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German supplies, Place d'Anvers Brussels, 1914

German supplies, Place d'Anvers Brussels, 1914

German supplies, Place d'Anvers Brussels, 1914

This picture shows German supply wagons in the Place d'Anvers, Brussels, early in the German occupation of 1914. The picture is of interest for two reasons - first it shows the amount of horses and wagons needed to maintain the German army of 1914, and second for the amount of civilian interest in the proceedings.

Occupation during the War (Belgium and France)

This article examines the German occupation of Belgium and Northern France in 1914–1918. Besides focussing on the occupiers’ motives and logic of action regarding their policy and practices, it gives an idea of the complexity of the occupier/occupied relations. It is argued that the former were determined by alleged and actual constraints of economic warfare, while the latter were marked by the uncompromising character of this conflict, which even demanded of the civil population to contribute to the war effort. Thus, the totalization of warfare led to a fatal dynamic particularly in the occupied areas.


The mill in the Ardennes

The Mill in the Ardennes, printed in penny magazines, was a story for Germans which portrayed German soldiers as well-behaved and selfless.

Documenting the ‘atrocities’ during the war

Within days of the invasion, Belgian and French commissions documented the massacres by interrogating refugees and sending out roving reporters before the front closed down. In the late spring of 1915, an official British commission came up with its own, widely-disseminated report . While not deliberately mendacious, it overemphasised cruelty against women and children and did not contradict refugees’ panic-infused allegations, such as the story that invading troops systematically hacked off children’s hands.

At the same time, May 1915, the German government produced its own report (the so-called German White Book) which claimed that the Belgians had conducted a premeditated ‘People’s War’, with sadistic excesses, against its army. This report relied on hearsay and heavy editing, omitted evidence from within the German army that contradicted its claims, and suppressed depositions by civilians for the same reason. In response, the Belgian government-in-exile published a detailed refutation (the so-called Belgian Grey Book) with lists of civilian victims and the Belgian sociologist Fernand van Langenhove invalidated the ‘People’s War’ thesis in his 1916 study The Growth of a Legend, which proved on the basis of German documents that the franc-tireur story had been a mass delusion, a ‘cycle of myths’.

The Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce, assessing 'alleged German outrages', 1915.

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The interwar years

And yet, after the German defeat, the Weimar government refused to repudiate the old imperial army’s war record. From the Armistice to the end of the Republic, the War and Foreign Ministries put out ‘innocentist’ propaganda and hampered investigations into wartime military conduct. An attempt to put war criminals on trial, in Leipzig in 1921, came to nothing. Meanwhile, in Allied (especially British) public opinion, a growing current of condemnation of war itself as an atrocity led commentators to indict war propaganda as the culprit and question atrocity reports. In 1928, British Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby published Falsehood in Wartime, an indictment of atrocity propaganda. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) poked fun at the lurid allegation that German soldiers had hung Belgian priests inside church bells. (In fact, no Allied text had ever carried this accusation it was fabricated by German war propaganda to discredit reports on violence against civilians.) Ironically, this pacifist campaign dovetailed with the German denial campaign in that both agreed that the ‘atrocities’ had essentially been a creation of war propaganda.

Historiography after the Second World War

The Second World War did not bring renewed relevance to the issue, as evidenced by the forlorn 50th-anniversary commemorations in different victimised towns. Yet in the meantime, a Belgian-German commission of historians had established a realm of truth and reconciliation by critically examining the German arguments for the defence. A 1958 study by the German historian Peter Schöller demonstrated the mendacity of the 1915 White Book in the case of Louvain. It did not, however, reverberate broadly through the German historiography of the 1914 invasion of France and Belgium. A 1984 study by the German historian Lothar Wieland analysed German public opinion and official policy regarding the franc-tireur question from 1914 to 1936, concluding that the refusal to countenance war crimes contributed to the success of Nazi propaganda. Finally, the vast study German Atrocities 1914 by the historians John Horne and Alan Kramer, published in 2001, placed the events of the summer of 1914, and their echo in wartime and postwar cultures, in the context of entire societies’ mobilisation for war and exit from war. The study confirmed that the violence against civilians had not been a figment of propaganda and that the ‘People’s War’ had been a delusion and it explained why, in spite of the relatively small number of victims, these events loomed so large in a war which both sides portrayed as a crusade for the defence of civilisation. The publication of this study demonstrated that the waning of the passions of the war in Europe – both the passing of the ‘crusade’ culture, and of the interwar efforts to dispel this culture – definitively opened up a space of historical truth in which to grasp the place of the ‘atrocities’ in the wider history of mass mobilisation for the First World War.

  • Written by Sophie de Schaepdrijver
  • Sophie De Schaepdrijver teaches Modern European History at Penn State University. She has published on military occupations in the First World War, on &ldquowar cultures&rdquo in occupied Belgium, and on civilians&rsquo diaries. She is interested in the intersection between military occupation and individual ambition. She has recently finished a book on Gabrielle Petit, a spy for British General Headquarters who was executed in German-occupied Brussels in 1916 at the age of 23. She has co-written and presented the documentary Brave Little Belgium (VRT-Canvas, to be broadcast autumn 2014) and curated a historical exhibition on Bruges under German Navy rule.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Food and Politics ↑

The German invasion immediately put an end to the principle of free trade that had been dominant in the Belgian political economy for decades. Confronted with an urgent crisis situation, the authorities resorted to interventionist supply measures and curbed the operation of the market at the very beginning of the invasion. [2] The emergency law of 4 August 1914 prohibited the export of food and made it possible to impose maximum prices and organise enforced sales. On the basis of this act, as early as August 1914 Albert I, King of the Belgians (1875-1934) imposed maximum prices for six basic products. Local authorities regulated others in the first few months of the war by establishing maximum prices, quality stipulations or requisitions. However, the Germans soon largely took on the regulation of food provision (for example by determining maximum prices).

Once the country was almost completely conquered in autumn 1914, under international law the nutrition of the Belgian population became the responsibility of the German occupier. However, the Germans refused to supply Belgium as long as the Allies maintained their blockade. In October 1914 this deadlock was resolved with an agreement permitting the reestablishment of food imports via the neutral Netherlands. Britain allowed these imports as long they arrived at their destination and were not confiscated by the Germans. This agreement was the result of private initiative in occupied Brussels. In the autumn of 1914 a group of financers and industrialists founded the National Committee for Aid and Food (Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation), originally a Brussels-based concentration of charities that quickly developed into an organisation with nationwide ambitions. The National Committee led by Emile Francqui (1863-1935) searched for international aid to resume food imports. Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), a businessman and future United States president mobilized funding through his organisation the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), bought consumables and sent them to occupied Belgium. The neutral character of the organisation was a guarantee against German confiscation.

After the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917, the remaining neutral powers (especially the Netherlands and Spain) officially ensured the continuity of the CRB. The Germans tolerated the National Committee (which was not under their control) since it lessened the “burden” of feeding Belgium and expunged their culpability in case of a real hunger crisis.

Belgian elites were also prepared to intervene in the supply of food to the country’s population. They feared that a food crisis would lead to disruption of the public and, therefore, social order. Acting out of self-interest, the elites defined their role in the area of food provision in paternalist terms. The composition of the sections of the National Committee indicates that local dignitaries considered that responsibility theirs since the state authority had largely fallen away. In order to broaden its composition and thus enlarge its legitimacy the National Committee was even willing to bring local socialist protagonists into the fold.

The National Committee did not only import food in cooperation with the CRB, it also organised a nationwide system of food distribution. The National Committee managed to organise a more or less equitable distribution of the imported consumables through the mediation of unemployment funds, public assistance and hospitals. The widely encompassing nature of the work of the National Committee and related organisations (by the end of the war for example as much as forty per cent of the Belgian population used soup kitchens) makes it an early experiment in the welfare state. The categories of people entitled to make use of the private-public charity system were ever enlarged over the course of the occupation. By 1917, for the very first time in history, the entire Belgian population had, in principle, access to some form of assistance. With its presence at the very centre of daily life, the National Committee functioned as a kind of semi-official shadow government in occupied Belgium. By guaranteeing a more or less equitable distribution of food, it contributed to maintaining at least a minimal sense of confidence among the Belgian population in contrast to Russia and Germany where the food issue eroded popular support for the war and the legitimacy of authorities.

While the relief effort staved off a dire food crisis, it proved to be insufficient to secure adequate food for the entire Belgian population in the long run. The amount of food available was simply too low: food imports never reached pre-war levels and domestic production declined during the occupation. The CRB’s import programmes satisfied less than half of the actual needs. Scarcity caused food prices to rise continuously from the winter of 1916-1917 onwards. In the Brussels region in 1917 and 1918, official food prices were respectively four to six times as high as in 1914.

By the end of 1916 the base of the diet of most Belgians consisted of bread and potatoes. Consumption of dairy products, fat and meat was largely reduced. For the vast majority of the population, the black market with its even higher prices was no alternative: it was the privilege of the wealthy classes and the occupiers. Most people had to spend an ever growing part of their income on food since wages were not adjusted for inflation. Mass unemployment, especially among industrial workers, caused the purchasing power of the working classes to drop by an estimated 70 percent between 1914 and 1918. In the end, the difference between the employed and the unemployed became almost negligible. By September 1917, for example, the caloric intake of employed and unemployed workers in Brussels was respectively reduced to only 1,500 and 1,387 calories a day. Peter Scholliers and Frank Daelemans consider the situation in 1917 and 1918 unequivocally as a “famine,” “a small-scale replica of the great crisis of the mid-19 th century.” [3] Even if mass starvation had been avoided, the deprivations of war had a clear demographic impact. Marriages were postponed, birth rates dropped and starting from the winter of 1916-1917 mortality rates rose quickly (with the partial exception infant mortality which declined thanks to special aid programs aimed at newborns). A definitive study on mortality in occupied Belgium is still lacking. The available material, however, suggests that national mortality rates among people above five years of age rose thirty and seventy points in 1917 and 1918 respectively as compared to the 1910 index.

It is no surprise that Belgians combined food aid and the remainder of their (wage) incomes with more informal (survival) strategies in order to make ends meet. Kitchen gardens proved to be an important source of supplementary food in rural areas. In the cities, the creation of new allotment gardens was stimulated by local authorities. Begging was another important strategy to supplement meager diets. Early on during the occupation the impending famine drove groups of beggars (including many women) from the cities to the farms in the countryside in hope of some extra food. As was the case in other belligerent countries, consumables were stolen on a massive scale. As the food distribution capacity of the National Committee eroded during the second half of the occupation, these kinds of informal survival strategies became crucial in 1917 and 1918.

The triennial art salons of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent, 1815-1914

In the nineteenth century, public art exhibitions became the main place where artists could show and sell their work to the public. The Paris Salon is particularly well known, but similar sales exhibitions were also organized in other places and countries. In the Southern Netherlands, Ghent was the first city to organize an exhibition in 1792, followed by Brussels in 1811. When in 1813 Antwerp also initiated its own salon, the government decided that the organization had to be structured differently and the system of the triennial salon was introduced.

The first Triennial Salon took place in 1815 in Brussels, and alternated throughout the nineteenth century between Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. At the salons, artists, critics, patrons, dealers and government officials gain together to discuss concepts about artists and art. Furthermore, the well-attended public exhibitions created an opportunity for a diverse group of Belgians to view and form opinions about works of art. Also, the salons were important events for stimulating cultural and artistic life in Belgium in general, and for the hosting cities in particular.

Through various case studies, this research examines the impact of the Triennial Art Salons on the careers of several artists throughout the nineteenth century

How Germany Prepared for the Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s last great attempt to win the Second World War. In December 1944, as the Allies pressed in from both east and west, he created an ambitious but fatally flawed plan to throw back the Americans, split their armies from the British, and so gain an advantage in the west.

The Germans went to great lengths to prepare for this final roll of the dice.


Planning for Operation Watch on the Rhine was led from the top down. Hitler, who had always been controlling about important operations, was the mastermind behind this one, and he had a grand vision.

US Army crossing the Rhine River, 1945.

Three armies would be assembled in the Ardennes, the forested region through which the Germans had invaded Belgium and France four years earlier.

They would smash through the weak American VIII Corps, get into its rear, and cross the River Meuse. They would seize Brussels and Antwerp, the latter being a huge Allied supply base.

German troops with French prisoners crossing the Meuse on 15 May 1940 near Sedan.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-062-24 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This maneuver would have two important effects. Firstly, the American and British forces would be divided. Secondly, the resource-poor British would be left too depleted to fight on effectively.

As a result of these two factors, as well as the stunning attack, the Americans would be left reeling and isolated on the continent. They could be persuaded to make peace without a complete German surrender, leaving Hitler free to turn all his forces against the Russians.

It was a wildly optimistic plan, not short of important details but misguided in what could be done.

Members of the 117th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5 “Stuart” tank on their march to capture the town of St. Vith at the close of the Battle of the Bulge.

Surveying the Scene

Two men would lead the main German forces for the offensive: Generals Hasso von Manteuffel and Sepp Dietrich. Given their orders by the Führer, they set about surveying the terrain and troops.

Manteuffel diligently assessed his position. To avoid attracting attention, he dressed in an infantry colonel’s uniform before setting out to visit the front lines.

There he made a note of enemy positions and behavior, the state of his troops, and the transport networks they would depend upon.

In particular, he learned about a critical two-mile gap in the American lines.

Hasso von Manteuffel.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-143-21 CC-BY-SA 3.0

Dietrich was also very aware of conditions at the front, but he reacted less calmly than Manteuffel. Seeing the run-down state of his forces, the terrible repair of critical roads, and the coming winter, he despaired of the operation.

He repeatedly tried to persuade Hitler that it could not be a success. When that didn’t work, he drank heavily and argued with subordinates. One of the Reich’s finest officers, he was reduced to impotent rage.

Josef “Sepp” Dietric.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J27366 : CC-BY-SA 3.0


Subterfuge and covert agents played an important part in the preparations for the attack.

Some of the groundwork for this had been laid during the retreat across northeastern France, when Otto Skorzeny, the head of the SS Jagdkommando (hunting commando) force had left behind paid sleeper agents. But it was Skorzeny’s other work for Watch on the Rhine that would become famous.

Otto Skorzeny. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Alber-183-25 Alber, Kurt CC-BY-SA 3.0

In an isolated training camp in Germany, Skorzeny gathered a group of English-speaking German soldiers. Swiftly trained in the arts of reconnaissance and sabotage, they were equipped with captured Americans uniforms, weapons, and vehicles.

When the time for the attack came, these agents would cross the lines disguised as enemy soldiers. They were to misdirect troop movements, sabotage transport routes, and generally cause chaos among the Allies, impeding their ability to respond.

By the time the attack was launched, thousands of men were ready to undertake this dangerous operation.

(Knight’s Cross bearer) SS-Obersturmbannführer Skorzeny, who helped Mussolini escape, during a briefing with SS leaders of an SS paratrooper unit.

Gathering Troops

The troops gathered by Skorzeny were only a small portion of those assembled for the attack. Though Hitler’s original vision of 600,000 men was wildly over-ambitious for the battered and thinly stretched German army, 200,000 were assembled in the Ardennes.

The majority of these men were infantry. Many had been recruited as part of a mass levy ordered by Hitler.

Men from previously protected positions in factories and universities were called to arms, to answer the growing shortage of manpower. Other arms of the military were denuded in favor of the army, Navy and Luftwaffe men being transferred to the infantry.

A German soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companions in territory taken by their counter-offensive in Ardennes.

There were other troops alongside the infantry. Batteries of artillery were gathered to prepare their way. Regiments of tanks were assembled, including modern Tigers and Panthers, the deadliest tanks then fielded in Europe. Old but still reliable Mark IVs were included as well.

Some of the equipment fielded wasn’t even German. Vehicles captured on the Eastern front were moved west to transport supplies and tow artillery.

As in 1940, tanks were essential to the plan. Their firepower was meant to provide the breakthrough that Hitler was counting on.

German troops advancing past abandoned American equipment

Discipline and Secrecy

One other factor was just as essential as the tanks, and that was surprise. For the plan to work, the Germans had to catch the Americans unawares.

Strict discipline was enforced to ensure secrecy about their preparations. The men lived concealed beneath the forest canopy. They weren’t allowed to light fires unless they had smokeless fuel. Many had to wait for cooks to deliver their meals under cover of darkness.

German field commanders plan the advance.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28477 / Göttert / CC-BY-SA 3.0

To ensure that discipline was maintained, a policy of Sippenhaft was followed. This meant that a deserter’s family could be punished in their absence. Crossing the lines wouldn’t free a man from the consequences of his actions.

Even among the officers in charge, secrecy was maintained. On Hitler’s orders, details of the plan were shared only on a need-to-know basis. Men were given what they needed to do their jobs and no more.

American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion 119th Infantry Regiment are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28619 Büschel CC-BY-SA 3.0

A huge amount of planning and preparation went into German preparations for the Battle of the Bulge.

But ultimately, it would be a failure. No amount of preparation could make up for an army on its last legs facing an opponent with more men, more resources, and more freedom to act.

The German Request for Free Passage Through Belgium

The German Ambassador at Brussels, Herr von Below Saleske, delivered the following note to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Kaiserlich Deutsche Gesandschaft in Belgien-Brüssel August 2, 1914

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-defence 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 fortre sses 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 neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

WWI Document Archive > Official Papers > The German Request for Free Passage Through Belgium

German supplies, Place d'Anvers Brussels, 1914 - History

Alexander Fuehr

The substance of the facts referred to in the foregoing chapter was tolerably well known to the German Government before the present war, through certain unofficial channels which need not be specified though the documentary evidence of Belgium's pact with England was not in its hands, and was only placed there by chance after the capture of the Belgian capital.

If Germany refrained from making public use of that information, her reasons were, doubtless, the same which impose silence upon the shrewd business man who receives reports on a doubtful deal of a good customer. A public announcement of the information which Germany had with regard to Belgium's deal with England would have. been liable to cause an international crisis which Germany was a great deal more anxious to avoid than the world gives her credit for.

Even if there had been no danger of such a crisis it would have been contrary to the dictates of political wisdom for Germany to make use of her information, not yet borne out by documentary proof, as long as her relations with Belgium were outwardly in a perfectly normal state.

These relations changed very rapidly, by force of circumstances.

Being compelled, by the unwarranted general mobilization of Russia, to take measures of safety at its Eastern frontier, the German Government considered it its duty to make sure of the attitude of France, Russia's declared ally, by addressing an ultimatum to that Power. The reply of the French Government could leave no doubt as to its determination of joining the war against Germany, which thus had to face an attack from two sides. The German General Staff , however, held in its possession the latest plans for France's war mobilization, drawn up by the French headquarters, according to which that country's military forces were to form five Armies of campaign, to be concentrated at the following points: First Army, consisting of the I, II, III and X army-corps, at Maubeuge Second Army, consisting of the IX, XI, IV and VI army-corps, at Verdun Third Army, consisting of the XX, V and VIII army-corps, at Toul Fourth Army, consisting of the XIII, XII, XVII and XVIII army-corps, at Epinal and Fifth Army, consisting of the VII, XIV, XV and XVI army-corps, at Belfort.

A most significant passage of those plans reads: "The First Army unites with the English and Belgian Armies, and, after passing through Belgium, occupies Cologne and Coblenz, and opposes the German forces advancing from Northern Germany. "

Thus, the French plan of campaign contemplated, as though it were a matter of course (which, indeed, it was for the French headquarters), a concerted action of the Maubeuge Army with the Belgian forces and an English expeditionary army. However, concerning this proposed co-operation of an English force with the French Maubeuge Army, there was corroborating evidence in the hands of the German General Staff, the Anglo-French designs having been allowed to leak out on various occasions. (56) Moreover, the attitude of the British Government toward Germany's proposals, during the critical days preceding the outbreak of hostilities, left no doubt that England had fully made up her mind effectively to support the French attack against the German frontier, by way of Belgium.

If this French plan of campaign, the correctness of which has since been confirmed, (57) was allowed to be carried out, Germany would have had to face an attack at her most vulnerable spot---the entirely unprotected Prusso-Belgian frontier, where a hostile invasion of the indicated enormous strength would have delivered to the enemy at least more than half of the Prussian Rhine Province, including Germany's most valuable coal and iron mines as well as a number of important centers of industry. It would have been a most dangerous, perhaps a disastrous, attack against the German flank---and a later stage of the war (the operations of the Kluck Army) has clearly shown what such flank attacks mean in modern strategy.

Under these grave circumstances, the German headquarters had to act without delay. It was their imperative duty to strike at the French Maubeuge Army as soon as possible, in order to prevent it from carrying out the task allotted to it in the French plan of campaign.. To this end, however, it was unavoidably necessary to pass through Belgian territory. The German Government, therefore, requested the Belgian Government to grant the German troops an unobstructed passage to France through Belgium.

The legal aspect of this demand will be discussed in a later chapter. Here, I confine myself to the form in which those demands were made.

By instructions from the German Chancellor, the Imperial Minister Plenipotentiary at Brussels addressed the following note to the Belgian Government, under date of August 2, 1914:

The Imperial Government is in possession of trustworthy information as to the intended concentration (Aufmarsch) of French forces along the Meuse section Givet-Nemur. It permits of no doubt as to France's intention of marching upon Germany through Belgian territory. The German Government cannot rid itself of the apprehension that Belgium, despite the best intentions, will not be in a position, without assistance, to repulse a French advance with such prospects of success that therein a sufficient guarantee against the threatening of Germany could be found.

It is Germany's imperative duty of self-preservation to forestall the attack of the enemy.

The German Government would greatly regret if Belgium should regard it as an act of hostility, directed against herself, that the steps taken by Germany's adversaries force her, for the sake of her defense, to enter in turn Belgian territory.

In order to preclude any misinterpretation, the Imperial Government declares the following:

1. Germany purposes no hostilities whatsoever against Belgium. If Belgium is willing to adopt an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, in the impending war, the German Government pledges itself to guarantee the integrity and independence of the Kingdom to their fullest extent, when peace will be concluded

2. Under the conditions set forth above, Germany pledges herself to evacuate the territory of the Kingdom as soon as peace is concluded

3. In the event of a friendly attitude of Belgium, Germany is ready, in concurrence with the Royal Belgian authorities, to purchase against cash-payment all necessities of her troops and to make good any damage which might be caused by German troops.

However, should Belgium behave in a hostile manner toward German troops, and, more especially, should she raise difficulties against their advance, by the resistance of the fortifications along the Meuse or by destruction of railways, roads, tunnels or other engineering works, then Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider the Kingdom as an enemy. In this case, Germany would be unable to give the Kingdom any pledges whatsoever, but would be obliged to leave to the decision of arms the eventual settlement of the relations between the two States. (58)

When the above note was despatched to the Belgian Government, the German authorities were fully advised that French army aeroplanes, which committed hostile acts in Germany, had passed over Belgian territory and, especially, that considerable detachments of the active French army were operating on Belgian soil.

The German Government brought those facts to the knowledge of the Belgian Government, in an informal manner, through the Imperial Minister at Brussels, about six hours after the aforesaid note had been delivered. (59)

There can be no doubt that those violations of Belgium's neutrality by France, not opposed by the Belgian authorities, would have fully justified Germany in making a formal categorical demand at Brussels that the Belgian Government take speedy and effective measures for maintaining its neutrality. More than that---she might have publicly denounced Belgium as a breaker of her international obligations for her palpable connivance with the French military operations, and, on that ground, taken immediate action against Belgium.

However, everything goes to show that Germany was very averse to such a course, which would have left the Belgian Government no choice in the matter. The attitude of the German Government during those critical days can leave no doubt that it tried its best to spare Belgium, a country with which Germany had no quarrel, from being drawn into the impending conflict, if that should be possible. Therefore she offered Belgium terms, under the same plea under which, according to the British Military Attaché's communication to General Jungbluth, England was ready to send her forces to Belgium in 1911---that is to say, that Belgium was not in a position to repulse a hostile invasion.

Had Belgium accepted those terms, the bulk of her people would probably never have learnt the horrors of war, and Brussels, Louvain and Antwerp would not have seen a German soldier for the German army, passing only through the districts south of the Meuse and the Sambre, would have been able to carry out its imperative measures against the French Maubeuge Army entirely, or almost entirely, on French soil.

To make the acceptance of those terms possible, the German note carefully avoided not only every reference to Belgium's connivance toward French military operations on her soil, but also every allusion as to the complicity of the Belgian Government in the British complot of which, as mentioned above, the Imperial Government had then already sufficient knowledge without holding in its hands documentary evidence to that effect. (60)

However, the Belgian Government was too deeply entangled in the meshes of England's mischievous policy to be able to withdraw in the eleventh hour and keep out of the conflict.

The German demands were flatly refused by Belgium's note of reply, dated August 3d. Pretending always to have been faithful to her international obligations, she emphasized that the King of Prussia was one of the guarantors of her status as a neutralized country protested against the threatened attempt against her independence (which, obviously, was not threatened in the least) and declared herself in honor bound to repulse any attack upon her rights. (61)

Even at that advanced stage of the crisis Belgium might still have been kept out of the impending conflict if England had either granted her full freedom of action or had renewed Mr. Gladstone's undertaking of 1870 toward Germany and France, without delay. The latter measure, a diplomatic measure at any rate, was doubtless in the mind of the King of the Belgians when, in the afternoon of the same day, he addressed a telegraphic appeal to the King of England, asking for the British Government's "diplomatic intervention to safeguard the integrity of Belgium." (62) In reply to this request for diplomatic intervention, however, the Belgian Government received from London, very significantly, precise orders for armed resistance against the threatening German invasion, together with an unsolicited promise of military support. (63)

For the reasons briefly stated above and more fully to be discussed in a later chapter, Germany was unable to consider Belgium's protest.

Early on August 4th, a second German note was delivered at Brussels, stating that the Imperial Government was,

to its deepest regret, compelled to carry out---by force of arms, if necessary---the measures of security which have been set forth as indispensable in view of the French menace. (64)

On the same day, the German Chancellor, Dr. von Bethmann Hollweg, made his famous speech in the Reichstag, declaring that, in her state of legitimate defense, Germany was compelled to invade the territory of two friendly neighbor countries, which act was "contrary to the provisions of international law," and putting it on record that the "wrong" which Germany thereby committed she would try to make good as soon as her military aim should be attained. (65)

These words of the Imperial Chancellor, which are constantly cited by Germany's critics as an unqualified official admission of Germany's unqualified guilt toward Belgium, can be fully understood and appreciated only if due consideration is given to the circumstances under which they were uttered and to the exceptional personality of the speaker. Not much known in America, Dr. von Bethmann Hollweg may be said to enjoy a European reputation for honesty and straightforwardness. Both diplomatic trickery à la Talleyrand, and political speech-making in pharisean style, as practised in certain other European chanceries, are out of accord with his character. He is the philosopher-statesman. The philosopher Bethmann, however, could only look at the invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium---two countries which had no direct part in the imbroglio---as constituting, in itself, a regrettable wrong and a breach of international law, notwithstanding the perfectly valid legal excuses, emphatically invoked by himself (i.e. the right of self-preservation) which justified such action. To the statesman Bethmann other considerations presented themselves at the same time. It must not be forgotten that it was he who had drafted the note to the Belgian Government of August 2d, under the particular circumstances set forth above. In his honest desire to keep Belgium out of the struggle, he had tried to make that note as acceptable as possible to the Belgian Government doubtless, when he spoke in the Reichstag, he still hoped that the Belgian people might yet be persuaded to submit to Germany's unavoidable demands, and wished to give a public pledge that the temporary wrongs imposed upon them would be righted as soon as possible. That such was, indeed, the Chancellor's hope is quite clear from his speech at the Reichstag on December 2d, when he made the following statement:

When, on August 4th, I referred to the wrong which we were doing in marching through Belgium it was not yet known for certain whether the Brussels Government in the hour of affliction would not decide after all to spare the country and to retire to Antwerp under protest. . . . On August 4th, for military considerations, the possibility of such a development had to be kept open under all circumstances. (66)

At a later hour of the same fateful day, German troops passed the Belgian frontier, near the little town Gemmingen, whereupon Belgium instantly severed her diplomatic relations with the German Empire. (67) Simultaneously, she made an appeal to Great Britain, France and Russia---not to Austria, by the way---asking these countries "to co-operate as guarantors in the defense of her territory," (68) which Powers immediately gave full assurance to that effect. (69)

During the four preceding days, England, unsolicited, had already undertaken three diplomatic démarches concerning Belgium. First, on July 31st, she formally asked France and Germany whether, "in view of existing treaties," they were "prepared to engage to respect the neutrality of Belgium so long as no other Power violates it," (70)---a demand not unlike that addressed to the same countries by England in 1870, with this striking difference, however, that Mr. Gladstone, by the well-known identical treaties, assured both sides of England's non-intervention as long as Belgium's neutrality would be respected, whilst in 1914 Sir Edward Grey absolutely refused to make any promise whatsoever as to England's course of action if Germany promised to respect Belgium's neutrality. (71) It may be added here, in passing, that France gave the desired promise on July 31st (See British White Papers, No. 125), altho, as the affidavits reprinted in the Appendix show (page 230 and following), considerable cavalry detachments of the French army were then already on Belgian soil. Second, on the same day, England informed Belgium of her démarche in Paris and Berlin, and expressed the expectation "that the Belgian Government will maintain to the utmost of her power her neutrality." (72) Third, after Germany's demand to Belgium for an unobstructed passage through her territory, England---on August 4th---formally protested in Berlin "against this violation of a treaty to which Germany is a party in common with themselves," and requested "an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with." (73)

As mentioned above, the invasion of German troops in Belgium was then already an accomplished fact. As to the reasons for and the aims of that invasion, the German Government took pains to inform not only the Belgian but likewise the British Government.

With characteristic honesty and frankness, Dr. von Bethmann-Hollweg had outlined to the British Ambassador Germany's attitude toward Belgium in case of a conflict with France, as early as July 29th, in the following manner:

It depended upon the action of France what operations Germany might be forced to enter upon in Belgium, but when the war was over, Belgian integrity would be respected if she had not sided against Germany. (74)

The war with France having become an accomplished fact in the meantime, the Imperial Government, on August 4th, instructed the German Ambassador in London to declare to the British Government that the German army could not be exposed to French attack across Belgium, which was planned according to unimpeachable information Germany had consequently to disregard Belgian neutrality, it being for her a question of life or death to prevent French advance and to repeat, at the same time most positively the formal assurance that

even in the case of armed conflict with Belgium, Germany will, under no pretence whatever, annex Belgian territory. (75)

England, however, did not accept that assurance, but on the same day addressed an ultimatum to Berlin to the effect that the German Government give a satisfactory reply to the British request, made the same morning, namely, that Germany give

an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany. (76)

This ultimatum concluded the following passage which may be considered as Great Britain's official announcement of her reasons for going to war with Germany:

His Majesty's Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves. (77)

The time-limit having expired at midnight of August 4th (corresponding to 11 p. m. of the same day, according to London time), without any answer forthcoming from the German Government, Germany and Great Britain were at war with each other from that time---ostensibly for the reason that Germany had violated Belgium's neutrality. (78)

It is beyond the scope of this study to show in detail that England's real reasons for going to war with Germany had nothing to do with Belgium's neutrality. "As a matter of history," says Professor A. Bushnell Hart of Harvard, "it seems now established beyond all cavil that the English practically decided to stand by France (which must infallibly lead to war) on August 2d and would have continued in that mind even if the Germans had respected Belgium." (79) Besides, quite a number of honest Britishers are on record who, like Mr. Trevelyan, a former member of the Cabinet, George B. Shaw, the noted playwright, and others, have publicly repudiated their Government's official justification of England's participation in the war---emphasizing that Germany's invasion of Belgium had nothing to do with it. (80) It was, to use a phrase of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the English Labor Party, "a pretty little game of hypocrisy" when Mr. Asquith and his colleagues tried to make the world believe that England was going to war for the sanctity of treaties and for the protection of "little" Belgium.

The fact is that England did not draw the sword for Belgium, but that Belgium is fighting for England---fighting England's time-honored bulwark game. "The frontier of the British Empire in Europe is the Meuse line" the Belgians are the frontier guardsmen.

When, in the critical hour, the King of the Belgians, realizing the tremendous task imposed upon his country and, obviously, making a supreme effort for a peaceful solution, asked England for diplomatic support, London sent him a categorical command to charge the enemy, depriving thereby Belgium of the chance of avoiding a clash with Germany which had no designs on Belgium and offered liberal terms.

The same was, evidently, the case when, on August 7th, Germany renewed her offer to Belgium. Liége having fallen into the hands of the invading army after a sharp encounter with the Belgian troops, the German Government made its last effort for a peaceful settlement, addressing through the good offices of the Foreign Minister of the Hague, a third note to the Belgian Government which reads as follows:

The fortress of Liége has been taken by assault, after a courageous defense. The German Government regrets very deeply that, in consequence of the Belgian Government's attitude against Germany, sanguinary encounters have taken place. Germany is not coming into Belgium as an enemy. Only, under the pressure of circumstances, in view of the military measures of France, she had to take the grave decision of invading Belgium and occupying Liége as a point of support for her future military operations. Now, after the Belgian army, by its heroic resistance against greatly superior forces, has maintained the honor of its arms in the most conspicuous manner, the German Government requests His Majesty, the King, and the Belgian Government to spare Belgium the further horrors of war. The German Government is ready to make any kind of an agreement with Belgium that is feasible with the consideration of its conflict with France.

Once more, Germany gives the solemn assurance that she has not been guided by any intention of appropriating Belgian territory and that such an intention is far from her thoughts. Germany is still prepared to evacuate the Belgian Kingdom without delay, as soon as the military situation will permit it. (81)

Unfortunately for Belgium, her Government refused this last offer for a peaceful settlement. After having submitted the draft of her proposed reply to the diplomatic representatives of Great Britain, France and Russia (82)---a step which permits of more than one interpretation-she was duly authorized by Great Britain and France (83) to despatch it to Germany, which she did, via the Hague, on August 12th. (84)

The frequent notes of moral indignation, the constant references to the national honor and the reiterated assurances that Belgium had always lived up to her international obligations, displayed in those official documents, fall flat now, after the world has learned something about the Belgian Government's illicit ante-bellum relations. It is obvious that its course of action could not have been determined by any considerations of Belgium's national honor, but merely by the obligations which, contrary to international law, it had assumed toward England and France.

Nevertheless, the question arises: what did the Belgian Government, in carrying out those obligations, expect? Could it reasonably hope and did it really expect successfully to stop the advance of the German army, with the aid of its secret allies, and come out uppermost in the impending struggle?

An answer to this question may possibly be found in a pamphlet of a well-known French military writer, Colonel Arthur Boucher, which appeared early in 1913 under the title "La Belgique à jamais indépendante" (Belgium for ever independent.) (85) The object of the pamphlet was to vigorously endorse the bill for the Belgian army-increase, then before the Brussels parliament, which, as mentioned above, was passed in May of the same year. Forecasting what would happen if, after the increase of the Belgian forces, Germany should invade Belgium, which step would immediately call France to Belgium's side, the French writer makes the following significant prediction:

"But, at that moment, the French and Belgian armies will not be the only ones which the North German contingent will have to face.

"May one not suppose that Holland, despite her declaration of neutrality, will sufficiently foresee the fate awaiting herself, if Belgium should be beaten, to judge it expedient to intervene by cutting the German lines of communication through Limburg?

"Above all, can one not be certain that England, already fully aware of the consequences which success of the Germans would have for her, will forestall the appeal of Belgium, and that she, in possession of the liberty of the Sea and, probably, in a position to enter the mouth of the Scheldt, will come and land her troops on the very quays of Antwerp? (86)

"How critical will then be the situation of all German troops engaged in Belgium! Would not Germany just then, when she counted on a sure victory on that point, be exposed to suffer a disaster?

"Besides, we must not forget that, thus forecasting the situation of our adversaries, we have, on purpose, put all the trumps in the hands of the Germans. However, do not the latter, after the trip of Mr. Poincaré to St. Petersburg, cradle themselves in an illusion which may cost them dear, in believing that, up to the thirtieth day, they will need but one single active army corps at their eastern frontier? However, all the units which, by the circumstances, will be required at the Polish front, will be so many less at our own front and, most probably, at the front of Belgium."

The firm expectation that Belgium and the Triple Entente had all the chances of success on their side which this kind of Triple Entente "Bernhardi" literature voiced so convincingly, is the only psychological explanation for the fatal course of action pursued by the Belgian Government since 1906.

German supplies, Place d'Anvers Brussels, 1914 - History





(printed in the United States of America)
published October, 1915





D. THE FRENCH PLAN OF CAMPAIGN. (From the North German Gazette of September 30.)
3. MINUTES OF THE JUNGBLUTH-BRIDGES CONVERSATIONS. (From the North German Gazette of November 25, 1914.)
page one, page two, page three, page four
G. REPORT ON ENGLAND'S SECRET MILITARY GUIDE BOOKS OF BELGIUM. (From the North German Gazette of December 2, 1914.)
H. REPORT ON ANGLO-BELGIAN MILITARY PREPARATIONS FOR THE WAR. (From the North German Gazette of December 15, 1914.)
L. ENGLAND'S ATTITUDE TOWARDS BELGIUM'S NEUTRALITY IN 1887. (From the Labour Leader of February 4 and 11, 1915.)

When the news of Germany's invasion of Belgium reached the Far East, where I was living at the outbreak of the war, it did not create any particular measure either of surprise or of indignation.

In the official communication of the British to the Japanese Government on the reasons for Great Britain's intervention in the war, given out by the Tokio Foreign Office on August 5th, the Belgian incident was referred to in the following manner:

"Germany, however, committed a hostile act towards Belgium in invading her territory, the permanent neutrality of which was guaranteed by the Triple Alliance (sic) and by an understanding between the Great Powers."[ 'Japan Weekly Chronicle of August 13, 1914, page 309.]

Altho the alleged guarantee of Belgium's neutrality on the part of the Triple Alliance was a mystery to everyone, the nature of the "understanding" in question was fairly well known to many a member of the cosmopolitan communities of the Far East. However, very little at the time was made of it out there. Most of the foreign residents of Eastern Asia having lived, only nine years before, at close range through the Russo-Japanese War, which was almost entirely fought on neutral Chinese soil, it did not strike them as anything particularly surprising or criminal that part of the hostilities between Germany and France should take their course across neutral Belgian territory.

Several weeks later, I came to America, in order to regain my country but found myself "marooned" in New York.

Here I met with a very different sentiment regarding Germany's invasion of Belgium. Germany was, and still is, accused of having violated the principle of the sacredness of treaties, whilst credit is claimed for Great Britain on the ground that she is fighting to vindicate that high principle.

Such being the case, I undertook to examine a little more closely than seems to have been done by others the "sacredness" of the treaties invoked by the British and the Belgian Government. The result of my studies is this little book, the publication of which I have purposely delayed in order to offer some material for quiet reasoning to work upon after the waves of emotionalism, raised by the fate of the Belgian people, have somewhat abated.

This study treats the subject of Belgium's neutrality under two aspects,---the aspect of political history and the aspect of international law.

The first part will outline the origin of that legal institution, as well as its breakdown, revealing, in either phase, the traditional deep concern of Great Britain in Belgium as her continental bulwark.

The second part will deal with the question whether, under the established rules of international law, Germany, by her invasion of Belgium, violated international obligations, and whether, under the said rules, her action presents itself as right or wrong. In this connection, I shall have to quote a number of recognized authorities who have established the doctrine on this matter. I could, of course, have brought in any number of quotations from German authors. But I shall confine myself to expert opinions of American and English origin, because I wish to show just what the attitude of Americans and Englishmen has been in parallel cases, and because this affords me the advantage of inviting the reader to follow up the matter himself, by turning to the original works, throughout available in the Public Library of New York City and, doubtless, in most of the many other excellent libraries of this country.

I wish to point out that the present study does not concern itself with events following the entry of German troops into Belgium, especially not with the so-called "Belgian atrocities." The invasion of Belgium and the subsequent military actions on Belgian soil are two totally different subjects which, in my opinion, have to be kept strictly separate. I have taken it as my task only to investigate Germany's case with regard to the former subject. As for the charges in connection with the latter, I beg to refer the reader to the recently published German White Book on the Belgian People's War, with its very comprehensive evidence to the excellent treatise on Belgium's case by Dr. Richard Grasshoff and to a little pamphlet, entitled "Der Franktireurkrieg in Belgien," being a compilation of characteristic, incentive utterances of the Belgian press, in the early days of the war.


  1. ↑ For an overview of the scholarship about intelligence during the First World War, see Larsen, Daniel: Intelligence in the First World War. The State of the Field, in: Intelligence & National Security, 29/2 (2012), pp. 1-21.
  2. ↑ Jeffery, Keith: The Secret History of MI6, London 2010. On Smith-Cumming, see also Judd, Alan: The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service, London 1999.
  3. ↑ Andrew, Christopher: The Defense of the Realm. The Authorized History of MI5, London 2009.
  4. ↑ Moritz, Verena/Leidinger, Hannes: Oberst Redl. Der Spionnagefall, der Skandall, die Fakten, St. Pölten 2012.
  5. ↑ Article 29 of the Annex to Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land.
  6. ↑ Van Ypersele, Laurence/Debruyne, Emmanuel: De la guerre de l’ombre aux ombres de la guerre. L’espionnage en Belgique durant la guerre 1914-1918. Histoire et mémoire, Brussels 2004. For testimonies of these agents, see also Debruyne, Emmanuel/Paternostre, Jehanne: La résistance au quotidien. 1914-1918. Témoignages inédits, Brussels 2009.
  7. ↑ On the sensitive aspect of the remuneration of these agents, see Debruyne, Emmanuel: Patriotes désintéressés ou espions vénaux? Agents et argent en Belgique et en France occupées. 1914-1918, in: Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 232 (2008), pp. 25-45.
  8. ↑ Decock, Pierre: La Dame Blanche. Un réseau de renseignements de la Grande Guerre, Raleigh 2011.
  9. ↑ Hieber, Hanne: ‘Mademoiselle Docteur’: The Life and Service of Imperial Germany’s Only Female Intelligence Officer, in: The Journal of Intelligence History, 5/2 (2005), pp. 91-108.
  10. ↑ Schirmann, Léon: Mata-Hari. Autopsie d'une machination, Paris 2001.
  11. ↑ Proctor, Tammy: Civilians in a World at War, New York et al. 2010, pp. 80-82.
  12. ↑ As demonstrated by Hiley, Nicholas: Counter-espionage and security in Great Britain during the First World War, in: English Historical Review, 101/3 (1986), pp. 635-670. On the German spies in Great Britain, see Boghardt, Thomas: Spies of the Kaiser. German covert operations in Britain during the First World War, London 2004.
  13. ↑ Sellers, Leonard: Shot in the Tower. The Story of the Spies Executed in the Tower of London during the First World War, London 1997.
  14. ↑ Van der Fraenen, Jan: Voor den kop geschoten, Executies van Belgische spionnen door de Duitse bezetter (1914-1918), Roulers 2009 Debruyne, Emmanuel/van Ypersele, Laurence: Je serai fusillé demain. Les dernières lettres des patriotes belges et français fusillés par l'occupant. 1914-1918, Brussels 2011.
  15. ↑ Vanneste, Alex: Le premier "Rideau de fer"? La clôture électrisée à la frontière belgo-hollandaise pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, in: Bulletin trimestriel du Crédit communal de Belgique, 214 (2000), pp. 39-82.
  16. ↑ Gumz, Jonathan: The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914-1918, Cambridge 2009, pp. 42-43.
  17. ↑ Moritz, Verena/Leidinger, Hannes/Jagschit, Gerhard: Im Zentrum der Macht. Die vielen Gesichter des Geheimdienstchefs Maximilian Ronge, Vienna 2007.
  18. ↑ Alvarez, David: A German Agent at the Vatican: The Gerlach Affair, in: Intelligence and National Security, 11/2 (1996), pp. 345-356.
  19. ↑ About espionage and neutrality in the Netherlands, see van Tuyll van Serooskerken, Hubert: The Netherlands and World War 1 - Espionage, Diplomacy and Survival, Boston 2001.
  20. ↑ For an overview on German intelligence during the war, see Pöhlmann, Markus: German intelligence at war 1914-1918, in: Journal of Intelligence History, 5/2 (2005), pp. 25-54.
  21. ↑ Nicolai, Walter: Geheime Mächte. Internationale Spionage und ihre Bekämpfung im Weltkrieg und Heute, Leipzig 1923 Ronge, Maximilian: Zwölf Jahre Kundschaftsdienst: Kriegs- und Industrie-Spionage, Zurich 1933.
  22. ↑ Richard, Marthe: Ma vie d'espionne au service de la France, Paris 1935 McKenna, Marthe, I was a Spy! London 1932.
  23. ↑ Fell, Alison S./Debruyne, Emmanuel: Model martyrs. Remembering First-World-War Resistance Heroines in Belgium and France, in: Tame, Peter/Jeannerod, Dominique/Bragança, Manuel (eds.): Mnemosyne and Mars: Artistic and Cultural Representations of Twentieth-century Europe at war, Newcastle 2013, pp. 145-165.
  24. ↑ Antier, Chantal: Louise de Bettignies: Espionne et heroine de la Grande Guerre, Paris 2013.

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