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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V25 N1 (Jan - Mar 1999) > That Scrap of Paper : On the Neutrality of Belgium in World War I

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That Scrap of Paper : On the Neutrality of Belgium in World War I
by CPT Yeo Heng Hwee

 

The neutrality of Belgium in WWI is often referred to as a scrap of paper. The essay will scrutinise Belgium's guarantee of independence and neutrality by its guarantors at the London Conference in 1831-l839 and the failure of the guarantors to deliver their promise.  Due to the wide scope of the topic, this essay will focus on the nature of its guarantee as interpreted by the different guarantors and their intentions. The controversial issue of whether Belgium maintained its precepts of neutrality will also be discussed, including Germany's justification of its violation of Belgium in its war plan, formulated by General Von Schlieffen in the early 19th Century.

BELGIUM BEFORE 1831

Belgium's strategic geographical location was one of the reasons for the frequent invasions of this country where "all the horses of Europe had once grazed". Situated in the western frontier of the European continent with France on its southern border, Prussia in the east and Great Britain just across the English Channel, the plains of Belgium central had attracted the eyes of Prussia and France: it allowed easy transportion of troops across the flat terrain in Belgium to conduct a swift attack on the other. The common border between France and Prussia in the south and southeast of Belgium has many natural obstacles to deter any would-be invader: the Vosges Mountains, Moselle Uplands and the Black Forest Mountains. The upper Saone, Rhine, Moselle, Saar, and upper Meuse rivers have either steep banks, palisades or marshy lowlands. Thus, tracking through Belgium was seen by the two countries as "the option to a swift victory".

Belgium was also known for its natural resources: it possessed rich iron ore and coal mines and large farms in the northern and central areas. Her people were recognised for their industry. This was another reason for the frequent invasion of the country. France had set its eyes on the Belgian states as early as the 17th century. It had successfully gained, lost, regained and lost again some provinces of Belgium. The French authorities again had the intention of annexing the country in 1829, near the end of the Greek War of Independence. To France's disappointment, the war ended before it could divulge its plan.

Britain's interest in the welfare of the Belgian states could well be summarized in a statement by Napoleon I: "Antwerp, in the hands of a strong France was a pistol pointed at the heart of England". This statement could well be interpreted that the Belgian states, occupied by any great power of the European continent, would have disastrous effects on the welfare of England. Great Britain was particularly interested in Belgium because it had developed extensive trade links in the region and thus had decided that no rival would annex the popular provinces and interfere with the commerce of Great Britain. Any power that possessed a port as near as Antwerp was seen as being potentially dangerous to the conduct of commerce in the British Isles and could upset the balance of power there. Britain's keen interest was illustrated clearly by the initiation of the guarantee of independence and neutrality of Belgium at the London Conference of 1831-1839 and the promise that it would contribute extensive military power and declare war on any country that violates the neutrality of Belgium.

As early as the 13th century, steps had been taken by the Belgians to ensure peace in the region. The first being the formation of the Barrier Fortresses to deter any potential aggressor and also the unification of Belgium with the Netherlands to make a larger and more defensible kingdom of Netherlands. Both had failed and it was not until the London Conference of 1831 that a more formal guarantee was forged. This "formal guarantee" was however shortlived. Never had they anticipated it to being reduced to a mere piece of scrap paper.

THE LONDON CONFERENCE OF 1831

The conference was initiated by the British to discuss the terms of the guarantee for the independence and perpetual neutrality of Belgium. The five great powers: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and Austria agreed to preserve the independence and neutrality of the country. On 20 January 1831, the terms were finalised to guarantee the  independence and neutrality of Belgium. Article V. of the protocol read:

Article V., - Belgium, within those limits which shall be determined and traced conformably to the arrangements laid down in Articles I., II., and IV., of the present Protocol, shall form a perpetual neutral state. The Five Powers guarantee to it that perpetual neutrality, as well as the integrity and inviolability of its territory, within the above-mentioned limits.

Article VI., - by just a reciprocity, Belgium shall be bounded to observe the same neutrality towards all other states, and not make any attempt against their internal or external tranquillity.

The Articles were further revised and finalised on 30 April 1839 to read as follows:

Article I. - [ Their majesties of the 5 powers ] declare, that the Articles hereunto annexed ... are considered as having the same force and validity as if they were textually inserted in the present Act, and that they are thus placed under the Guarantee of their said Majesties.

Article VII., - Belgium, within the limits specified in Articles I., II., and IV., shall form an independent and perpetually neutral state. It shall be bound to observe such neutrality toward all other states.

Although the five great powers had all agreed to honor the guarantee, all of them had adopted an intentionally vague and ambiguous guarantee. They had done it on purpose so that should any country intend to violate Belgium for their own reasons, then there would be an alternative and not be branded as hacking out on the original contract. All five nations had declared that at that point of time, they would fight against any aggressor that violated Belgium. In that statement, they were pointing at France in particular, as the ambitions of France in annexing Belgium was well known to all. Apart from that time that the contract was reached, none were willing to commit themselves in any future eventualities. Thus though the five great powers had agreed to preserve Belgium's independence and perpetual neutrality, they were merely seen as providing lip service to the guarantee rather than anything else. For example, the Dutch were forced out of the remaining Belgian states still remaining in their hands after the Parisians rebellion which only involved the English and the French. The guarantee appeared to be joint and several instead of joint and collective, as the respective member countries would act only in the interest of their own country and not in the interest of Belgium.

THE PRECEPTS OF NEUTRALITY

According to the Articles of 1831-1839, Belgium was to abide by the rules and treat all countries equally but this was not so in practice. A frequent charge during the 19th century from Germany was that Belgium had violated the precepts of their neutral status. The Belgians were unable to refrain from taking sides during domestic quarrels among neighbours and more during war and crisis.  Prussia, especially, made the charge that Belgium was pro-French. It supported these charges by the accusation that the Belgians had encouraged their Catholics to oppose its religious laws. Prussia had also accused Belgium of not conforming to the precepts of neutrality by its stoppage of grain shipment to Prussia. It was also noticed that during the period 1870s-1880s, Belgium did not adopt a neutral stand when it fortified Liege and Namur into powerful fortresses to defend itself against a possible German attack but it left the French border open.

It was a fact that Belgium was weak in military prowess and that drove them to seek help from the great powers to jointly guarantee its independence and neutrality. Belgium assumed that since the five great powers had jointly agreed to guarantee its independence and neutrality, none of them would dishonor their word and attack the country that they had all agreed to protect. However what was missed in Belgium's calculations was the intended vague and ambiguous guarantee that the five great powers signed. Belgium relied too heavily on the guarantee that all five great powers would keep their promise and not violate their country.

The Belgians were not afraid of any country other than the five great powers. They were confident that they could handle any attempt of assault from any potential aggressor. The Dutch invasion of 2 August 1831 was an example of their confidence. The dispute was on the terms set out for the separation of Belgium from the Dutch Kingdom: the terms were unfavorable to both countries and the Dutch were enraged by the arrogant attitude of the Belgians and the other nations for meddling in their affairs. The Dutch decided to show the world that they could handle their own affairs when left on their own. They mounted an attack on Belgium on 2 August 1831 but realized that they had been over-confident and  appealed to the French and the British for help. The Dutch told them to wait at the border as they would probably not be needed.

THE VIOLATION OF NEUTRALITY

When the Prussian government decided that they were to adopt the Schlieffen Plan, an ultimatum was drafted by General Moltke, the Chief of the Prussian Army, to serve to the Belgians. The ultimatum was handed to the foreign office on 26th July 1914 before it was sent to the ambassador in Brussels on 29 Jul 1914.

Upon receiving news that Russia had mobilized its troops, Berlin declared war on Russia on 1  August 1914. The German ultimatum to Belgium was delivered to its government at l900 hours the next day. The contents of the ultimatum were as follows:

Berlin had reliable information which left Germany absolutely no doubt that French troops would move through Belgium to attack Germany. Since Belgium could not offer sufficient resistance, "It is for Germany, a dictate of self-preservation, that she anticipate the hostile attack". It had also asked Belgium not to consider the intrusion as an act of hostility as Germany had not intended the act to be so. The ultimatum goes further that should Belgium adopt an attitude of benevolent neutrality, ie. give Germany support, Germany would gurantee its independence and sovereignty. Germany would also pay for all necessities required by its troops and make good any damage suffered. Otherwise, Germany would not undertake any obligations for the benefit of the kingdom and the relations between the two nations would be decided by arms. It had also suggested to the Brussels government that it retreat to Antwerp and leave Germany to undertake the maintence of law and order in Brussels. Germany demanded an uneqivocal reply within 12 hours.

The intentions of Germany can hardly be termed as secret. Four days before the issue of the ultimatum to Belgium, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg had assured Great Britain that it would respect Holland's neutrality. But as to Belgium, he claimed that his government was not sure as to what measures, in the event of war, that France's counter-operations would drive them to do. Sir Edward Grey, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain, asked France if it would respect Belgium's neutrality. France replied in the positive. Immediately, Grey informed Belgium of France's decision and asked Belgium to do all possible to maintain its neutrality.

Britain's main issue of great panic was that Belgium would go against its initial stand of being neutral and side with Germany. If that was the case, Germany's plan of having a swift victory on the Western front would definitely have materialised with the support of the Belgians. It would then concentrate its forces to fight against Russia in the North. Russia, just recovering from the war with Japan, could hardly hold against the powerful German troops. Britain would thus have been left in a very tense and volatile situation if Germany had won the war. The trade and economy of Britain would suffer considerably then. Furthermore, Germany could reach its Isles within a matter of hours if  it decided to attack Britain.

Grey, upon hearing of France's guarantee to maintain Belgium's neutrality, turned to Germany and posed Germany a similar question. Germany tried to delay its reply to Grey because providing an answer to that question would be as good as giving away its country's war plan. Germany then started to claim that Belgium was not neutral in its dealings.  The reply from Germany to Belgium was the ultimatum and the reply to Britain was the crossing of troops on the neutral border.

After much discussion by its top ranking officials, Belgium replied to the ultimatum at 0700 hours promptly in the negative and told the German government of France's declaration to maintain neutral in crossing Belgium, it had also reminded Germany of its original treaties as promised by the Prussian King some 83 years ago. It stated that their country had fulfilled the duties of a neutral country faithfully and thus did not deserve such a violation. In the ultimatum, Germany had suggested that the Brussels government retreat to Antwerp. That was an obvious indication of the size of the German troops. The officials were hard pressed for time and a decision on whether to  maintain neutrality and hope that Britain would come to its liberalisation or whether to agree to the demands of Germany. They faced the pospect of accusations from the rest of the world.

GERMANY'S JUSTIFICATIONS FOR THE VIOLATION OF BELGIUM

Germany tried to justify its actions in violating Belgium's neutrality on various grounds, one of which was to soften the impact of words like "intrusion" and "violation".  It tried to seek sympathy from the neighboring nations, stating that it had acted in "plain self-defence".  In its propaganda, Germany also stressed that it was France's intentions that had compelled Germany to commit itself in this course of action.  Germany also stressed on the point that Belgium had not been very neutral and quoted examples of grain shipment and French aircraft flying across Belgium to spy on Germany. Germany knew that Britain would contribute extensive military help to Belgium should it encounter any intrusion. By stating that its actions were in self-defence, Germany hoped that it would not encompass Britain into a war on the Entente side, thus engaging Germany further from a two-front war, to a three-front war.

The explanation to Britain for the violation was more to assist Belgium because it claimed that the latter would not have enough military strength to deter the French attack. Germany had tried once again to persuade Belgium to adopt an attitude of benevolent neutrality as it needed the rail network in the country to transport its troops across the country to fight  on the French-Belgian border. This was an important aspect of  support as the Germans could preserve the energy of its troops and thus achieve a swift and victorious war against the French. Apart from the rail network, Germany also had need for the Belgian communication network and food supplies. The Belgian authorities rejected the offer that Belgium should go to the side of Germany. The German troops marched into Belgium singing the Belgian National Anthem, trying to befriend the Belgians. This was because the Germans did not want to be branded as invaders, but as patriots for the self-defence of their country.

When Germany refused to give Britain an answer on the observance of neutrality of Belgium, England issued an ultimatum on 3 August 1914 to the Germans, one day after the Germans issued an ultimatum to the Belgians. A day before England issued its ultimatum to Germany, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg was frantically trying to prevent Britain from going to war. He had told Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador to Germany, that it was a matter of life and death that Germany had chosen to violate the neutral territory of Belgium.  Goschen had replied that it was also a matter of the life and death for Great Britain to keep its promise of guarantorship to Belgium. In a rage, Hollweg rattled something about the British being foolish enough to go into war for just  "a scrap of paper". This was a free piece of propaganda for the Entente and it was also how the reference for the guarantee of Belgium came about.

CONCLUSION

Though Britain was part of the Triple Entente, it seems that it was not in any rush to go to the Entente's aid. Little was recorded about the reactions of Britain when Germany declared war on Russia and France. But when Britain got to know of Germany's bad intentions to violate the neutral country, it sprang to Belgium's aid and started reinstating its guarantorship, advising that Germany should consider other options. The British were extremely calculative, knowing that they had nothing to gain from going to war, at least not until they heard of Germany's plan to invade Belgium. Though the British had not rushed to aid France and Russia, it did reply to the Germans that even if the Germans had left the Belgians alone, it would still have gone to war. There is no proof in the claim and it seems likely that it was just another case of the British defending their honor when the Germans posed the question to them. From the German point of view, there was little reason to adhere to the guarantee  when there was strong opposition. They would have adopted a plan offering the highest chance of a quick victory in a three-front war.

Britain did not outrightly declare that it would join the war against Germany: it preferred to be "dragged" into the war. This was a cowardly act even though Britain had much interest in the Belgian States and it was wary of the powerful navy that the Kaiser had built. It was bound by the Entente to go to the aid of any of the other two partners. So why did the British not go to war from the onset?

Had France not listened to the British in implementing its own version of the Schlieffen Plan and  invaded Belgium to get to Germany, would Britain have declared war on France? It should have, going by its justification for going to war with Germany.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.Thomas, D. H. The Guarantee of Belgian Independence and Neutrality in European Diplomacy 1830's-I930's. Kingston: P H. Thomas Publications, 1983.

2.Ritter, Gerhard. The Sword and the Scepter: The Problems of Militarism in Germany. London: The Penguin Press, 1972.

3.Kitchen, Martin. A Military History of Germany: From l8th Century to the Present Day. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

4.Senelle, Robert. The Belgian Constitution: Commentary. Brussels: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, External Trade and Cooperation Department. 1974.

5.Richards, Irene., Goodson J.B.; Morris J. A. A Sketch-map Historv of the Great Wars and After. 1914-1960. 4th Ed. London: G. G. Harrap, 1961.

CPT Yeo Heng Hwee graduated from the National University of Singapore majoring in Political Science and European Studies (French). He is a Weapons Systems Officer (Air Defence Artillery) and is trained in both the Improved-HAWK missile system and the Rapier missile system. He is currently the S4 of 165 Sqn.

 
Last updated: 18-Jul-2005


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