1890-1914 1918-1929

Belgium in World War I, 1914-1918

A. The War in Belgium, from Military Perspective

In 1914 the Belgian Army reflected the structure of the Belgian state - while the officers' corps was predominantly French-speaking, he majority of the men was Flemish.
In 1839, Belgium's NEUTRALITY had been guaranteed by the powers, including Prussia, which in 1871 was succeeded by the German Empire. With tension rising on the European continent, Belgium in Nov. 1913 again declared neutrality in case a world war would break out. On August 2nd 1914, Germany directed an ultimatum at the Belgian government requesting free passage through Belgium for the German Army on their push into France, around the French border fortifications, according to the SCHLIEFFEN-PLAN (drawn up in 1907). The Belgian government denied the request; German troops on Aug. 4th invaded both Belgium and Luxemburg. In August and September, almost all of Belgium was occupied by German forces; only stretches of the extreme west remained free. Many Belgians, both civilians and soldiers, had fled into the neutral Netherlands, where the Belgian soldiers were interned.
The Belgian government had denied the German request as irreconcilable with Belgian neutrality; the Belgian army opposed the advance of the German troops but, adain and again, had to give ground. The front stabilized, and turned into TRENCH WARFARE. On the Belgian front, the BATTLES OF YPRES and LANGEMARCK were fought; Belgian troops were able to hold on to a small stretch of Belgian soil in western Flanders. For almost four years, the frontline hardly changed. In 1915 the Belgian army even dispatched an armored car division to the Russian front; it arrived in Archangelsk October 13th 1915 and returned, via the US, in 1918.
In spring 1918 the Germans undertook a last attempt to force a victory; the offensive was halted, and the allies, strengthened by the arrival of fresh US troops, pushed back the German lines. On November 11th, an armistice was signed, ending the war.

King Albert, wearing soldier's helmet and uniform
Belgian stamps issued in 1919

B. The Belgian Administration

The Belgian government evacuated Brussels (which fell to the Germans) and took up provisorical residence in SAINTE ADRESSE near Le Havre (France). King ALBERT, dressed in the uniform of a plain soldier, came to symbolize the Belgian determination to hold out against an enemy with vastly superior numbers; he won the respect and affection of his own people, but of those sympathizing with the Belgian cause throughout the world.

German stamps overprinted for use in occupied Belgium.
The cancellation on the right stamp reads "Luettich"
(German, for Liege (Fr.)/Luik (Flemish)).

C. The German Military Administration

During World War I, the larger part of occupied Belgium was placed under the administration of a GOUVERNOR GENERAL (from December 1914 to April 1917 Moritz Ferdinand Freiherr von Bissing); the western districts, in the vicinity of the front, were placed under military administration.
In occupied Belgium, CARDINAL MERCIER, Archbishop of Mechelen (in Fr.: Malines), by calling on the Belgian Catholics to remain loyal to their legitimate government, to be patriots and to be willing to endure the occupation, contributed to raising the morale in the country devastated by warfare. He repeatedly addressed the German authorities, raising issues such as the execution or deportation of Belgian civilians etc.
ADOLPHE MAX (1869-1939), Burgomaster of Brussels, refused to answer requisition demands by the German authorities; he was held in prison throughout the war.
As Germany suffered from a serious lack of labour, in 1916 and 1917 many Belgian workers were ordered to work in German factories (FORCED LABOUR). On Oct. 1915, English nurse EDITH CAVELL, convicted of helping several hundred prisoners escape after recovering in the hospital, was executed by the German authorities.
Occupied Belgium soon faced a food shortage; early in the war, HERBERT HOOVER, later to become US President, organized an AMERICAN COMMITTEE FOR THE RELIEF OF BELGIUM, which organized the shipment of food aid to Belgian civilians.
A Flemish National diet at Brussels in 1917 decides to establish a COUNCIL OF FLANDERS, which on December 22nd 1917 proclaimed an INDEPENDENT STATE OF FLANDERS. The German government declared Belgium an artificial creation; it administratively separated Flanders and WALLONIA. In July 1918 the German authorities dissolved the administrative bodies of Flanders and Wallonia. After the German defeat, Flemish political activist flee to the Netherlands.
German-Jewish novelist ARNOLD ZWEIG participated in the invasion of Belgium as a German soldier (and Prussian patriot). The war experience transformed him into a devoted pacifist; his war experience has greatly influenced novels such as ERZIEHUNG VOR VERDUN (education off Verdun, published 1935).

D. The Effects of the War on Belgium

The costs of war : 100,000 houses destroyed; military and civilian casualties together 50,000 dead; out of 267,000 men mobilized, 13,716 were listed dead, 44,686 wounded and 34,659 POW/MIA. A large percentage of Belgium's industrial facilities had been destroyed. The University of Leuven (in Fr.: Louvain) had suffered severe damage, the greater part of her library been lost. Of the medieval city of Ieper (in Fr.: Ypres) only ruins were left at the war's end. The life expectancy of the average Belgian, compared to prewar level, dropped by about 12 years, from about 50 in 1914 to about 38 during the war (Quetelet 2005).

LINKS Brave Little Belgium, 25 links to wartime Belgium, posted by The Great War in a Different Light
Belgium : History, from infoplease, encyclopedic, scroll down
History of Belgium, from Expatica.com
Ypres, from Hinchingbrooke Battlefields Embarkation Page, encyclopedic
The First Battle of Ypres (Oct. 31st-Nov. 17th), essay by John Buchan
The Second Battle of Ypres, essay by Dave Love, illustrated, from Trenches on the Web
Leopold III, King of Belgium, from Famous Belgians, encyclopedic.
Biography of King Albert I. of Belgium, from Trenches on the Web
World War I, from History of the 2nd Belgian Grenadiers
The Belgian Air Force in World War I, from An Illustrated History of World War I
Brave little Belgium, a history of the Belgian Army in WW I
Uniform und Ausrustung des belgischen Soldaten im August 1914, from Forum 14-18 : Westflandern 1914-1918, in German
The Belgian Khaki Uniform, 1915-1918, by Kris Michiels
Belgian (& Allied) Graves and Memorials in Switzerland, 1914-1918, by Patrick de Wolf
The Belgian Frontline 1914-1918 on the Yser, by Patrick de Wolf
Fort Eben-Emael, History, from Fort Eben-Emael, built 1887, battle site in WW I
Biography of Desire Joseph Mercier, from Infoplease
Receiving refugees in The Netherlands during the First World War 1914-1918, by M.P. Wielinga
Biography of Edith Cavell, from History's Women and from Edith Cavell Org., from Ajax Philatelic Society
The Christmas Truce, 1914, by Tom Morgan, includes documents
Belgian Armored Cars in Russia, from The Great War in a Different Light
Biographical Sketch of Herbert Hoover 1874-1964 : World War I, from Hoover Online (he organized the American Commission for Relief of Belgium)
Billets de necessite dans les territoires occupes par l'armee allemande durant la guerre de 1914-1918, from numisnord, in French, on coupons and emergency currency issued in German-occupied Northern France and Belgium
Histoire de Fonds Universitaire, from FU, includes history of the Comite National de Secours et d'alimentation; in French
Monica Hayde, Painting on a different canvas, article on Hoover and the Belgian Food Relief
Personages, from De Grooten Oorlog, Dag na Dag, list of biographies in Dutch
De spoorlijn Tongeren - Aken in oorlogstijd aangelegd (The railway line Tongeren-Aachen, constructed during wartime), posted by Jaak Nijssen, deals with wartime construction and usage, in Dutch, E. summary
The Underground War - Flanders, by Vic Bridge
The Great War in Flanders Fields, Virtual Tour, features monuments etc.
Timetable World War I, from De Grooten Oorlog, Dag na Dag, in Dutch, with emphasis on Belgium, very detailed
Nederland en de Vrede van Versailles (The Netherlands and the Treaty of Versailles), by W. Klinkert, in Dutch; has chapters on Belgian demands on the Netherlands and how they were treated at the conference (reference to Belgium).
The Agony of Belgium, from W. Martin, Statesmen of the War in Retrospect, 1918-1928
De Eerste Wereldoorlog (World War I), from Ars Moriendi (Latin, "the art to die"), in Dutch, has photo of Le Havre Govt.
1914: the criminal war policy of the SP leadership, from Ludo Martens, The true history of the Socialist Party (from Workers' Party of Belgium Website)
Belgium's Stronghold in Time of War. 'the Siege and Fall of Antwerp' August - October 1914, from The Great War in a Different Light; account of the battle; long list of links to accounts and images
Belgian Fronts, on WW I, Belgian prspective, Engl./Fr./Dutch
Verplichte tewerkstelling in Duitsland. (Belgian Forced Labour in Germany), by Jaspar Geryl, diss. Gent 2003, in Dutch
Claire Quetelet, De evolutie van de levensverwachting in Belgie, 18de - 20ste eeuw (The Evolution of Life Expectancy in Belgium, from the 18th to the 20th century), thesis Univ. Gent 2005, in Dutch
DOCUMENTS : TEXTS The Belgian Grey Book, 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The German Request for Free Passage through Belgium, August 2nd 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Belgian Refusal of Free Passage, August 3rd 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Imperial Chancellor Defends the Invasion of Belgium, August 4th 1914, from World War I Document Archive
King Albert of the Belgians' Speech to Belgium's Parliament, August 4th 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Fall of Brussels, August 20th/21st 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Burning of Louvain (Leuven), August 26th 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The London Times on Belgian Neutrality, September 30th 1914, from World War I Document Archive
John Buchan, First Battle of Ypres, October-November 1914, from World War I Document Archive
The Bryce Report on alleged German atrocities committed in Belgium, 1915, posted by the World War I Document Archive
Le General Commandant en Chef l'Armee de la Meuse von Emmich : Au Peuple Belge ! (1914), from cliotexte, first document, in French
Numerous primary sources/links to primary sources on Belgium in WW I, posted by psm-data
Belgian Fronts, most files available in English, some only in French, mostly on WW I
Witness reports on the Christmas Truce of 1914, posted by Tom Morgan, scroll down
Brand Whitlock, The Case of Edith Cavell, from Belgium under the German Occupation, a Personal Narrative (1919) posted by "The Great War in a Different Light"
Relief for Belgium, from Ida Clyde Clarke, American Women and the World War (1918)
Map featuring the front in Belgium, France in from 1914 Aug. 2-26, 1914 Aug. 26-30, 1914 Aug.30-Sept. 5, 1914 Sept. 9, 1914 Trenches US Military Academy, Map Library
List of Belgian medals, in Dutch language, from ODIS, in Dutch, no images; a number of WW I decorations listed
George I. Gray, Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1929, posted by BYU, online book

List of German Gouvernors General, from World Statesmen by Ben Cahoon
Commission for Relief in Belgium (1914-1930) Records, from Online Archive of California; Hoover Institution Archives, Holdings on WW I, from World War I Document Archive
Ieper 1914-1916, posted by J.M. Witte, in Dutch
Belgian pamphlet final offensive 1918, from ABLDepot, facsimile in Dutch
Diary Ernest Clarysse, refugee 1914-1918, posted by KU Leuven, in Dutch
La Grande Guerre 1914-1918 a travers les Revues d'Epoque, posted by Olivier, in French; click "Les Revues Belges"; only French-language revues shown
Belgium's Plight (National Geographic May 1917), posted by Wikisource
DOCUMENTS : IMAGES Belgian refugees flee Antwerp
Portraits of King Albert I., No.1, No.2, from Art Istocracy
Belgium WW I Paper Money, from cgb.fr
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Brussels 1914, German troops hold victory parade
April 1915 - Belgian soldiers departing for the front, from Histoire du monde de 1er siecle a nos jours
Image of Cardinal Mercier, from Stephengraphs
Postcard featuring flags of Russia, the UK, France and Belgium, titled : honour and liberty (1914), from Stephengraphs
World War I propaganda postcards on Edith Cavell, posted by ww 1-propaganda-cards.com
Belgische Wereldoorlog I Medaljes (Belgian WW I Medals), from Hendriks Medaljehoekje, comment in Dutch; on this site De Medaljes van het Nationaal Comite voor Hulp en Voeding, 1914-1918 (the Medals of the National Committee for Aid and Alimentation)
Gazet van Antwerpen : Een Eeuw in Beeld (A Century in Images), click years 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918; comment in Dutch
Poster : In Belgium the Belgians starve, 1915, posted by Library of Congress
De Eerste Wereldoorlog (World War I), from Ars Moriendi (Latin, "the art to die"), in Dutch, has photo of Le Havre Govt.
Photo : "Electric Curtain", constructed by the Germans along the Dutch-Belgian border, to combat smuggling, posted by Historie Tilburg
1914-1918, from Het 2de Jagers te Paard, regimental history, in Dutch, numerous illustrations
Belgium's Stronghold in Time of War. 'the Siege and Fall of Antwerp' August - October 1914, from The Great War in a Different Light; account of the battle; long list of links to accounts and images
Medecins de la Grande Guerre, posted by Patrick Loodts, numerous images
Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, articles pertaining to WW I and its impact on Belgium, compiled by Geschiedkundige Heruitgeverij, in Dutch, vol.1, Aug. 1-8 1914, in Dutch; index online
REFERENCE The Schlieffen Plan, and : Opening Hostilities, in : John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, 1996, pp.1039-1045
Cardinal Mercier : Pastorals, Letters, and Allocutions 1914-1917, translated and edited by Rev. Joseph F. Stillemans, New York : P.J. Kennedy & Sons 1917 [G]
Daily Telegraph, King Albert's Book, London 1914, contains messages of sympathy with Belgium by numerous persons of standing [G]
Article : Belgium, in : New International Year Book 1914 pp.94-99, 1916 pp.83-85, 1918 pp.78-80 [G]
Arthur Ruhl, Antwerp to Gallipoli. A Year of the War on Many Fronts, and behind them (1916), posted online by Gutenberg Library Online
Thomas Hope Floyd, At Ypres with Best-Dunkley (1917), posted online by Gutenberg Online Library
William Almon Wolff, The Belgians to the Front (1915), posted by Gutenberg Online Library
James M. Beck, The Case of Edith Cavell. A Study of the Rights of Non-Combattants [c. 1916], posted online by Gutenberg Library nline
A.R. Williams, In the Claws of the German Eagle (c.1915), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Hugh Gibson, A Journal from our Legation in Belgium (1917), posted by
Gutenberg Library Online

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on June 5th 2008

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