8 JANUARY, 1918: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Today’s the day, a century ago, that US President Woodrow Wilson revealed his Fourteen Points to the world.  The Fourteen Points were really big news, and the repercussions of Wilson’s grandiose exercise in liberal chutzpah cast a long, global shadow over the succeeding decades – but I’m not going to talk about them today. We’re this far into a world war that to all intents and purposes began there, and I’ve had very little to say about Belgium, so as an excuse for a skim through the First World War’s impact on the country no wartime Briton could name without the prefix ‘brave’, I’m going to give some context to the arrival in office, on 1 January, of new Belgian foreign minister Paul Hymans.

I guess most people are aware, however vaguely, that Great Britain went to war in 1914 in defence of Belgian neutrality, but this is usually reported without much interest in why the sanctity of Belgium mattered so much.  The basic answer is that Belgium had come into existence as a symbol of European peace in the aftermath of a long, painful series of wars that had ravaged the continent for 22 years between 1893 and 1815.

Fifteen years after the final defeat of Napoleon, in 1830, the largely Catholic southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands erupted into nationalist revolt.  After his attempts to restore order with troops had backfired, and the newly formed Belgian National Congress had declared independence, King William I of the Netherlands appealed to Europe’s Great Powers for arbitration – and didn’t get the result he wanted.

The 1830 London Conference of Europe’s major powers – Russia, France, Prussia (representing all the major German states), Austria-Hungary and Britain – recognised Belgian independence, and the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, took the throne in July 1831.  An immediate Dutch invasion was blocked by French military intervention, but the Netherlands didn’t fully accept Belgian independence until it signed the Treaty of London in 1839.

Signed by Belgium, the Netherlands and all five of the European Great Powers, the Treaty guaranteed Belgian territorial integrity and, at Britain’s insistence, its neutrality in any future war.  It also gave a large, economically rich portion of Luxembourg to Belgium, but that’s another story and didn’t trigger any world wars. Recognised at the time as a defining moment in Europe’s concerted attempt to create a lasting peace between competing empires, the treaty survived the test of Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (when the Prussian Army invaded France without passing through Belgium), and was still in effect in 1914.  That it was still seen as the linchpin of Europe’s geopolitical stability reflected Belgium’s strategic importance.

Uncomfortably placed between northern Germany, France and Britain, Belgium was a largely flat country full of wide-open spaces, and thus a natural battleground for any future war between the empires.  It was also a prosperous trading nation with major ports at Antwerp and Ostende, and well endowed with coalfields and iron ore (the latter thanks to very favourable special arrangements with Luxembourg).  By the early twentieth century it was among the world’s most industrially advanced economies, with a well-developed infrastructure that included some 9,000km of railways and 2,000km of busy canals, serving a population of 7.5 million (in 1910).  In other words, Belgium was a prize worth seizing in a very tempting location, and the most likely point of conflict if France and Germany went to war.

Tricky spot – Belgium in 1914.

A constitutional monarchy, under which the king held legislative powers and (in time of war) personal command of the armed forces, but was responsible to a two-tier parliament, Belgium had been ruled since late 1909 by King Albert I.  Only 34 when he took the throne, Albert’s military competence and vocational seriousness struck a marked and much-admired contrast to his uncle and predecessor, the spectacularly venal King Leopold II – notorious for his ruthless, fruitless attempts to make money out of his personally financed conquest of the Congo.  Well aware by 1914 that Germany planned an attack on France through Belgium, Albert was strongly in favour of expanding the Belgian Army and grouping it to face the threat, but military command rested with parliament in peacetime.

There’s a dashing young monarch for you… Albert I.

Elected by a complex system of universal male suffrage that gave two or three votes to the wealthy and educated, both parliamentary chambers were dominated by Baron de Broqueville’s Catholic Party in 1914, and it maintained the policy of strict, visible neutrality that had been Belgium’s diplomatic mantra since day one.  That was why the Belgian Army remained very small – some 43,000 men before reserves were mobilised – and was stationed in the centre of the country when the invasion came, a situation that has since excited much controversy but that made little practical difference against an exquisitely timed and planned advance by 750,000 German troops.

The German invasion was already unstoppable by 2 August, when a state of war allowed Albert to take command of his hopelessly outnumbered army and lead in retreat to the country’s northwestern corner.  The government was eventually relocated to Le Havre in France, from where it ruled the small patch of western Flanders not under German control after the front stabilised at the end of the year.  The rest of the country was governed from Brussels by German occupying authorities, which had by then acquired a global reputation for brutality that would haunt Berlin for the rest of the War.

I haven’t the time or space to go into details of the atrocities committed by invading German forces in Belgium during the War’s first months.  Always justified as reprisals for (real or imagined) resistance to the invasion, they involved mass executions and wanton destruction of Belgian national treasures, most notably the massacre of 612 civilians at Dinant and the destruction visited on the town of Louvain, both in August 1914.  They were a deliberate act of oppression on the part of the German Army, designed to encourage obedience among conquered populations and displayed openly to the world’s press by way of spreading the word.  Present throughout the occupation, neutral observers were in fact a propaganda gift to Germany’s enemies, giving widespread coverage to the views of Belgian pacifists and nationalists, spreading outrage all over the globe and helping create an enduring wave of international sympathy for all things Belgian.

German attitudes to neutral commentary highlighted a basic truth about the First World War that is often ignored.  Unlike Nazi Germany, the German Empire in 1914 saw itself as part of what you might call the normal world order.  As such it tried to behave within the constraints of international law (or at least to make the same attempts to appear legal as everyone else), and sought to present itself as the righteous beacon of civilisation it believed itself to be.  I realise I’m treating a nation like an individual, but I haven’t got time to go the long, semantically correct route – and I’ll stick to shortcuts by using the story of Cardinal Mercier to illustrate the schizophrenic results of trying to look like the good guy while adhering to brutal militarism as a form of social control.

And there’s a heroic old cardinal – Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

Mercier was the Roman Catholic primate of Belgium, and in the absence of the king he took on the role of national spokesman, issuing a series of open letters to his flock that received plenty of publicity overseas.  German authorities generally deported or executed dissident clerics, but although briefly arrested in early 1915 Mercier was generally left to get on with it.  A very senior figure, very well known in neutral countries and very popular among southern German Catholics, he was considered too propaganda sensitive to touch – and was therefore allowed to become a major Allied propaganda weapon.

Lurid? Yep.

Allied propaganda spent the rest of the War portraying the German occupation of Belgium as a lurid orgy of gratuitous violence, but once the initial frenzy of reprisals had abated it could better be described as very harsh.  Any hint of civil disobedience was met with routine execution of hostages, and the civilian population remained under martial law while the country’s economy was ruthlessly stripped for German use.  Plant, rolling stock, food and raw materials were transported back to Germany en masse, and remaining Belgian industry was turned over to German war production.

The Belgian population reacted to occupation, deprivation and exploitation with understandable hostility.  Most refused offers to work in German factories, preferring to face high levels of unemployment at home, and though the German Third Supreme Command instituted enforced deportation of Belgian workers in October 1916, it was abandoned as inefficient and diplomatically damaging the following February.  Most Belgians also ignored attempts to exploit tensions between the country’s two provinces (Flemish-speaking Wallachia and francophone Flanders), which were aimed at creating a separate Flemish state for future absorption by a German economic union.

Meanwhile, civilians were starving.  Poor harvests and the cold winter of 1916 had reduced Belgium’s urban populations to desperate dependence for food and fuel on a programme of international aid, coordinated with full German cooperation by neutral ambassadors in Brussels.  Charity was never enough, and malnutrition had helped double the pre-war mortality rate in Brussels by 1917.

More than a million Belgians had fled to the Netherlands, France or Britain in 1914, and although many refugees returned from the Netherlands after Germany guaranteed their safety, some 300,000 remained in Allied countries throughout the occupation. These, along with the population of ‘Free Belgium’, were subject to conscription into the Belgian Army, which took part in four years of bloodletting at the northern tip of the Western Front.

Thanks to King Albert’s refusal to commit Belgian forces to major Allied offensives (and thanks to Anglo-French weapons and equipment), the Army remained in relatively good shape into 1917 and maintained its strength at about 170,000 men until the Armistice, by which time it had played a significant role in the final offensives along the sector. Otherwise, small numbers of Belgian troops were occasionally loaned to other sectors in France, while colonial troops played a largely peripheral role in the East African campaign, and an armoured car company fought with the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. In total, 267,000 men fought for the wartime Belgian Army, of whom 54,000 were wounded and 14,000 killed, almost all of them on the Western Front.

Belgium possessed no naval forces, but the tiny Belgian Air Force, which mustered a dozen obsolete machines in 1914, was re-equipped by the British and French and grew steadily throughout the War. From 1917, when mushrooming production enabled the Allies to provide them with the most modern aircraft, Belgian aircrews more than held their own against German units in their sector, and the expanded service deployed around 140 machines in 11 squadrons by the end of the War.

The wartime Belgian Air Force started small… very small.

The coalition government-in-exile’s stated war aim was simple – the full restoration of Belgium to its pre-War status – but unity of purpose masked internal differences about how that might be achieved. Albert’s priority was his pastoral responsibilities, and the sharp worsening of civilian conditions in occupied Belgium by late 1917 led him to put pressure on de Broqueville, still serving as prime minister and foreign minister, to make a separate peace with Germany.  Despite strong cabinet opposition, de Broqueville approached the Central Powers in October 1917, a move that wrecked his political position and forced him to hand over the foreign ministry to Liberal Party leader Hymans.  With support from the rest of the cabinet, Hymans put an immediate and permanent stop to any deviation from Allied war aims, and De Broqueville went on to lose the premiership when his own Catholic Party voted him out of office in late May 1918.

So that was the state of play in Belgium as 1918 got going.  Civilians were starving, the army was getting by and the king – lionized by the Allies as the very spirit of indomitable resistance – was just back from the brink of going seriously off message.   Sorry that took so long, and I’ll get around to the Fourteen Points some other day.

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…