Primary Documents - Belgian Report on German Ultimatum of 2 August 1914

King Albert of Belgium On 2 August 1914, the day before Germany declared war on France, the German government wrote to the Belgian government demanding the right of free passage across Belgium for its troops, so that the latter could most efficiently invade France and reach Paris.

Belgium's reply to what amounted to a German ultimatum (grant free passage or suffer occupation as an enemy of Germany) was delivered on 3 August 1914.  It was a clear refusal of free passage.  Click here to read the text of the German request and Belgium's response.

On the same day as the Belgian reply Germany declared war on France; the former invaded Belgium the next day, which resulted in Britain's entry into the war to defend Belgian neutrality.

Reproduced below is an account of the German reaction in Berlin of Belgium's denial of free access, written by the Belgium ambassador to Germany, Baron Beyens.

Official Report of the Belgian Minister at Berlin as to how the German Government Received the Belgian Defiance
by Baron Beyens

Your telegram was brought to me on the 3rd of August towards 8 p.m.  By the time I had deciphered it, it was too late for me to go to Wilhelmstrasse.

I resolved to postpone until the following morning the verbal explanations which it was my duty to demand from Herr von Jagow on the subject of the German Government's unjustifiable action.

Early the next day I telephoned to him asking him to receive me as soon as possible.  He replied, asking me to go immediately.  At 9 o'clock I was shown into his room.  The Ministry was still empty.

"Well, what have you to say to me?"  These were his first words as he hurried to meet me.

"I have to ask you for explanations in regard to the ultimatum which the German Minister handed on Sunday evening to my Government.  I suppose you have some reason to give in explanation of such action."

"An absolute necessity forced us to present that demand to you.  It is with mortal grief that the Emperor and his Government have had to resign themselves to doing so.  To myself it is the most painful resolution and the most cruel thing I have had to do throughout my career.  But the passage through Belgium is for Germany a question of life and death.  She must be finished with France as quickly as possible, crush her completely so as then to be able to turn against Russia, otherwise she herself will be caught between the hammer and the anvil.  We have learnt that the French army was preparing to pass through Belgium and to attack us on our flank.  We must forestall her."

"But," I answered, "you are in direct contact with France on a frontier of 200 kilometres; why in order to settle your quarrel did you need to turn aside and pass through our country."

"The French frontier is too strongly fortified, and we are obliged," he repeated, "to act very quickly before Russia has had time to mobilize her army."

"Contrary to what you think, France has given us a formal promise to respect our neutrality, provided that you respect it too.  What would you have said if, instead of making us this promise of her own accord, she had presented to us the same summons before you, if she had demanded a passage through our country, and if we had yielded to her threats?  That we were cowards, incapable of defending our neutrality and unworthy of an independent existence?"

Herr von Jagow did not reply to this question.

"Have you," I continued, "anything with which to reproach us?  Have we not always correctly and scrupulously fulfilled the duties which the neutrality of Belgium imposed upon us with regard to Germany as well as the other guarantee Powers?  Since the foundation of our kingdom have we not been loyal and trustworthy neighbours to you?"

"Germany has nothing with which to reproach Belgium, whose attitude has always been correct."

"And so, in recognition of our loyalty, you wish to make of our country the battlefield for your struggle with France, the battlefield of Europe; and we know what devastation modern warfare brings with it!  Have you thought of that?"

"If the Belgian army," the Secretary of State replied, "allows us to pass freely, without destroying the railways, without blowing up the bridges and tunnels, and if it retires on Antwerp without attempting to defend Liege, we promise not only to respect the independence of Belgium, the lives and property of the inhabitants, but also to indemnify you for the loss incurred."

"Sir," I replied, "the Belgian Government, conscious of its duties towards all the guarantors of its neutrality, can make no reply to such a proposal other than the reply which it has made without hesitation.  The whole nation will support its King and its Government.  You must recognize yourself that no other reply was possible."

As I urged him to speak, Herr von Jagow, in the face of my persistence, ended by saying: "I recognize it.  I understand your reply.  I understand it as private individual, but as Secretary of State I have no opinion to express."

And then lie repeated the expression of his grief at having come to such a point after so many years of friendly relationship.  But a rapid march through Belgium was for Germany a question of life or death.  We in our turn should understand that.

I answered immediately: "Belgium would have lost her honour if she had listened to you, and no nation, any more than an individual, can live without honour.  Europe will be our judge.  And besides," I added, "you will not take Liege as easily as you think, and you will have to meet England, the faithful guarantor of our neutrality."

At these words Herr Jagow shrugged his shoulders, an action which could be interpreted in two ways.  It signified "What an idea! It is impossible!"  Or, perhaps: "The lot is cast, we cannot go back."

I added, before retiring, that I was ready to leave Berlin with my staff and to ask for my passports.

"But I cannot break my relations with you in this way," cried the Secretary of State; "perhaps there will still be something for us to talk over."

"It is for my Government to take a decision about that," I replied; "it does not depend upon you or me.  I will wait for their orders to ask for my passports."

As I left Herr von Jagow after this painful interview, which was to be our last, I carried away the impression that he had expected something else when I had asked to see him, some unforeseen proposal, perhaps the request to allow the Belgian army to retire in security to Antwerp after having made a show of resistance on the Meuse and having, on the invasion of the country, formally defended the principle of her neutrality.

After my first words, the face of the speaker seemed to me to betray a feeling of disappointment, and his persistence in telling me not to break our relations yet strengthened this idea which I had had from the start of our conversation.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The German word "U-Boat" was derived from "Unterseeboot" (undersea boat).

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