Since the construction of its citadel by the architect Vauban in the 17th century, the town of Maubeuge had played an important role in the defence of France's northern frontiers. After the Franco-German War of 1870-71, the general and military engineer Raymond Alphonse Seré de Rivières made it a key element in the line of fortifications which he established from Switzerland to Dunkirk in readiness for any attack that should come from the German Empire, building six forts and six intermediate works a few kilometres from the town.
In the Schlieffen Plan, Maubeuge was not only a strategic objective for the German Army but also a danger. On the one hand it was at the intersection of the Brussels and Liège railways which ran straight to Paris; but on the other, it was a fortified town manned by 47,000 French soldiers and thus a threat to the flank of the 1st Army led by General Alexander von Kluck. Because of this, the Germans decided to invest the town in what was to be the longest siege of World War I.
With the exception of Le Bourdiau Fort, which was concrete, all the surrounding forts were built from brick and thus vulnerable to high explosive shells. To make matters worse, their outdated artillery's range of a mere eight kilometres was wholly inadequate to compete with the German guns which could send a shell almost twice as far (14 km). To make up for the small number of troops at his disposal, General Fournier, the commander of Maubeuge, had barbed wire entanglements laid the length of the thirty-six kilometres he had to defend.
On 25 August 1914, Maubeuge was besieged by 60,000 German soldiers. Four days later they started shelling Boussois Fort with 305 mm and 420 mm guns and within three hours it lay in ruins. The French attempted a sortie on 1 September but their infantry was stopped in its tracks, 923 men losing their lives. The town lost contact with the other French garrisons except for a lone pigeon which, on 4 September brought news of the forts of Les Sarts, Boussois and Cerfontaine: they were besieged by the enemy. Next, the arsenal exploded and then the German infantry attacked on 6 September, taking Boussois Fort. The French abandoned Les Sarts Fort and at the end of the morning Cerfontaine Fort came under attack. The town was burning. General Fournier was quite clear as to his situation, "The enemy's artillery continues to crush our infantry with bursts of large-calibre projectiles. It is surprising that such an unequal conflict should have lasted so long. Our losses are enormous (at least a quarter of our soldiers). The enemy is currently in the suburb of Le Pont-Allant, at the centre; our troops are reduced to a leaderless rabble in the suburb of Mons. They are no longer capable of resisting". However Fournier was determined that town should hold out to the last. On the morning of 7 September, Fort Leveau came under heavy shelling and by midday a white flag was flying from the church. The surrender was made official the following day.
The Siege of Maubeuge lasted fifteen days, suffering shelling on all but four of those days. A total of 45,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner and 450 guns and 80,000 shells fell into German hands. However the siege served some good to the cause of the French because it held back part of the German Army advancing on Paris, ensuring that 60,000 fewer German soldiers took to the field in the Battle of the Marne which erupted on 5 September.
Didier PARIS, Professor of History, and Edouard ROOSE