‘Poor Little Belgium,’ the cause of Britain entering the European war of 1914 and turning it into a World War, was nothing of the kind.
It was, in 1914, a highly militarised society at the centre of the world’s arms industry with a massive army and a dubious neutrality. It was one of the most brutal and reactionary of the Imperialist powers. One of its possessions in Africa was referred to, before the war in Britain, as “The Congo Slave State”, where the Belgians worked millions of natives to death.
Roger Casement had exposed the practices of the Belgians when working for the British Imperial service. Hir report, however, was used by his masters to gain leverage at a future date on the Belgians so they would do the right thing i.e. what Britain required of them.
Belgium was not a natural entity and was constructed by external forces, largely by Britain, to curb the French geographically on the other side of the Channel. It was a state rather than a country, made up of two distinct peoples who did not like each other. But it was kept together to serve a strategic purpose for Britain, which claimed a right of hegemony over it. Lord Palmerston, who was the individual most responsible for it, recognised that its position made it advantageous to traverse by French armies going east and the declarations of neutrality should not be religiously respected.
During the Franco-Prussian War Lord Granville concluded treaties with both France and Germany guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium. Article 3 of both treaties declared that they were only to remain in force during the continuance of the war and for twelve months afterwards. Both treaties therefore had expired by 40 years in 1914. There were earlier treaties from the 1840s but Lord Derby accurately described their use in giving Britain “a right to make war, but would not necessarily impose the obligation.”
The Belgian ‘treaty’ that the Liberals insisted on honouring to engage in their Great War on Germany was not a treaty with Belgium but a treaty about Belgium. Britain itself breached the treaty by negotiating with Belgium about what would happen in the event of Germany wanting to pass an army through the country. And the Germans found considerable evidence later in the Belgian archives that the Belgians had played fast and loose with their supposed ‘neutrality’ by entering into military discussions with Britain as early as January 1906 about how they would co-operate in a future war on Germany. So it was Belgian neutrality had already been breached and would be breached subsequently, whatever the Germans did. And Walter Page, the Anglophile US Ambassador in London, in a conversation with Colonel House, President Wilson’s special adviser, in September 1916, revealed that the White House also believed that Belgium neutrality was really just a canard for the British to justify a war.
The famous Belgian treaty ‘guaranteeing’ its neutrality was worthless but Britain still exercised the right to use Belgium in the way it saw fit. And so the German defensive sweep into Belgian was the cassus belli in England, when in reality it was merely the pretext for war, from Britain’s point of view.
It was well known in Belgian governing circles that England was pursuing a secret policy of war against Germany and the Belgian state was really part of the political front against Germany and a kind of unofficial member of the entente. Belgium had its own war aims of an Imperial kind – and subsequently did very well out of the spoils of victory in 1919. In 1912 Belgium adopted a military programme raising the war strength of its army to a massive 340,000 and introduced the principle of universal compulsory service, in preparation to meet her obligations and responsibilities to her ‘allies.’ In August 1914, Belgium was able to put a larger army in the field than Britain – despite, in theory, being a neutral country.
In July 1914 Edward Grey lured Germany into Belgium by not giving a clear warning to Germany of Britain’s position. He was criticised at the time for this.
Britain’s freedom of action was the major element of uncertainty in the situation that had the effect of oiling the wheels of war. During the critical few days at the end of July, Britain had in great measure the power to determine the course of events. If, it had declared its intention to commit its army in support of France that would have exerted considerable influence on German behaviour, which would in turn would have greatly influenced Austria, and Austria might well have warded off Russian mobilisation by taking a different attitude to Serbia. Or, if Britain had declared its intention to be neutral under specified conditions, that would have influenced French behaviour in drawing back, discouraging Russia. But England did neither of these things. Instead, it gave the Germans hope that it would remain neutral, encouraging the Kaiser to back Austria, whilst signalling to the French and Russians its intentions if they went ahead.
After Austria had declared war on Serbia both sets of alliances eagerly made representations to Britain to determine her position. The Germans argued that if England declared it would remain neutral, France and Russia would not dare to fight. The French and Russians argued that if England declared she would side with them, Germany and Austria would at once back down. But Asquith and Grey decided to do neither and maintained a dangerous ambiguity in Britain’s position. They, instead, by their deliberate inactivity encouraged neither side to draw back, and instead, both alliances to war.
The British State, in the critical week, did not have a position that the other European states could take account of when deciding what to do themselves. It looked like indecisiveness by British statesmen at the critical juncture and it has become usual to say Britain drifted into war. But it was nothing like that at all. Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Churchill had all decided a week before the declaration of war that, in the event of a conflict, Britain would take part in it. They calculated the chain of events and their drift, encouraged them to occur, and then in the time-honoured fashion of the Balance of Power strategy, they entered the war as part of a military alliance against their main European rival.
It was at this crucial point that the Anglo-French Entente came into its own for Grey. There were fairly tight treaty obligations existing between France, Germany, Austria and Russia, which would probably draw them into any war that might break out among two of the parties. Britain was the only real free agent in the situation not bound by treaty to join forces with France or anyone else. Its options were open and it was not under any obligation to take part in the war. It could afford to let a European conflict run its course and sit back and watch the territorial sorting out as a result of it, without risking any loss to itself.
Germany offered Belgium friendly neutrality, and promised to maintain her independence if she would give free passage to German troops across a part of her territory. If the king of the Belgians refused Germany would have to treat his country as an enemy. But it was vital for the Liberal Imperialists that they draw the Germans into Belgium. That would be the only factor enabling them to bring the bulk of their party – who were not predisposed to supporting Balance of Power wars – into supporting British participation in war. They knew that the Shlieffen Plan was the only feasible German defensive manoeuvre to deal with its encirclement and much larger forces mobilizing on its borders. But the German plan was a plan for a defensive war on German’s borders and was most unlike the British plans made in the decade before the war – which were actually plans for a Great War and Imperial expansion across the globe.
If Asquith and Grey had told the Germans that England would declare war on them if they crossed Belgian territory the Kaiser would have thought twice and Germany would have had to back down or chance taking Paris through the French frontier. But that would have let the opportunity slip for British intervention in a very favourable conflict situation against Germany. To accomplish the Liberal Imperialist objectives of war and party support the Germans had to be lured into Belgium by saying nothing at the vital hour.
And so, ‘poor little Belgium’ played its part in a great distortion of history which only fools, or those wishing to rehabilitate the British version of history in Ireland, believe today.