Category Archives: Belgium

21 NOVEMBER, 1918: Hello Goodbye

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.

Token map – this was the big picture in northwestern Europe after the Armistice.

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.

Goodbye German Army…
… hello King Albert. His entry into Brussels marked the end of the War for Belgium.

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.

Marie-Adelaide was 18 when she took power, abdicated at 24 and died of influenza at 30.  Short life, but feisty…

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.

By 1918, British hostility to Luxembourg brought air raids. This was Luxembourg city in March, and an RAF raid in July killed ten civilians.

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.

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.