Lord Palmerston managed to secure an international treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality in 1839. Barbara Tuchman makes the point that Palmerston recognised that the neutrality of Belgium was essential for peace in Europe – if the Germans, French or Austro-Hungarian Empire laid hands upon the territory it would always be a source for conflict.
In 1892 France and Russia signed a military alliance. This meant that if Germany went to war with either of these countries then they would face war on two fronts. The Germans decided they needed a plan and that the best thing to do would be to neutralise France first because they considered the French to be weaker. This would then leave the Germans free to concentrate their attention upon the Russians. It also meant the the French had to be dealt with quickly before any Russian advance could gain the upper hand.
With this in mind Schlieffen, who was Germany’s Chief of General Staff, began to plan what Germany would do in the event of war. He began work on his plan in 1897 and completed it in 1906. It dictated the rate of the German advance and the speed at which victory must be achieved. He allowed six weeks and seven eighths of German forces. An admirer of Hannibal, Schlieffen’s plan was to outflank France and occupy enemy territory – ignoring the neutrality of any territories who happened to be in the way of the German advance.
The first element of the plan involved a German force attacking the French where they expected to be attacked- in the east – where they had strengthen their borders in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The French would hurry to defend their border but in the meantime the real strength of the German Army would be elsewhere waiting to pounce.
The plan to invade Belgium, east of the Meuse was formulated in 1899. Moving into France through Switzerland was discounted not because of Swiss neutrality but because moving armies through mountains isn’t terribly easy. By contrast both Belgium and Holland – although neutral- were nice and flat by comparison. The Schlieffen Plan required violation of both these territories. A treaty was after all, “just a piece of paper.” The General wanted a wide sweep for the German Armies. Famously he said, “when you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”
The Kaiser did ask King Leopold II if it would be alright for his army to pop through Belgium when Leopold made a state visit in 1898. Leopold who had not had an enjoyable visit to Germany gave the Kaiser a long hard stare and said, “Non!” He made sure that the British Government knew what the Kaiser had asked of him when he returned home.
As war drew ever closer the Germans tried to persuade Leopold’s successor, his nephew King Albert, to allow them free passage. As August 1914 got underway the German Ambassador in Belgium received a note from home. It contained a message for Albert saying that the French were about to violate his country’s neutrality and in view of this news the Germans demanded the right to cross his territory. On the 6th August (four days after receiving the note) the German Ambassador received instructions to pass the message to King Albert.
At 7 a.m. the Belgians returned their answer to the German demand. It was an unqualified – ‘Non!‘ They reminded the Germans that not only were they a neutral country but that Germany had signed the treaty which promised to uphold that neutrality…a response which was a tad inconvenient to the Germans and which threatened to involve Britain which had also guaranteed Belgian neutrality.
The original plan was that once the bulk of the German Army had traversed Belgium and Holland it would move eastwards in a wheel like motion (think of an anti-clockwise spiral going down the plug hole – or one of those lively looking weather systems that swirl around on the weather forecast to get the general idea of what Schlieffen envisaged – I’m sure that there’s a military term for it that describes it better than out-flanking.) In any event, once the French Army was outflanked it could be surrounded and neutralised.
Planning is all well and good. The problem is that people and nations don’t always do what is predicted of them. The Germans expected the French to violate Belgian neutrality as soon as their own incursion became known. Furthermore the Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up a fight which given Leopold’s response in 1898 seems a bit optimistic of them.
Changes were also made to the Schlieffen Plan by General von Moltke the Chief of General Staff in 1914. He reserved 15 percent of Germany’s forces because he thought that the Russians could mobilise more quickly than Schlieffen had given them credit for. Moltke also believed that while the British would definitely go to war if both Belgium and Holland were invaded that they might not be so aggrieved if just Belgium was invaded. This meant that the war had to take place on a much narrower front. It also meant that the Germans had to overcome Liege which was heavily fortified.
In order for the plan to succeed the Germans needed speed. The Belgians put up stiff resistance to the German invasion resulting in delay for the Germans at Liege where twelve well defended forts halted their advance. It was only on the 10th August that the first of the forts fell to the Germans following a pounding by howitzers under the command of General von Bulow. On the 16th Liege finally surrendered. The Germans advanced towards the Meuse but the Belgians destroyed the bridge as they retired. On the 18th August, King Albert ordered the Belgian Army to retreat to Antwerp. They arrived there by the 20th. This meant that the Germans had to deploy some of their army to keep the Belgians in Antwerp – which wasn’t part of the Schlieffen Plan at all.
As their plan began to unravel the Germans became more determined to cow the Belgian population into behaving itself. Roughly translated Shrecklichkeit means frightfulness. War is always frightful but on the morning of the 19th August the Germans shot 150 Belgian civilians at Aerschot for no reason other than they were there and because the policy of Shrecklichkeit was to be enforced.
The image of Gallant Little Belgium was embedded in British minds along with the nastiness of the Germans. Schlieffen’s plan was not so neat on the ground as it had been on paper.
The image in this blog is of a French soldier on the war memorial in Pon. I am also starting to organise my timeline of history for the twentieth century.