THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
THE EVENTS OF 1914
The substance of the facts referred to in the foregoing chapter was tolerably well known to the German Government before the present war, through certain unofficial channels which need not be specified; though the documentary evidence of Belgium's pact with England was not in its hands, and was only placed there by chance after the capture of the Belgian capital.
If Germany refrained from making public use of that information, her reasons were, doubtless, the same which impose silence upon the shrewd business man who receives reports on a doubtful deal of a good customer. A public announcement of the information which Germany had with regard to Belgium's deal with England would have. been liable to cause an international crisis which Germany was a great deal more anxious to avoid than the world gives her credit for.
Even if there had been no danger of such a crisis it would have been contrary to the dictates of political wisdom for Germany to make use of her information, not yet borne out by documentary proof, as long as her relations with Belgium were outwardly in a perfectly normal state.
These relations changed very rapidly, by force of circumstances.
Being compelled, by the unwarranted general mobilization of Russia, to take measures of safety at its Eastern frontier, the German Government considered it its duty to make sure of the attitude of France, Russia's declared ally, by addressing an ultimatum to that Power. The reply of the French Government could leave no doubt as to its determination of joining the war against Germany, which thus had to face an attack from two sides. The German General Staff , however, held in its possession the latest plans for France's war mobilization, drawn up by the French headquarters, according to which that country's military forces were to form five Armies of campaign, to be concentrated at the following points: First Army, consisting of the I, II, III and X army-corps, at Maubeuge; Second Army, consisting of the IX, XI, IV and VI army-corps, at Verdun; Third Army, consisting of the XX, V and VIII army-corps, at Toul; Fourth Army, consisting of the XIII, XII, XVII and XVIII army-corps, at Epinal; and Fifth Army, consisting of the VII, XIV, XV and XVI army-corps, at Belfort.
A most significant passage of those plans reads: "The First Army unites with the English and Belgian Armies, and, after passing through Belgium, occupies Cologne and Coblenz, and opposes the German forces advancing from Northern Germany. "
Thus, the French plan of campaign contemplated, as though it were a matter of course (which, indeed, it was for the French headquarters), a concerted action of the Maubeuge Army with the Belgian forces and an English expeditionary army. However, concerning this proposed co-operation of an English force with the French Maubeuge Army, there was corroborating evidence in the hands of the German General Staff, the Anglo-French designs having been allowed to leak out on various occasions.(56) Moreover, the attitude of the British Government toward Germany's proposals, during the critical days preceding the outbreak of hostilities, left no doubt that England had fully made up her mind effectively to support the French attack against the German frontier, by way of Belgium.
If this French plan of campaign, the correctness of which has since been confirmed,(57) was allowed to be carried out, Germany would have had to face an attack at her most vulnerable spot---the entirely unprotected Prusso-Belgian frontier, where a hostile invasion of the indicated enormous strength would have delivered to the enemy at least more than half of the Prussian Rhine Province, including Germany's most valuable coal and iron mines as well as a number of important centers of industry. It would have been a most dangerous, perhaps a disastrous, attack against the German flank---and a later stage of the war (the operations of the Kluck Army) has clearly shown what such flank attacks mean in modern strategy.
Under these grave circumstances, the German headquarters had to act without delay. It was their imperative duty to strike at the French Maubeuge Army as soon as possible, in order to prevent it from carrying out the task allotted to it in the French plan of campaign.. To this end, however, it was unavoidably necessary to pass through Belgian territory. The German Government, therefore, requested the Belgian Government to grant the German troops an unobstructed passage to France through Belgium.
The legal aspect of this demand will be discussed in a later chapter. Here, I confine myself to the form in which those demands were made.
By instructions from the German Chancellor, the Imperial Minister Plenipotentiary at Brussels addressed the following note to the Belgian Government, under date of August 2, 1914:
The Imperial Government is in possession of trustworthy information as to the intended concentration (Aufmarsch) of French forces along the Meuse section Givet-Nemur. It permits of no doubt as to France's intention of marching upon Germany through Belgian territory. The German Government cannot rid itself of the apprehension that Belgium, despite the best intentions, will not be in a position, without assistance, to repulse a French advance with such prospects of success that therein a sufficient guarantee against the threatening of Germany could be found.
It is Germany's imperative duty of self-preservation to forestall the attack of the enemy.
The German Government would greatly regret if Belgium should regard it as an act of hostility, directed against herself, that the steps taken by Germany's adversaries force her, for the sake of her defense, to enter in turn Belgian territory.
In order to preclude any misinterpretation, the Imperial Government declares the following:
1. Germany purposes no hostilities whatsoever against Belgium. If Belgium is willing to adopt an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, in the impending war, the German Government pledges itself to guarantee the integrity and independence of the Kingdom to their fullest extent, when peace will be concluded;
2. Under the conditions set forth above, Germany pledges herself to evacuate the territory of the Kingdom as soon as peace is concluded;
3. In the event of a friendly attitude of Belgium, Germany is ready, in concurrence with the Royal Belgian authorities, to purchase against cash-payment all necessities of her troops and to make good any damage which might be caused by German troops.
However, should Belgium behave in a hostile manner toward German troops, and, more especially, should she raise difficulties against their advance, by the resistance of the fortifications along the Meuse or by destruction of railways, roads, tunnels or other engineering works, then Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider the Kingdom as an enemy. In this case, Germany would be unable to give the Kingdom any pledges whatsoever, but would be obliged to leave to the decision of arms the eventual settlement of the relations between the two States.(58)
When the above note was despatched to the Belgian Government, the German authorities were fully advised that French army aeroplanes, which committed hostile acts in Germany, had passed over Belgian territory and, especially, that considerable detachments of the active French army were operating on Belgian soil.
The German Government brought those facts to the knowledge of the Belgian Government, in an informal manner, through the Imperial Minister at Brussels, about six hours after the aforesaid note had been delivered.(59)
There can be no doubt that those violations of Belgium's neutrality by France, not opposed by the Belgian authorities, would have fully justified Germany in making a formal categorical demand at Brussels that the Belgian Government take speedy and effective measures for maintaining its neutrality. More than that---she might have publicly denounced Belgium as a breaker of her international obligations for her palpable connivance with the French military operations, and, on that ground, taken immediate action against Belgium.
However, everything goes to show that Germany was very averse to such a course, which would have left the Belgian Government no choice in the matter. The attitude of the German Government during those critical days can leave no doubt that it tried its best to spare Belgium, a country with which Germany had no quarrel, from being drawn into the impending conflict, if that should be possible. Therefore she offered Belgium terms, under the same plea under which, according to the British Military Attaché's communication to General Jungbluth, England was ready to send her forces to Belgium in 1911---that is to say, that Belgium was not in a position to repulse a hostile invasion.
Had Belgium accepted those terms, the bulk of her people would probably never have learnt the horrors of war, and Brussels, Louvain and Antwerp would not have seen a German soldier; for the German army, passing only through the districts south of the Meuse and the Sambre, would have been able to carry out its imperative measures against the French Maubeuge Army entirely, or almost entirely, on French soil.
To make the acceptance of those terms possible, the German note carefully avoided not only every reference to Belgium's connivance toward French military operations on her soil, but also every allusion as to the complicity of the Belgian Government in the British complot of which, as mentioned above, the Imperial Government had then already sufficient knowledge without holding in its hands documentary evidence to that effect.(60)
However, the Belgian Government was too deeply entangled in the meshes of England's mischievous policy to be able to withdraw in the eleventh hour and keep out of the conflict.
The German demands were flatly refused by Belgium's note of reply, dated August 3d. Pretending always to have been faithful to her international obligations, she emphasized that the King of Prussia was one of the guarantors of her status as a neutralized country; protested against the threatened attempt against her independence (which, obviously, was not threatened in the least); and declared herself in honor bound to repulse any attack upon her rights.(61)
Even at that advanced stage of the crisis Belgium might still have been kept out of the impending conflict if England had either granted her full freedom of action or had renewed Mr. Gladstone's undertaking of 1870 toward Germany and France, without delay. The latter measure, a diplomatic measure at any rate, was doubtless in the mind of the King of the Belgians when, in the afternoon of the same day, he addressed a telegraphic appeal to the King of England, asking for the British Government's "diplomatic intervention to safeguard the integrity of Belgium."(62) In reply to this request for diplomatic intervention, however, the Belgian Government received from London, very significantly, precise orders for armed resistance against the threatening German invasion, together with an unsolicited promise of military support.(63)
For the reasons briefly stated above and more fully to be discussed in a later chapter, Germany was unable to consider Belgium's protest.
Early on August 4th, a second German note was delivered at Brussels, stating that the Imperial Government was,
to its deepest regret, compelled to carry out---by force of arms, if necessary---the measures of security which have been set forth as indispensable in view of the French menace.(64)
On the same day, the German Chancellor, Dr. von Bethmann Hollweg, made his famous speech in the Reichstag, declaring that, in her state of legitimate defense, Germany was compelled to invade the territory of two friendly neighbor countries, which act was "contrary to the provisions of international law," and putting it on record that the "wrong" which Germany thereby committed she would try to make good as soon as her military aim should be attained.(65)
These words of the Imperial Chancellor, which are constantly cited by Germany's critics as an unqualified official admission of Germany's unqualified guilt toward Belgium, can be fully understood and appreciated only if due consideration is given to the circumstances under which they were uttered and to the exceptional personality of the speaker. Not much known in America, Dr. von Bethmann Hollweg may be said to enjoy a European reputation for honesty and straightforwardness. Both diplomatic trickery à la Talleyrand, and political speech-making in pharisean style, as practised in certain other European chanceries, are out of accord with his character. He is the philosopher-statesman. The philosopher Bethmann, however, could only look at the invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium---two countries which had no direct part in the imbroglio---as constituting, in itself, a regrettable wrong and a breach of international law, notwithstanding the perfectly valid legal excuses, emphatically invoked by himself (i.e. the right of self-preservation) which justified such action. To the statesman Bethmann other considerations presented themselves at the same time. It must not be forgotten that it was he who had drafted the note to the Belgian Government of August 2d, under the particular circumstances set forth above. In his honest desire to keep Belgium out of the struggle, he had tried to make that note as acceptable as possible to the Belgian Government; doubtless, when he spoke in the Reichstag, he still hoped that the Belgian people might yet be persuaded to submit to Germany's unavoidable demands, and wished to give a public pledge that the temporary wrongs imposed upon them would be righted as soon as possible. That such was, indeed, the Chancellor's hope is quite clear from his speech at the Reichstag on December 2d, when he made the following statement:
When, on August 4th, I referred to the wrong which we were doing in marching through Belgium it was not yet known for certain whether the Brussels Government in the hour of affliction would not decide after all to spare the country and to retire to Antwerp under protest. . . . On August 4th, for military considerations, the possibility of such a development had to be kept open under all circumstances.(66)
At a later hour of the same fateful day, German troops passed the Belgian frontier, near the little town Gemmingen, whereupon Belgium instantly severed her diplomatic relations with the German Empire.(67) Simultaneously, she made an appeal to Great Britain, France and Russia---not to Austria, by the way---asking these countries "to co-operate as guarantors in the defense of her territory," (68) which Powers immediately gave full assurance to that effect.(69)
During the four preceding days, England, unsolicited, had already undertaken three diplomatic démarches concerning Belgium. First, on July 31st, she formally asked France and Germany whether, "in view of existing treaties," they were "prepared to engage to respect the neutrality of Belgium so long as no other Power violates it,"(70)---a demand not unlike that addressed to the same countries by England in 1870, with this striking difference, however, that Mr. Gladstone, by the well-known identical treaties, assured both sides of England's non-intervention as long as Belgium's neutrality would be respected, whilst in 1914 Sir Edward Grey absolutely refused to make any promise whatsoever as to England's course of action if Germany promised to respect Belgium's neutrality.(71) It may be added here, in passing, that France gave the desired promise on July 31st (See British White Papers, No. 125), altho, as the affidavits reprinted in the Appendix show (page 230 and following), considerable cavalry detachments of the French army were then already on Belgian soil. Second, on the same day, England informed Belgium of her démarche in Paris and Berlin, and expressed the expectation "that the Belgian Government will maintain to the utmost of her power her neutrality."(72) Third, after Germany's demand to Belgium for an unobstructed passage through her territory, England---on August 4th---formally protested in Berlin "against this violation of a treaty to which Germany is a party in common with themselves," and requested "an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with."(73)
As mentioned above, the invasion of German troops in Belgium was then already an accomplished fact. As to the reasons for and the aims of that invasion, the German Government took pains to inform not only the Belgian but likewise the British Government.
With characteristic honesty and frankness, Dr. von Bethmann-Hollweg had outlined to the British Ambassador Germany's attitude toward Belgium in case of a conflict with France, as early as July 29th, in the following manner:
It depended upon the action of France what operations Germany might be forced to enter upon in Belgium, but when the war was over, Belgian integrity would be respected if she had not sided against Germany.(74)
The war with France having become an accomplished fact in the meantime, the Imperial Government, on August 4th, instructed the German Ambassador in London to declare to the British Government that the German army could not be exposed to French attack across Belgium, which was planned according to unimpeachable information; Germany had consequently to disregard Belgian neutrality, it being for her a question of life or death to prevent French advance; and to repeat, at the same time most positively the formal assurance that
even in the case of armed conflict with Belgium, Germany will, under no pretence whatever, annex Belgian territory.(75)
England, however, did not accept that assurance, but on the same day addressed an ultimatum to Berlin to the effect that the German Government give a satisfactory reply to the British request, made the same morning, namely, that Germany give
an assurance that the demand made upon Belgium will not be proceeded with and that her neutrality will be respected by Germany.(76)
This ultimatum concluded the following passage which may be considered as Great Britain's official announcement of her reasons for going to war with Germany:
His Majesty's Government feel bound to take all steps in their power to uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of a treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves.(77)
The time-limit having expired at midnight of August 4th (corresponding to 11 p. m. of the same day, according to London time), without any answer forthcoming from the German Government, Germany and Great Britain were at war with each other from that time---ostensibly for the reason that Germany had violated Belgium's neutrality.(78)
It is beyond the scope of this study to show in detail that England's real reasons for going to war with Germany had nothing to do with Belgium's neutrality. "As a matter of history," says Professor A. Bushnell Hart of Harvard, "it seems now established beyond all cavil that the English practically decided to stand by France (which must infallibly lead to war) on August 2d; and would have continued in that mind even if the Germans had respected Belgium."(79) Besides, quite a number of honest Britishers are on record who, like Mr. Trevelyan, a former member of the Cabinet, George B. Shaw, the noted playwright, and others, have publicly repudiated their Government's official justification of England's participation in the war---emphasizing that Germany's invasion of Belgium had nothing to do with it.(80) It was, to use a phrase of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the English Labor Party, "a pretty little game of hypocrisy" when Mr. Asquith and his colleagues tried to make the world believe that England was going to war for the sanctity of treaties and for the protection of "little" Belgium.
The fact is that England did not draw the sword for Belgium, but that Belgium is fighting for England---fighting England's time-honored bulwark game. "The frontier of the British Empire in Europe is the Meuse line"; the Belgians are the frontier guardsmen.
When, in the critical hour, the King of the Belgians, realizing the tremendous task imposed upon his country and, obviously, making a supreme effort for a peaceful solution, asked England for diplomatic support, London sent him a categorical command to charge the enemy, depriving thereby Belgium of the chance of avoiding a clash with Germany which had no designs on Belgium and offered liberal terms.
The same was, evidently, the case when, on August 7th, Germany renewed her offer to Belgium. Liége having fallen into the hands of the invading army after a sharp encounter with the Belgian troops, the German Government made its last effort for a peaceful settlement, addressing through the good offices of the Foreign Minister of the Hague, a third note to the Belgian Government which reads as follows:
The fortress of Liége has been taken by assault, after a courageous defense. The German Government regrets very deeply that, in consequence of the Belgian Government's attitude against Germany, sanguinary encounters have taken place. Germany is not coming into Belgium as an enemy. Only, under the pressure of circumstances, in view of the military measures of France, she had to take the grave decision of invading Belgium and occupying Liége as a point of support for her future military operations. Now, after the Belgian army, by its heroic resistance against greatly superior forces, has maintained the honor of its arms in the most conspicuous manner, the German Government requests His Majesty, the King, and the Belgian Government to spare Belgium the further horrors of war. The German Government is ready to make any kind of an agreement with Belgium that is feasible with the consideration of its conflict with France.
Once more, Germany gives the solemn assurance that she has not been guided by any intention of appropriating Belgian territory and that such an intention is far from her thoughts. Germany is still prepared to evacuate the Belgian Kingdom without delay, as soon as the military situation will permit it.(81)
Unfortunately for Belgium, her Government refused this last offer for a peaceful settlement. After having submitted the draft of her proposed reply to the diplomatic representatives of Great Britain, France and Russia(82)---a step which permits of more than one interpretation-she was duly authorized by Great Britain and France(83) to despatch it to Germany, which she did, via the Hague, on August 12th.(84)
The frequent notes of moral indignation, the constant references to the national honor and the reiterated assurances that Belgium had always lived up to her international obligations, displayed in those official documents, fall flat now, after the world has learned something about the Belgian Government's illicit ante-bellum relations. It is obvious that its course of action could not have been determined by any considerations of Belgium's national honor, but merely by the obligations which, contrary to international law, it had assumed toward England and France.
Nevertheless, the question arises: what did the Belgian Government, in carrying out those obligations, expect? Could it reasonably hope and did it really expect successfully to stop the advance of the German army, with the aid of its secret allies, and come out uppermost in the impending struggle?
An answer to this question may possibly be found in a pamphlet of a well-known French military writer, Colonel Arthur Boucher, which appeared early in 1913 under the title "La Belgique à jamais indépendante" (Belgium for ever independent.)(85) The object of the pamphlet was to vigorously endorse the bill for the Belgian army-increase, then before the Brussels parliament, which, as mentioned above, was passed in May of the same year. Forecasting what would happen if, after the increase of the Belgian forces, Germany should invade Belgium, which step would immediately call France to Belgium's side, the French writer makes the following significant prediction:
"But, at that moment, the French and Belgian armies will not be the only ones which the North German contingent will have to face.
"May one not suppose that Holland, despite her declaration of neutrality, will sufficiently foresee the fate awaiting herself, if Belgium should be beaten, to judge it expedient to intervene by cutting the German lines of communication through Limburg?
"Above all, can one not be certain that England, already fully aware of the consequences which success of the Germans would have for her, will forestall the appeal of Belgium, and that she, in possession of the liberty of the Sea and, probably, in a position to enter the mouth of the Scheldt, will come and land her troops on the very quays of Antwerp?(86)
"How critical will then be the situation of all German troops engaged in Belgium! Would not Germany just then, when she counted on a sure victory on that point, be exposed to suffer a disaster?
"Besides, we must not forget that, thus forecasting the situation of our adversaries, we have, on purpose, put all the trumps in the hands of the Germans. However, do not the latter, after the trip of Mr. Poincaré to St. Petersburg, cradle themselves in an illusion which may cost them dear, in believing that, up to the thirtieth day, they will need but one single active army corps at their eastern frontier? However, all the units which, by the circumstances, will be required at the Polish front, will be so many less at our own front and, most probably, at the front of Belgium."
The firm expectation that Belgium and the Triple Entente had all the chances of success on their side which this kind of Triple Entente "Bernhardi" literature voiced so convincingly, is the only psychological explanation for the fatal course of action pursued by the Belgian Government since 1906.
Chapter Six: Obligations of the Guarantors of the Quintuple Treaty
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