04 August 1914 – Neutrality Is No Protection

The Kaiser’s troops have been marching through Luxembourg for two days, and now the Germans arrive all along the Belgian frontier to find bridges and tunnel crossings already destroyed. The Kaiser’s generals have assumed in error that this phase of their plan will be swift, and Belgian resistance light. Instead, German forces discover that they face a stiff fight from a proud, if motley, Belgian army. As John Keegan writes in his brilliant narrative, The First World War,

Belgium had adopted the principle of compulsory military service only in 1912, following the strategic review, and it had taken little effect by 1914. The army was one of the most old-fashioned in Europe. The cavalry still wore early nineteenth-century uniforms, crimson trousers, fur busbies, Polish lancer caps. The infantry were in dark blue with oilskin-covered shakos, feathered bonnets or grenadier bearskins. The few machine guns were drawn, like the Flemish milk carts much photographed by tourists, behind teams of dogs. Most of the artillery was allotted to the fortresses of Liege and Namur and the older defenses of Antwerp. The army was actually outnumbered by the Garde Civique, the top-hatted town militias which descended from the days of the Thirty Years’ War. Belgium’s soldiers were patriotic and to prove themselves notably brave, but their capacity to confine any fighting for possession of their country to its Eastern corner was delusory.

Yet, at the outset, they made a bold stab at enacting the General Staff’s strategy.

“Prepared for war in neither mind nor body,” the army of ‘brave little Belgium’ consists of a mere six divisions of infantry and one of cavalry. Perhaps it is because of their courage in the face of a force at least three times their strength that the attackers immediately begin reprisals against civilians. German war doctrine holds civilian resistance to be a crime punishable by collective punishment, so Belgium has taken great pains to discourage such acts of its citizens; there are no guerrilla actions, but it will not matter. Despite their cooperation, Belgian civilians still suffer murder, rapine, and arson from the very first day. These massacres and outrages provide grist for the allied propaganda mill throughout the war.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, President Woodrow Wilson declares America’s neutrality. It will take much longer, but even the Americans will eventually join the conflict thanks to further German outrages. It seems fantastic to us now, but in 1914 America’s national defense industry is a small part of her industrial expansion. The United States Army is actually smaller than Belgium’s; America has not known conscription since the Civil War, and her regiments are short of artillery, machine guns, and modern training. Due in great part to generational memory of the the world’s first great experiment in industrialized slaughter, America’s pacifist streak is so pronounced that it is the only country to actually hold a robust debate before entering the conflict.

By then, its armaments industry will have spent three years profiting from the conflict, and Belgium will represent both battleground as well as cause. Belgians will fight throughout the course of the conflict, holding the last unoccupied piece of their small nation, an anchor on the allied left.