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Belgian Neutrality and its Reinterpretation ahead of the First World War

Written by Mario Draper.

Léon Arendt will not be a familiar name to most readers. His role as the Political Director at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1896 to 1912 was hardly likely to make him a household name beyond Belgium’s borders. Yet, his conceptualisation of these borders and of Belgium’s wider relationship with neutrality – imposed in perpetuity by the Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia) in 1839 – marks him out as a singularly important figure in defining the strategic paradigm at the outbreak of the First World War. For here was a man who proposed the controversial view in 1911 that neutrality was but a tool of independence and not an end in itself. In other words, were neutrality to jeopardize continued independence, Belgium was within its rights to reinterpret its duties and forgo its strict adherence to the 1839 Treaty of London. 

In one sense, this bold reinterpretation of Belgium’s neutral status ought not to come as a surprise. Since gaining its independence from the Netherlands in 1831, Belgium’s guarantors had frequently moved the goalposts to allow for a more flexible relationship between themselves and the nascent kingdom. Situated, as it was, between France and Germany, Belgium’s military preparedness was subjected to a paternalistic right of inquiry as each side – and Britain – sought to maintain a strategic advantage in the event of a future continental war. In return, Belgium’s monarchs were permitted to entertain fantasies of empire; provided the established order remained unthreatened. Although King Leopold I’s many ventures in the New World, North Africa, and the Far East came to little, King Leopold II’s vast possessions in the Congo Free State (his personal fiefdom until 1908) bore far greater fruit. Other overseas adventures, including Belgian-recruited units in the Carlist Wars in Spain (1830s), the conquest of Algeria (1840s), and the failed attempt to carve out a French-backed Habsburg empire in Mexico (1860s), were just some of the instances during which the bounds of neutrality were forcibly stretched to accommodate ‘acceptable’ transgressions. One historian has even gone so far as to declare that Belgium flagrantly undermined its status as a neutral power through the manufacture and sale of arms to Russia during the Crimean War.

In many ways, these acts reinforced opinions within Germany that Belgian neutrality was, as Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg would later describe, but a mere ‘scrap of paper’. Although its territorial integrity had been spared during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the German Empire’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine ensured that the result of any future continental conflict between the two powers would lie in the mastery of Belgium’s Meuse corridor. To this end, from the 1890s, German military planners began drafting routes and timetables to commit forces across the neutral zone. Britain and France were equally preoccupied with the ‘Belgian question’ but developed plans to accommodate neutrality rather than defile it. Although suggestions of pre-emptive action were aired, both London and Paris nominally agreed that aid ought to be requested by Belgium before either side could deploy forces across its borders.

Unfortunately for them, Brussels remained unconvinced of Entente intentions. Given the rise in European tensions following the two Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911, Belgium felt isolated in its neutrality. Its army was the manifestation of a long-term military policy gone wrong. Fearful of an electoral backlash, successive Liberal, but particularly Catholic, governments had denied the army the requisite manpower and funds to adequately defend the neutrality it purported to uphold. Undermanned, its field army and its fortifications along the Meuse and at Antwerp, provided neither a sufficient deterrent to its neighbours nor gave it ample forces to meet an invasion should it materialise. Caught between this rock and a hard place, Arendt’s reinterpretation of Belgium’s obligations emerged as the only solution.

Neutrality, he posited, was only worth as much as the independence it supported. Without safeguarding the latter, neutrality simply meant nothing. Consequently, Belgium’s meagre forces had to be spared from the maelstrom that a clash of modern, mass armies was likely to conjure. This was not to say that all duties as a neutral could be abandoned. Belgium had every intention of denying its territory to an invader. Nevertheless, were there to be simultaneous invasions by both France and Germany in a bid to deny the other the strategic advantage, the Belgian army could not be expected to counter both. Self-preservation and public opinion would not countenance action against what would be seen as the aggressor (in Germany) as well as against the saviour (in the Entente).

Given the likelihood of this scenario, the Belgian army’s duty would be to observe and contain the fighting, as much as possible, to the south-eastern corner of the country. To do otherwise would undoubtedly court disaster. Aid, were it to be offered by Britain, was to be rejected on the grounds that its Entente with France meant that it could no longer be treated as a neutral, benevolent power as it had been in 1870. Instead, British aid raised the possibility of an extension of German destruction beyond Belgium’s south-eastern corner were its armies to emerge victorious from the initial clash of arms and were its leaders to view Belgium’s ‘neutral’ attitude as disingenuous. Although historically predisposed to rely on British aid, Belgium’s position as of 1911 was to reject all notions of pre-emptive action for this reason. Only after Belgium had been invaded, and after either a clear perpetrator or likely victor could be identified, would it request aid from a guarantor. Independence had to be prioritised over the strictest interpretation of neutrality.

As such, when in 1912 Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Bridges, the British Military attaché to Brussels suggested to the Belgian General Staff that Britain would feel it her right to pre-emptively land troops in Belgian to counter a German threat, it was met with a frostiness previously unseen in Anglo-Belgian relations. Whereas Belgium might have bowed to the pressure of a guarantor in years gone by, its emergence as a power of note since the turn of the century (an Imperial power after 1908, no less) provided it with the strength of character to dictate its own defence policy. With independence and neutrality so complexly interwoven after Arendt’s 1911 memorandum, Belgian officials took the view that aid could only be requested by Belgium after an invasion and only on its terms. Its army was far from adequate, certainly, but its recent reforms made it capable enough to preclude a guarantor from invoking the 1839 Treaty of London which allowed for aid to be imposed on Belgium should it be deemed incapable of upholding its own neutrality. The ball was in Belgium’s court and it very much intended to keep it there.

Belgium had well and truly emerged from its nineteenth-century shadow. For better or for worse, it approached the looming hostilities with a stoicism that betrayed its weakness. Determined to preserve its independence, the Arendt memorandum forced a reinterpretation of neutrality that allowed Belgium to pick its moment of intervention in a future war. Neither side knew what to expect of the small kingdom when German boots headed towards its borders in August 1914. The outright rejection of the infamous German ultimatum, however, demonstrated the degree to which Belgium was willing to buttress its neutrality with a show of arms. Only after confirmation had been received that German soldiers had crossed the border as the sole aggressors on 4 August did the Belgian Government request aid from its other guarantors. By the time British and French troops were able to respond, however, the strategic initiative had largely been lost.

Unable to contain the German advance, the moribund Belgian army was forced into a fighting retreat to Antwerp and, subsequently, to the Yser Canal. Behind the now famous inundations, King Albert I stoically maintained an independent Belgian force on Belgian soil for the duration of the war. Much maligned for its comparative inactivity, this army represented the final vestiges of an independent state. Although 95% of its territory remained under German occupation, and its army relied heavily on the support of the Entente, Belgium’s independence remained intact. Belgium fought the majority of the war as a neutral power, refusing to sign the 1914 Pact of London to join the Allied forces. In doing so, King Albert I retained an independence of action that would otherwise have been denied him. When the decision was taken in September 1918 to finally subordinate the Belgian army to the Allied cause, it was done so on Belgian terms. King Albert was given a joint Anglo-Franco-Belgian army to command in the final offensives through Flanders. Although denied a triumphant entrance into Brussels by the Armistice, a Belgian-led army was able to participate in the liberation of its country and earn its representatives a place at the peace table. Here, Belgium obtained territorial concessions in the form of Malmedy and Eupen in Europe, and Ruanda-Urundi in Africa. Most importantly of all, Belgium was finally able to rid itself of the restrictive mantle of perpetual neutrality that had cost it so much in the build-up to the First World War.

Mario Draper is a lecturer in the School of History, University of Kent. For more on this topic, see: ‘“Are We Ready?”: Belgium and the Entente’s Military Planning for a War against Germany, 1906-1914’, International History Review(forthcoming). Image Credit: CC by Oriol Salvador/Flickr.

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