The Belgian Army in World War I

75mm TR gun battery on the move.

10.5cm gun of type Krupp used by the Belgian army.

Belgian Artillery

Belgium, for centuries a major center of small arms production, also boasted the Cockerill and FRC ordnance foundries. Both firms, however, directed the majority of their sales to foreign clients, thus placing the Belgian army in the rather odd situation of obtaining cannons from outside sources. Before and during World War I, Belgium consequently fielded French and German designs either obtained from abroad or manufactured under license by Cockerill and FRC. During World War I the Belgians fielded a variety of field guns, such as the 75mm M05, the 75mm Model TR, the 105mm M13, the 75mm M18, and the 120mm field howitzer.

After the German invasion, the plan to send the army to the Meuse was abandoned and it stayed on the Gette River, as Selliers wanted, with the exceptions of the army divisions (ADs, equivalent to other countries’ “corps”) at Liege and Namur. Liege was quickly outflanked by two German cavalry divisions which had to withdraw because they could not cross the Meuse. The Germans vastly outnumbered the Belgians and expected a quick surrender. General Leman, despite knowing Liege could not hold out, refused to give in and the fortifications drove back the German waves, causing such losses that several divisions had to leave the line. The Germans brought overwhelming force, driving the Belgian forces guarding the areas between the forts into retreat. The fortresses continued to fight, the last surrendering only on August 17. Not only did the defenders of the Liege forts and their commander become national heroes and symbols of Belgium’s determination to resist, the delay they imposed on the Germans allowed the French to complete their mobilization and may have cost the Germans the war in the West.

Between August 15 and 19, there were bitter debates at Belgian headquarters over withdrawing to the national redoubt at Antwerp. Albert had good intelligence that the Germans were planning to attack in central Belgium while the French military mission insisted the Germans lacked the strength and called the Belgians cowards for planning a retreat while the Allied forces were marching to link up with them. The Belgians began their withdrawal on August 18 and Brussels fell two days later while Namur was besieged and its garrison forced on August 23 to withdraw into France and thence back to Antwerp.

The Antwerp redoubt was not as impregnable as the Belgians hoped and the war minister’s men started discussing a retreat from Antwerp on September 29. On the 7th, with the Germans threatening the line of retreat and crossing the Scheldt, Colonel Wielemans, counting on de Broqueville’s support, but without informing Albert, ordered the retreat of the army to the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. Galet found out the next day but was unable to stop the move. Antwerp fell on October 10 and the army began a difficult retreat to the Yser River. Thirty thousand Belgian troops fled to the Netherlands where they were interned and another thirty thousand were captured. The retreat was well-prepared and the eventual resistance on the Yser would have been impossible without the munitions and supplies saved from Antwerp.

One of the big controversies regarding the Belgians in Antwerp, and one which inevitably led to comparisons with his son accepting a capitulation in 1940, is whether Albert was prepared to accept a separate peace in 1914. The story goes that Albert was ready to give up but was dissuaded by a combination of de Broqueville, the queen, and Ingenbleek. This contrasts with the behavior of his son in 1940, who was not dissuaded. Most historians, however, seem to give the story little credence.

The Belgians who arrived at the Yser position on October 15 were in a terrible state and unable to launch an attack as desired by the French. Even Galet liked the Yser position because it was good for defense, still on Belgian soil, close to the sea, and, as Henri Haag notes, had the advantage over the Antwerp redoubt of sparing Belgium’s “rich cities” from being on the front lines. The Germans wasted no time in attacking the new positions while the Belgians counterattacked and there was a dogfight for nine days until the Germans “ran out of steam,” sparing the exhausted and disheartened Belgian soldiers.

The flooding of the Yser was one of the most dramatic tactics of World War I. Armies in Flanders had used controlled flooding for centuries and the Flemish lowlands were lands regained from sea and swamp with an extensive irrigation and drainage system. The Belgians would have only to open some sluices in Nieuport and then close them again before the tide went out. This was done on October 27. The German offensive, which had resumed, was stopped and the stunned Germans pulled back.

The front would remain static for over three years, with the Belgians holding a long front with no strategic reserves and thus unable to pull any entire division out of the line for a rest. Moreover, the Belgian army of the end of 1914 was barely holding on. There were only 52,000 of the original field army of 117,500, with a deficit of 2,000 officers, a severe lack of ammunition, exhausted artillery, and tired men in ragged uniforms. The Belgians and Germans were separated by the water, with some additional flooding in March 1918. Service on that front was extremely unpleasant and unhealthy.

The Belgian army was reorganized in January 1918, abolishing the brigade headquarters within the divisions, with `army divisions’ constituted by two infantry divisions. The army as a whole now numbered 170,000 enlisted and 5,700 officers. It would become involved in the bitter fighting started by the last-ditch German offensives of spring 1918. Although the main German effort, code-named `Michael,’ was aimed further south, the Germans also planned an attack, `Georgette,’ in Flanders, scheduled for April 9 and aiming for the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, outflanking the Allies in that region. On April 14, the Belgians found themselves fighting to prevent a German encirclement of Ypres, defended by the British to the right of the Belgians. The Germans launched an attack on the Belgians on April 17 and after initial success, found themselves stalled in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Despite the Germans breaking into the Belgian support trenches, they were hit by Belgian artillery and driven back by Belgian infantry, losing 800 prisoners. The German offensives across the Allied front ran out of steam and in September, the Allies went over to the offensive. Because the Belgian constitution barred foreigners from commanding the Belgian army, King Albert was appointed to command the Flanders Army Group, consisting as well of French and British units. Ten Belgian infantry divisions attacked on the night of September 27-28 and rapidly broke through the Ger- man lines, flowed over the German artillery batteries, and pushed the front back as far as eleven miles, with an average of four miles across the front. The Belgians captured 6,000 prisoners and 150 guns on that one day. They continued to push back the Germans until October 2, when there was a twelve-day pause. The second phase of the offensive, also involving the French, began on October 14 and ended on October 30, with another offensive on the Lys River lasting until November 3, as the Belgians advanced towards the Scheldt River and reached Ghent, where the front line would stay until the German armistice of November 11. The Belgians suffered grievously in these last offensives, losing more than 1/5 of the effectives (1/3 of all Belgian casualties of the war out of a total of 44,000) between October 4 and November 11.

The Peace

In September 1918, the Belgians delivered a note to the Allies urging modifications of the 1839 treaties in the name of guaranteeing increased security. The Belgians understood this increased security as based on territorial revisions that would boost the country militarily and economically. From Holland, Belgium tried to get the land it had lost in 1839: Flemish Zeeland and Dutch Lim- burg. Possession of the former would give Belgium the south bank of the very important Scheldt River and about half of its channel. These would solve a number of difficulties and give the Belgians complete control over the Ghent- Terneuzen canal. Possession of the latter would similarly ease Belgium’s eco- nomic and military situation. The General Staff was calling for acquiring these lands, and part of the Rhineland, as early as December 1914. In addition, Belgium hoped to create a canal to the Rhine across the prospective new territory. The Belgian military squelched anti-annexationist propaganda in the army but allowed the pro-annexationists to propagandize. An undated, but probably wartime, note to the Belgian legation in London discussed Belgium’s obtaining the above-mentioned lands and declared that “these increases wisely considered and skillfully administered would not constitute a canker in the flank of the fatherland.” Unfortunately, as historian Sally Marks notes, as reasonable as the demands were from the Belgian perspective, there was no way they were going to get them. Lead Belgian negotiator Paul Hymans observed that the Scheldt River separated Flemish Zeeland from the rest of the Netherlands which in any case ignored the region. In fact, Flemish Zeeland was much more tied in to Belgium than to its mother country although the population would prefer to stay in the Netherlands. The Belgians tried harder to get Limburg, the part of the Netherlands that dangles between Belgium and Germany. Dutch possession of this strip severely hampered Belgian defense because it pre- vented the Belgians from basing their defense on the line of the Meuse River. At the same time, it was far from clear that the Dutch would be willing or able to defend it. The Belgian military, absorbing the lessons of the recent war, and looking for better defenses and protection for Liege, particularly wanted the territory.  

Before Paul Hymans submitted Belgium’s territorial demands to the Powers in Paris, the Belgian General Staff had presented a memorandum about a new border. The General Staff saw two alternatives, the `green line’ and the `black line’ (so named for the colors drawn on the maps), both based on the idea that Belgium would succeed in getting Limburg and Luxembourg. The military desired the `black line,’ which called not only for the acquisition of most of Eupen and Malmédy, the cantons lost in 1815, but also for changes in the Ger- man-Dutch and German-Luxembourg borders. These would cement Belgian control over the railroad linking the German Rhineland cities of Cologne and Trier, keeping it under possible Belgian artillery fire in the event of a German attack. The generals were not deluded about being able to hold for long, but they thought the black line could buy time for the Meuse defenses to be readied.

The Belgian military and other `annexationists,’ including many in the Min- istry of Foreign Afairs, had supported Belgium’s territorial claims, not because of any arguments based on common (or allegedly common) ethnicities but rather in the hope of strengthening the nation and of avoiding French encircle- ment should Luxembourg and the Rhineland fall to their recent ally. The can- tons of Eupen, Malmedy, and the two parts of Moresnet would serve as useful bases for a defense of Belgium at the frontier by pushing said frontier further east. They hoped thereby to secure Belgian security and independence, while some even hoped to lift Belgium out of `small power’ status. In addition, many in the “political class” sought, through the acquisition of parts of the Nether- lands, to bolster the position of Francophones against the Flemish nationalists and those demanding social reforms and to restore the Catholic political dom- inance by annexing more “Catholic” territory.

The Belgian Socialists and Flemish nationalists, the same groups who would hold rearmament hostage in the mid-1930s, opposed any Belgian acquisitions. The Socialists feared annexation would empower reactionaries and opposed territorial demands, especially those against Holland. They recognized that the populations concerned had no interest in joining Belgium. They did want to change the regime of the Scheldt which, they believed, left Belgium at the mercy of the Dutch. It should be pointed out that the Socialists were far from unanimous on the issue. The Flemish nationalists were loathe to harm the Netherlands or strengthen the Belgian state. Rejecting the `Activists’ and their wartime collaboration, many Flemish nationalists called for making Flanders more Flemish and suspected any territorial demands on the Netherlands that would harm relations and Flemish interests. They were more concerned about economic control over the Scheldt and Meuse rivers, including a canal joining Antwerp and Liege. Other anti-annexationists feared antagonizing Belgium’s neighbors or making their nation dependent on a great power. They also wanted to preserve Belgian neutrality. It was the annexationists who held sway since 1916 and dominated the peace delegation. In fact, despite popular enthusiasm for mentions of resolving outstanding issues with the neutrals as well as the Allies, most Belgians rejected annexationist ideas and concentrated on rebuilding the nation and, to the extent they cared about politics, worried much more about domestic issues, such as the language issue, than about territorial demands.

In any case, the Belgians argued that Germany’s invasion in 1914 had destroyed the system of Western European “equilibrium” established in 1839 to keep the peace and shown how pointless the system was. It was therefore reasonable to end it and properly provide geographically for Belgium’s defense. This would not result in many annexations because most of the land would be simply “restituted.” Naturally, this argument alarmed Belgium’s erstwhile allies as well as the Dutch. The French saw it as a threat to their own expansionist aims, the British saw Belgian control over the mouth of the Scheldt as a threat to their security, and the Americans saw a violation of national self-determination. These issues circumscribed the room for maneuver of the Belgian government, which had to “act prudently, not explicitly define the object of the demands, but `pose the problem’ before the Allies,” who would recognize the justice of the Belgian claims and act on them.

The Belgians also cast covetous eyes on Luxembourg. In 1915 the government was unanimous in its desire for the Grand Duchy. This desire was shared by the Annexationists such as Pierre Nothomb, who advocated closer ties between the two countries. The arguments raised went from the historical (it was part of Belgium until 1839) to the practical/historical (Luxembourgois neutrality benefited and protected Germany). However, the French were also interested in the Grand Duchy and had their own claims. Despite Belgian aid, few Luxembourgers were really interested in joining Belgium while most wanted to remain independent and, eventually, most Belgians recognized that and reduced their hopes to an economic union. Eventually, the French promised to persuade the Luxembourgois to enter an economic union with Belgium, but only in exchange for the French keeping the most important railroad and the Belgians signing a military convention with France. The Belgians were deeply disappointed and offended that they did not get all they wanted. Bel- gium did pick up four German-speaking cantons in the east from Germany as well as some African colonies. Belgian troops also took part in the occupation of the German Rhineland, which they would leave in 1929.

Robert Devleeshouwer observes that conditions really were not favorable to Belgian territorial adjustments. He points out that in none of the desired territories did the locals really want to join Belgium while most Belgians did not care either. What is surprising is that so many Belgian politicians believed it possible to succeed. Their nationalism was inflated by the victory over Ger- many and they hoped to see the Allies force the Dutch to give in. The campaign for annexation was led by the government through straw men, especially Pierre Nothomb, who had remarkable access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the support of other departments. Nothomb was key in the founding of the Comité de Politique Nationale (Committee of National Policy) to support a “large, strong, and united Belgium.” This committee took a maximalist approach to territorial demands, including the creation of a Rhenish buffer state dominated by Belgium. The Committee obtained 275,000 signatures on its petitions and the support of government ministers, generals, and communal councils although the government never openly supported it.

Failing territorial acquisition, the Belgians in Paris sought to achieve conditions in the Rhineland that would prevent another German invasion, because they all believed Germany was still the greatest threat. For a time, some of the Belgians, such as the chief negotiator Paul Hymans, like the French, who felt equally threatened, supported an independent, or at least autonomous, Rhenish state, or, at least, permanent Allied occupation thereof. Other Belgian delegates Émile Vandervelde and Jules Van den Heuvel did oppose the idea for fear of increasing French power and leverage over their nation.

In his memoirs, Belgian foreign minister, and sometime prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, observed that the friction between the two countries came as a result of the French premier’s mistreatment of Hymans and the lack of French support for Belgian demands.

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