Belgium’s location may give it great political advantages, putting it right at the centre of Western Europe, perfect for its role as the host of the European Union. Unfortunately this has also regularly made it the site of military campaigns and battles. It’s for very good reason that Belgium is nicknamed “The Cockpit of Europe”.
Belgium was often little more than a pawn in events initiated hundreds of miles away, but the results could be devastating none-the-less.
A classic example is the devastation, both in human and material terms, brought about as a result of World War I, also known as The Great War, which was triggered by an incident that took place more than 1,500 kilometres away in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. With the Centenary a lot will be happening in Belgium to commemorate this major event between 2014 and 2018.
A Series Of Unfortunate Events
On 28th June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the crown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, were riding through Sarajevo in an open carriage when they were assassinated. Actually, nobody particularly liked the Archduke. He had been unpopular with both his Austrian and Hungarian subjects, so few tears were shed either in Vienna or Budapest.
Although the assassins were Austrian subjects, the conspiracy had been hatched in Serbia, so Austro-Hungary decided this was the perfect excuse to attack Serbia.
This needed German approval, which the Kaiser duly gave. This German move frightened the Russians, who mobilised their army. This in turn scared the Germans who told the Russians to stop their mobilisation.
The Russians refused to give way and Germany declared war on them on 2nd August. Since the Russians were in alliance with France, the Germans declared war on their western rivals the following day. As there was no particular friendship between France and Britain, Germany thought that Britain would keep its distance, but the British were concerned that if they remained neutral the German navy would sail into the English Channel to bombard France. Since the British regarded the Channel as an English preserve, this could not be allowed.
Another important issue was that Great Britain was treaty-bound to defend the neutrality of Belgium.
So on 31st July Britain enquired of both France and Germany whether they would respect Belgian neutrality in the event of war. France said yes, but Germany only said maybe.
King Albert I, who was in fact related to the Kaiser, was very clear: the Belgian people would stop at nothing to defend themselves and would not accept the Germans advancing into France across Belgian soil. When Germany invaded Belgium a few days later, Britain had no option but to join the anti German alliance.
The Kaiser’s Strategy
In 1914 Germany military strategy was based on the assumption that an attack by Russia was extremely likely at any time. Since France had an alliance with Russia, Germany believed that the French would swiftly enter any such hostilities, keen as she was to revenge the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
This would mean Germany would have to fight a war on two fronts; something to be avoided at all costs.
A plan, originally formulated by Alfred von Schlieffen, the German Army Chief of Staff, was designed to deliver a knock out blow to the French by committing 90% of the mighty German military machine to attack France through Belgium and Luxembourg.
The Belgian army would simply be crushed as the German’s marched on through the country to fight their real battles on the way to Paris. The remaining 10% of the German army would hold off the Russians.
It was assumed the Russians would take at least six weeks to mobilise their army, by which time France would be defeated. Crucial to the plan was the swift crushing of any Belgian resistance and the neutrality of Great Britain. Little did the Kaiser's men know brave little Belgium was prepared to put up a fight.
Resistance And Sabotage
The invading Germans were nothing less than shocked by the fierce resistance of the Belgians. Expecting an uninterrupted march into France, the rattled Germans treated any act of opposition or sabotage as both illegal and immoral and enforced a brutal oppression.
It is said that between August and November 1914 about 25,000 homes and buildings in more than 800 communities were destroyed and around 6,000 Belgian civilians were executed, usually in a fairly summary way on the orders of junior German officers.
About three weeks after the start of the invasion, the German army ravaged the city of Leuven, destroying the University’s library of 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts.
The burning of Leuven's library quickly became an international symbol illustrating the atrocities the invading German forces we're capable of. By the time the Kaiser's soldiers had their way with the city they succeeded in killing 248 residents, expelling 10,000 locals and burning down 2,000 buildings. One report says that after a sabotage attempt, orders came to burn all the villages within a radius of several kilometres, shoot all the mayors, imprison all the men and evacuate all the women and children.
Many of the able and fit civilian men we're simply deported to Germany and put to work in the fields and factories, homes were plundered of anything of value, family jewels stolen and women ravaged.
Naturally these brutal and criminal events were widely reported in the Allied press and embroidered with sensational horror stories.
It was reported that nuns were tied to the clappers of church bells so that they would be crushed when the bells were rung – propagandists labelled the attack as “The Rape of Belgium”...
Soon after the German invasion, the British Expeditionary Force arrived on the scene to lend support to the Belgian army. The Belgian King Albert I actually led his troops into battle and his wife Queen Elisabeth joined the war effort as a field nurse.
Nevertheless, following their well-rehearsed plan the German army quickly swept forward, scoring significant victories at Liege and Mons before moving south into France. There the German army’s advance was halted by the Allies at the Battle of the Marne in early September.
This effectively shattered any hope of a German occupation of Paris. The scene was now set for four years of relentless bloodshed and destruction. Meanwhile the German army was making gains in Belgium, with the port of Antwerp falling on 10th October.
Moving inland the fighting intensified around the Belgian market town of Ypres, with both sides fighting shoulder to shoulder in thick skirmish lines. With its nearby railway junction it was just as important for the Allies to hold Ypres as it was for the Germans to take it.
The Belgian army flooded the low-lying coastal plains of the River Yser to prevent the invaders from reaching the sea and the Germans brought in four new reserve corps of volunteers, mostly university students under the age of 20. Due mainly to their lack of training, they died in their thousands. In Germany this is referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.
Although the front was still semi-fluid, trenches were being dug across the Belgian farmland in a line that would eventually stretch unbroken from the Channel coast to Switzerland.
Fighting continued around Ypres until 11 th November, when heavy snowfall put a stop to the Battle. The ambitious Schlieffen Plan was in disarray.
Rather than being walked over, the Belgian army had proved to be a significant opponent; Great Britain had not remained neutral and France had not been defeated in the hoped-for six weeks.
The Ribbon Of Death
In addition, rather than taking six weeks to mobilise, the Russian army had managed to do so in just 10 days and Germany had been forced to withdraw troops from the Western Front to defend the Fatherland in the East. The feared two-front war had become a reality.
At the end of this First Battle of Ypres, the Allies were left holding a precarious salient (a bulge in the line), with the Germans holding ridges overlooking them from the east and south.
The British Expeditionary Force of very seasoned and professional soldiers was in tatters, having lost 50,000 men, leaving the survivors completely exhausted.
The Germans were in a similar situation, but still held the upper hand: they were sitting on enemy soil with some of the richest industrial regions in northern Europe safely behind their lines.
It was during this first Christmas of the war that an unofficial truce spontaneously broke out in some parts of the Ypres sector.To the later fury of their High Commands, British and German soldiers fraternised, played football, swapped cap badges and cigarettes and even had their photographs taken together.
The Ribbon of Death, as the Front came to be called, varied in length but eventually stretched for nearly 500 miles.
It started in the northwest corner of Belgium near the coastal dunes, before travelling along the River Yser and then looping through the farmland just east of Ypres, forming the infamous salient.
Overlooking this were the low ridges of Passchendaele and Messines in West Flanders which were in German hands for much of the war.
The Front then continued south through the wet Flanders plain, crossing the border into France near Armentières.
Not all troops who lost their lives during the Great War were shot and killed by the enemy; 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed after being court-martialled for cowardice or desertion.
The first to be shot at dawn was Private Thomas Highgate of the Royal West Kents. He was engaged in the Battle of Mons where 7,800 British troops were killed and was so terrified that he hid in a barn.
At his trial he was undefended because all of his comrades were dead, in hospital or had been taken prisoner. He was just 19 when he died. Private Herbert Burden was 16.
He was so keen to be a soldier that he lied about his age, saying that he was 18 when he enlisted in the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Ten months later, when he was still officially too young to even be a soldier, he was shot at dawn for running away after seeing his friends massacred.
Britain was sadly not alone in executing its own soldiers. The French are thought to have shot about 600, the Germans 48 and the Belgians 13. Finally in 2001 the Canadian government posthumously honoured the 23 executed Canadians and the five New Zealanders were also granted pardons.
In November 2006, after years of campaigning, the remainder received conditional pardons from the British government.
Many of those executed would have been suffering from what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The problem was that nobody was prepared for the carnage of industrialised war and for a great many the sheer horror proved to be too much.
Hundreds were unable to cope and many were simply driven insane. The great temptation, perhaps the natural reaction, was to run away from it all.
In the eyes of the military hierarchy this would be a major disaster: the great fear for the General Staff was that if it were allowed to happen, it would spread.
Everyone - military commanders, political leaders and even loved ones back at home - expected the troops to face up to the situation like men, since this was the only way for their good to triumph over the enemy’s evil. Of course, politicians and civilians at home had absolutely no conception of what the situation in the trenches was really like.
Even so, the army could not afford to carry anyone without what was considered the necessary moral fibre to fight.
Any signs of weakness were promptly dealt with in the severest way possible.
At least eight of the convicted soldiers were executed in the inner yard of the Town Hall in Poperinge, located about 20 minutes from Ypres. Since June 2013 visitors are able to see two authentic death cells, together with the actual post to which those executed were tied.
With much of the Front passing through France much of the fighting took place on French soil, but it was at the Second Battle of Ypres on 22nd April 1915 that a new dimension was introduced to the war when the Germans used poison gas for the first time. The unprotected French defenders fled in panic, leaving a gap of some five miles in the defence line.
The Germans advanced and got to within two miles of Ypres, but were reluctant to advance any further for fear of being poisoned by their own gas.
When a second gas attack was launched two days later against a different sector, the Canadian defenders improvised respirators using towels, handkerchiefs or bandages soaked in urine and bravely prevented a further collapse of the front.
In May the Germans carried out four more gas attacks, making some advances, by the end of the battle on 25 th May, the front was very much the same as it had been at the start.
Although with the Germans on three sides of the salient it was now even harder to defend. During the battle the British Expeditionary Force lost a further 58,000 men with Germans losses close to 38,000.
German sharpshooters mean't that for the Allies the Ypres Salient had become a horrific place of continuous danger, endless human sacrifice and suffering.
The Battle Of Passchendaele
The Allies had decided that as part of their “Northern Operation” they had to capture the Messines Ridge. A plan was devised to dig a number of tunnels underneath the German frontline defences and fill these with explosives that would be blown up immediately before an infantry assault against the German positions.
Work started on the tunnels in 1916 and on 7 th June 1917, at 3.10 am, 19 of them containing almost a million tons of high explosives were detonated.
The shockwave was felt as far away as London. Nine Allied divisions attacked and within a week the whole of the Oosttaverne Line was in Allied hands.
The attack was considered to be an outstanding success, although it resulted in 25,000 Allied casualties against 23,000 German losses, a figure that included 10,000 missing.
By mid-1917 the French army was in disarray, the Russian army in the East was on the verge of collapse and the Americans were still a long way from taking an active part in the war they had just joined. Consequently there was concern that the Germans would recover the whip hand. The British War Cabinet decided to authorise the “Northern Operation” for late July on the understanding that it would be terminated losses exceeded achievements.
The scene was set for the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as The Battle of Passchendaele. After a heavy preliminary bombardment by nearly 2,200 guns, nine divisions mounted an attack.
Unfortunately the Third Battle of Ypres was a major offensive fought with a defective plan and very ambiguous objectives.
Tanks were used, but only 19 out of the 48 actually saw any action and all but one of these were destroyed. And then there was the weather, August 1917 was the wettest August for many years and within a very short time the entire Ypres Salient was a sea of mud.
All movement up to the front lines had to be made over slippery plank roads or dangerous duckboard tracks, providing sitting targets for German gunners.
Counting The Losses
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted to abandon the operation, but his commander Field Marshall Haig fought off his opposition even as events continued to go from bad to worse.
By October, after further heavy rain, Haig’s two generals, Plummer and Gough, recommended halting the offensive in order to secure a firm line on the Passchendaele Ridge for the coming winter.
Haig insisted on continuing for a further month, in spite of the fact that by now men were drowning in liquid mud.
By the time that Canadian Corps took Passchendaele village on 6th November, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble.
When the offensive finally came to an end on 10 th November, both sides had incurred about 250,000 casualties each, although some estimates put German losses at closer to 400,000.
By the time the battle ground to a halt the BEF had advanced about five miles but the northern tip of the ridge was still in German possession.
In his memoirs, written in 1938, Lloyd George referred to Passchendaele as one of the great disasters of the war and concluded that: “no soldier of any intelligence would now defend this senseless campaign”.
1918 saw the arrival of troops from the United States and Russia’s withdrawal following the communist revolution. In March, Germany launched a final massive offensive, but by then the allies were superior in equipment, strategic thinking and manpower.
The Germans were gradually pushed back to their own frontier and in November 1918, the German general Ludendorff pressed the Allies for an armistice in order to avoid an unambiguous Allied victory.
Large areas of Belgium had been completely laid to waste. Hundreds of thousands of young men had been killed, wounded or had simply vanished without a trace.
In May 1915, on the Ypres Salient, the Canadian doctor and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his internationally celebrated poem "In Flanders Fields".
He draws attention to the fact that in spite of all the devastation, poppies were still growing between the rows of crosses that marked the graves of the dead.
These poppies have since become a symbol of human life lost in war. Today the “Great War” museum for the region is located in the beautifully restored town of Ypres and is also appropriately called In Flanders Fields.