German Challenge And The Belgian Reply

WHEN the war-cloud gathered over Europe the Belgian Government made haste to take those pre-cautionary measures imposed upon it by circumstances and by treaty obligations. As in 1870) Belgium at once prepared to move her forces to the frontier to bar the way of the invader. The fortifications were put in a state of defence. Fifty thousand civilians were employed at Liége to dig trenches and raise earthworks.

The general mobilization, which was decreed on July 31, took place without a hitch. Whereas it took forty-five days to complete the Russian mobilization, that of the Belgian Army was completed in twenty-four hours. When the Belgian Government decided to mobilize, an incident occurred to which sufficient attention has not been given. The recent Grey Book issued by the Belgian Legation revealed the startling fact that the British Minister in Brussels, Sir Francis Villiers, expressed his opinion that Belgian mobilization was premature, and suggested that such action on the part of the Belgian Government might add still further to the international tension. The Belgian War Secretary rightly replied that no Power could possibly take umbrage at the mobilization of a small and neutral country, nor could consider it other-wise than a measure of safety. The British protest and the Belgian decision are equally significant : the one proves the desire of the British Government until the very last to pre-serve the peace of Europe; the other proves the foresight of the Belgian Government. It was owing to this Belgian foresight that the little nation, which did not expect war, was the first to complete its preparations and the first to meet the enemy.

II

YET the position of the Belgian Army might well give cause for grievous anxiety. War overtook Belgium at the very beginning of a crisis of military reconstruction. The grave international juncture and the warnings of King Leopold had determined the Government only recently to reorganize the Army, to strengthen national defences, to introduce compulsory service. Party spirit had obstructed and delayed this far-reaching scheme of military reform. The new law, therefore, had only been passed for twelve months, and although the Army itself was ready, although new contingents had already been added, there had been no time left to supply the new forces with adequate equipment, nor to supplement the artillery armament which was to play so important a part in the Belgian campaign.

III

THE Belgian Government had completed their mobilization with all the more determination because they hoped that a firm policy might prove the best safeguard against an invasion. They were still confident that the Belgian mobilization would be merely a measure of safety. Until the last moment that confidence survived. Belgian sympathies were of course with France, but the last thing which the Belgian people wanted was war. As lately as August 2 there was an optimistic article in Le Matin, the leading paper of Antwerp, expressing the conviction that Belgium would not be involved in the conflagration. Why, indeed, should Belgium be dragged in ? Why should any Power force war upon a small neighbouring State ? Even Bismarck, the man of blood and iron, had respected in 187o the neutrality of Belgium. Why should William II violate the sanctity of treaties ?

IV

AND, indeed, there were many reasons why the Germans should have respected the neutrality of Belgium.

First of all, there was the consideration of the public opinion of the civilized world. Germany might not have much regard for treaty rights and, considering the treaty as a mere ” scrap of paper,” might be inclined to tear it to pieces. But the judgment of the civilized world would be unanimous in condemning such a crime, and that judgment represented one of those moral forces which Germany so entirely miscalculated. That condemnation sooner or later would weigh in the balance.

In the second place, Germany ought to have been restrained by a wholesome fear of consequences and by a knowledge of the international situation, and especially by a knowledge of the main principles guiding British policy. No doubt Great Britain, as advised by Admiral Mahan, might in any case have joined Russia and France, even if Belgium had not been attacked. But, even if Great Britain had joined, she would have done so only half-heartedly and only at the last extremity. There would have been indecision and delay. The Daily News until the eleventh hour declared in favour of British neutrality. Even on July 31, as we saw, the British Minister was against a premature Belgian mobilization.

It was the invasion of Belgium and the violation of treaty rights which put an end to British indecision, which converted all waverers.

And, last but not least, half a century of friendly intercourse with Belgium and her own commercial interests ought to have prevented Germany from taking the fatal step. Belgium was almost a German colony. Commercial relations were drawing the countries every day closer together. If peaceful relations were maintained, it was almost inevitable that Belgium should become an economic dependency. Why jeopardize the future ? Why make an irreconcilable enemy of a friendly and prosperous little country which sooner or later would be drawn into the sphere of influence of the German Empire ?

V

ALL these political and moral reasons were outweighed by one overwhelming military reason. Germany declared war because she thought, and thought rightly, that she could thereby reap some decisive military advantage. And from the German point of view the argument was unanswerable. No doubt the invasion of Belgium was a crime, but to plunge the whole of Europe into war on the flimsy Serbian pretext was itself a crime. And once war was declared, the invasion of Belgium became a prime strategic necessity. In 1870 there was no need to invade Belgium, because war had only to be waged on one front. In 1914, on the contrary, Germany had to wage war on two, and eventually on three, fronts. Under those conditions she was absolutely committed to the Napoleonic strategy of quick movements and The French General Staff seems to have assumed that Germany had two alternative plans. In fact there was only one plan, and, strangely enough, it was this one plan for which France seems to have been least prepared. The plan, as we stated before, was simple and obvious. It would take Russia forty-five days to complete her mobilization. It was hoped by the German Staff that it would take Germany only three weeks to finish the French campaign by one or two decisive defeats. In 187o the whole campaign had been decided in less than one month. Why not in 1914, when the German Army was so much better prepared, better equipped, and so much more formidable in numbers ?

VI

THE way through Belgium was the line of least resistance. In fact, Germany expected it to be a line of no resistance. It was one of their many miscalculations. It was the most fatal of all, for it was the one miscalculation which practically decided the course of the European campaign.

On Sunday night, August 2—I beg the reader to note the exact time, because all through the war Germany has utilized the darkness of night to achieve her sinister purposes and to secure some advantage over her opponents on Sunday night the German Ambassador sent the following ultimatum :

” The German Government has received absolutely trustworthy information according to which French forces would intend to march on the Meuse through Givet and Namur.

* The French text has the hypothetical conditional : auraient l’intention. Not only was it not a fact, but a mere intention. Even the intention is admitted to be only a hypothesis. The text does not say “ant l’intention,” but “auraient l’intention.” Germany violates Belgian territory because it is reported that the French would have or might have the intention of moving across the Belgian frontier.

” That information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to advance against Germany through Belgian territory.

” The German Imperial Government cannot help dreading lest Belgium, notwithstanding her best intentions, may not be in a position to repel unaided a French advance of such importance.

” In this fact we find sufficient certainty of a menace directed against Germany. It is imperative for the sake of self-preservation that Germany should anticipate this attack of the enemy.

” The German Government would keenly regret that Belgium should consider as an act of hostility against her the fact that the measures of the enemies of Germany oblige her to violate Belgian territory. In order to prevent any misunderstanding the German Government makes the following declaration :

” (1) Germany has not in view any act of hostility against Belgium.

” If Belgium agrees to assume in the war which is about to begin an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards Germany, the German Government on its side pledges itself to guarantee the integrity of the Belgian Kingdom and its possessions in all their extent.

(2) Germany pledges herself on the above-named condition to evacuate Belgian territory as soon as peace is concluded.

“(3) If Belgium preserves her friendly attitude, Germany is ready, in agreement with the authorities of the Belgian Government, to buy in ready cash whatever will be required for her troops and to indemnify Belgium for any damage inflicted.

“(4) If Belgium takes up a hostile attitude to the German Army, and especially if she opposes any obstacles to their advance, either through their fortifications of the Meuse, or by the destruction of roads, railways, or tunnels, Germany will be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

” In that case Germany will take no engagement as regards the Belgian Kingdom, but she will leave the settlement of the mutual relations of the two States to the arbitrament of arms. The German Government has the just hope that this possibility will not take place and that the Belgian Government will take such measures as will prevent such a contingency happening. In such case the friendly relations which united the two neighbouring nations will become closer and lasting.”

VII

IT would be futile to discuss the terms of this odious document, which tries to justify the violation of Belgian neutrality, and in which the mere report of a possible intention on the part of the French Government is given as a sufficient pretext. It would be even more futile to discuss the German point of view. The German Government have themselves given their whole case away. The German Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, the immortal author of the ” scrap of paper ” phrase, declared in the Reichstag that the invasion of Belgium was a grievous wrong, but that the wrong was justified by the plea of necessity.

Serbia had been given forty-eight hours by Austria to reply to her ultimatum. Belgium was only given twelve hours by Germany, between seven in the evening and seven in the morning. Belgium was thus allowed one single night to take the most momentous decision in her national history. But truly those twelve nocturnal hours were not needed for the Belgian people to make up their minds. If the challenge was sudden, the reply was immediate. A thrill of indignation passed through the country. Not one citizen was taken in by this combination of hypocrisy and violence. Everyone saw through the clumsy mendacity which imputed to the French Government the very crime which the Germans were prepared to commit. The Belgian Government, on Monday morning, August 3, sent the following dignified reply :

” From its Note of August 2, 19141 the German Government has issued a declaration that, according to trustworthy information, French forces should have the intention of advancing on the Meuse through Givet and Namur, and that, as Belgium, notwithstanding her best intentions, would not be in a position to repel unaided an advance of the French troops, the German Government would consider it its duty to anticipate this attack and to violate Belgian territory. Under those conditions Germany asks the Belgian Government to take up a friendly attitude, and pledges her-self on the conclusion of peace to guarantee the integrity of the Kingdom and its possessions in all their extent. The German Note adds that, if Belgium opposes obstacles to the advance of the German troops, Germany will be compelled to treat Belgium as an enemy, and to leave the ultimate solution of the mutual relations of the two States to the arbitrament of arms.

” This Note has called forth the profound and painful surprise of His Majesty’s Government. The intentions which Germany attributes to France are in contradiction with the emphatic declarations which have been given to us on August i in the name of the Government of the French Republic. Besides, if, contrary to our expectation, the violation of Belgian neutrality were to be committed by France, Belgium would fulfil all her inter-national duties, and her Army would offer the invader the most vigorous resistance. The Treaties of 1839, confirmed by the Treaties of 1870, consecrate the independence and the neutrality of Belgian under the guarantee of the Powers, and notably of His Majesty the King of Prussia.

” Belgium has always been loyal to her inter-national obligations. She has accomplished her duties in a spirit of strict impartiality. She has never neglected to maintain and ensure her neutrality.

“The attack against her independence with which the German Government threatens Belgium would constitute a flagrant violation of the Law of Nations.

” No strategic interest can justify the violation of right.

” The Belgian Government, if it accepted the proposals which have been notified to it, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and, at the same time, would betray its duties towards Europe.

“Conscious of the part which Belgium has played for eighty years in the civilization of the world, the Government refuses to believe that the independence of Belgium can only be maintained at the expense of the violation of her neutrality.

” If its expectations prove to be unfounded the Belgian Government is firmly decided to repel by all means in its power any attack against its rights.”

VIII

IN accordance with the Belgian Constitution, the Belgian Government has had to come to a critical decision without consulting the nation. But the Belgian Parliament ratified with perfect unanimity the action of the Government. On Tuesday, August 4, the King and Royal family appeared before the House, and His Majesty read the following historic declaration :

Never since 1830 did Belgium live through such an anxious hour. The integrity of our territory is threatened. The compelling force of our rights, the sympathy of which Belgium, proud of her free institutions and of her achievements, has always enjoyed, the necessity of our independent existence for the balance of European power, still leave us hope that the contingency which we dread may not happen ; but if our hope is unfounded, if we have to resist the invasion of our native soil and defend our threatened homes, that duty, however hard it may be, will find us armed and resolute and prepared for any sacrifice. Already, in anticipation of any contingency, our gallant youth have risen, firmly resolved, with the tenacity and the sang-froid of the Belgians, to defend their country in danger.

” I send to that youth, in the name of the nation, a brotherly greeting. Everywhere, in Flanders and Walloon provinces, in town and country, one feeling fills all minds : the enemies of our independence. One duty forces itself upon us with tenacious resistance.

” In the grave circumstances of the present hour two virtues are indispensable : the calm of firm courage and a close union of all Belgians.

” Both virtues have already been revealed to the eyes of an enthusiastic nation.

” The perfect mobilization of our Army, the large number of voluntary enlistments, the devotion of the civilian population, the self-abnegation of families, have shown in no doubtful way the comforting bravery which animates the Belgian people. The moment has come to act.

” I have summoned you, gentlemen, to enable the Legislature to associate itself with public enthusiasm in the same spirit of sacrifice. You will take, gentlemen, all the urgent measures imposed by circumstances, either in view of the war or to maintain public order. When I see this Assembly, in which there is only one party left, that of patriotism, ‘our memories go back to the Congress of 183o, and I ask you, gentle-men, ‘ Are you decided to maintain intact the sacred inheritance of our ancestors ? ‘

” Nobody, in this country, will betray his duty. The Army, strong and disciplined, is called to its task. My Government and my-self have absolute trust in its leaders and its soldiers. Supported by the people, the Government is conscious of its responsibility, and convinced that the efforts of all citizens, united in the most fervent patriotism, will safeguard the supreme interests of the nation.

cc If the foreigner, in violation of the neutrality of which you have always scrupulously observed the obligations, violates our territory, he will find all the Belgians grouped round their Sovereign, who will never betray his constitutional rights, and round the Government, invested with the absolute confidence of the whole nation.

” I have faith in our destinies. A nation which defends itself commands the respect of all. Such a nation cannot perish.

” God will be with us in a just cause.

” Long live independent Belgium ! ”

IX

THE speech of King Albert was received with acclamation. Party feeling generally runs high in Belgium and there are profound divisions, religious and political, racial and linguistic. The Socialists are Republican on principle and are opposed to the Monarchy, but in this hour of national peril the whole nation rallied round its rulers. All party differences were forgotten. There were no more Flemings or Walloons, Liberals or Clericals, Monarchists or Socialists. To face the Teuton there only remained one united Belgian people.

Immediately after the departure of the King the Belgian Prime Minister had to announce to the Houses of Parliament that Germany had actually declared war. With the duplicity and perfidy which characterized Germany all through the preparatory stages, she had waited before declaring war until her mobilization was complete on the Belgian frontier. Only a few hours after the declaration of war the German armies had advanced to the very outposts of Liége. The people of Liége were ready to receive them.