigns passed by with barely a mention in the mainstream media of the actual campaigns and battles fought, a number of books have been published that look at the opening stages of the war.

Most of those with an interest in the war will be familiar with the opening stages of the British campaign including the Battle of Le Cateau, the Retreat from Mons, the Battle of the Aisne and the start of trench warfare during First Ypres. Yet the very first actions of the war, when the Germans attempted to sweep through Belgium and France, prior to British involvement, have been largely overlooked in the UK. Clayton Donnell’s book seeks to address this by providing an account of the initial German advance.

Both Belgium and France had constructed extensive networks of forts during the late 1800s, and it was these that posed a risk to the flanks and rear of the advancing German army. Many of the forts had been modernised due to the advances made in the explosive power of shells, which rendered the existing structures near-useless. In a vicious cycle, as the defences became thicker or more impenetrable, the guns needed to breach these defences became bigger. Armour plating was introduced to try and afford some level of protection to the static guns and their crews that would previously have been sited on open ramparts.

In the initial war of movement the attempts to destroy these fortifications stand out; a juxtaposition of the centuries old techniques of siege warfare with the use of modern, destructive firepower. Whilst most of these forts were overrun by the Germans in 1914, this type of warfare would be seen again in 1916 at Verdun as the French utilised the ring of forts surrounding the symbolic town; the forts required large numbers of men and artillery to attack them, which diverted resources from the main German advance.

Appendices include a handy chronology, brief details of Germany’s heavy siege guns, and a study of the fall of the forts of Liege. The book is comprehensively referenced, and has a large number of fantastic photographs, both contemporary and modern.

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Breaking the Fortress Line 1914