World War I ended at 11 o’clock in the morning of November 11, 1918. Today thousands of British, Canadians and Australians come to the fields of Flanders to pay tribute to the soldiers who died in the horrors of the trenches during the Great War. During the four years of the war 700,000 British soldiers lost their lives (more than a million British and Commonwealth soldiers altogether). Many of them fell at Ieper, a place drenched in British blood.
Flanders has been a battlefield throughout its entire history. That is the burden of its geographical position, situated between Germany, France and England. Whenever two or all three of them wanted to fight it out among each other, they clashed in Flanders. The land is dotted with battlefields and military cemeteries, from Waterloo to Ieper.
Today Waterloo is a French-speaking village, but in 1815 it was still as Dutch as its name suggests. Ieper is better-known to the British by its French name Ypres, though the town has remained Dutch-speaking despite 175 years of Belgian rule. That is Flanders’ other historic misfortune: in 1830 French revolutionaries, intent on annexing it to France, occupied Flanders and detached it from the Netherlands. Britain’s Lord Palmerston prevented the annexation by France but merged Flanders with French-speaking provinces in a newly created artificial state called Belgium. The latter was run by Francophones from Liège, a province that had historically never belonged to the Netherlands. The Liegeois made French the only official language in Belgium and tried to “Frenchify” the entire country, even though the majority of the population spoke Dutch. This policy succeeded in the capital Brussels and villages near the linguistic border, such as Waterloo.
Today Dutch is recognised as an official language in Belgium, but the French minority still determines how the country is run, forcing the socialist paradigms of the Walloons (i.e. Belgium’s French) on the more free-market oriented Flemings. Though Flanders is a victim of Belgium, Britain, too, payed a high price for Palmerston’s folly. On the morning of 4 August 1914 the British Cabinet declared war on Germany. It was compelled to do so by Palmerston’s Treaty of London of 1830-31 which obliged Britain to guarantee the territorial integrity of the newly established state of Belgium.
If Britain had kept out of the war, 1914 would have been a mere repetition of the Franco-German tussle of 1870. Coming to the rescue of “poor little Belgium,” however, cost Albion dearly. Four years later 700,000 young British men had been massacred (1.7% of the entire population), and the poor little Belgians had lost 41,000 men (0.6%). (France lost 1.5 million men, constituting 3,5% of the population, and Germany lost 1.95 million, or 3% of its population.)
When the German Kaiser presented Brussels with an ultimatum to allow his army free passage to France, the Belgians refused. The Belgian general staff assumed that the German army was vastly inferior to the Belgian and French armies. Some even hoped for a German attack on Belgium, which would allow them to counterattack towards Cologne and Trier and occupy the Rhineland. “Such an offensive is within our means,” a secret report of the Belgian general staff stated in the summer of 1913.
The Belgian King Albert I (grandfather of the present King Albert II) and his generals soon discovered, however, that the Germans’ military strength was vastly superior to theirs. Moreover, the Belgian army was in a chaotic state. The officers were all Francophones, while the lower ranks were Flemish. As the Flemings were commanded in French, frequent misunderstandings occurred. Flemish artillerymen who received the order “Visez la meule” (Shoot at the haystack) dutifully destroyed a nearby mill (meulen in their native tongue).
The Belgian defences collapsed. Brussels fell without putting up a fight on 20 August. King Albert went to the little coastal village of De Panne, the last hamlet before the French border. With his wife Elisabeth he settled down in Villa Maskens, literally the last house on Belgian soil. The King was determined to await the arrival of the Germans and surrender. He forbade Belgian soldiers to cross the border and continue fighting the Kaiser from France. According to Albert, Belgium had only defended its own territory against aggression, which under international law a neutral country was allowed to do; but it had never joined the Allied side and, hence, was not an enemy of Germany. He hoped that this argument would persuade the Kaiser to allow him to keep his kingdom, the artificial country that was his livelihood.
Two simple Flemish civilians saved the day. Charles Cogge, a civil servant responsible for guarding the dykes surrounding the city of Nieuwpoort at the mouth of the River Yser, and Hendrik Geeraert, an elderly alcoholic, suggested flooding the Yser estuary, creating a water boundary of one mile wide between the Germans and the Belgians. The flood gates were opened on 27 October, submerging the Flemish meadows. The Germans were never able to cross the Yser barrier.
The danger now came from the south: 25 miles from De Panne, not protected by water, lay the mediaeval town of Ieper. The Belgians had fled from it on 7 October, allowing the enemy to enter the town. The British, however, recaptured it on 13 October. From 19 October to 22 November 1914, the British fought “First Ypres,” the first of the three battles around the small Flemish town that was to become a British graveyard. The British held on to the indefensible salient during the entire war. They paid, however, the heavy price of over 200,000 men. Ieper became a symbol of man’s destructive power, but also of his courage. In a sense, it was also a symbol of treachery, because while the British died like rats, Albert, whose country they were defending, looked on. He did not lift a finger because he was “neutral.”
In the spring of 1915, the Germans launched a new offensive against Ieper. “Second Ypres” cost the British and Canadians another 59,000 men. Again, the Belgians took no part in the battles. They “defended” the submerged front of 24 miles (36 kilometres) between the sea and Diksmuide, 7 miles to the north of Ieper. During the following four years, the Belgians remained passive onlookers of the war. In the autumn of 1915, Albert wrote in his diary that the Allies were bound for “total defeat.” “In the Central Empires, there is discipline and unity, while on the Allied side everything depends on the politicians. The sovereigns of England and Russia are nonentities [who] allow Parliaments – already totally incapable in times of peace – to take decisions at decisive moments when the vision and the energy of a superior man is needed.” The Belgian King was particularly harsh on “the incredible vanity” of the English. “If only France would understand that it is not in her interest to spill her blood to serve the egotistical aims of the English.” Belgium had to detach itself from them.
Albert contacted his brother-in-law, the German diplomat Count Hans von Törring zu Jettenbach. “The contacts between London and Brussels have been cold and distrustful for 20 years,” the King wrote to Törring on 30 October 1915. The latter informed Albert that Berlin wanted Belgium to give up its neutrality and become a German military ally. It also demanded that in postwar Belgium Flanders should have its own civil administration separate from Francophone Wallonia. The King could agree to the first demand but not to the second. In a letter to Törring on 10 December 1915, he explained that he would refuse to negotiate any further if the Germans did not accept the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Belgium. Berlin subsequently dropped its pro-Flemish demand, but still insisted on Albert becoming their military ally. Joining the German side, however, implied that the British would seize the Congo, Belgium’s rich African colony. He was not prepared to risk that and considered turning his colony over to the neutral United States.
In the autumn of 1916, the Allied military debacle at the Somme strengthened Albert’s conviction that Germany was about to win the war. The Allies had hardly made any progress during the five months of the huge Franco-British offensive along the River Somme, which had cost them 600,000 men and the Germans “only” 470,000. After the Somme offensive ended in November, the Belgian King contacted Berlin again. This time, his secret contacts went through the Marquis of Villalobar, the Spanish ambassador to Belgium. The Marquis travelled frequently between Belgium, Germany, France and neutral Spain. The French authorities, mistrusting Albert, were opposed to the King meeting the Spaniard, but Albert and Villalobar were able to arrange a secret nightly meeting in December 1916. Villalobar had a message for the King from the German Chancellor, Count Bethmann-Hollweg. The Chancellor wrote that Germany would respect the integrity and independence of Belgium if the King withdrew his army from the war.
Bethmann-Hollweg, however, remained sceptic about the outcome of negotiating with Albert. In a letter to King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, a German ally and a cousin of Albert, he wrote that the Belgian King “is under close surveillance of English and French troops and is also in disaccord with his own government. Hence, he cannot impose his own initiatives.” Albert’s position became even more complicated when the United States joined the war on the Allied side in April 1917. This made his Congo scheme impossible.
The British government decided to start a new offensive. “Third Ypres” was fought from August to November 1917. It was the bloodiest of all battles ever fought in Flanders. The British advanced 6 miles to the north into the hamlet of Passendale. It cost them almost 250,000 men. The Belgians looked on, but did not join in.
Early in 1918, after three years of dithering, the King decided he had to give up the Congo in order to save his throne in Belgium. New negotiations were opened with Törring. They coincided with a large German offensive, that began on the morning of 21 March, casting the Allies back 40 miles along the Somme. This time Törring’s contact was Fernand Peltzer, the Belgian ambassador in Bern. Given the strength of the German military offensive, the French and British military commanders, Field Marshals Foch and Haig, again asked the King to put the Belgian army under a joint Allied command. Albert refused. The French President Raymond Poincaré, the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, all paid Albert a visit in efforts to talk him round. They failed.
Peltzer and Törring met again on 30 June. Albert simultaneously pushed for a peace agreement through the Socialist International. Camille Huysmans, the Belgian SI-secretary, was sent to Stockholm to organise a peace conference between the Socialist Parties of the belligerent nations. Unfortunately, the French government did not allow the French comrades to attend. Many years later, in 1963, Huysmans revealed that “the man behind Stockholm” had been King Albert. The King wrote to his sister Henriette on 18 June: “I think it will be the Socialists who will give us peace. The bourgeois parties do not have the guts to adventure on the terrain of transactions.”
On 10 July, unknown to his government, Albert went to London for a secret meeting with the British war cabinet. He was more pessimistic than ever about the prospects of the Allies. The British showed him figures about new American divisions that were on their way to Europe; they also announced an impending counteroffensive. The King retorted that the inexperienced Americans would not be able to drive the Germans away from the occupied territories, as the latter were “very strong on the defensive,” and he said that “one should make peace with the enemy when he fears you most, which is most often the case before rather than after your offensive.”
Albert had finally decided in favour of a separate Belgo-German peace. General Galet, the Belgian Chief of Staff, formulated this as follows on the same 10 July: “We are convinced that Germany will give us our country back and that it will be happy to pay that price in return for peace. France will continue the war in order to conquer the Alsace-Lorraine province, and England in order to assure its world prestige. These are the war goals of the big nations for which we are not prepared to spill one drop of Belgian blood.” The new German Chancellor, Count Hertling, made the necessary overtures towards Albert. In the Reichstag he announced that Germany would guarantee Belgium’s independence and integrity.
One week later, however, there was a dramatic turn of events at the front. The British and French counter-attacked on 18 July and succeeded in stopping the German advance. Albert decided to wait and see how things evolved. On 8 August freshly arrived American troops dealt a severe blow to the German army near Amiens: 15,000 exhausted Germans threw down their arms. Before 25 August another 140,000 Germans had surrendered, while half a million deserted. Soon German resistance collapsed on all fronts. On 26 September 1918, Albert put the Belgian army under Allied command at last. He was no longer “neutral.” The final Allied offensive of the war started on 29 September. It was the first offensive of the war in which the Belgians participated.
The Germans withdrew. Suddenly, the King and his wife were the most enthusiastic warriors in Europe. General Galet was forced to resign. When the Germans asked for an armistice early in November, Albert was greatly disappointed. The French President Poincaré, who met the King on 9 November, wrote in his diary that Albert was “saddened by the news of the armistice, which, he says, robs him of his victory.”
The truth about King Albert’s policy during the war would never have been revealed if historians had not discovered the King’s letters to Count Törring in German files in the 1960s and 70s, and if General Raoul Van Overstraeten had not published Albert’s war diaries in 1953. Van Overstraeten was a pupil and an admirer of Galet. He became the King’s military advisor in 1932, when Albert, fearing a new strong Germany, again wanted to switch to a neutralist policy. Van Overstraeten secretly copied the diaries, which Albert’s successor, King Leopold III, gave him to read in the late 1930s. The General published them with a specific political aim: He was opposed to Belgium joining the European Defence Community in 1952 and wanted to reveal that also the heroic Albert the Great had been “a neutralist.” The diaries were published without the permission of the royal family and against its will.
Outside Belgium the truth about King Albert’s policy during the Great War of 1914-1918 is hardly known. I suppose it must be hard to confront the painful truth that thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers died for a country that did not deserve their sacrifice. Being Flemish, I cannot walk among the innumerable British war cemeteries around Ieper without feeling deep melancholy at such waste.
In Flanders Fields
poem by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Army
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.