THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
BREAK-DOWN OF BELGIUM'S NEUTRALITY
The twenty years of Belgian history following the Franco-German War can be passed over without comment.
In 1891, Belgium entered into a new phase of her development. King Leopold II, the very energetic son and successor of the first King of the Belgians, a man of great ambition and pronounced commercial ability, found a field for territorial expansion in becoming the head of the International Association of the Congo, which had been formed for the exploitation of the vast and rich Central African countries around the Congo River and its tributaries, with an estimated area of 900,000 square miles. By the General Act of the International Congo Conference of Berlin, held in 1885, the said association was transformed into the Congo Free State, an independent and perpetually neutral country, with King Leopold of the Belgians as its sovereign, who thus, through personal union, was ruler of two entirely separate neutralized countries.
Five years later, King Leopold took the unusual step of bequeathing all his sovereign rights in the Congo Free State to his other country, viz., to Belgium, which, by a special convention, was granted the right of annexing that state within a period of ten years, expiring in 1901. Naturally, the Powers who were signatories of the International Congo Conference were much aroused by this very highhanded act of King Leopold's, which was, in more than one respect, in direct defiance to international law. No European Cabinet could be persuaded to give its consent to the proposed annexation, which thus dragged on through a number of years as one of the most important questions of colonial politics. It was then frequently commented upon and many prominent lawyers expressed the opinion that the annexation of the Congo State was quite incompatible with Belgium's status as a perpetually neutral country which absolutely depended on the limits clearly defined by the treaties based upon the Twenty-Four Articles, and pointed out that, if the said scheme really should be carried out, it would be tantamount to a de-facto abrogation of Belgium's perpetual neutrality.(45)
When the said convention expired in 1901, a bill was passed by the Brussels Parliament reaffirming Belgium's right of annexing the Congo State and suspending the payment of interest on the Belgian loans granted to it until its ultimate annexation. This open defiance by Belgium aroused a widespread resentment in Europe, which was nowhere stronger than in England. King Leopold's scheme considerably upset one of the most cherished ambitions of Cecil Rhodes and his followers, to build a continuous line of railways from the Cape to Cairo, as, if the Congo State passed into Belgium's hands, that project could be carried out only with Belgian connivance. An organized press campaign was therefore started in England to prevent the proposed annexation, a prominent feature of which was a widely circulated book by Mr. Conan Doyle about Congo "atrocities." The British Government, though repeatedly approached, refused most persistently to give its consent to the annexation, though it did not feel bound to resort to any coercive measures to force Belgium to abide by the provisions of the Quintuple Treaty. The vexed question became an increasingly serious problem for King Leopold, who, owing to his advanced age, wished to see it definitely settled as soon as possible.
Under those conditions, it created considerable astonishment in Europe when, in 1907(46), it was announced that Great Britain had finally consented to the absorption of the Congo State by Belgium, a step which was entirely against British interests; and it was generally rumored that doubtless the unexpected settlement of this affair was a bargain between the two merchant-kings on European thrones---Edward VII and Leopold II---a bargain likely to be profitable to both sides.
There is hardly any doubt now that at that time Belgium, through her king, bargained away her status as a perpetually neutral country by entering into a military compact with England.
The increasing tension in European politics, caused by the late King Edward's "encircling" policy, had given England a new concern for her safety, wherefore she was constantly busy to strengthen her foothold on the Continent. It was England, therefore, which caused Belgium to embark upon a course of very costly army reorganization, crowned by the law of May 28, 1914, by which that country practically adopted universal compulsory service and raised the war strength of her army to nearly half a million men, the necessary funds for this undertaking being provided by a loan in London. And it was England which forced "neutral" Belgium to become her secret ally, in the event of an European conflagration.
In this era of international compacts, open alliances or secret conventions, it seems at first sight not unnatural that Belgium, situated between three powerful rival neighbors, should resort to the means of a military convention to increase thereby her capacity of defending her territory against hostile invasion. However, whilst any really sovereign state has perfect liberty in this matter, the established doctrine of International Law absolutely forbids such a course of action to a neutralized country. The French Professor de Lapradelle writes:
"The perpetually neutral State renounces the right to make war, and, in consequence, the right to contract alliances, even purely defensive ones, because they would drag it into a war to succor an ally or would place it in a situation of political dependence toward such an ally if the neutral State's ally should promise it succor without exacting reciprocity."(47)
Thus Belgium's status as a neutralized country made it, to use the words of The Times, "impracticable to enter into any conversation or arrangement, military or other, which would insure her the rapid and effective support of her English friends."(48)
This, however, was precisely what Belgium did in defiance to the established rules of international law. A number of secret documents, found in the official archives at Brussels where the Belgian authorities had carelessly left them, in their hasty retreat from the capital, in August, 1914, furnish complete and irrefutable evidence to that effect.
In an official communiqué to the North German Gazette of October 13, 1914, the German Government has made public the contents of the said documents, including verbatim passages from a most significant despatch of the former Belgian envoy at Berlin, Baron Greindl, criticising his government's dangerous un-neutral policy. At a later date, in a special supplement of the same semi-official organ of November 25, 1914, the German Government published fac-similes of some of the incriminating documents which are reproduced in the Appendix.(49)
It may be mentioned here in passing that neither the Belgian nor the British Government has attempted to challenge the authenticity of those documents, though both have tried to make the world believe that their contents were more or less innocent.(50)
The first of those documents, published in facsimile in the Appendix, is the draft of a report of the Chief of the Belgian Army Staff, Major-General Ducarne, to the Belgian Minister of War, completed in September, 1906, concerning a number of confidential conferences which he had had with the Military Attaché of the British Legation in Brussels, Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston, with regard to the despatch of an English expeditionary force to Belgium, in case of an European conflict. It reads, in English translation, as follows:
"LETTER TO THE MINISTER
"CONCERNING THE CONFIDENTIAL CONVERSATIONS
"BRUSSELS, April 10, 1906.
"I have the honor to report to you briefly about the conversations which I had with Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston and which have already been the subject of my oral communications.
"The first visit took place in the middle of January. Mr. Barnardiston referred to the anxieties of the General Staff of his country with regard to the general political situation, and because of the possibility that war may soon break out. In case Belgium should be attacked, the sending of about 100,000 troops was provided for.
"The Lieutenant-Colonel asked me how such a measure would be regarded by us. I answered him, that from a military point of view it could not be but favorable, but that this question of intervention was just as much a matter for the political authorities, and that, therefore, it was my duty to inform the Minister of War about it.
"Mr. Barnardiston answered that his Minister in Brussels would speak about it with our Minister of Foreign Affairs.
"He proceeded in the following sense: The landing of the English troops would take place at the French coast in the vicinity of Dunkirk and Calais, so as to hasten their movements as much as possible. (The entry of the English into Belgium would take place only after the violation of our neutrality by Germany.) The landing in Antwerp would take much more time, because larger transports would be needed, and because on the other hand the safety would be less complete.
"This admitted, there would be several other points to consider, such as railway transportation, the question of requisitions which the English army could make, the question concerning the chief command of the allied forces.
"He inquired whether our preparations were sufficient to secure the defense of the country during the crossing and the transportation of the English troops-which he estimated to last about ten days.
"I answered him that the places Namur and Liége were protected from a "coup de main" and that our field army of 100,000 men would be capable of intervention within four days.
"After having expressed his full satisfaction with my explanations, my visitor laid emphasis on the following facts: (1) that our conversation was entirely confidential; (2) that it was not binding on his government; (3) that his Minister, the English General Staff, he and I were, up to the present, the only ones informed about the matter; (4) that he did not know whether the opinion of his Sovereign had been consulted.
* * * * *
"In a following discussion Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston assured me that he had never received confidential reports of the other military attachés about our army. He then gave the exact numerical data of the English forces; we could depend on it, that in 12 or 13 days two army corps, 4 cavalry brigades and 2 brigades of horse infantry would be landed.
"He asked me to study the question of the transport of these forces to that part of the country where they would be useful, and he promised to give me for this purpose details about the composition of the landing army.
"He reverted to the question concerning the effective strength of our field army, and he emphasized that no detachments should be sent from this army to Namur and Liége, because these places were provided with garrisons of sufficient strength.
"He asked me to direct my attention to the necessity of granting the English army the advantages which the regulations concerning the military requisitions provided for. Finally he insisted upon the question of the chief command.
"I answered him that I could say nothing with reference to this last point and promised him that I would study the other questions carefully.
* * * * *
"Later on the English Military Attaché confirmed his former calculations: 12 days would at least be necessary to carry out the landing at the French coast. It would take a considerably longer time (1 to 2 1/2 months) to land 100,000 men in Antwerp.
"Upon my objection that it would be unnecessary to await the end of the landing in order to begin with the railway transportations, and that it would be better to proceed with these, as when the troops arrived at the coast, Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston promised to give me exact data as to the number of troops that could be landed daily.
"As regards the military requisitions, I told my visitor that this question could be easily regulated.
* * * * *
"The further the plans of the English General Staff progressed, the clearer became the details of the problem. The Colonel assured me that one-half of the English army could be landed within eight days; the rest at the conclusion of the 12th or 13th day, with the exception of the Horse Infantry, which could not be counted upon until later.
"In spite of this I thought I had to insist again upon the necessity of knowing the exact number of the daily shipments, in order to regulate the railway transportation for every day.
"The English Military Attaché conversed with me about several other questions, namely:
"(1) The necessity of keeping the operations secret and of demanding strict secrecy from the Press;
"(2) The advantages, which would accrue from giving one Belgian officer to each English General Staff, one interpreter to each commanding officer, and gendarmes to each unit of troops, in order to assist the British police troops.
* * * * *
"In the course of another interview Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston and I studied the combined operations to take place in the event of a German offensive with Antwerp as its object and under the hypothesis of the German troops marching through our country in order to reach the French Ardennes.
"In this question, the Colonel said he quite agreed with the plan which I had submitted to him, and he assured me also of the approval of General Grierson, Chief of the English General Staff.
"Other secondary questions which were likewise settled, had particular reference to intermediary officers, interpreters, gendarmes, maps, photographs of the uniforms, special copies, translated into English, of some Belgian regulations, the regulations concerning the import duties on English provisions, to the accommodation of the wounded of the allied armies, etc. Nothing was resolved on as regards the activity which the Government or the military authorities might exert on the Press.
* * * * *
"During the final meetings which I had with the British Attaché, he informed me about the numbers of troops which would be daily disembarked at Boulogne, Calais and Cherbourg. The distance of the last place, which is necessary for technical considerations, will involve a certain delay. The first corps would be disembarked on the 10th day, and the second on the 15th day. Our railways would carry out the transportation so that the arrival of the first Corps, either in the direction of Brussels-Louvain or of, Namur-Dinant, would be assured on the 11th day, and that of the second on the 16th day.
"I again, for a last time, and as emphatically as I could, insisted on the necessity of hastening the sea-transports so that the English troops could be with us between the 11th and 12th day. The happiest and most favorable results can be reached by a convergent and simultaneous action of the allied forces. But if that co-operation should not take place, the failure would be most serious. Colonel Barnardiston assured me that everything serving to this end would be done.
* * * * *
"In the course of our conversations, I had occasion to convince the British Military- Attaché that we were willing, so far as possible, to thwart the movements of the enemy and not to take refuge in Antwerp from the beginning.
"Lieutenant-Colonel Barnardiston on his part told me that, at the time, he had little hope for any support or intervention on the part of Holland. At the same time he informed me that his Government intended to transfer the basis of the British commissariat from the French coast to Antwerp as soon as all German ships were swept off the North Sea.
* * * * *
"In all our conversations the Colonel regularly informed me about the secret news which he had concerning the military circumstances and the situation of our Eastern neighbors, etc. At the same time he emphasized that Belgium was under the imperative necessity to keep herself constantly informed of the happenings in the adjoining Rhinelands. I had to admit that with us the surveillance service abroad was, in times of peace, not directly in the hands of the General Staff, as our Legations had no Military attachés. But I was careful not to admit that I did not know whether the espionage service which is prescribed in our regulations, was in working order or not. But I consider it my duty to point out this position which places us in a state of evident inferiority to our neighbors, our presumable enemies.
"MAJOR-GENERAL, CHIEF OF THE GENERAL STAFF.
(Initials of Gen. Ducarne.)
"Note.---When I met General Grierson at Compiègne, during the Manoeuvres of 1906, he assured me the result of the re-organization of the English army would be that the landing of 150,000 would be assured and, that, moreover, they would stand ready for action in a shorter time than has been assumed above.
"Completed September, 1906."
(Initials of General Ducarne.)
It is not claimed, of course, that this document itself is anything like a formal treaty between the two respective governments. It is not within the domain of Military Attachés to conclude engagements of a political character. At his first meeting with Col. Barnardiston, General Ducarne made a hint in that direction; however, the British officer replied that his Minister Plenipotentiary at Brussels would take up the matter with the Belgian Government. The fact that the conferences between the two officers went on, beyond that first meeting, is proof sufficient that the British diplomatic representative---doubtless not without instructions from London---duly settled the political side of that question with King Leopold's Government, the latter failing to repudiate the British overtures with reference to its duties as the executive of a neutralized state.
In consequence, the conference between the two officers assumed a more and more intimate character, both sides mutually revealing military secrets which, in this day and generation, are only exchanged between the representatives of "allied armies," under which description, indeed, the combined military forces of both countries---probably including those of France---were referred to during the later conversations.
There can be no doubt that, by April, 1906, the plans of the General Army Staffs of Great Britain (under whose orders Col. Barnardiston acted) and of Belgium, with regard to a complete military cooperation in case of war, had fully matured. This co-operation was to take place only in the event of Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality, as mentioned in General Ducarne's report and emphatically asserted by both the Belgian and the British Government after the publication of this document. The fact, however, that, in drawing up that report, General Ducarne seems to have so entirely forgotten about that essential point that he had to add a marginal note to that effect,(51) is perhaps indicative that also in the course of his conversations with Colonel Barnardiston that essential point had gradually been lost sight of.
The British Government has attempted to minimize the importance of the Ducarne-Barnardiston conversations by giving out that they were of a merely "academical" character. However, even if those conversations had only taken place in view of a particular political crisis and were afterwards abandoned, they would, according to the correct opinion of The Times,(52) already constitute a serious violation of Belgium's duties as a neutralized country. But, in reality, they were by no means confined to a certain critical period of the year 1906. They went on for years, and were most certainly followed up and confirmed by a political agreement between Belgium and Great Britain, possibly an unwritten "gentlemen's agreement" as in the case of the Anglo-French military convention---very likely in connection with the settlement of the Congo annexation question.
This is fully borne out by the official despatch of the former Belgian Minister Plenipotentiary at Berlin, Baron Greindl, to the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, dated December 23, 1911, which likewise has been published by the German Government. More than five years had then elapsed since the Ducarne-Barnardiston conferences, referred to in the first document. If they had been merely "academic," and had not grown into something more substantial, Baron Greindl would not have had the slightest reason to comment on this matter; it would not have come to his knowledge at all. The experienced diplomat criticises the military arrangements between Belgium and England, which evidently had been submitted to him for comment, as one-sided, because they contemplate only the possibility of a violation of Belgium's neutrality by Germany. The possibility of a French attack on Germany through Belgium had, however, in his opinion, just as much probability in itself. The despatch then goes on in the following manner.
"From the French side danger threatens not only in the south of Luxembourg, it threatens us on our entire joint frontier. We are not reduced to conjectures for this assertion. We have positive evidence of it.
"Evidently the project of an outflanking movement from the north forms part of the scheme of the 'Entente Cordiale! If that were not the case, then the plan of fortifying Flushing would not have called forth such an outburst in Paris and London. The reason why they wished that the Scheldt should remain unfortified was hardly concealed by them. Their aim was to be able to transport an English garrison, unhindered, to Antwerp, which means to establish in our country a basis of operation for an offensive in the direction of the Lower Rhine and Westphalia, and then to make us throw our lot in with them, which would not be difficult, for, after the surrender of our national center of refuge, we would, through our own fault, renounce every possibility of opposing the demands of our doubtful protectors after having been so unwise as to permit their entrance into our country. Colonel Barnardiston's announcements at the time of the conclusion of the 'Entente Cordiale,' which were just as perfidious as they were naive, have shown us plainly the true meaning of things. When it became evident that we would not allow ourselves to be frightened by the pretended danger of the closing of the Scheldt, the plan was not entirely abandoned, but modified in so far as the British army was not to land on the Belgian coast, but at the nearest French harbors.
"The revelations of Captain Faber, which were denied as little as the newspaper reports by which they were confirmed or completed in several respects, also testify to this. This British army, at Calais and Dunkirk, would by no means march along our frontier to Longwy in order to reach Germany. It would directly invade Belgium from the northwest. That would give it the advantage of being able to begin operations immediately, to encounter the Belgian army in a region where we could not depend on any fortress, in case we wanted to risk a battle. Moreover, that would make it possible for us to occupy provinces rich in all kinds of resources and, at any rate, to prevent our mobilization or only to permit it after we had formally pledged ourselves to carry on our mobilization to the exclusive advantage of England and her allies.
"It is therefore of necessity to prepare a plan of battle for the Belgian army also for that possibility. This is necessary in the interest of our military defense as well as for the sake of the direction of our foreign policy, in case of war between Germany and France."
These words of warning against King Albert's Government following in the same dangerous path which King Leopold's Government had been persuaded by Great Britain to choose, are of the greatest significance. Baron Greindl reminds his government as outspokenly as even an official in his exalted position may allow himself to do, that it violated the duties of Belgium as a neutralized state, by secretly entering into one-sided obligations with the Entente Powers. He speaks of the "doubtful protectors" of Belgium whose plans would "at any rate, prevent our mobilization, or only permit it after we had formally pledged ourselves to carry on our mobilization to the exclusive advantage of England and her allies," i.e., of France.
However, the Belgian Government was already too deeply committed and entangled in the English schemes to be able to lend an ear to Baron Greindl's warnings. The conversations between the Belgian General Army Staff and the British General Army Staff went on, being now conducted between the successor to Col. Barnardiston, Col. Bridges, and General Ducarne's successor in office, General Jungbluth. This is shown by the third document, published in fac-simile, being the minutes of a meeting of the two officers, which, according to certain indications, must have taken place in 1912. It reads, in English translation:
"The British Military Attaché asked to see General Jungbluth. The two gentlemen met on April 23rd.
"Lieutenant-Colonel Bridges told the General that England had at her disposal an army which could be sent to the Continent, composed of six divisions of infantry and eight brigades of cavalry---together 160,000 troops. She has also everything which is necessary for her to defend her insular territory. Everything is ready.
"At the time of the recent events, the British Government would have immediately effected a disembarkment in Belgium (chez nous), even if we had not asked for assistance.
"The General objected that for that our consent was necessary.
"The Military Attaché answered that he knew this, but that---since we were not able to prevent the Germans from passing through our country---England would have landed her troops in Belgium under all circumstances (en tout état de cause).
"As for the place of landing, the Military Attaché did not make a precise statement; he said that the coast was rather long, but the General knows that Mr. Bridges, during Easter, has paid daily visits to Zeebrugge from Ostende.
"The General added that we were, besides, perfectly able to prevent the Germans from passing through."
This document, which was found in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Brussels and is marked "Confidentielle" in the handwriting of Count van der Straten, a councillor of the said department, proves that in 1912 the same topics were discussed between the Chief of the Belgian General Army Staff and the British Military Attaché as by their predecessors in 1906 and, very likely, during the intervening years. Only England had, in the meantime, become a great deal more explicit as to her intentions. Whilst in 1906 it had been pointed out that the landing of the English forces would take place only after a hypothetical German violation of Belgium's neutrality, in 1912 the Briton does not hesitate to declare, in the coolest possible manner: during the recent political crisis---probably the Morocco Crisis of 1911---England would have despatched troops to Belgium at once, even if Belgium had not asked for English assistance. England would have done so under all circumstances, "since we" (i.e., the Belgians) "were not able to prevent the Germans from passing through our country."
It is thus evident that the British Government intended to enter Belgium immediately on the outbreak of a Franco-German war, that is to say, Great Britain intended to disregard Belgium's neutrality and to do the very same thing which, when Germany, in her position of legitimate defense, got ahead of her in doing, she took as a pretext to declare war upon Germany.
The bold assertion of Colonel Bridges that England would have sent an expeditionary force to Belgium under all circumstances shows, by the way, in its true light a much remarked utterance of Lord Roberts. In August, 1913, the old Field-Marshal said: "I do not think the nation realizes how near it was to war as lately as August, 1911. Our navy is not manned by panic mongers, yet for many autumn nights our Home Fleet lay in Cromarty Firth with torpedo nettings down. . . . Our expeditionary force was held in equal readiness instantly to embark for Flanders to do its share in maintaining the balance of power in Europe." (53)
When these words were uttered, the world had to suppose that such an undertaking of the English army would have met with the resistance of the Belgian forces. At present it is sufficiently clear that Belgium, instead of resisting the invasion of English troops, was ready to grant them every facility to reach the German frontier as speedily as possible.
How far the illicit intimacy between the British and the Belgian military authorities went is evident from certain secret military handbooks for the use of commanders of British troops within Belgium, found on captive English officers. Those books arc proof of a very careful preparation, extending over several years, for the proposed Belgian campaign, on the part of the British headquarters. They contain such detailed information that, without the very far-going assistance on the part of the Belgian military authorities, it would have been impossible to compile them. A press communiqué of the German Government, dealing with this point, appeared in the North German Gazette of December 2, 194, and is given in the Appendix, in English translation.(54)
Another official communiqué, published by the same organ on the 15th of the same month and also reproduced in the Appendix,(55) deals with certain important papers found in the possession of a British secretary of legation, named Grant-Watson, who was arrested in Brussels---papers which furnish additional proof of the Anglo-Belgian complicity, if that be needed. They contain the most detailed information about the Belgian plans for general mobilization and for the defense of Antwerp, during the last two years.
Moreover, among them, a note was discovered which states that France started her measures for a general mobilization as early as July 27th, and that the British Legation at Brussels was promptly informed of that fact through the Belgian authorities.
Of such intimacy was Belgium's co-operation with England and France, before the outbreak of the war! "Neutral" Belgium had in reality become an active member of the coalition concluded against Germany.
Chapter Five: The Events of 1914
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