Stay overnight in Lantin Fort (Liege), as in 1914
By Gery de Pierpont
Relive the shock of WW1 German attack, 8 metres below ground
Because they were buried deep in the ground to resist the increasingly powerful artillery shellfire, 19th century defensive works are now all but invisible in the landscape. This is one of the characteristics of the forts built in Belgium at this time. At the surface of these impressive subterranean structures only a few cannons can be seen, hidden under heavy reinforced central massifs.
Hundreds of men lived deep in the heart of these concrete anthills. Their heroic resistance to German army bombardments in August 1914, delayed the lightning attack from behind that the French forces would have suffered from the north, by several days. Lantin Fort (Liege) is one of the only forts which has remained in the state it was in at the end of the First World War. Since 1975, a group of enthusiasts has successfully restored this immense complex, which is now a museum. If you make a group booking, you can spend the night there, in one of its authentic military dormitories!
General Brialmont’s plans
After recognition of its independence in 1830, Belgium declared itself to be a neutral country. However, this neutrality did not preclude it being invaded. The Minister for War was given the task of providing the country with an army worthy of the name. Antwerp, Liege and Namur, three strategic cities, were in addition provided with a reinforced defence system. The General Henri-A. Brialmont proposed a fortified belt of buried forts, about four to five kilometres apart. All would be equipped with the best cannons of the period and provided with protected areas for the troops. This audacious plan is accepted.
The ‘armoured’ central massif
General Brialmont’s ‘entrenched camps’ were the last word in military engineering at the end of the 19th century. They were organised entirely round a central redoubt, surrounded by a large, steep-sided ditch. In the centre of the system protruded the reinforced central massif with eight cannons of different calibres. Impressive rotating turrets, both mobile and semi-automated, were custom built to support them.
How to withstand a siege
The Liege forts were built in under four years, which was a record. Lantin Fort was inaugurated in 1880. Apart from the turrets and the defensive bastions, it comprised – buried under a thick layer of concrete – a muster room, a ballistics office, a kitchen and a refectory, dormitories and latrines and showers for the troops, an infirmary, a steam-powered electrical generating plant, a 40 metre well, munition supplies, water and food. At the highest point a retractable beacon turret made it possible to communicate with neighbouring forts using light signals. Several advance observation posts served to adjust the firing range on enemy targets who attempted to cross the protected perimeter.
Two structural weaknesses
The concrete used at the time contained more pebbles and sand than cement, for the thickness of the superstructures offered sufficient resistance to the shellfire of the period. A material – not reinforced – which would prove obsolete thirty years later, when attacked by the latest, and considerably more destructive, German projectiles.
Moreover, being underground, the gunners in the Belgian forts were themselves unable to aim accurately if they failed to receive precise firing instructions from their advance observation posts set up on promontories, church towers and other chimneys in the environs. These were easy targets for the attackers – as were the transmission cables which just had to be severed to render blind these subterranean fortresses.
The German attack
Launched on 4th August, 1914, the German invasion quickly come up against cannon fire from the forts of Liege and resistance from the 3rd Belgian division. Subjected in their turn to intensive bombardment, several fortified redoubts located on the right bank of the Meuse sadly had to surrender three days later, enabling German troops to reach the town centre. However, unrelenting shellfire provided by the other forts halted the invaders’ progress, particularly by the railway.
Attacking Liege’s line of defence from the rear, the German gunners set up a battery of howitzers of a calibre never before seen in the heart of the city, the famous ‘Big Berthas’, capable of undermining the concrete constructions of the Belgian fortifications.
For the Belgian gunners confined in the forts, the incessant shelling of the artillery was deafening. No less than 15,000 shells fell on Loncin Fort, the command post of general G. Leman. The concrete crumbled, the metallic cupolas were destroyed one after another, and toxic fumes and dust from the explosions filled the corridors. German cavalry and infantry encircled each of the defensive redoubts trapping the beleaguered men inside the dark passages of their fortress.
In Lantin, the latrines and showers had been built on the weak side of the defensive ditch. Escape from the redoubt was impossible. The rarefied air rapidly became impossible to breathe. The infirmary found itself unable to cope with all the wounded. On 15th August, the fort, with all its cannons put out of action and utterly bled dry, was forced to capitulate.
The Loncin Fort, just next door, fell in its turn a few hours later, when one of these gigantic 420mm diameter shells hit its munitions store. The fort’s superstructure rose up under the shock of the explosion, causing the death of 350 soldiers.
Falling under German control, Lantin Fort was re-used as barracks for German troops. The structure, severely damaged during the bombardments, was repaired and several transformations were made, particularly to the postern gate entrance. It was at this time that the artillery turrets and armoured cupolas were dismantled, and their steel put to other uses.
Rehabitation of the fort
Used after the war as a munitions store for the Belgian army, the fort was not used in 1939-45. Abandoned in the 1950s, it ended up becoming overgrown by a thick layer of vegetation. Enthusiasts of late 19th century military architecture found it interesting and this led to the creation of an association of passionate amateurs who undertook substantial clearing up, restoration and re-wiring work. Owners of the site since 1983, the Amis du Fort de Lantin have managed to fix several turrets back into position, re-create a period atmosphere in some of the rooms and organise a tourist circuit with an audio-guide, thanks to a European subsidy. Maps, photographs, witness accounts, uniforms and period equipment have been put on display in the exhibition areas.
Reserving a dormitory in Lantin Fort
The ‘guest dormitories‘ in the fort cannot unfortunately be rented to single individuals or families. 14 or 18 people need to form a group to book a room. An overnight ‘regimental style’ stay, with bunk beds and the inevitable snoring … The good news is that the mattress, sheets and blankets are new and the plumbing is modern. A vast refectory will provide one or several meals and there is a hall with a vaulted ceiling where films can be shown or an event organised.
This provides a taste of military history in 1914 that will appeal not only to schools but also to groups of enthusiasts. A guided tour of the whole fort (coupled with a visit to the nearby Loncin Fort), are part of the basic programme but the Association is open to all other suggestions (banquets, evening birthday events, role playing, weddings, etc.)
Get in touch with ‘Les Amis du Fort de Lantin‘ to make a reservation.
An original overnight stay for groups intending to visit the battlefields and cemeteries of the Great War … and discover another facet of the conflict than life in the trenches. Would you be prepared to take the plunge and experience this for yourselves?