I hope my last ramble made it clear that not everyone was dancing for joy on Armistice Day 1918, and that plenty of people around the world were too busy with wars and revolutions to celebrate peace. I didn’t get round to mentioning another factor that complicated peace celebrations in some countries: military occupation. A century ago today, the first Allied troops entered Luxembourg, which had been occupied by German forces at the very start of the conflict, and two days later the last German troops left Belgium, which had been suffering under a much harsher occupation since the first week of the War.
Let’s begin in Belgium. The German occupation, which had been ruthless, exploitative and sometimes brutal (8 January, 1918: Remember Belgium), had begun to fall apart in mid-October, when officers and administrators, recognising that the end was nigh, began sending their families home, and roads east became clogged by thousands of troops retreating from the Western Front. The outbreak of revolution in Germany saw the establishment of German soldiers’ councils all over Belgium and the effective end of the official occupying regime from 9 November, after which chaos hit the streets of the country’s towns and cities. Loyal German troops, revolutionary German troops, Belgian political radicals, Belgian police and citizens with grudges to satisfy contributed to a week or more of high tension and sporadic violence that brought a dark dimension to the party when large numbers of Belgians and Germans took to the streets in celebration of Armistice Day.
The situation was exacerbated as garrison forces prepared to leave the country and tens of thousands of German troops passed through on their way home from the Western Front. The retreat from France was in full flow from 16 November, and although some units travelled by train most were on foot, their slow, largely unmechanised withdrawal providing plenty of opportunities for desertion, civilian revenge and illicit trading between hungry troops and citizens interested in dirt cheap, second-hand military equipment. The Belgian Army followed in their wake and gradually restored order wherever it arrived, imprisoning a few local political agitators and making token efforts to stem an outbreak of revenge violence against collaborators.
The final German train left Belgium on 21 November, and the last occupying troops crossed the border from Liège two days later. In between, on 22 November, King Albert made his ceremonial entry into a packed Brussels at the head of his army and accompanied by contingents of US, French and British troops. Once the party was over, the restored government embarked on a programme of economic reconstruction, rapid industrialisation and social reform, the latter focused on calming an immediate resumption of strife between the country’s Walloon population and its slightly larger Flemish contingent, and culminating in the first official recognition of the Flemish language in 1920. Battered but not broken, brutalised but defiant, and lionised where before the War it had been a byword for colonial greed, ‘brave little Belgium’ was back.
Across the border in tiny Luxembourg, citizens had endured a somewhat peculiar world war. Although technically neutral and primarily francophone, the economic life of the Grand Duchy’s quarter of a million people had been dominated since 1842 by a customs union with Germany, which had also taken control of the railways in 1872. When the German Army occupied Luxembourg on 2 August 1914, it met formal protests from the government of constitutional ruler Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide but no resistance from the Duchy’s 300 troops. After that, Luxembourg’s Great War was a relatively quiet affair.
The government retained control of internal affairs, and no attempt was made to impose the German language. A few Luxembourgeois were conscripted into the German military, communications with the outside world were strictly controlled and economic exploitation for the German war effort brought mounting civilian hardship, but on the whole the population was largely left alone by an occupation force of about five thousand troops.
Political life continued along pre-War lines, with national sovereignty and supply shortages added to the issues dividing a majority alliance of liberals and socialists from their right-wing opponents. Broadly speaking, conservatives supported the state’s farmers while liberals and socialists represented urban and industrial interests, and tensions between them rose steadily as the country’s economic condition worsened. Four elections were held between February 1915 and September 1918, reflecting a tendency for liberals and socialists to diverge when in power but come back together in the face of a challenge from conservatives and their most high-profile supporter, the Grand Duchess.
Marie Adelaide, who had been in power since 1912 and had quickly made enemies by expressing her anti-liberal views, became a focus of popular and political controversy during the occupation. Most internal criticism was aimed at her openly pro-German attitude, which also drew attacks from Allied propaganda that never stopped complaining about the Duchy’s close relations with Berlin. They all had a point. The Grand Duchess surrounded herself with German speakers, regularly consulted occupation authorities on matters of state and married her younger sister Antonia to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria in August 1918, by which time her popularity had plummeted in line with the country’s economic condition.
Most of Luxembourg’s industry, including its important iron and steel sector, was dedicated to the German war effort, but so were food supplies. As shortages hit to the towns and prices rocketed, public health suffered and political tempers rose. Starvation was never an issue in wartime Luxembourg, but malnutrition weakened resistance to diseases, particularly the influenza epidemic of 1918, and contributed to a significant rise in mortality rates, above all among the elderly. The state was forced to impose food price controls and rationing from March 1915, but with shortages worsening and wages stagnating it could do nothing to stem a rise in worker protests, formation of the country’s first trades unions (in the mining industry, in 1916), attacks on profiteering traders or mounting antagonism between urban and rural communities.
As in many other European countries, conditions became much harsher after the bad harvest of 1916, but attempts to secure Allied aid through the scheme set up for the relief of Belgium fell foul of Luxembourg’s reputation as a German vassal state, with Britain insisting that supplies to the Duchy were Berlin’s responsibility. Berlin nevertheless refused to make specific plans for supplying Luxembourg, and instead took over the purchase of all its imports from November 1916, a move that helped cement Allied disapproval of Marie-Adelaide’s regime.
Allied opinions always mattered in the context of Luxembourg’s neutral self-image, but became critical as the War neared its end. Germany had planned to annex Luxembourg in the event of victory, but the Grand Duchy had come into existence in its present form (in 1839) after a long struggle to remain separate from Belgium, and the Belgians wanted it back. They might well have got it back if the British and French had been the only arbiters of Luxembourg’s fate, but the influence of the USA and its commitment to self-determination proved too much for Belgian post-War ambitions.
German withdrawal from Luxembourg was announced on 6 November 1918, was complete on 22 November, and proceeded in a generally courteous and orderly fashion. The same could be said about most of the Duchy’s relatively sober armistice celebrations, but the whiff of revolution wasn’t completely absent. A socialist revolt in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second largest town, took place on Armistice Day but was quashed after a few hours, and the following day a motion demanding abolition of the monarchy, proposed by an alliance of liberals and socialists, was narrowly defeated in the Chamber of Deputies. Marie-Adelaide was still in power on 21 November, when General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force – which needed somewhere to liberate as a matter of protocol – into Luxembourg, but her days were numbered.
The Americans, who called themselves liberators and were treated as such by a population used to placating greater powers, set up a temporary joint administration with French occupying forces. Although the administration interfered as little as possible in local politics, the French government refused to cooperate with the ‘collaborator’ Marie-Adelaide, and republican unrest remained a problem until January 1919, when a revolt by a company of the Luxembourg Army, quickly put down by French troops, prompted Marie-Adelaide’s abdication in favour of another sister, Charlotte. Later that year, a referendum confirmed the population’s overwhelming desire to remain a monarchy under the new Grand Duchess and, having abandoned its customs union with Germany, Luxembourg joined a new union with Belgium in 1921.
Despite a period of political turmoil that encompassed five governments, a change of ruler, the rapid rise of radical socialism and economic separation from Germany, Luxembourg emerged from the First World War largely unchanged and undamaged. In any sane world this would be considered a major achievement, but Luxembourg’s collective memory of the conflict has tended to echo the shame implied by Allied wartime propaganda. Most years, Armistice Day is not a particularly big deal in Luxembourg, and the Great War has generated relatively little cultural output, most of it concentrated on the 3,000 or so Luxembourgeois who volunteered for service with the Allies.
Apart from that reminder that history’s winners invent our heritage, this has been another attempt to expand the absurdly one-dimensional take on the 1918 armistice provided by pretty much every media outlet you can think of. I think I’m done with Armistice Day now – time to get on with war and peace.