Occupation Of Brussels

THE War of the Nations has brought us countless surprises. It is the unexpected which has constantly been happening. Everybody expected that Italy would join her allies. Italy has remained neutral. Everybody expected that Liége would not resist. Liége has opposed an indomitable resistance. Everybody expected that Namur would hold out. Namur has fallen after thirty-six hours. Everybody expected that the French forts would hold back the tide of German invasion. Nearly all the French forts surrendered almost without a blow. Everybody expected that the French artillery would be superior to the German artillery. Nobody suspected the existence, and still less the power, of the heavy German 16 in. howitzers. Yet that heavy German artillery has been the main instrument of German advance. Everybody expected that the eastern French frontiers, strongly protected, would be the main scene of operations. Yet it is the Belgian frontier, almost unprotected, which has been the principal theatre of the war. Everybody expected that Great Britain would only be able to send an ” Expeditionary Force.” Before this war is far advanced Great Britain will have sent an army of two million trained soldiers into the plains of France.

II

THE occupation of Brussels was one of the unexpected events of the Belgian campaign. Belgian public opinion has been kept in the dark by the optimism of the official dispatches. The authorities probably realized that one of the prime necessities was to keep up the spirits of the people. It was proclaimed that Brussels would be quite capable of defending itself. A line of trenches encircled the southern and eastern approaches of the capital. The Civic Guard had been drilled and had been preparing for two weeks to receive the enemy. Yet at the first news of the approach of the German enemy the Civic Guard was disbanded without preliminary notice. No resistance was to be offered to the invader. The capital was to be surrendered without a blow.

The position of the central Government was keenly resented by the population. Yet the surrender was probably wise and inevitable. The whole military situation in Belgium had changed by the inability of the French to come to the rescue. The German army would have been able to bring up without delay its heavy siege artillery. Brussels would have been subjected to a bombardment which would have destroyed the historical monuments of one of the most glorious art cities of the world. The destruction would have been all the more certain because the German army did not recognize the Belgian militia as engaged in legitimate warfare. They threatened to treat them as sharpshooters and to wreak ruthless vengeance on the Belgian capital.

III

I HAD left the military headquarters of Louvain for twenty-four hours to receive my instructions from the London authorities of the Daily Chronicle. I returned to Brussels on Wednesday night. I went at once to the offices of the Soir and of the Indépendance to try to engage a motor-car for the next day. Every motorcar had been commandeered. At the Gazette de Bruxelles I met the editor, M. van Zype, who was just leaving his office. A messenger arrived. The editor did not open the message, as his paper had gone to press. The messenger insisted that the news was urgent and important. It was a letter from the Burgomaster of Brussels announcing the imminent arrival of the Germans and recommending calm and dignity to the citizens. M. van Zype received the news with the calm stoicism which in those days characterized all Belgians : It is all over for the present. We can only shut shop. There will he no Belgian newspapers for a few months. We are going to have a compulsory holiday. In the meantime, to-morrow, we shall have the goose-step and a fine military display in the best German style. As for yourself, you had better leave at once. Remember, you are a marked man. You are on the black list. You have said a few strong things against our German friends, and you know that occasionally they can be very vindictive. Au revoir, good luck ! ”

With a heavy heart I left my beloved city of Brussels. I say my city because, as Doctor of the University of Brussels, I have been connected for twenty years with the University of the capital. But the advice of my Brussels colleague was wise. Even if it had been possible for me to stay in Brussels, my activity as ” war correspondent ” would have come to an end. I went to the Gare du Nord. I found the gates locked and all the trains gone. I went to the Gare du Sud. I found all the trains gone. I was informed that there was still one special military train which was due to leave at midnight. I asked permission of the colonel in command to join the train. Permission was refused. I disregarded the order, and I slipped into the corridor, the only civilian on the train. In the short hours of the morning I arrived at Mons, where two days afterwards was to begin the Battle of Nations.

The German military authorities have been repeatedly criticized for the occupation or Brussels. It was said that the occupation was a mere spectacular display, that it could serve no object, that ” strategic conditions ” were being sacrificed to vanity and to the desire of the Belgians. These criticisms are absurd. The occupation of Brussels was for the German armies an obvious and necessary move. It was to the outside world a signal consecration of their triumph. There was an urgent necessity to retrieve the check received at Liége, and to produce a moral effect on the Belgian population. Moreover Brussels was the headquarters of the Government, and its occupation by the enemy meant the dislocation of the whole administrative machinery. Brussels was also the centre of the Belgian railway system, on the cross-roads of the Antwerp, Ghent, Liége, and Charleroi lines. It was highly important, even for ” strategic reasons,” that Brussels should be in German hands. Nor was Brussels less important as a centre of supplies and provisions. Brussels could be held with a few troops, and the maximum of military advantage could be secured at the minimum of cost.

The German army entered Brussels on a glorious August afternoon to the rhythm of their famous goose-step, insolent and aggressive, singing in turn love-ditties and patriotic songs. The actual corps of occupation was only about 30,000, but for days a continuous stream of soldiers, over 600,000, was poured into the city on the way to the shambles of the battlefield.

The German troops did not commit any excesses. The German commander knew that the eyes of the whole world were upon him. In almost every other city the Germans had given themselves over to orgies of drink. In Brussels the commander prohibited the sale of alcoholic liquor. Only the superior officers were allowed to sack the cellars of the Royal Palace of Laaken. The German soldiers were quartered in barracks and public buildings. Only officers were billeted in private houses.

That no excesses should have been committed was due no doubt to the restraint of public opinion, but not least to the firm attitude of Burgomaster Max. The burgomaster of a Belgian city is not an ornamental and ephemeral figure like the Mayor of an English city. The importance of a Belgian burgomaster is in proportion to the importance of the civic life. A Belgian mayor is practically appointed for life and invested with full powers. In Brussels the first magistrate of the capital is the first personage after the King.

Burgomaster Max worthily sustained the traditions of his office. Through his tact and diplomatic skill, through his firmness and dignity, he ensured the safety of Brussels. The slightest mistake on the part of the civic authorities might have spelt disaster to the city. The slightest popular disturbance in the Quartier des Marolles might have brought down on the city the vengeance of the conqueror.

Although no outrages were perpetrated, Brussels was made to feel heavily the yoke of the invader. The Germans continued in the city their methods of predatory warfare. Huge quantities of foodstuffs were commandeered for the 600,000 German troops that were continually passing through. Payment was made in grim mockery in bills on the National Bank of Belgium. A war indemnity of 200,000,000 francs was imposed on the city of Brussels, and one of 450,000,000 francs on the province of Brabant. In order to ensure the payment of this huge indemnity by a ruined city and by a stricken province, the Germans revived the abominable practice of hostages. Baron Lambert de Rothschild was mulcted to the extent of 10,000,000 francs. The venerable M. Solvay, the leader of Belgian industry. was subjected to a fine of 30,000,000 francs, With characteristic pedantry the Germans combined their methods of predatory warfare with a concern for the interests of German culture. In order to show their special concern for German science, they changed Greenwich time for the German time. The change was symbolical. Forsooth, under German rule, Brussels was to be sixty minutes in advance of London.

Although no excesses were committed, and although Brussels did not share the fate of the doomed cities of Louvain, Malines, Dinant, and Termonde, yet under the surface there was an appalling amount of suffering which increased with every day of the occupation. Brussels henceforth was cut off from all connexion with the remainder of Belgium. No newspapers were published and no Belgian news was obtain-able. Prices rose rapidly, from the scarcity of supplies and from the necessity of feeding the German hosts. The shadow of distress deepened. Brussels trade is largely concerned with the luxuries of life, and this was not a time to spend money on luxuries. Brussels trade is generally largely dependent on Court and Society. The Court had moved to Antwerp, and Society had dispersed. The Foreign Colony had left. Foreign schools were closed,

Brussels hitherto had been the gayest and brightest centre of the Continent. On the eve of Waterloo Brussels was still a busy centre of social life. To-day the capital was bowing its head in bitter humiliation. She was in close grip with poverty. She was wrapped in gloom and mourning.