from ‘the War Illustrated’ 3rd April; 1915,

On Fortifications
the War by Land

by F. A. McKenzie, "Daily Mail’ War Correspondent


the Use of Fortified Areas in Modern Warfare

a schematic illustration of a typical fort of the Great War era
in reality most were much larger


Army doctors tell me that they find they have to learn to-day from almost forgotten books of twenty and thirty years ago in treating the victims of war. Old diseases of which they had no experience have come to the fore again, and old remedies, once regarded as hopelessly, out of date, have been rediscovered. In the business of fighting, on the other hand, so far from going back to old ideas, we. are finding to-day that the settled principles of even a year ago no longer held. We are learning a new art of war. New explosives, new guns, aerial reconnaissance, and submarines have revolutionised old ideas and plans. Then when we think we have learned our new lesson, some fresh chain of facts comes up and we have to start learning over again. The fall of Przemysl is an example of this. One lesson driven home by file war over most of the field has been the uselessness of fortified positions to resist strong and determined attack. Yet Przemysl has succeeded in resisting the Russians for over four months. Why could this place hold out so long when Namur fell in a day and Antwerp in a week ?

The French Theory of Defence

France built her theory of defence around the principle that an enemy could be held back by a chain of strongly protected positions white the nation was given time to mobilise and bring up its armies. The lines of eastern defence - Belfort, Epinal, Tout, and Verdun - was perfect.

There was a vast and intricate network of forts, trenches and elaborate defences from Verdun to Toul, the direct point for a German advance and Verdun itself had a ring of detached forts around it. Farther north there was the fortress of Maubeuge, facing Belgium. Paris itself was supposed to have learned the lesson of 1870, being regarded by fortified positions as one of the most strong. Belgium, following the same theory as the French of defence by fortifications, slept secure, confident in her three strong points - Liege, Namur, and Antwerp - which it was considered even the most eager German general could not capture and would not dare to leave behind. Antwerp, in particular, was supposed to require half a million men and a six months' siege before it could be taken.



Fortifications versus Men

All of this may sound very absurd to-day in face of our knowledge gained by experience, but it did not sound absurd then. The example of previous wars could be quoted in defence of this position. PIevna resisted for one hundred and forty-three clays, and then only fell through hunger. Port Arthur stood out for over five months against one of the most impetuous and brave of enemies. The advocates of fortifications knew, of course, that a besieged position, unrelieved from outside and unsupported by a strong field army, must eventually surrender. That is an axiom of war. But they held that fortresses would keep an enemy back for a long time. The usual estimate was that it would require at least one hundred and twenty days for an army very much superior in numbers to reduce a modern, properly prepared position.

The German Theory of Attack

Against this French theory of a nation defending itself by holding the enemy back, we bad the German theory of being always ready for war, and immediately and overwhelmingly advancing and attacking when war was declared. German military experts held that in the race between guns and fortresses guns had won, and they made no secret of their belief. Everyone with any knowledge of military matters knew seven years ago the German claim that their new howitzer would enable them, by the destruction wrought by its fire, to rush any position, however strongly prepared, within a few days. Unfortunately, most of us did not give sufficient value to the German claim. Up to now the German theory has proved right.

Six great fortresses - apart from the fortified position on the Dardanelles - have been besieged since the beginning of the war, four by the enemy, and two by the Allies. All every case the result has been the same. Liege fell a few days after the German 42mm howitzers opened their fire upon it, the chain of strong forts crumbling like paper castles before the bursting shells. The defence of Namur was a matter of hours in place of months. Maubeuge, from which the French hoped much, checked the German advance no more than a great rock on the beach checks the advance of the sea. The Belgians had weeks after the outbreak of the war to perfect the defences of Antwerp, a city often spoken of as the strongest in Europe.



The land was swept for many miles in front of the forts, and every approach covered mines, pits, wire entanglements, and a multitude of devices to stay an advancing enemy. The Germans brought up guns with a longer range than those of Antwerp, placed them in safe positions, and shelled the city into surrender in a few days, with comparatively small loss. The defences of Paris were found to be so feeble that had General Pail's army failed in its attack on the flanks of the oncoming Germans, Paris would probably have surrendered within a very short time. Tsingtau was spoken of as the Gibraltar of the Far East. Germany had spent many millions on the construction and armament of the fine forts on the hills commanding the city. The Japanese opened fire with their heavy siege-guns on October 31st. By November 7th Tsingtau was forced to yield.

How Przemysl Held Out
*see link on 'the Siege of Przemysl'

Now, when the world has convinced itself that fortresses are of little value, comes the case of Przemysl. The siege of this city began on September 27th. It was partly raised twenty-three days later, the Russians having lost very heavily. According to German accounts their losses were. 70,000 men. They again invested the city on November 12th, and maintained their grip in spite of all sorties from the inside and of attempts at relief from without, until March 21st. The Hungarian. forces under General Kuzmanek thus held their ground for four months and nine days, a feat worthy of high praise. They are a brave enemy. who have done well, who according to all accounts, have. fought fairly and chivalrously, and whom we gladly honour.

There are several reasons why the Hungarians were able to keep the Russians back for so long. They had positions of great natural strength, Przemysl being partly-surrounded by practically impregnable mountain-ranges. The defenders had good artillery, and in the early days of the siege their guns and howitzers were apparently better than those of the Russians. They had a splendid system of aeroplane reconnaissance which enabled them to discover the approaches of the Russians. But once the Russians of their heavy siege-guns into position, operating against the weaker sides of the defences to the north-east and the cast of the town, the end was certain. Fort after fort fell and Przemysl soon had to yield.


The Next Move in the Dardanelles
see link on 'the Dardanelles'

We have not yet reached the most difficult part of our work in the Dardanelles. The forts that await us a little further on are known to be the most formidable points in the defences of these narrow waters.

It is almost certain to be necessary to land a strong force to co-operate with the Navy, and if this has not already taken place I shall be very much surprised if it does not follow, in the immediate future. The allied expeditionary army will have to be a strong one. The Turks are certain to have concentrated very large forces around this part, and the Allies will have to attack elaborate fortifications..

Enver Pasha's German advisers have had ample time to lay their plans. They would be mad if they did not fight with every resource at their command. Those who, count on an immediate forcing of the Dardanelles are exceedingly optimistic.


from a French popular almanach


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