In 1914, The German army swept across northern Europe. As the German war machine marched through neutral Belgium laying waste to everything in its path, Belgian soldiers who were covering the allied retreat occupied the last remaining stone fortress – and refused to surrender. The Germans thus began a long and bloody assault. At this point the defending Belgians were cut off from both the remainder of their army – and rest of the allies. Four of the six Belgian infantry divisions had been virtually wiped out at the battle of Liege. Those who survived were isolated at Antwerp. The remaining divisions were forced by the German advance to retreat to Namur, near the French boarder. They fortified an ancient castle south of the city which stood behind nine forts – built 20 years earlier and recently destroyed by zeppelin bombing raids – but still connected by trenches and surrounded by barbed wire. From the start, their situation was desperate. Their supplies and ammunition were almost gone – and they were slowly starving to death. Even though they had opportunities to surrender, they would not, because they all knew they would be shot – most likely on their knees, with their hands in the air. The Germans could not afford to take prisoners at this stage of the invasion. Even if they wanted to, they had no means to feed and shelter them. The Belgians also knew that giving up that position would open the door and pave the way for the German advance south toward Paris, driving a wedge between the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force. So as the Germans surrounded the forts and closed in, the nightmarish battle began.
The Belgian soldiers inside the walls fired at the advancing Germans from machine gun nests and rifle pits and those outside fired from bunkers made of earth and stone. At times the bodies of dead German soldiers were piled so high, the Belgian guns could not fire over top of them – they had to be dragged into trenches filled with blood and mangled corpses. The Germans, surprised and frustrated by the unexpected resistance, continued the assault and settled in for a siege. Although no oath was sworn and no pledge was taken, the Belgians defended the fortress and fought; to the last minute – to the last man. They would rather die on their feet with purpose than on their knees for nothing. The defenders – starving, outgunned and outnumbered, returned fire and held on for life. After five days, the city was abandoned. The remaining civilian population was evacuated. Only a handfull of troops remained in the nine bombed-out forts surrounding the main fortress. The rest pulled back to the stone castle. On the final day of the siege, in the officers’ quarters, the Belgian commanding officer – a Colonel, called for two of his best lieutenants. They arrived soon after, dirty and exhausted from the field.
“You have fought bravely” said the Colonel. “Now you must listen carefully”.
He closed the door to the chamber and posted two guards outside. After several hours they emerged from the room with a calm yet determined look in their eyes. They were given a map, a compass and three days’ provisions. They were also given an unmarked antique wooden box, with a large iron lock. They placed the box in a leather bag and one of the Lieutenants slung it around his shoulder.
“You must get through”, said the Colonel, grasping their arms and looking them squarely in the eye. “Never forget what you have seen here – and what you have learned on this day”. They saluted the colonel, almost in tears. In darkness, under the cover of sporadic machine-gun fire, they silently crawled through a gap in the stone wall and huddled in a bunker, waiting for their opportunity to break out. The Germans had surrounded the fortress and taken over almost all of the trenches, avoiding snipers and cutting their way through the barbed wire a few yards at a time. Victory seemed to be within their reach.
At dawn, a sudden burst of gunfire from the fortress woke the exhausted German soldiers sleeping in the trenches. The remaining Belgian artillery was mostly obsolete, but still deadly at close range. Every cannon and machine gun battery fired all at once. The Germans who were sleeping closest to the outer wall were awoken by the angel of death. Nightmarish screams of horror, deafening explosions and the sound of shrapnel tearing into human flesh filled the air with a ghastly symphony of death.
The two Belgian Lieutenants who were given a mysterious yet critical mission suddenly crawled from their bunker and ran through a break in the barbed wire through the German line. Several German soldiers nearby left their trenches and ran after them. As they neared the edge of a forest, the Germans in pursuit were cut down by machine gun fire. The two Belgian Lieutenants disappeared quickly into the misty woods. As the German soldiers attempted to follow them, snipers hidden in the tree-line picked them off one by one. “Sie gehen lassen!” (Let them go) shouted a German officer, as the gunfire subsided. An eerie silence fell over the battlefield. The German field commander, who was roused from a deep sleep by the sudden counterattack, looked toward the fortress through his field binoculars with a look of contempt. He paused for a moment and then gave the order, “Entfesseln HÃƒÆ’Ã†’Ãƒ’Ã’Â¶lle!” (Unleash hell). Nearly twenty minutes of silence was broken when the Germans fired all six of their 150mm. howitzers one after the other. Each earth-shattering blast was followed by a devilish high-pitched whirr. The impact of each shell seemed to kill ten to fifteen men at a time. Those who were not killed by the bombing went slowly insane from the constant explosions and screams of death.
The Belgians outside the wall in what remained of the bombed-out forts huddled in bunkers and trenches full of dead bodies and human remains. Those in the lower levels of the fortress hunkered down against the inner walls as the top level was razed to the ground. They attempted in vain to return fire, holding off the Germans as long as possible. After an hour of hopeless defense they were completely out of ammunition and prepared for a frontal assault. But that moment would never arrive. The German high command gave orders to completely crush them for their defiance and continued the bombardment on the helpless fortress. The shelling continued all day. Some defenders who accepted their fate committed suicide, others completely broke down; unable to move or speak. At dusk, the 420mm. German cannon finally blasted a huge hole in the outside wall, and the Germans came pouring through. They met no resistance. Most of the surviving defenders were starved and delirious, some were completely insane. Those who could not move or did not respond were executed on the spot. Those who could walk and speak were marched into the German lines given rations by the German officers as a reward for their courage. As the German officers made their way through the smoldering debris, they noticed civilians among the Belgian dead – who appeared to be dressed as monks or some type of clergy. They had no belongings or identification; only a medallion with an unfamiliar symbol. When the Germans finally broke through to the commanding officers chamber they found the Belgian Colonel sitting at his desk, unarmed and uninjured. They yelled at him in German to stand and put his hands in the air, but he just sat there, still and silent. They yelled at him once more, and said that they would open fire if he refused. He raised his head and looked the German soldiers in the eye. All at once they felt as if they had been struck by the hammer of the gods. They were completely shaken and bewildered. The Colonel stood in silence and stared at them until they lowered their weapons.
He walked out of the room in silence – and all through the fortress, staring every German soldier in the eye. They all fell silent one by one as he passed.
They watched him walk through the carnage without laying a hand on him or even saying a word.
He walked through what was left of the courtyard and stood at the breach in outer wall of the fortress. The German ranks outside began to part like the red sea as he began to walk among them. The German commander rushed from his bunker to find out what was happening. He hurried past his own stunned troops and soon he came face to face with the Belgian Colonel who was walking toward him in complete silence, with a look on his face that no one could describe. The angry and confused Commander shouted “Halt! Zu Stoppen!” and drew his pistol. The Colonel continued to move forward as if he were beckoned by an invisible voice – and surrounded by an invisible shield. When he came within a few yards, the German commanders hand began to tremble and he slowly he dropped the gun to his side. The Colonel walked past the dazed German Commander and continued toward the dark forest. The German commander lowered his head, covered his face and slowly began to weep. The Belgian colonel disappeared silently into the Forest. A handful of captured Belgian soldiers all grinned esoterically at the German commander as they sat on the ground drinking coffee. The sea of exhausted German troops all gazed toward the forest in silence, unable to look away.
As the sun began to set, their haze slowly wore off and the fog rolled in. The German soldiers, unable to comprehend what just happened, tried to forget about it – or pretend it was a dream. Their Commander, who was still unnerved by the experience, gave orders to search the entire fortress for information on the retreating Belgian army or the advancing French reinforcements. For hours they tore apart what was left of the fortress looking for any clue as to why the Belgians fought so stubbornly. They searched every room in the castle – and no documents were ever recovered; No maps, no battle plans, no coded transmissions, no orders.
Only a message; carved into the Colonels desk with a bayonet – an inscription in Latin: “Et in Arcadia Ego”.
END PART 17
(To be continued)