On neutral territory
The occupation of Belgium became one of the main justifications for involvement by the Allies in the first World War
Siege of Antwerp, 1914. The Belgian Army retreats from the German Army at the Siege of Antwerp. Photograpgh: Culture Club/Getty Images
On Tuesday August 4th 1914, the citizens of Belgium read the news that most had been dreading. “Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium . . . Belgium will defend itself by all means,” ran the headline in Le Soir, the country’s main French language daily.
The country of 7.5 million people played a pivotal role, not just as the main theatre of war during the battle for the Western Front, but as one of the main catalysts for the outbreak of the first World War.
In the weeks following the Sarajevo assassination, the issue of Belgian neutrality hung over events as the main European powers formulated their response to the unfolding crisis.
Britain had been committed to protecting Belgian neutrality since 1839. The Treaty of London recognised Belgium, which had declared its independence from the Dutch in 1830, as an “independent and neutral” state.
The treaty, and subsequent pacts, committed Britain to protecting Belgian neutrality if its sovereignty was violated.
Positioned between the English channel and Germany, Belgium was strategically important for Britain. But Germany’s intention to launch a Western offensive through Belgium as outlined in the so-called Schiefflen plan, formulated by the German military chief general Schiefflen in 1905, pushed the issue of Belgian neutrality directly onto the political agenda in the weeks following the assassination. If Germany was to declare war, Belgium was first in line.
The question of how far Britain was committed to Belgium – and indeed France – preoccupied Westminster in the run-up to war, with the Cabinet divided over what a “substantial violation” entailed.
In Belgium, as throughout Europe, newspapers were filled with news of the impending war, the government well aware of Belgium’s vulnerability. Throughout the 19th century, the constitutional monarchy had become a prosperous, industrial nation, helped in part by the burgeoning empire in the Congo established by King Leopold II. But while it was advanced economically with a sophisticated armaments industry, its military capacity was well below the relative levels of the other European powers, a reasonable reflection, perhaps, of its status as a neutral country.
Belgium passed legislation in 1913 designed to double its mobilised strength from 180,000 to 340,000, but conscription was limited to a 15-month term and the army was woefully unprepared in comparison to neighbouring powers, a reality of which countries on both sides of the war were well aware in the run-up to war.
On July 24th , the day after Austria-Hungary presented an ultimatum to Serbia, the Belgian government announced that, should war take place, it would maintain and uphold its neutrality. King Albert I, who was also commander in chief of the Belgian army, mobilised the Belgian forces.
On August 2nd 1914, Germany issued an ultimatum to Belgium. It requested Belgium to allow German troops to enter its territory, on the pretext that France was about to invade Belgium.
Within 12 hours Brussels had replied: “The attack upon [Belgium’s] independence with which the German Government threatens her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe [. . .]The Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights.”
Albert immediately appealed to the three “Triple Entente” powers to honour their commitments to Belgian independence. On August 4th, as German troops moved across the border, Britain officially declared war on Germany.
The conquest and occupation of Belgium proceeded swiftly. The first key battle ground was the town of Liège, just 50km from the German border. The battle began on August 5th with the German army bombarding the heavily-fortressed town, using heavy artillery. The siege lasted until August 18th, much longer than the Germans had anticipated.
Namur, the next major town along the river Meuse in southern Belgium, was next to come under attack. The Belgian troops were ordered to withdraw to the heavily fortified port city of Antwerp, where the Belgian government and king had based themselves.
Brussels fell on August 20th as the Belgian troops moved westwards towards the so-called “national redoubt” at Antwerp, a reference to the ring of forts encircling the city. From there the Belgian troops launched various “sorties”, but by November most of the country had been occupied and German focus had switched to the Allied battles along the Western front.
In parallel to the military occupation of Belgium in the first weeks of the war, the widespread killing of civilians occurred, a development that had a hugely significant impact on the Allied response to the war in its early days. Almost immediately reports emanated from Belgium of random, gratuitous killings of civilians, causing outrage in Britain where it helped to galvanise support for the war, and more significantly in the US where it provided an important moral justification for US intervention later in the war.
Posters and advertisements depicting heroic Belgium were used as powerful tools of enlistment and of propaganda. The so-called “Rape of Belgium” became a contentious subject after the war, with Germany denying claims of widespread killing. But Belgian civilians were undoubtedly subject to appalling suffering.
The burning of the town of Dinant and the gruesome murder of 674 civilians on August 23rd , allegedly in an act of reprisal, is still deeply ingrained in the Belgian collective memory, 100 years after the war.
Whatever the truth of those early weeks of the war, the occupation of Belgium became one of the main justifications for Allied involvement in the war, but tensions remained between the Belgian and allied forces. The country’s suspicion that France and Britain had delayed sending support to Belgium during the first month of the war persisted, though arguably the courageous defence of Liège by Albert’s troops delayed the German advance, and possibly prevented Paris from falling to the Germans.
But for most Belgians – millions of whom fled the country during the war – the abiding memory of their country’s involvement in the war would be the appalling bloodshed that took place in the fields and trenches of Flanders.