(W)Archives: Germany’s Violation of Belgian Neutrality in 1914

August 1, 2014

One of the twentieth century’s biggest mistakes took place one hundred years ago tomorrow. On that day, August 2, 1914, the German ambassador in Belgium delivered an ultimatum from his government. Germany demanded that neutral Belgium allow free passage of the German army on its way to invade France. This remarkable document can be read in translation thanks to the members of the World War I Military History List and Brigham Young University’s library.

The violation of Belgian neutrality was a key aspect of the Schlieffen Plan, the German plan for a war with France. The plan assumed that Germany would face a coalition of France and Russia and in the summer of 1914 this assumption was proving true. In such a war, the German General Staff desired a speedy resolution in the west so that it could move its forces back east in time to deal with the enormous but slow-mobilizing Russian army. Years of staff work showed that a speedy victory in the west could only be obtained by enveloping the entire French army early in the war and annihilating it. In turn, that could only be accomplished with a giant turning movement anchored on the German far left, opposite the French fortress on the Franco-German border. In this vast maneuver, the last German soldier on the right “would “brush the [English] Channel with his sleeve,” as Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen allegedly put it. Geography dictated that this could only be done if German forces passed through Belgium.

Of course, the Germans hoped not to have to fight their way through Belgium. Hence, the not-so diplomatic note. In it, the Germans mendaciously claimed that intelligence showed that the French were about to march through Belgium on their way to attack Germany. Germany, then, demanded the right to transit Belgian territory and added that if Belgium agreed, the German government would “purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and…pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.” On the other hand, if Belgium should resist then Germany would “to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.”

If you looked closely, as the German planners had done, it all made perfect sense. If you stepped back and took a broader view, one that encompassed politics and the psychology of war, it was courting disaster. Throw in some Clausewitzian friction, and it looked even worse.

It is hard to count all the blunders that the ultimatum encapsulated or enabled. To begin with, Belgium defiantly refused to play the part that the German planners had written for it. In fact, Belgium put up a stiff resistance to the German attack that followed the ultimatum, notably at the fortress city of Liege, and thereby threw the invaders badly off their timetable. Then, the Belgian army under the leadership of King Albert I held on doggedly to a small corner of the country all the way until the Armistice in 1918, linking their lines to those of the other Allies. It was a small but significant and abundantly heroic effort.

Furthermore, Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality. Though German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg famously dismissed the British guarantee as a “scrap of paper,” Britain actually honored its commitment and went to war against Germany. To German planners, this seemed to be no particular problem; they were not impressed with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). At only six divisions, it was tiny. And since the British army had not fought in Europe since the Crimean War, the Germans expected it to be rusty. This was a horrible miscalculation on both the tactical and strategic levels. To begin with, the BEF dealt the Germans a sharp blow in their first encounter, the Battle of Mons. Later, as the war dragged on, the six division British force inexorably grew to five full armies in France, comprising troops from across the entire British Empire.

An additional set of German mistakes were political. The behavior of the German army in Belgium played directly into the hands of Allied propagandists. The German troops were jumpy, knowing what the French partisans had done to their grandfathers during the Franco-Prussian War, and saw franc-tireurs behind every bush. As a result they killed some 5500 Belgian civilians during 1914, most of them in August. British politician (and later Prime Minister) David Lloyd George alleged that for every Belgian soldier the Germans killed, they also killed three Belgian civilians. In addition, the Germans torched thousands of buildings, including the University of Louvain’s library with its invaluable collection dating back to the medieval period , and routinely used civilians as human shields. In other words, the behavior of the German army played directly into the hands of Allied propagandists. The Toronto World reported that “every infamy known to barbarians was perpetrated” at Louvain. Even the neutral United States, which did not really have a dog in the fight at this point, was outraged by what happened at Louvain. A New York Tribune reporter visited the city and filed a story under the headline: “Germans Sack Louvain; Women and Clergy Shot.” The German Embassy in the Washington issued a profoundly ill-advised official statement that “Louvain was punished by the destruction of the city.”

Despite all these blunders, Germany managed to hold on for more than four years of war, but it could have been even worse for that country. The Netherlands, which had remained neutral, provided a trade outlet to the rest of the world and thereby helped Germany to hang on for as long as it did. Early versions of the Schlieffen Plan, however, had called for the German army to violate not just Belgium but also the Netherlands. That plan would have been tactically even more convenient for the army but, Schlieffen’s successor as the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, recognized the possibility that Germany would need the Netherlands as a “wind pipe” in the event of a protracted war.   For a moment, then, the German General Staff saw the strategic forest and not just the tactical trees. The tragedy for Germany and the world was that that moment was fleeting.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


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