Battle of Haelen (1914)
The Battle of Haelen, also known as the Battle of the Silver Helmets, was a cavalry battle on the Western Front at the beginning of World War I. It took place on August 12, 1914 between German forces led by Georg von der Marwitz and the Belgian forces led by Leon De Witte and resulted in a tactical victory for the Belgians.
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. A week after the invasion of Belgium by the Germans, the Belgian army chose the location to deal a stopping blow to the advancing enemy in an attempt to buy time to complete an orderly retreat towards the West.
Battle of Haelen
The Belgian military high command was convinced the Germans would advance towards Hasselt and Diest. To block the German advance the single cavalry division of the Belgian army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Leon de Witte, was sent to guard the bridge at Haelen over the river Gete. During an evening meeting, the Belgian general staff convinced de Witte to fight a dismounted action in an attempt to negate the German's numerical advantage and superior use of machine guns.
Out of communication intercepts, the Belgian HQ discovered that the Germans were heading in force towards de Witte's position and sent the 4th infantry brigade during the early hours of that morning to reinforce the cavalry division.
The fighting erupted around 8 o'clock in the morning when a German scouting party advancing from Herk-de-Stad came under fire from the Belgians. About 200 Belgian troopers attempted to set up a fortified position in the old brewery at Haelen, but were driven out of the building when the Germans brought up their field artillery. By this time the Belgian engineers had blown the bridge over the Gete, but the structure only partly collapsed and left the Germans an opportunity to send a force of some 1,000 troops into the centre of Haelen.
The Belgians' central defense line was positioned west of Haelen in a landscape which gave the attacker only an obstructed view. The relatively easy capture of Haelen had made the Germans confident of an easy victory and led to numerous ill-conceived attempts to capture the Belgian position with sabre and lance. Towards the end of the day the Germans were forced to retire towards their main columns east of Haelen.
De Witte repulsed the German cavalry attacks by ordering his men (which included a company of cyclists and another of pioneers) to dismount and meet the attack with massed rifle fire, which succeeded in inflicting significant casualties upon the Germans. The battle demonstrated the advent of the irrelevance of mounted cavalry charges on the battlefield.
Outcome and effects
Although a Belgian victory, the battle had little strategic effect and the Germans captured most of Belgium over the next two months.
The Germans suffered 150 dead, 600 wounded and some 200-300 prisoners with a loss of approximately 400 horses. The Belgians counted 160 dead and some 320 wounded. Furthermore, the Germans learned that the days of traditional cavalry actions were over.
As an analogy to the Battle of the Golden Spurs, this battle has been nicknamed the Battle of the Silver Helmets for the many silvered helmets left behind by the German cuirassiers on the battlefield.
- The Battle of Haelen at FirstWorldWar.com
- Museum of battle of Haelen
- General De Witte