Every year, on August 15, a large crowd attends the commemorations: Fort Loncin has become one of the most moving places of memory of the First World War in Wallonia.
By Frédéric Marchesani
August 15, 1914. 5:20 pm Like the other forts in the Liege position, Loncin has resisted the German invasion for ten days. Bombarded by the famous Grosse Bertha, an innovative weapon that can fire 796 kilogram shells, it is on the cusp of a tragedy. One of the enemy shots ends its course in an ammunition reserve, setting fire to twelve tons of powder. The explosion resulted in the death of 350 soldiers and the almost total destruction of the site. Since then, the latter has obtained the status of national necropolis, many bodies still trapped in the rubble a century after the fact.
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“To the heroes of Loncin who died for the country”
Not far from the fort is the monument commemorating the tragedy, erected by public subscription in 1923. Located in a shaded park, it is the work of sculptor Georges Petit and rises to 18m in height. At the top sits a group sculpted in bronze representing two ancient warriors, a Greek and a Roman, who grasp with their left hand a wreath of laurel and oak leaves, a symbol of gratitude to the heroism of their modern counterparts. At the foot of the monument, a group sculpted in stone this time, consists of an allegory of the city of Liège, in the guise of a draped woman standing above a stripped man, stretched out and holding a pommel of sword in hand. The stone on which he lies is flanked by the inscription “To the heroes of Loncin who died for the country on August 15, 1914, this ruined fort is their tomb”. At the rear, a medallion is adorned with the profile of Captain-Commandant Naessens who was at the head of the fort at the time of the conflict.
The aim was to preserve Liège from modern German artillery in the event of a conflict.
From 1888, the cities of Antwerp, Liège and Namur were given a new fortified position, designed under the direction of engineer Henri-Alexis Brialmont. Twelve forts were thus erected on the outskirts of the Mosan metropolis. These are established seven or nine kilometers from the city and are spaced between them three to six kilometers. The aim was to preserve Liège from modern German artillery in the event of conflict. At the forefront of modernity for the time, they all present howitzers and cannons under armored turrets and were erected using concrete, composed of cement, sand and pebbles, two great novelties. They present, for the majority, a shape of isosceles triangle whose top is turned towards the objective.
Apart from Loncin, the forts contained few provisions to support the daily stewardship of a garrison in time of war. Latrines, showers and kitchens were often located in the counterscarp, an untenable position during combat. This had serious consequences for the ability to withstand a prolonged enemy assault.
After the declaration of war of the German Empire on Belgium, six brigades tried to break the belt of the forts during the night of August 5 to 6, 1914. Five of them were repulsed by the 3e General Leman’s division, but the 6e manages to force the passage between the forts of Fléron and Evegnée. A German column of 180,000 men, aided by heavy artillery, then managed to bring down the Liège forts one after the other until the last one was surrendered on August 16. This opposition of nearly two weeks, heroic and unexpected for the German army, allows the French armies to position themselves at the border and thus considerably slow down the German invasion of France. This resistance allowed Liège to receive the Legion of Honor in 1919 from President Raymond Poincaré. A major reminder of this historic event, July 14 is still celebrated each year in Liège with a large fireworks display.
Prisoners for eternity
Marrying like its neighbors the shape of a triangle, the fort of Loncin differs from them by a more powerful armament and by a more numerous garrison. It has 350 artillerymen and 200 infantrymen, placed under the authority of Captain-Commander Victor Naessens. Its position with added strategic value, at the edge of the road and the railway linking Liège to Brussels, makes it a special place in the history of the Liège fortified position. His tragic destiny only reinforced this state of affairs. The visitor, quickly taken by the emotion that emerges from the place, cannot remove from his mind the fact that only a tiny part of the body could be recovered before being buried in a crypt. The heroes of Loncin are prisoners of their fortress for eternity and watch over its ruins forever.
In 2004, the fort was classified as a monument for its undeniable characteristics. It remains one of the most beautiful witnesses of Belgian defensive military architecture from the end of the 19th century.e century, its disastrous destiny allowing it to keep its original equipment. In October 2007, the army deminers team brought 142 tonnes of ammunition to the surface. This delicate operation also made possible the discovery of twenty-five bodies which were transferred to the crypt during a poignant ceremony. With royal favor, the site was elevated to the rank of national necropolis by King Philippe on August 3, 2014.
A dark page in our history
Equipped with an audio guide, the visitor explores the ruins and discovers various testimonies. A scenic route, set up in 2006, allows you to visit the few parts of the fort that withstood the explosion, but above all to survey the gigantic crater and see the remains of the central massif of the fort. Highlight of the visit, the imposing bronze sculpture overhanging the old assembly hall makes an impression. It represents a buried man whose head and shoulders stick out of the earth. He raised an arm to the sky holding a torch, a symbol of brotherhood. A museum allows you to discover rare, curious, even astonishing objects. There are weapons and other uniforms, but also personal items that were found in the rubble.
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Witness to a dark page in our history and to the heroism that human beings can demonstrate, Fort Loncin is well worth a visit.
The memory route in Wallonia
The “Walloon Heritage Routes” collection, of which this title constitutes the tenth issue, brings together a series of guides intended for the general public focused on the active discovery of Wallonia’s heritage. These books, real practical tools of visit, are declined through various themes including, this time, the memorial heritage of the major conflicts of the contemporary era.
This “Itinerary” offers a selection of places linked to the 1815 campaign and the two world wars. Charged with meaning and emotion, linked to significant events, the places of memory of these conflicts structure our identity. They were the object, immediately after the events, of a duty of remembrance which still continues today. Erected in a desire to perpetuate memory, these various traces (cemeteries, war memorials, memorials, stelae, statues, etc.) remain today tangible witnesses of tragic events, the commemoration of which is a civic duty.
Far from listing all the memorial traces of these major moments in our history, “The road to memory in Wallonia – The conflicts of the contemporary era” emphasizes the most emblematic of them. In addition to these heritage places, the work also lists a good number of Walloon museums and interpretation centers, with a foray into the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. By adding all the practical information intended for the organization of visits, it is part of an essentially tourist vocation.
The book is now available in bookstores or from the Walloon Heritage Agency at a price of 12 euros.
Information: [email protected] or +32 (0) 81 230 703
Or ? Rue des Héros 15 in 4431 Loncin (Ans) –
Tel: +32 (0) 498 38 76 93 – [email protected]; www.fortdeloncin.be
When? For individual visitors, the fort and the museum can be visited with an audio guide from Tuesday to Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (last entry at 4.30 p.m.) in July-August. In September-October, visits only on Saturdays and Sundays. Wearing a mask is compulsory and the number of visitors limited to five in the museum space.