- 'Kidnapping General Leman'
- by British journalist J. N. M. Jeffries
- (correspondent of the 'Daily Mail')
Récits de Combattants
- left : a portrait of general Leman
- right : photo of general Leman's headquarters in Liège where the attack took place
Despite the publication of General von Ludendorff's own memoirs and of all the war histories very few people seem to be aware that he opened the war for Germany, so to speak, with his own fists and gained its first real success. For my satisfaction I have questioned concerning it over twenty persons, several being schoolmasters, four or five others having taken their degrees, all men or women of the educated classes, and none of these had any inkling of what occurred. This seems to be a fair indication of general public ignorance of this feat, and therefore I recall it. Nor, I believe, is there any wider knowledge of the extraordinary event which contributed most largely to Ludendorff's success.
Yet this was one of the most venturous attempts in the history of warfare, the endeavour by a selected body of German troops to kidnap the commander of the Belgian forces from his headquarters in the heart of Liege. The accounts of it even now remain in some degree conflicting. At the time little was said of it or became known of it. My own version reached publication in a mutilated form, reduced to some lines only. As far as I have been able to gather them the facts were these. Between three and four o'clock a.m. of the night of the 5th-6th General Leman and the officers of his Staff were intent upon their work in the headquarters bureau in the Rue Sainte Foy, when cries of "Vivent les Anglais!" were heard approaching.
Some of the staff-officers rushed to the windows to see what this could mean. British forces in Liege? It was preposterous. What they saw from the windows was more preposterous still. It was a cohort of between eighty and a hundred German troops marching up the street in column of fours under two officers. A number of Liegois were running and cheering beside them, under the impression that the strange uniforms were those of British soldiers. Very probably one of the German officers will have declared he and his men were British.
It is odd, of course, that townspeople living so close to the frontier did not know German field-service uniform, but apparently they did not. Three of them paid for their lack of knowledge with their lives presently. The staff-officers at the window, General Janssen and Major Collin, knew better. They shouted out: "They're Germans!" and to the guards below (who were very few in number): "Fire on them! Fire!" But the sentries and military clerks who came tumbling towards the entry did not understand. They too seem to have thought the new arrivals were British. The officers bounded downstairs, seizing their revolvers, and opened fire. The confusion may be imagined. The Germans had now broken ranks.
One of them, a private, actually penetrated into the building and entered the room in which General Leman himself and his A.D.C. were seated at their desks. Private and general looked at each other, equally dumbfounded. General Leman had presumably heard the beginning of the hubbub, but knew nothing of what it was all about. The German soldier had entered the enemy headquarters with the momentum of his squad, but now found himself alone. He was not yet attuned to shooting people down, particularly officers of high rank, and it is possible that the man, along with all his comrades, had been told to capture, not to shoot Belgian officers. He stared at the Belgian commander, then turned and fled from the room. It may be assumed that he escaped at least into the street. To do so he would have had to pass over the body of the junior of the two German officers, a lieutenant named Oelmitz, who following him inside had been met in the doorway by a Belgian staff-officer, Major Marchant. The two fired simultaneously, and both fell dead.
Meanwhile, acting with great promptitude, the Governor's A.D.C. and other officers, determined to save Leman at all costs, dashed with him to a window which opened into the courtyard of an adjacent smelter-works, seized their chief by the body and dropped him through. Then they followed and got him into immediate shelter.
The sentries and other soldiers in the headquarters by this time had opened fire on the Germans, eight of whom fell at the first discharge, as did several Belgian soldiers from German fire, as well as the three before-mentioned civilians, who probably received bullets intended for the enemy. But the Germans were in a great majority and there is no knowing what would have happened if at that moment a strong detachment of Belgian troops had not appeared at the top of the street. Their arrival was fortuitous. They were on their way to or from some position, and had not been summoned. The Germans broke at sight of them and took cover by the church of Ste. Foy, whence they fired again to hold the newcomers, but then rapidly dissipated in the dark amid the surrounding streets.
Next day the body of the German officer in charge, a colonel, one of the well-known von Alvensleben family, was found shot in the garden of a house in a street not far away. He appeared to have committed suicide, says Colonel de Schryver, the chief-of-staff of the 3rd Division (General Leman's force in the field), as a result of the failure of the kidnapping stroke with which he and his battalion of Rifles had been entrusted. Most of his men escaped and rejoined other sections of their regiment which had
lain hidden awaiting them, at a point to which they had been brought by guides. To this same point, without doubt, it had been intended that General Leman should be conveyed by his captors.
General Leman transferred his headquarters after this attempt to Fort Loncin. His office got to work again about seven o'clock, but the death of a valued staff-officer and the confusion and delay caused by the transfer had their effect. Colonel de Schryver (on whose authoritative narration I have supported my account) declares that "the action of the Command was annihilated for two hours, and this helped Ludendorff to instal himself" at a critical moment. The telephone in Fort Loncin proved to be out of order. Hardly anyone knew for some time where General Leman and his Staff had gone. Afterwards, too, Fort Loncin was to prove an inconvenient spot, not easily accessible, for the direction of the troops in the field. So that the kid- napping plan did have great effect upon the conduct of the defence. But for it, very possibly the first German operation against the "intervals" would have resulted in a general setback, and what would have happened to Ludendorff who knows? However, as will appear later, if after such a reverse to the Germans the Belgians had remained in their positions under the forts they would have been in the greatest peril. It was not in these positions, but eastward, along the Meuse, that the fate of the fortress was decided.
The arrival of the kidnappers in the centre of Liege furnishes the most signal proof of the strange conditions prevailing in these broad "intervals" between the forts, where a marauding party such as this could slip through, yet brigades, for all their strength, lost themselves and were repelled. It was also-to return to my own peradventures- in full consonance with my experiences in the woods. It was approaching midnight when I reached the city, and at once I made for the central telegraph office. It was late to telegraph but à la guerre comme à la guerre, and without any doubt for a dispatch arriving from Liege Carmelite House would hold the machines or perform whatever mechanical somersault the occasion needed. They would be printing into the small hours there under existing circumstances.
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