Feature Articles - Brave Little Belgium - Belgian Neutrality Before The War



Belgium is one of those modern countries formed by political expediency.  Based on the ancient provinces of the south Netherlands, Flanders and the Walloon areas of Artois, it was set up as a barrier between France, the Netherlands and the states that became unified as Germany.  Its neutrality was guaranteed by the treaty of 1839, signed by all of the countries that would eventually become the chief belligerents of the Great War of 1914-1918.

In the later decades of the 19th Century, Belgian fortunes grew.  Capitalising on its position as an international trading place, and large sources of natural wealth in coal and iron, its population grew and its economic well-being blossomed in the years before the war.  Militarily, it was believed by the Great Powers of the time to be of little consequence, for it had virtually no army.  It did not need one - it was neutral.  Through all the diplomatic crises of the early 20th Century, Belgium remained aloof, concentrating on developing its recent acquisitions in Central Africa, and on making the most of its industrial golden age.  At this time, there was very little sense of impending military action ; at least nothing for the Belgians to worry about.

In this cosy atmosphere, diplomatic opinion failed to alert the government to the fact that Belgian safety was becoming weakened by relying on the traditional guarantees of neutrality.  The French ambassador in Brussels was increasingly isolated, as the Belgian Foreign Ministry and high society treated the Germans with far more interest.  About 1910, Germany overtook France as the most important trading partner.  'La Belgique Moderne', published in 1910 by Frenchman Henri Chauriaut remarked on the rapidity of German penetration of Belgian life.  Above all, the Flemish Catholics became very impressed by German discipline and morality.  Belgian intellectuals began to spend more time in Germany than in the Sorbonne.

Belgian politics and public opinion were, in the years immediately before the war, very pro-German.  Only one category remained staunchly pro-French: the officer class.  They took as a norm the French language and culture, and it was from this class that emerged warnings - proven correct, of course - of the dangers of German influence.

The Unprepared Army

It was largely thanks to Kings Leopold II and Albert that Belgium had any kind of effective army in 1914.  Not only were they in the position of being strong Constitutional Monarchs supported by weak successions of national government, but they were constitutionally Commanders-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Leopold had been responsible, in the wake of the war of 1870 and with evidence of growing German power in Europe, for both the construction of the Meuse fortresses at Liege and Namur, and a law that had decreed the growth of the army by a system of national service to 100,000 men.  The country failed to respond to the decree, and a further law had to be passed in 1902 entrusting the main defence to volunteers.  In spite of strong Christian-Democrat support for military expansion, the ruling Catholic party vacillated.  The Belgian people were not greatly militaristic, and there was little by way of internal propaganda to entice them to join up.

Another law was passed in 1909, this time limiting service to one son per family.  By this means, and various other enticements and enforcement, which included shortening the period of service, the army now had theoretical capacity of some 33,000 men per year.  The proposed length of service differed by the arm of the service, but in all cases was barely long enough to train a man, let alone give him any military experience:

  • Infantry 15 months
  • Artillery 21 months
  • Cavalry 24 months

All men were then kept in active reserve, up to a total service of 15 years.

In 1912, the leader of the Catholic government, Charles de Broqueville (who had joined the House in 1892 as an anti-militarist, and who in 1909 did not support the Bill on conscription) announced that a thorough military reform was necessary.  It was a carbon copy of the German army expansion plan of the same year, but scaled down in size.  In 1913, the single-son clause was lifted.

It was projected that it would take until at least 1918 to have available an army of 340,000 trained men, considered by some in the staff to be the minimum number required to defend the country from a serious attack.

The Belgian army in July 1914 was approximately 190,000 strong.  It was organised as a field army of six divisions, plus the garrisons of the fortresses centred on Antwerp, Liege and Namur.  The field army numbered some 118,000 men of all arms, of which 14,000 were regular professional soldiers, and the rest had or were serving obligatory national service, including being available in reserve.  (It is interesting to note that the field army of 1839 was 100,000 men, from a population half the size).  The effects of the military laws on strengthening the army can be seen in the composition of the latter group.

  • 1906-9 classes - 13,000 men per year
  • 1910 - 17,000  men per year
  • 1911 - 19,000 per year
  • 1912 - 21,000 per year
  • 1913 - 33,000 per year ...a step change

Thus, a total of 144,000 were theoretically available for the field army.  However, some 40,000 did not become available in August 1914 for various reasons.  Approximately 104,000 men served in the field army in 1914, to which should be added the 14,000 regular soldiers of the time.

In addition, the fortresses at Liege, Namur and Antwerp were garrisoned by 5,000 regulars plus 60,000 older men of the 1899-1905 classes.

The balance of the total was made up of staff, officers, and miscellaneous support units.

The armament and equipment of the army reflected decades of stringent financial budgeting.  In all there were available only 93,000 rifles and 6,000 swords, which was bad enough, but the real problem in terms of the coming fight was the paucity of artillery.  There were only 324 obsolete field guns, and a paltry 102 machine guns.  A decree of 15 December 1913, being a reaction to heightening tension and the clear direction of King Albert to adopt a neutral defensive posture, placed orders for modern artillery equipment.  The heavy artillery orders were placed with Krupp of Germany.  Needless to say, Krupp delayed delivery and in the event, the Belgians took the field with only one type of modern light artillery weapon, and not too many of those.  There was virtually no mechanised transport, the army relying on horse- and dog-power.  There were also serious shortages of engineers stores, minor equipment, and even uniforms, as the administration failed to gear up for the expansion of the classes of 1913 and 1914.

In addition to the army, Belgium had a system of armed local militia, as well as a gendarmerie.

As the 1914 crisis heightened, a neutral observer, assessing the ability of the army to defend the country, would have found little cause for optimism.

Firstly, there were disagreements at the highest levels about the strategy to be adopted, although they were agreed on the overall defensive neutral posture.  Of course, they faced the probability of being invaded from both Germany and France, as the two super-powers clashed using strategies that were far from secret.  These disagreements still remained as late as August 1914.  At the outbreak of war, not one significant decision had been taken over the deployment of the army, should Belgium be attacked from Germany or France.  The government of de Broqueville clung stubbornly to neutrality, right up to the time that German troops were crossing the border.  It was simply not understood what would happen when the guarantees of 1839 became valueless.

De Selliers de Moranville, in place as Chief of Staff only since 25 May, proposed centring the whole army on Antwerp, leaving Liege and Namur only as a delaying screen.  De Ryckel, Adjutant-General, favoured a forward policy of strongly manning the borders, especially in front of Liege, snuffing out the intruders as they appeared, and only falling back on Antwerp if necessary.  Albert settled it: the army would concentrate on the left bank of the Meuse, prepare a second line along the Gette, and be based on Antwerp.  The final decisions were taken on the 2nd of August, as the Germans were rolling into Luxemburg.

Next concern was the condition of the army itself.  It had never fought, and virtually all of its life had been connected with the smooth running of the fortress garrisons.  Officers had never commanded large bodies of men in the field.  They were also, in most cases, terribly out of touch with the men, the majority of whom spoke native Flemish, not the French of the officer class.  Army orders were only given in French.  More than 10% of the ordinary soldiers were illiterate.

Finally, the army was in the process of being reorganised, with many units changing brigades, divisions and staff.  This state of administrative uncertainty still existed when the Germans marched on Belgium in August, 1914.

Caught In The Middle: Schlieffen Plan versus Plan XVII

Belgium's military position was inevitably dictated by it's geographical and political position, caught between the two mighty super-powers.

The French military strategy in Europe was essentially driven by two forces.

Firstly, a passionate desire to win back the territories of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost cheaply to the Germans in 1870, since when these areas had been intensively Germanised, to the revulsion of the French.  They were, and still are, excellent areas of agriculture and industry.  They give France access to the Rhine; German lands West of the Rhine being of immense tactical importance in providing a ready-made assembly area for troops and materiel, they were an obvious target for a French offensive.

Secondly, the French army had become obsessed with a military doctrine that relied almost solely on the attack - especially the idea of l'attaque à l'outrance; attack with flair, with energy, with élan.  This idea was relatively new; it had developed since 1900, driven by the teaching of Foch and others at the Staff schools.  Before that, the strategy had been a defensive one, which had lead to the construction of the border fortresses at Maubeuge, Belfort, Verdun, Toul, Epinal and other locations.

The new doctrine led inexorably to the French failing to arm themselves with anything resembling defensive armament, and to an absence of training in how to deal with an enemy which resisted or attacked in his turn.  This was to cost the French dear in the first years of the war, and never more than in the first clashes along the frontier.

French plans therefore placed large numbers of troops in a position to assault Alsace and Lorraine, with the centre of gravity of the army facing Metz.  The First and Second Armies, under Generals Dubail and de Castelnau, would go for Colmar, Strasbourg and Metz.

The French, of course, knew that the Germans would attack France when given an opportunity, and deliberately left an open channel - the Trouée de Charmes - for them to do so.  A wide gap was left between the Second Army, and the Third Army under General Ruffey facing Longwy and Luxemburg.  It was assumed the Germans would be enticed to enter the gap, and be held up and destroyed by the forts around Verdun.

The remainder of the army took up positions along the Belgian border as far north as the old fortress of Maubeuge, standing on the defensive while the First and Second Armies advanced, but ready to advance through the Ardennes.  The Belgians were right to worry as much about an attack from the West as from the East.

French planning did not consider that the Germans could possibly advance through the Northern parts of Belgium.  (It must be said, however, that Michel, Joffre's predecessor as Commander-in-Chief, had postulated this.  It was thought to be absurd, and was one of the causes of his removal from post.) The distances involved were too long to be practical, and of course, no bounder would violate the very neutrality that his country had signed up for in the first place.  So only the thinnest screen of Territorials was left between Maubeuge and the coast near Dunkerque.

The French plan was one of great simplicity, and apart from tinkering with details, stood unchanged from the turn of the Century.  The latest revision, 1912, was Plan XVII.  German intelligence knew the broad outline of the French intentions as early as 1897.

It was in this year that von Schlieffen, Head of the German General Staff, had found the nerve to articulate the obvious military response to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893.  He could not fight and beat them both.  Counting on traditional Russian incompetence and on their inability to mobilise in mass due to lack of a sufficient railway system, he had a short period of time in which to beat the French.  The Germans could use the benefit of the excellent lateral railways that were being built to move masses of troops from a conquered France to the East, and then beat the Russians too.  So France it was.

The Franco-German border was not ideal for a huge assault.  Much of it ran through hilly country, and the French had left a large gap in front of Verdun, too obvious to attack.  So only around 40 miles of front was ideal; this was insufficient for a mass assault and would potentially leave too much flank vulnerable to French counterattack.  No, the answer was to move through Belgium, and march on Paris.  Politically impossible, it seemed to von Schlieffen that the possibility of encirclement by the Alliance justified the action.

Later, as the Alliance became the Triple Entente with England, the justification was definite.  The German propaganda machine began to hint to the public, and to those countries not yet aligned, that the French and the British would not hesitate to use Belgium as their aufmarschgebiet, or jumping-off zone, for an assault on Germany itself.  So of course, it was only defensively that Germany would invade Belgium.

Von Schlieffen's plan was thus: the army would strike hard and fast against France, in a movement to envelope Paris and force surrender.  If all went well, the army would continue its anticlockwise movement and fall upon the bulk of the French army from behind as it advanced into Lorraine.  Only a light screen of troops would be left south of Metz.  To ensure victory, there would be three times as many men on the German right wing as on the left.  They would be unstoppable.

The French massed men to recapture Alsace and Lorraine (1st and 2nd Armies); the Germans placed five Armies to move swiftly through Belgium. The six Belgian divisions lay in their path.Von Schlieffen also planned for a strike into Holland, going via Grave, 's Hertogenbosch, Tilburg and Turnhout, to capture Antwerp.

To counter this possibility, the Dutch army prepared all the railway bridges south of Maastricht for demolition, on 26 July. It was probably only lack of sufficient artillery and ammunition that caused von Moltke to abandon this project, although violating Dutch neutrality would deny the Germans considerable political and economic support from the North.

The plan for Belgium was simple - knock out the forts at Liege and Namur and move on. Capture the railways running from the Channel past Brussels and into Europe. Capture Antwerp as a useful additional port with access to the North Sea. There was just no possibility that the puny six divisions of the Belgian army, so poorly equipped and organised, could prove to be of any menace to the best in the world. The armies of Von Kluck, Von Bulow and Von Hausen would move swiftly ahead to capture Paris.

The Germans did not realise that the British Expeditionary Force would be present, positioned in front of Maubeuge on the left of the French screen. This is no surprise; even the British Parliament did not know about it until the eleventh hour. There was no good reason to worry even had they known. Four divisions of an army that had been taught a stiff lesson by the Boers a few years ago would be of virtually no consequence. Contemptibly small, as the Kaiser said.

As the crisis escalated through high Summer of 1914, both Plan XVII and the Schlieffen plan began to be implemented. Huge numbers of men mobilised and took up position.

On the 27 July, the precaution was taken in Belgium to recall the 33,000 men of the 1913 class, who had gone on leave on 10 July. On the 31st, general mobilisation was ordered, following the German announcement of Kriegsgefahrzustand at 1.30pm that afternoon.

Article contributed by Chris Baker, website.

"Eggs-a-cook" were boiled eggs sold by Arab street vendors. It was later used by Anzac soldiers when going over the top.

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Brave Little Belgium