Breaking the fortress line 1914

Breaking the fortress line 1914
by Clayton Donnell
published by Pen & Sword Military, October 2013
ISBN 978 1 84884 813 9
cover price – £19.99
Hardback, 214pp. Illustrated, notes, bibliography, index.
reviewed by Chris Baker

One of the first books of what is sure to be a tidal wave of 1914 coverage for the centenary year, “Breaking the fortress line” sets a high standard for military history. It deals with the development, fighting for and ultimately the defeat of the many fortresses constructed in France and Belgium in the decades prior to 1914, with particular emphasis of Liege, Namur, Maubeuge and Antwerp but with many of the other fortresses also covered. It is clear that research has been deep and has examined the viewpoint of France, Belgium and Germany, and the narrative is rich in detail. This will prove to be a valuable work of reference as well as a good read.

Especially from British-centred accounts one could be forgiven for believing that the war did not start until 22-23 August 1914 when the British Expeditionary Force first encountered the advancing German Army near Mons in Belgium. Yet by that time, some of the truly cataclysmic military events had already taken place, with immense movements of armies and terrible casualties to both sides as the respective military plans were put into operation. Not least among these events was the German offensive that faced up to the Belgian fortresses as Liege and Namur, the former in particular taking its place in the most significant events of the war. It is often stated that the German advance across Belgium was delayed by the fight at Liege and that it played a part in the eventual defeat of German strategic intentions by buying time; time that would allow French resources to be redeployed and to halt the Germans at the Marne. The general story that brave Belgian resistance at the forts there was overcome by the deployment of huge German mortars is well-known: much less so is the detail of how that resistance was organised and offered, how the mortars came to be developed and the story of the reduction of the forts. “Breaking the fortress line” covers this and many other actions in detail, providing a vivid and tense story of extraordinary human endurance and the battle of defensive and offensive technologies.

The book includes some decent maps and good illustrations.

A brilliant piece of work and very welcome.

Review first posted on 31 December 2013