Battle of Haelen (1914)
The Battle of Haelen or Halen, also known as the Battle of the Silver Helmets (French: Bataille des casques d'argent, Dutch: slag der zilveren helmen), was a cavalry battle at the beginning of World War I. Haelen (Halen in Dutch) was a small market town along the principal axis of advance of the German imperial army and provided a good crossing point over the River Gete. The battle took place on 12 August 1914 between German forces, led by Georg von der Marwitz, and the Belgian troops led by Léon de Witte and resulted in a tactical victory for the Belgians.[Note 1]
On 3 August the Belgian Government refused a German ultimatum and the British Government guaranteed military support to Belgium should Germany invade. Germany declared war on France, the British government ordered general mobilisation and Italy declared neutrality. On 4 August the British government sent an ultimatum to Germany and declared war on Germany at midnight on 4–5 August Central European time. Belgium severed diplomatic relations with Germany and Germany declared war on Belgium. German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and attacked Liège. A week after the German invasion, German cavalry had been operating towards Hasselt and Diest, which threatened the left flank of the army on the Gete. Belgian General Headquarters chose Haelen as a place to delay the advance and make time to complete an orderly retreat towards the west and the Belgian Cavalry Division was sent from St. Trond to Budingen and Haelen, to extend the Belgian left flank.
German offensive preparations
The German II Cavalry Corps under General Georg von der Marwitz was ordered to conduct reconnaissance towards Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi and by 7 August had found that the area to a line from Diest to Huy empty of Belgian and Allied troops. Belgian and French troops were rumoured to be between Tirlemont and Huy and Marwitz advanced to the north towards parties of Belgian cavalry, which had retired towards Diest.
Belgian defensive preparations
On 11 August large bodies of German cavalry, artillery and infantry had been seen by Belgian cavalry scouts, in the area from St. Trond to Hasselt and Diest and the Belgian Headquarters anticipated a German advance towards Hasselt and Diest. To block the German advance the Belgian Cavalry Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Léon de Witte, was sent to guard the bridge over the River Gete at Haelen ("Halen"). During an evening meeting, the Belgian general staff convinced de Witte to fight a dismounted action in an attempt to negate the German numerical advantage. General de Witte had garrisoned all of the Gete crossings, at Diest, Haelen, Geet-Betz and Budingen. The main road from Hasselt to Diest passed through this village, most of which was on the left bank. If captured, Loxbergen and Waenrode would be outflanked and the left wing of the Belgian army endangered. General de Witte used Haelen as an outpost and to concentrated a battalion of cyclists and dismounted cavalry behind the village from Zelck to Velpen and the hamlet of Liebroeck as a line of resistance if Haelen was captured.
The German cavalry did not begin to move until 12 August due to the fatigue of the horses caused by the intense summer heat and a lack of oats. The 2nd Cavalry Division of Major-General von Krane advanced through Hasselt to Spalbeck and the 4th Cavalry Division under Lieutenant-General von Garnier advanced via Alken to Stevort. The Belgian Headquaters discovered from intercepted wireless messages that German troops were advancing towards de Witte's position and sent the 4th Infantry Brigade to reinforce the Cavalry Division. Marwitz ordered the 4th Cavalry Division to cross the Gete and at 8:45 a.m. the 7th and 9th Jäger battalions advanced. A German scouting party advancing from Herk-de-Stad came under fire from Belgian troops and c. 200 Belgian troopers attempted to set up a fortified position in the old brewery in Haelen but were driven out when the Germans brought up field artillery.
Belgian engineers had blown the bridge over the Gete but the structure only partly collapsed and the Germans got c. 1,000 troops into the centre of Haelen. The main Belgian defence line was west of Haelen in terrain which gave only an obstructed view to the attacker. The 17th and 3rd Cavalry brigades assisted the Jäger in and south of Haelen, which enabled artillery to be brought to the fringe of the village but attacks into cornfields beyond were repulsed with many casualties, some cavalry becoming trapped by wire fences. The Jäger were also repulsed despite support from the 2nd Guards Machine-gun Detachment and dismounted cavalry sharpshooters. Towards the end of the day Marwitz broke off the engagement; the 2nd Cavalry Division retired towards Hasselt and the 4th Cavalry Division withdrew to Alken.
De Witte repulsed the German cavalry attacks by ordering the cavalry, which included a company of cyclists and one of pioneers to fight dismounted and meet the attack with massed rifle fire, which inflicted significant casualties upon the Germans. The German cavalry had managed to obscure the operations on the German right flank and established a front parallel with Liège and discovered the positions of the Belgian field army but had not been able to penetrate beyond the Belgian front line and discover Belgian dispositions beyond. Although a Belgian victory, the battle had little strategic effect, the German armies besieged and captured the fortified regions of Namur, Liège and Antwerp, on which Belgian strategy depended. The German advance was stopped at the Battle of the Yser at the end of October 1914, by which time the Germans had driven Belgian and Allied troops out of most of Belgium and imposed a military government.
Until the German advance into France began, the 2nd Cavalry Division remained in the vicinity of Hasselt to guard the area near the Gete and the 4th Cavalry Division moved south on 13 August to the area around Loon and then moved towards the south-east of Tirlemont and joined the 9th Cavalry Division, which had crossed the Meuse on 14 August. On 16 August Marwitz advanced with the two divisions to Opprebais and Chaumont-Gistoux, where skirmishing with cavalry and artillery occurred, before meeting infantry who were well dug-in. Next day the cavalry slowly retired towards Hannut.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 6.
- Essen 1917, pp. 106–107.
- Humphries & Maker 2013, pp. 107–108.
- General Staff 1915, p. 19.
- Essen 1917, p. 107.
- Humphries & Maker 2013, p. 108.
- General Staff 1915, pp. 20–21.
- Humphries & Maker 2013, p. 109.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 208–224, 262–281.
- Duffy 2009.
- Essen 1917, p. 113.
- Humphries & Maker 2013, pp. 108–109.
- van der Essen, L. J. (1917). The Invasion and the War in Belgium From Liège to the Yser. London: T. F. Unwin. OCLC 800487618. Retrieved 4 January 2014.
- Various (1915). The war of 1914 Military Operations of Belgium in Defence of the Country and to Uphold Her Neutrality. London: W. H. & L Collingridge. OCLC 8651831. Retrieved 4 January 2014.
- Humphries, M. O.; Maker, J. (2013). Der Weltkrieg: 1914 The Battle of the Frontiers and Pursuit to the Marne. Germany's Western Front: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War. I, part 1. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-1-55458-373-7.
- Skinner, H. T.; Fitz M. Stacke, H. (1922). History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Principal Events 1914–1918. London: HMSO. OCLC 17673086. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
- Strachan, H. (2001). The First World War Volume I: To Arms. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 0-19-926191-1.
- Duffy, M (2009). "The Battle of Haelen, 1914". Battles - the Western Front. firstworldwar.com. Retrieved 23 February 2014.
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