World War I Belgium: German Occupation (1914-18)

German occupation of Belgium
Figure 1.--German occupation was potentially a disaster for Belgium. The country was heavily industrialized and not self sufficent for its food. German occupation bot only made imports impossible, but the Germany seized control of the food supply to feed their armt. Here a widowed mother and her children beg for charity. The press caption read, Belhian Woman Object of Charity: After passing from destruction of life and homes, we now come to he real sufferes of war. In this case we have aicture of a aelgian woman, sitting in front of her home which has been burned, and her husband having beenn slain in battle. She is with her fatherless children deprnding on the populace for aid." The photograph is undated, but was probably taken around September 1914. This was part of a seies of articles about the War and Belgium which was published in America. It was the beginning of the porocess changing the american perception of Germany from a respected to a war mongering nation. Only American food relief prevented the Belgians from starving.

After the Battle of the Marne, the Western Front rapidly became a huge system of fortified positions and trenches stretching from Switzerland to the Channel. Although the Germans were stopped, they had overrun most of Belgium which remained in German hands for the rest of the War. The German Army seized control of the civilian food supply setting up a humanitarin crisis and potential starvation. Belgium was a a heavily industrialized country and not self-sufficent in food production. Unfortunately for Belgium, neither was Germany which was intent on using Belgian food to feed its army. German authorities governed with repressive measures. The Germans confiscating houses and other property for the occupying troops. German troops killed civilians who resisted. While the German atrocities were nothing like those persued by the NAZIs in World War II, they were bad enough and shocking at the time. They were effectively used by British to sway public opinion in America. The Germans also used civilians for forced labor. These laborers were poorly fed. The Germans also seized food supplies with little or no concern about the impact on the civilian population. The British naval blockade in the North Sea caused shortages in the occupied areas which eventually spread to Germany itself. Belgium like Germany was not self sufficient in food production. German occupation authorities attempted to take advantage of the Flemish-Walloon division. They supported Flemish Activists--a radical nationalist group that agreed to work with the Germans hoping to gain independence for Flanders. Flanders during the German occupation seceded from Belgium (November 1917). At the time, it looked like the Germans might finally win the War. The great majority of the Flemish remained loyal to King Albert and Belgium. There was little support for the German-supported Council of Flanders. Nor was the German decision to change the University of Ghent from a French-language to a Flemish-language institution well received. (The Belgian government made the State University of Ghent partially Flemish and then in 1930 fully Flemish.)

German Invasion

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."

Western Front

After the Battle of the Marne (September 1914), the Western Front rapidly became a huge system of fortified positions and trenches stretching from Switzerland to the Channel.

Area

Although the Germans were stopped, they had overrun most of Belgium which remained in German hands for the rest of the War. The Germann controlled area include the entire nort, all along the Dutch border. The Germans drove south toward Paris into northrn France. Thus the country was almost entirely overrun abd surrounded by the Germans. The British and Belgian armies made a stand at the Yser River in the southwest (Flanders). Thus a tiny sliver of Belgian held out and became a fought-over section of the Western Front.

Food

Food became a critical issue from the beginning of the Germn occupation. Belgium was a heavily industrialized country, one of the most industrialized in Europe. There was an agriciltural sector, but it did not produced the quantity of food needed by the populous industrial cities. As a result, the Belgian people were heavily dependent on imported food. Unfortunately for Belgium, neither was Germany which from the outset of the war was intent on using Belgian food to feed its army without any consideration of the impact on the Belgian people. The German invasion and occupation resulted in economic collapse and set in motion a humanitarin crisis. There were shortages and widespread unemployment which could have resulted in famine and starvation. The Germans were the strongest land power in Europe, but the British Royl Navy was the strongest naval force. And in addition to sending the British Expeditionary force (BEF) to Belgium, the British instituted a North Sea naval blockade which was gradually extened to the Mediterranean. The blockade affected the Central Powers and contries occupied by them. Germany like Belgium was not self-sufficent in food. Thus if the Germans cold be stopped before reaching Paris, a naval blockade would affect the German war economy by depriving it of food and raw material. But as an unintended consequence, food shortages quickly developed in Belgium. There wold be food shortages in Germany as well, but this wold take some time to devlop. The Allied concern was that if food and raw materials were allowed into Belgium, that the Germans would divert them to Germany to support the German war effort. And German policy suggested that this was exactly what would happen. The German Army as prt of its occupation regime seizedthe civilian food stocks to feed its forces driving through Belgium. Various Belgian groups organized to prepare for a possible famine. A major figure was Émile Francqui. He and other philanthropists established the Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee--CNSA) to obtain and arrange for the transport of the needed food to Belgium. The idea was to sell it in Belgium. [Dumoulin, pp. 120-21.] The profits were to be used to feed the needy. Difficult negotiations were conducted with both the Allies and Central Powers. The CNSA managed to secure permission to import food from the neutral United States under carefully reglated conditions. Francqui happened to be acquainted with Herbert Hoover, at the time a virtually unknown American minining engineer. Hoover helped organize the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). The food was distributed within Belgium by the CNSA. [Dumoulin, p. 122.] Several smaller relief organisations with contacts in other neutral countries were also active in Belgium. The Germans managed to occupy almost all of Belgium. The CNSA came to play a major role in the life of occupied Belgium throughout the War. The CNSA took over the function of a goverment welfare system. Unlike the Belgian Government in the occupied areas, it was not controlled by the Germans. It suceeded in preventing famine and starvation, but food and material shortages existed all during the German occupation. [(De) Schaepdrijver, pp. 52-53.] The CNSA employed more than 125,000 agents and distributors in its Belgian operations. [Dumoulin, p. 122.] The CNSA was administered by a central committee and with local networks across the country looked very much like a governmnt agebcy. , as paralleling the actions of the official Belgian government in peacetime. Many Belgians cane to see it as a symbol of national unity and of passive resistance against the Germn occupation authorities. [Dumoulin, pp. 122-26.]

Anerican Food Aid

Herbert Hoover after assisting Americans stranded in Europe at the onset of world War I, helped organize the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) (October 1914). The purpose was to provide food relief for occupied Belgium and Belgian refugees. The CRB fed millions of people in Belgium and occupied northern France (1914-18). Americans raised money, obtained food, shipped the food past the British naval blockade and prwling German submarines, and supervised the distribution of the food by the Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation. The CRB shipped 5.7 million tons of food to Belgium, much of it was flour. The flour was packaged in cotton bags by American mills. In addition to the flour itself, the CRB also monitored by the CRB since cotton could be used in the manufacture of German ammunition. The empty flour sacks were distributed to professional schools, sewing workrooms, convents, and artists. When the United States entered the war, Belgian relief was turned over to the Comité Hispanico-Hollandais. This had figurehead directors (the king of Spain and the queen of Holland). Hoover continued to actually oversee the effort to aid Belgium and the food continued to come from America. The CRB continued to function through 1919. Some 2.5 million tons of food worth $300 million fed some 10 million people in Belgium and France, about 7 million of that total were Belgians. This is an extrodinary figure give that that the 1914 population of Belgium was only about 7.5 million people. The American effort was an exceptional, unpresedented indertaking and 'constituted a superb accomplishment, technically, morally, and practically'. [Burner]

Repressive Policies

German authorities governed with repressive measures. The Germans confiscating houses and other property for the occupying troops. German troops killed civilians who resisted. While the German atrocities were nothing like those persued by the NAZIs in World War II, they were bad enough and shocking at the time. They were effectively used by British to sway public opinion in America.

Forced Labor

The Germans also used civilians for forced labor. For the Germans this was not meant to prepress Belgium, it was designed to relieve the labor shorthe in Germany as a result of so many men being drafted for service at the front. The Belgian, however preceived it as one more repressive occupation measure. Both industrial workers and agricultural labor were concripted by the military in the meat grinder the war became. This adversely affected production, especially agricultural harvests. The German occupation authorities as the War dragged on began conscripting Belgians for forced labor (October 1916). The German occupation authorities noticed that a lot of Belgian workers were not working as a result of the war. The Germans estimated that there were some 0.5 million Belgians who were not working. This was possible because of American relief food reaching occupied Belgium. German military commanders began calling the Belgians as 'arbeitsscheu' (afraid of working). Yhey hit upon the idea of making them useful to the German war effort. The calculation was that every German worker in the factory or farms that could be replaced by a Belgian was an additional German soldier for the front. Most of the conscripts were deported to Germany. Some went to northern France. Beligums living close to the frontline in western Flanders were not intened in labor camps, but were forced to work for the Germans near their homes, helping to build the German trenches and other works. These laborers were poorly fed and caredcfor. Some died. Otherss werre sent home in poor condition after they became too sick to work. .

Ethnic Division

Belgium is a bi-ethnic country with a population of Waloons (French speakers) and Flenish (Dutch speking). German occupation authorities attempted to take advantage of the Flemish-Walloon division. They supported Flemish Activists--a radical nationalist group that agreed to work with the Germans hoping to gain independence for Flanders. Flanders during the German occupation seceded from Belgium (November 1917). At the time, it looked like the Germans might finally win the War. The great majority of the Flemish remained loyal to King Albert and Belgium. There was little support for the German-supported Council of Flanders. Nor was the German decision to change the University of Ghent from a French-language to a Flemish-language institution well received. (The Belgian government made the State University of Ghent partially Flemish and then in 1930 fully Flemish.)

Sources

Dumoulin, Michel (2010). L'Entrée dans le XXe Siècle, 1905–1918 [The Beginning of the XX Century, from 1905–1918]. Nouvelle Histoire de Belgiqu. (Brussels: Le Cri édition: 2010).

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






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Created: 8:29 PM 4/30/2016
Last updated: 8:29 PM 4/30/2016