Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Belgian Army in World War I

Among the countries involved in the outbreak of the First World War, each must bear some measure of blame for the disaster. That is, all but the Kingdom of Belgium who was guilty of no more than being a victim of geography. Belgium was a neutral country and took that neutrality seriously. Caught between the feuding peoples of France and Germany, the Belgians had no reason to trust one side more than the other. The Germans may have seemed the more intimidating but, in the past, it had been the French who seemed most eager to take Belgium for themselves. The Germans and Belgians had had their differences but their King, Albert I, had also married a Bavarian princess and she was quite popular. In matters of defense, the Belgian government trusted in its scrupulous observation of neutrality to protect the country and was extremely reluctant to spend money on the military. As usual, the Belgian government would have been much wiser to have listened more closely to the advice of their monarchs.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 King Leopold II had mobilized the Belgian army as a precaution in case either side violated Belgian sovereignty. Fortunately, neither did but many esteemed military figures, such as General Brialmont, were concerned enough to support King Leopold II in calling for military reforms. The most pressing was the need to do away with the old system of filling the ranks of the army by a lottery and replacing it with national conscription. The politicians saw this as unnecessary but there was finally sufficient support to get the appropriate bill passed which King Leopold II signed into law on his deathbed. Unfortunately, the planned enlargement of the army would not be completed by the time war came in 1914. The new monarch, King Albert I, was just as concerned as his uncle had been and was also just as frequently brushed aside. National defense was something the King naturally took more seriously as Belgian law stipulated that, in the event of war, it was the duty of the King to take command of the army. Also of concern was how rapidly military technology was changing. When the Belgians began building new, impressive fortifications at strategic points throughout the country, particularly the “National Redoubt” of Antwerp, the massive stone fortresses were already obsolete by the time they were completed due to the rapid advance in artillery technology.

In 1914 the Belgian national defense consisted of one field army made up of six divisions as well as garrisons for the fortified zones of Liege, Namur and Antwerp. The military plans in place for Belgium called for the army to fight defensively in these fortified zones and behind the three major rivers until such time as the larger military forces of those powers pledged to defend Belgian neutrality could arrive to turn the tide against the invader. The critical moment came on August 2, 1914 when the German ambassador informed the Belgian government that Luxembourg was being occupied and that German troops would soon be entering Belgium. The Germans pledged to respect Belgian property if no action was taken against them but that if the Belgians resisted that they would be treated as enemies. King Albert I did not hesitate, he would defend his country against any invader no matter how hopeless the situation seemed, famously saying that, “Belgium is a country, not a road”. On August 4, the King informed the British, French and Russians that German forces had crossed the Belgian border and appealed to them to come to the aid of Belgium in resisting the invader. The Belgians braced themselves for the first blow from the most advanced, heavily armed military on earth.

General Leman
The German First and Second Armies that crossed into Belgium expected that the Belgians would either not resist or that, if they did, could be easily pushed aside. Neither assumption was to prove correct. King Albert I deployed his forces as best he could; the 3rd and 4th Divisions were posted on the right along the Meuse River at Liege and Namur, the remaining four divisions would hold the gap between the Gette and Dyle Rivers to block the German advance on Brussels in the center and Antwerp to the north. As the Germans marched into Belgium the first major obstacle they encountered was the fortress of Liege, defended by General Gerard Leman, a tough Belgian soldier who had tutored King Albert I in the art of war. He faced 130,000 German troops with massive artillery support all under the command of General Otto von Emmich. When Leman refused to surrender, von Emmich launched a massive attack, sending nine brigades into the gaps between the Belgian forts. To his shock, every attack was repulsed with such heavy losses for the Germans that several divisions had to be withdrawn back to the Fatherland. There was even some panic in Aachen that the Belgians might counter-attack and invade Germany.

However, the German generals kept their cool, brought in immense numbers of reinforcements and outflanked the Belgians guarding the gaps, forcing them to retire. The forts continued to hold out and fire at the German lines and the Germans proceeded to the frustratingly slow task of reducing these forts one by one with their superior heavy artillery. It was not until August 17 that the last Belgian fort was destroyed. General Leman had been knocked unconscious in the rubble and made it clear that this was the only reason he had been captured and that he had not surrendered. General von Emmich was so impressed by the tenacity of his Belgian foe that he returned the generals’ sword to him and General Gerard Leman became the first bona fide hero of the Great War for the Allies. Fortress Liege had fallen but it had taken precious time that the Germans desperately needed for their plan to conquer France to work and the tenacious Belgian defenders had inflicted 42,712 casualties on the German invaders.

The next area of resistance was the Belgian forces assembled at the Gette River, 20 miles behind the Meuse. For the most part, they kept watch but when the Germans ventured too close the Belgians made them pay for it. The most famous battle in this sector was fought at Haelen in Limburg where four regiments of the German cavalry corps were soundly beaten by the Belgian cavalry division (including one battalion on bicycles) on August 12. It became known as “the Battle of the Silver Helmets” because of the numerous German cavalry helmets that littered the field when the fight was over. Ultimately, however, there could be only one outcome with the Belgians having what amounted to two army corps up against eleven corps for the Germans. Hard-pressed on their front and being encircled on each flank, the Belgians were forced to fall back toward Antwerp or risk being cut off from the “National Redoubt”. Fighting numerous rearguard actions, the Belgians fell back and the Germans marched into Brussels on August 20. That same day the siege of the fortress of Namur began which was isolated by the retreat of the army. Again, the Germans began the methodical task of blasting the Belgian forts to pieces one by one. Outranged by the German and Austrian guns, the Belgians could simply endure. The last fort at Namur was destroyed on August 24.

The Germans, already behind schedule, decided to bypass Antwerp and rush forward, ultimately meeting the British for the first time at Mons. However, they had to leave behind a considerable number of troops to watch the Belgians who had withdrawn behind the stout but outdated fortifications. Again, the Belgians had deprived the Germans of time and men at a crucial moment. King Albert I was not content to sit and wait and, although it cost his army, ordered two raids outside the city walls against the Germans in an effort to support the Allies fighting at the Marne. The Germans were forced to divert three divisions that were supposed to reinforce General Alexander von Kluck’s 1st Army. Once the German plan was finally frustrated at the battle of the Marne, they turned back toward Antwerp to finally deal with the Belgians once and for all. Again, huge guns were brought forward and a massive bombardment began on September 28, 1914.

It was clear immediately that Antwerp could not hold out and what help came from the Allies was too late to make any difference. King Albert gave the order to retreat in order to save his army. The forts would have to hold out to the last man, supported only by some Belgian artillery, British infantry and French marines while the army escaped up the coast toward the French border. The defenders fought like heroes, saving the army and the hope of their country in the process. Finally, on the last patch of unoccupied Belgian soil, King Albert I stopped his army at the Yser River and determined to retreat no more. It was a miserable, soggy place to fight a war. “Trenches” had to be built above ground because digging only uncovered water as little as 2-3 feet below the surface. The Belgian army was tattered, exhausted and disorganized but they fell into line and fought like heroes as the inevitable German attack came. This coincided with the famous “Race to the Sea” as the Germans and Allies tried to outflank each other, moving ever northward, to prevent a stalemate. Thanks in no small part to the tenacious Belgian defenders of the Yser, it was a race the Allies would win. Throughout October the Germans attacked again and again until finally, the Belgians were forced to flood the countryside but ultimately, against all odds, the Belgian army held its ground and the Germans finally gave up and began moving their attack southward toward the British at Ypres.

For the next three years the Belgians stood guard on the Yser, skirmishing with the Germans while rebuilding their army until it was even stronger than it had been before the war. It was a sector of waterlogged misery where perpetual dampness took a heavier toll than the enemy, leaving many men crippled for life. And so the war went on. King Albert I met to discuss strategy with the other Allied commanders, Queen Elizabeth cared for the wounded and Crown Prince Leopold served in the trenches alongside his future subjects. The little Belgian air force made its presence known with the ace Willy Coppens gaining fame with 37 victories and a reputation as the preeminent Allied “balloon buster” of the war (which is a more respectable feat than most realize as observation balloons were heavily guarded). In central Africa the Belgian Force Publique, operating out of the Congo under General Charles Tambeur, drove the Germans out of Rwanda and Burundi and captured the outer capitol of Tabora in German East Africa. In a gesture of solidarity with her allies, Belgium sent a contingent of troops, equipped with armored cars that had first seen action at Antwerp, to the Eastern Front to aid the Russian war effort.

In April of 1918 the Belgian right wing came under attack during the famous “Kaiser’s Offensive” or Operation Michael which was Germany’s last, desperate gamble to win the war at a stroke. Breaking through the point where the French and British lines came together, the Germans pushed outward to expand the breach, eventually making contact with the Belgians. A captured German soldier was found carrying orders which included the optimistic note that, “The Belgians are not used to being attacked in force; success is certain. They will be overthrown before they know we are there.” Once again, the Germans would pay dearly for underestimating the resolve of the Belgian army. On April 17, 1918 the Germans struck; the first Belgian outposts fell quickly, though it took considerable effort and much hand-to-hand fighting to accomplish this. The Germans reached the Belgian support line by mid-day but were halted by heavy Belgian artillery fire. Then, under a moving barrage, the Belgian infantry counter-attacked and began regaining their lost trenches. The Germans were stunned and the attack fell apart, some units retreating and others fighting on in isolated pockets. By nightfall the Belgians had recovered almost all of the lost ground and taken 800 German prisoners.

This engagement surprised observers on both sides as the Allies realized that the Belgians could attack as well as defend. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme Allied commander, arrived to decorate the Belgian heroes and to confer with King Albert about the coming counter-offensive against the Germans. The Belgian King was made commander of the Flanders Army Group, responsible for the northernmost sector of the Allied advance that would carry on through November of 1918. Aside from the Belgian army, his command included the British II Army and French VI Army. From September 28-30 the Belgian divisions broke through the German lines, at one point advancing up to eleven miles. At the beginning of October, the Belgians attacked again and forced the Germans back another eight miles. The second phase of the Flanders offensive, later known as the battle of Thourout-Thielt was launched by King Albert on October 14, 1918. The engagement saw the Germans pushed out of Flanders for good. Supported by the French on one side and British naval fire from the coast, the Belgians steadily drove the Germans back. By October 17 the Belgians reached Ostend and the outskirts of Bruges.

King Albert I
On the Lys the Germans put up heavy resistance, showing that despite their weakened condition by this time, they were still a formidable foe. The Allied advance stalled but eventually began to gain ground again. After heavy fighting the Belgians gained a foothold on the east bank of the Lys and moved on to meet up with the French at Ghent. It was in that area that the Belgians remained until the Germans agreed to an armistice, ending the war. The Kingdom of Belgium had lost 44,000 men in the war as well as 9,000 civilians, far less than other powers, but a heavy toll for so small a country. However, the Belgian armed forces had done their country proud by their plucky resistance against unspeakable odds. The well-known phrase amongst the Allied countries of “Brave Little Belgium” was certainly well-deserved and no Belgian was more widely respected around the world than King Albert I for his calm, steady and courageous leadership during the greatest crisis his country had faced up to that time. He had been steadfast in the defense of his country and yet never vindictive. In fact, he was the only Allied leader to support the call by the Pope for making peace and had tried to arrange such a peace with Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary, but no avail.

After the war there was talk of Belgium being given Luxembourg or even control of Palestine but, in the end, Belgian territorial acquisitions were modest. In addition to reparations Belgium received mandates of Rwanda-Burundi in central Africa and the addition of the German territories of Eupen, St Vith and Malmedy, adding German as the third official language of the Kingdom of Belgium. Today, many remember the Belgians as some of the most unfortunate victims of the Great War, the small, peaceful country caught between warring powers. This was certainly true but the great accomplishments of the Belgian army should not be ignored. Faced with a hopeless situation, the Belgians mounted a stubborn defense that proved very costly to the Germans, throwing off their timetable and giving the Allies the chance to beat them at the Marne. Again, in the “Race to the Sea” it was Belgian tenacity that ensured the Germans did not gain a strategic advantage by turning the Allied flank. The Belgian army may have been small but it fought with immense courage, endured incredible hardships and played a decisive role in the ultimate Allied victory.


  1. Very interesting, what, what?

    Napoleon XIV

  2. What is your opinion on the Boer Republic? We're they in the right to fight the British Empire?


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