World War I: Belgium--German Invasion


Figure 1.--

As Europe was hurdling toward war, the question became Britain. Taking on Rusiia and France ws quite an undertaking even for the powerful German Army, but adding the British Empire was an entirely different matter. It mean that the Germans would be going to war against a much more powerful eneny coAlition with far greater resources than Germany even with Austria-Hungary added. Britain has developed closed relations with France, but had no treaty relations required it to come to France's defense. And Britain had until this point had more conflict with Russia which was threatening India than Germany. This is where Belgium which wanted mothing more than to remain neutral comes into the picture. Britain did have treaty relations with Belgium, guaranteeing its neutrality. The schlieffen Plan was no secret. It was the German war plan and had been the basus for German strategic thinking for three dcades. Now that German had declared war on France, Kaiser Wilhelm now had to decide wether to activate the Sclieffen Plan, knowing that it would likely mean war with Britain as well as France and Russia. Actually it was never aeal possibility that they would not activate the Schliffen Plan. The German generals pushed for the Sclieffen Plan which was already in motion, troops and supplies moving toward the Belgin border and Luxenbourg seized. The option was a frontal attack on heavily fortified French border defenss. The German generals insisted that here progress would be slow allowing Russia time to monilize. The Kaiser was not one to disagree with his generals. The Kaiser and his generals calculated that the Belgian wiuld put up little resistance and France would be defeated before Britain could bring its considerable forces to bear. German troops poured across the Belgian border (August 4). German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg dismissed Britain's treaty with Belgium as a 'scrap of paper' in his final meeting with the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen (August 4). Within hours Britain declared war with Germany. Foreign Secretary Grey famously described the 'lights going out all over Europe'. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of bringing Britain and the Empire with its immense military and material resources into the War. Even worse for the Germans, the Belgins put up an unexpectely stiff resistance and the British Expeditionary force reached Belgium in time to alsp slow down the Germans. Some authors have laid the blame for the War largely on Germany. [Fischer] Other historians are more inclined to ascribe the blame to other countries as well seeing war in most instances as a reciprocal event. [Strachan] PPremoer when asked this question replied simply, "Belgium did not invade Germany."

German Demand for Free Passage (August 2)

The German Ambassador at Brussels, Herr von Below Saleske, delivered the following note to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affair (August 2). " RELIABLE information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany. The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essential for the self-defense of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory. In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration: -- 1. Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full. 2. Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace. 3. If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities, to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops. 4. Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy. In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms. The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighboring States will grow stronger and more enduring."

Belgian Reply (August 3)

Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, M. Davignon, gave the following note to the German Minister in Brussels, Herr von Below Saleske in reply to the German demand for unhindered passage (morning of August 3, 1914). "...This note [asking free passage] has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government. The intentions attributed to France by Germany are in contradiction to the formal declarations made to us on August 1, in the name of the French Government. Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, Belgian neutrality should be violated by France, Belgium intends to fulfill her international obligations and the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader. The treaties of 1839, confirmed by the treaties of 1870 vouch for the independence and neutrality of Belgium under the guarantee of the Powers, and notably of the Government of His Majesty the King of Prussia. Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality. The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten 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 honor of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe. Conscious of the part which Belgium has played for more than 80 years in the civilization of the world, they refuse to believe that the independence of Belgium can only be preserved at the price of the violation of her neutrality. If this hope is disappointed the Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights."

German Invasion (August 4)

The German Schlieffen Plan called for defeating France before Russia could fully mobilize. They gambled that they could defeat the French quickly as they did in the Franco-Prussian War. They disregarded the Belgian Army and calculated that they could defeat the French army before the British intervene and deploy a substantial force to aid the French. The German Army on August 2 marched into Luxembourg. After the Belgian refusal to give unhindered passage, the German Army crossed into neutral Belgium (morning of August 4). The German press would attempt to confuse the issue, but the historical record is very clear. Germany invaded Belgium and at the time the Allies (British and French) had not crossed the Belgian frontier. Seven German Field Armies were deployed in the West. They executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan smashed into Belgium. Armies commanded by Generals Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow attacked into Belgium where the small, poorly equipped Belgian Army awaited them (August 4). The Germans were sure that they would face no serious opposition and they would be able to quickly outflank the French Army. They were also sure the British would be unable to effectively intervene in time to support the French.

Britain Declares War (August 4)

Now that German had declared war on France, Kaiser Wilhelm now had to decide wether to activate the Sclieffen Plan, knowing that it would likely mean war with Britain as well as France and Russia. Actually it was never aeal possibility that they would not activate the Schliffen Plan. The German generals pushed for the Sclieffen Plan which was already in motion, troops and supplies moving toward the Belgin border and Luxenbourg seized. The option was a frontal attack on heavily fortified French border defenss. The German generals insisted that here progress would be slow allowing Russia time to monilize. The Kaiser was not one to disagree with his generals. The Kaiser and his generals calculated that the Belgian wiuld put up little resistance and France would be defeated before Britain could bring its considerable forces to bear. German troops poured across the Belgian border (August 4). German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg dismissed Britain's treaty with Belgium as a 'scrap of paper' in his final meeting with the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen (August 4). Within hours Britain declared war with Germany. Foreign Secretary Grey famously described the 'lights going out all over Europe'. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of bringing Britain and the Empire with its immense military and material resources into the War. Even worse for the Germans, the Belgins put up an unexpectely stiff resistance and the British Expeditionary force reached Belgium in time to alsp slow down the Germans.

Belgian War Plans

Belgium as a neutral country, did not have an effective war plan. Military planners until days before the German attack argued about their defensive plan. Nor as a neutral country was there any agreement with the surrounding powers about war contingencies. They in fact were concerned with both a German and French attack. The Belgian Army planned upon a German invasion to concentrated the bulk of its army west of the River Meuse to attempt to defend Antwerp, relying on the fortifications at Liège. The effective combat force (field strength) of the Belgian Army was about 117,000 troops. In addition, another 67,000 troops were deployed to defend the strategic forts at Liege, Namur and Antwerp.

Siege of Liège (August 5–16)

Liège is the closest Belgian city to the German border. It was located on the Meuse River on the Ardennes Plateau. The Meuse was an important part of the defenses. Liège was an industrial city, but its importance lay in the fact that it was a major transportation center, both rail and roads. Thus the Germans needed Liège if they were to rapidly move a massive army rapidly through Belgium. The first battle in Belgium thus occurred at Liège (August 5–16). Liège was effectively fortified. Von Bülow was shocked by the Belgian resistance. Rather than being able quickly to move through Liège, he was forced to lay siege to the Belgian fortifications. The siege at Liège took more than a week, 11 days that were not anticipated in the Schlieffen Plan time table. Those 11 days proved critical for getting the British BEF into Belgium in time to have an impact.

Antwerp, Brussels, and Namur (August 20-23)

The Germans finally took Liège (August 16). The Belgian army retreated north to Antwerp and and south to Namur, but Brussels. Liège and the 'martyr towns' of the Ardennesere badly damaged. The Germans were willing to leave Antwerp in Belgian hands while they poured through Belgium in an effort to force a quick decision in the War by taking Paris. With the fall of Liège and the Germans massing to take Namur, Brussels in central Belgium and in the path of the German Army and without major fortufications would have been suicidal to defend. Brussels surrendered without a fight (August 20). Three German soldiers reportedly were the first to arrive. They appeared on bicycles in the Boulevard du Régent and reportedly politely asked the way to the Gare du Nord. Soon a torrent of marching German soldiers poured through the city streets on the way south. One city resident described a 'unbroken, steel-grey column like a tidal wave or a river in flood. The Germans quickly imposed curfews, identity cards and German currency and censored the press. Flemish administrators and the Flemish language was imposed on the largely French-speaking population. The Germans bypassed Antwerp to the north. It did not impede their march south. The Germans faced another fortifications system at Namur. And here the Belgian Army did fight. The Germans were compelled to lay another brusing siege (August 20-23). Namur was another unanticipated delay. The city was badly damaged, but it bought the Allies 4 more critical days. With the fall of Namur, the cleared the way for the German drive south into France and the seizure of Paris. The defense of Namur was the last critical battle the Belgin Army fought. After Namur the war shifted to the British and French.

Rape of Belgium (August-November 1914)

Germans soldiers invading Belgium committed numerous atrocities against the Belgian civilian population along their advance south through Belgium. [De Schaepdrijver] This continued as the Germans dvanced into northern France. Often this was minor crimes such stealing food and property from shops and homes. There were also more serious incidents including rape. As far as we know, there is no detailed assessment of these extent of these incidents. There was no similar Allied actions as the war on the western Front was mostly fought on allied territory (Belgium and northern France). These were the depredations of individual soldiers and not German policy. we do not know, however, to what extent Army commanders tried to maintain order and if any soldiers were arrested and procecuted for such acts. There were, however, also killings, massacres of Belgian civilians. This mostly occurred in towns where the Germans accused the local population of fighting as Francs-Tireurs (guerillas) and attacking German soldiers. [Kramer, pp. 1-27.] The Germans took men taken as hostages when they entered cities and towns. If resistance incidents occurred, these men were then shot. This was done on the orders of ranking German officers and was part of a policy approved by commanders. They also several towns deliberately destroyed in a series of punitive actions. The actions of the German Army during their offensive through Belgium and the months immediately following it has become known to history as 'The Rape of Belgium' (August-Novmber 1914). The extent of these actions has been highly debated, but there is no doubt that the Germans committed what we would call war crimes. There is substantial evidence that the Germans killed some 6,500 civilians. One of the most serious actions occurred in Leuven. The Germans burbed the historic library of the town's university. It was no accidental incident, but an action ordered by German commanders. News of the atrocities were widely reported in the international press, inclding America. Adding to the fact that the Germans invaded a neutral country, the Rape of Belgium seriously tarnished the hiterto positive public perception of the German nation and its Army. These actions were widely exaggerated by the British press as war time propaganda, but the Germans gave the British plenty of material to work with. German soldiurs in Brabant, for example, ordered nuns to strip naked using the pretext that they were spies. Many reports from Aarschot describe women being repeatedly victimised. Numerous accounts suggest that looting, murder, and rape were widespread. [Lipkes] It was nothing like the horrendous war crimes committed by the NAZIs in World War II, in fact individual German soldiers in World War II appear to have been better disciplined, albeit more murderous. While less deadly than the German actions in World War II, they were undeniably serious. The press reports and other German actions generated tremendous sympathy for the Belgians. [Zuckerman, pp. 140–41.] The German managed to provide the British a steady supply of grist for their propaganda operation throughout the War. And those reports would play an important role in bringing America into the War. As bad as the Rape of Belgium was, in paled into insignificance compared to the consequences of the Germany Army seizing the civilian food suply. Without American food relief, several million Belgians would have starved.

Flaw in the Schlieffen Plan

The Sclieffen Plan was a masterful plan and launched with time-table percission. It was, however, a plan for a highly mobile army capable of rapid movement. This was, however, not the German Army used to execute it. German war planning before the War on which German cimmanddrs had participated exposed flas in the plan. The Prussian Army had won previous wars with imaginative use of the rail roads: The Austro-Prussian war (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870). This was not the case as the Germans smashed through Belgium. There was no way to immediately use the Belgian rail sytem and the Belgian Army's valiant resistance brought a rapid advance to a hault. Nor did the Germans have trucks. They had only a handfull of trucks using mostly wooden wheels. Even without Belgian resistance, the German advance was limited not just to the spped of marching soldiers, but to horse drawn artillery and supply wagons. This allowed the British and French time to react to the German advance. [Herwig] In contrast, while the Grmans were making long forced marches and battering the way against Belgian fortresses, the Britih and French had access to the railroads to move their forces.

Sources

Kramer, Alan Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lipkes J. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 (Leuven University Press: 2007).

(De) Schaepdrijver, Sophie. "Violence and Legitimacy: Occupied Belgium, 1914–1918," The Low Countries: Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands Vol 22 (2014), pp. 46–56.

Zuckerman, Larry. The Rape of Belgium: the Untold Story of World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2004).






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Created: 6:38 AM 5/1/2016
Last updated: 3:34 AM 11/26/2016