“We saw the whole horizon burst into flame”

Special to The Great War Project

(20 August) Less than three weeks into the war, German troops seize Brussels, Belgium’s capital, this day a century ago.

This is the first time a European capital has been occupied by a conquering army in nearly half a century, observes historian Martin Gilbert.

German troops advance on the Western Front, date and place uncertain.

German troops advance on the Western Front, date and place uncertain.

The Germans celebrate their victory with a parade. With bands and fifes and drums.

Elsewhere among French soldiers the mood is grim. The French learn for the first time just how lethal the German weapons can be.

Writes one French officer in his diary, “A girl was singing….from a little farm…came the voices and laughter of some soldiers cooking their evening meal.

“Then, without a moment’s warning, with a suddenness that made us start and strain our eyes….we saw the whole horizon burst into flame.”

It is the shock, the murderous power of German artillery.

“A chill of horror came over us,” writes the French diarist. “War seemed suddenly to have assumed a merciless, ruthless aspect that we had not realized till then.”

The French Second Army is in retreat, the result of intense German artillery bombardment all along its front.

Soldiers are slaughtered; civilians are massacred. A terrible routine is settling in. It is just the beginning.

French hospital unit, Morhange France, August 1914

French hospital unit, Morhange France, August 1914

The French learn just how terrible at a town called Morhange.

French flyers scan the battlefield from the air and warn of the “impregnability” of German forces.

French commanders ignore this information. They send 43,000 troops against the German positions. According to historian Max Hastings, the French advance across open fields “in full view of the enemy, to meet a hail for fire which ravaged their ranks.”

The French lines crack.

Morhange is a disaster for the French, but just one of many disasters in these very early days of the war, a century ago. In the next few days it will get much worse.

Meanwhile most of the British Expeditionary Force has landed in France, but its troops are not yet deployed to confront the Germans.