The first real battles

Special to The Great War Project

(5 August) Millions of soldiers are moving this morning a century ago.

German troops depart for the front by train, August 1914

German troops depart for the front by train, August 1914

Russian troops are taking their first steps toward Berlin. German soldiers are moving into Belgium, with Paris in their sites. France is moving its forces across the border into Germany intent upon returning the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to French control.

Observes one historian, “it was the largest mass movement of men and arms ever seen.”

Britain is formally at war with Germany, after the previous day’s declaration of war from London, but it will take time to engage. Britain has no forces to move in continental Europe. It will have to assemble and train a British Expeditionary Force, and send it across the English Channel in order to fight the Germans.

Germany’s naval forces are on the alert for British ships crossing the channel to France.

Germany is confident it can defeat the British. The Kaiser calls on German soldiers to “exterminate the treacherous England” and “its contemptible little army.”

In the war’s first serious fighting, German forces attack the fortress at Liege in Belgium. They are surprised by Belgium’s resistance. Belgium has 35,000 soldiers stationed there and they fight valiantly. On this day a century ago, Germany fails to take the fort and the city’s other fortresses.

German forces begin their practice of reprisals against Belgian civilians. They attack the town of Herve, killing many civilians.

There are still formalities to address. In all the maneuvering and tensions of the past two weeks, Austria-Hungary still has not declared war on Russia.

On this day, a century ago, Vienna makes it official with a declaration of war on Russia.