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.
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 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.
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.
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|
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.