- The German Army  1657-1945


1914. How did positional warfare come about? Lances against machine-guns
The August sun shone down mercilessly on the low rolling country as it stretched from the north-west bank of the Meuse at Liege westwards in the general direction of Brussels. Between 5 and 8 August 2nd and 4th Cavalry Divisions, under General von der Marwitz, crossed the Meuse at Liege on the Dutch-Belgian border, and on 10 August encountered numbers of the enemy who were dug in east and south-west of Tirlemont. The Germans decided to outflank them to the north, and the two divisions were temporarily disengaged and pulled back on 11 August to the area east of Saint-Trond, where they rested. The exertions of these first days of the campaign were extremely demanding, and as early as 6 August the Germans began to run alarmingly short of oats for their horses. The earlier probing actions had established that the Belgian troops had withdrawn from Ligne on Tirlemont, and that the Belgian Army would not deploy for action in front of the line Louvain—Namur. Strong forces and fieldworks were identified behind the line of the Gette running from Diest through Tirlemont to Judoigne.
From Tirlemont downstream the Gette itself formed an obstacle in its own right and was augmented by the wet water meadows and a number of drainage ditches; north of Haelen they emptied into the Diemer, which flowed from the east by way of Hasselt. Downstream from that location the Diemer measured ten metres wide by two metres deep. Visibility was restricted by rows of trees and hedges, and many of the built-up areas and fields were divided by wire fences. North of the Diemer a canal (again ten metres wide by two metres deep) ran almost due north from Hasselt to Turnhout, where the Greater and Lesser Nethe flowed into the mighty, fortified city-port of Antwerp on the Schelde.
Altogether the terrain and the way it had been developed posed considerable difficulties in the path of cavalry when it was advancing along the roads; these difficulties became downright intolerable as soon as the Germans tried to make their way cross-country on horseback.
On 12 August General von der Marwitz sought to outflank the defended sector of the Gette by a move northwards in the direction of Diest. With this intention he set 2nd Cavalry Division in motion by way of Hasselt, and 4th Cavalry Division (reinforced by 9th Jager Battalion and the cycle company of 7th Jager Battalion) by way of Alken and Steevort to Haelen, while reconnaissance patrols crossed an imaginary line running from Hechtel to Tirlemont by way of Beeringen and Diest. Ten Cavalry Brigade of 4th Cavalry Division remained at Saint-Trond to protect the left flank, with a reconnaissance squadron posted further south-west at Landen.
Second Cavalry Division seized a number of weapons in Hasselt, and after some delay it marched at about noon to Steevort, on the Haelen road. Fourth Cavalry Division had already arrived at the same location, which meant that both divisions were now formed up in line ahead on a road which lay uncomfortably close to the enemy front. During the march General von der Marwitz ordered 4th Cavalry Division to open the passage of the Gette at Haelen, with 2nd Cavalry Division taking the lead by pushing to Herck-la-Ville and securing the ground northwards in the direction of Lummen. The patrols reported that the crossing at Haelen was held by the enemy, and General von Gamier accordingly brought his artillery into position west of Herck-la-Ville, while he deployed the reinforced 9th Jager Battalion on both sides of the Haelen road, and set 3 Cavalry Brigade the task of outflanking the enemy to the south. Towards 1300 the Jagers seized the damaged bridge over the Gette and penetrated to the western end of the village of Haelen. It was now that the enemy artillery opened up — setting buildings ablaze, sweeping the village street from end to end, and inflicting the first German casualties. The Germans now recognized that the heights west of Haelen were occupied by the enemy.
Meanwhile 3 Cavalry Brigade (2nd Cuirassier Regiment and 9th Ulan Regiment) with the help of their pontoon wagons had made a passage of the Gette at Donck, south of Haelen, and were in the process of crossing the river. Seventeen Cavalry Brigade (17th and 18th Dragoon Regiments) had moved up immediately east of Haelen, and had designated 4th Squadron of the latter regiment as the reconnaissance squadron and sent it in the direction of the infantry who were deployed and in action on the Haelen-Diest railway, and the enemy artillery which had been identified at Houthem.
Our own artillery, which so far had given effective support to the attack on Haelen, now had to change position to accompany the advance. The intended battery sites, which were just west of Haelen, had first to be captured, and this mission was given to 17th Dragoons, who were following immediately behind 4th (reconnaissance) Squadron of the 18th.
One event now overtook another with dramatic urgency. Fourth Squadron at once headed westwards through Haelen in column of fours, with the intention of carrying out the reconnaisance as had just been ordered. Seventeenth Dragoons came up behind through the village in the same formation, as a preliminary to exploiting the road which ran northwest towards Diest. Its two leading squadrons and the staff of the headquarters meanwhile remained in column of fours along the road, since the hedges and fences prohibited any kind of deployment. Third Squadron got entangled in wire fences and difficult country west of the road. The direction of the German cavalry was betrayed by a mighty cloud of dust, and Belgian skirmishers, machine-guns and batteries now opened a concentrated fire against the squadrons as they galloped from Haelen in their closed columns. The effect was devastating. Afterwards the remnant of the German cavalry was assembled at the western edge of Haelen, or just to the south of the village, while individual dragoons, who had lost their horses, kept up the fight alongside the Jagers.
Meanwhile our artillery had been able to take up position west of Haelen and open fire on the enemy batteries at Houthem. The Germans hoped to hold down the Belgian artillery fire sufficiently to permit 18th Dragoons to pass through Haelen in their turn, and then, debouching by the exit which led south-west towards Velpen, spur on against the heights. The deployment from column of twos had to be accomplished under a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire. With standards flying the Germans moved into attack formation with two squadrons making up the first line, and the third in echelon to the left rear, and in the process the horsemen rolled over the foremost lines of the enemy skirmishers. Then, however, the attack was shattered by an outburst of violent defensive fire among a zone of hedges and barbed wire fences. The German losses were extremely heavy.
While these events were unfolding 3 Cavalry Brigade met its own fate. The brigade had made a successful passage of the Gette at Donck, and it was there that it received the order to sweep onwards and capture the enemy artillery. Without losing a moment the regiment of Konigin Cuirassiers galloped through Velpen with a first line of three squadrons; this charge too was beaten off with severe losses. The regimental commander renewed the attack with the third squadron, which was still intact, and the remnants of the first two squadrons. It was all in vain, and a third and last effort proved :o be no more successful.
Just to the right of the cuirassiers 9th Uhlan Regiment was attacking in the direction of Tuillerie-Ferme, with two squadrons in its first line and two in the second; after the first line collapsed the second took up the attack, only to meet the same fate. After the failure of the cavalry assault the push was continued in the direction of Houthem by the Jagers who, from 1400, had the support of skirmishers from the Leibhusaren Brigade, who had dismounted for combat on foot. The Germans took Liebroek to the north, and Velpen to the south.
However the fact remains that for the first time in the war an attempt had been made to charge modern weapons with cold steel, and the effort had miscarried.

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