Category Archives: Belgium

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.