Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 3, 2014

100 Years Ago: Germany Invades Belgium

The Diplomacy of Invasion

The language and tone of the diplomatic exchanges leading up to the invasion of neutral Belgium by Germany is fascinating. In the initial note the sheer thuggishness of the German threat shines through despite such diplomatic phraseology as "Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium." We have supplemented a selection of the diplomatic exchanges leading up to the invasion with some images of the actual subsequent events from the collection of Tony Langley.

The Initial Incursion Had an Almost Comical Look at the Border

  • Note presented by Herr von Below Saleske, German Minister at Brussels, to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brussels, 2 August 1914

Reliable information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essential for the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration:

1. Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind themselves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

2. Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace.

3. If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in co-operation with the Belgian authorities, to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.

4. Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

  • M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Belgian Minister at St. Petersburg, Berlin, London, Paris, Vienna, The Hague, Brussels, 3 August 1914. (Telegram)

At 7 P.M. last night Germany presented a note proposing friendly neutrality. This entailed free passage through Belgian territory, while guaranteeing the maintenance of the independence of Belgium and of her possessions on the conclusion of peace, and threatened, in the event of refusal, to treat Belgium as an enemy. A time limit of twelve hours was allowed within which to reply.

Our answer has been that this infringement of our neutrality would be a flagrant violation of international law. To accept the German proposal would be to sacrifice the honour of the nation. Conscious of her duty, Belgium is firmly resolved to repel any attack by all the means in her power.

  • M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Belgian Ministers at Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna, St. Petersburg. Brussels, 3 August 1914 (12 noon)

As you are aware, Germany has delivered to Belgium an ultimatum which expires this morning, 3rd August, at 7 a.m. As no act of war has occurred up to the present, the Cabinet has decided that there is, for the moment, no need to appeal to the guaranteeing Powers.

The French Minister has made the following statement to me upon the subject—

"Although I have received no instructions to make a declaration from my Government, I feel justified, in view of their well-known intentions, in saying that if the Belgian Government were to appeal to the French Government as one of the Powers guaranteeing their neutrality, the French Government would at once respond to Belgium's appeal; if such an appeal were not made it is probable, that — unless of course exceptional measures were rendered necessary in self-defence —the French Government would not intervene until Belgium had taken some effective measure of resistance."

I thanked M. Klobukowski for the support which the French Government had been good enough to offer us in case of need, and I informed him that the Belgian Government were making no appeal at present to the guarantee of the Powers, and that they would decide later what ought to be done.

  • His Majesty the King of the Belgians to His Majesty King George. Brussels, 3 August 1914. (Telegram)
Remembering the numerous proofs of your Majesty's friendship and that of your predecessor, and the friendly attitude of England in 1870 and the proof of friendship you have just given us again, I make a supreme appeal to the diplomatic intervention of your Majesty's Government to safeguard the integrity of Belgium.

  • Count de Lalaing, Belgian Minister at London, to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, London, 3 August 1914. (Telegram)

I showed your telegram to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who has laid it before the Cabinet. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has informed me that if our neutrality is violated it means war with Germany.

No Longer Comical
  • Herr von Below Saleske, German Minister at Brussels, M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs. Brussels, 4 August 1914 (6 A.M.)

In accordance with my instructions, I have the honour to inform your Excellency that in consequence of the refusal of the Belgian Government to entertain the well-intentioned proposals made to them by the German Government, the latter, to their deep regret, find themselves compelled to take — if necessary by force of arms — those measures of defence already foreshadowed as indispensable, in view of the menace of France.

  • Note communicated by Sir Francis H. Villiers, British Minister at Brussels, to M. Davignon, Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs. Brussels, 4 August 1914.

I am instructed to inform the Belgian Government that if Germany brings pressure to bear upon Belgium with the object of forcing her to abandon her attitude of neutrality, His Britannic Majesty's Government expect Belgium to resist with all the means at her disposal.

In that event, His Britannic Majesty's Government are prepared to join Russia and France, should Belgium so desire, in tendering at once joint assistance to the Belgian Government with a view to resisting any forcible measures adopted by Germany against Belgium, and also offering a guarantee for the maintenance of the future independence and integrity of Belgium.

End Game: Occupation of Most of Belgium

Source:  Selected documents from The Belgian Grey Book at the World War I Document Archive


  1. I'm surprised that the 4 August message from Villiers to Dauvignon contained weasel words.
    'Prepared to join Russia and France' - prepared to doesn't mean will and 'join Russia and France' means not necessarily unilateral but subject to discussions with Russia and France. 'Tendering at once joint assistance' also covers options short of 'boots on the ground' as we say nowadays.

  2. Diplomatic speak, at the same time Germany threatened Belgium to allow the operation of the Schiefflen Plan, France pressured England to declare war on Germany re: the 1904 Staff talks held by the French GQG and the Imperial General Staff. The British representative Wilson had made guarantees he had no authority to make. My study showed that England in event of war between France and Germany, agreed to defend the English Channel and prevent the Kriegsmarine from using the Channel as a route to attack France. In the event, when German troops crossed the Belgian frontier, England honored her treaty obligations demanding a German withdrawal or face war with England. The rest as they say is history

  3. My great aunt was governess to Count & Countess de Lalaing's 3 children for 2 years (1912-1914). She was told by them to return home (Morpeth, (Northumberland) England) 2 weeks before the war broke out. The children wrote to her for sometime but then she never heard from the family again. My aunt was born in Newcastle England in 1892 and died in Australia in 1998 age 106