World War One

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When World War I began, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg as part of the Schlieffen Plan, trying to take Paris quickly. It was this action that caused the British to enter the war, as they were still bound by the 1839 agreement to protect Belgium in the event of a war. The Belgians army is remembered for their stubborn resistance during the early days of the war, with the army - around a tenth the size of the Germany Army - holding up the German offensive for nearly a month, giving the French and British forces time to prepare for the Marne counteroffensive later in the year. The German invaders treated any resistance—such as sabotaging rail lines—as illegal and subversive, and shot the offenders and burned buildings in retaliation.

Belgium had a prosperous economy in 1914 but after four years of occupation, it emerged ruined at the end of the war. On the other hand it suffered few deaths in combat. The Germans had "brutally and efficiently stripped the country bare. Machinery, spare parts, whole factories including the roofs, had disappeared eastward. In 1919, 80 percent of its workforce was unemployed."

Military Role

See also Battle of the Yser

Belgian soldiers fought delaying actions in 1914 during the initial invasion. They succeeded in throwing the elaborate German invasion plan off schedule and helped sabotage the Schlieffen Plan that Berlin had counted on a for a quick victory over France, At the Battle of Liège, the town's fortifications were able to hold off the invaders for over a week, buying valuable time for the Allies. The German "Race to the Sea" was held off by Belgian forces at the Battle of the Yser. King Albert I stayed in the Yser as commander of the military to lead the army while Broqueville's government withdrew to nearby Le Havre in France.

Belgian units continued to serve on the front until 1918.

Forces from the Belgian Congo also played a major role in the African Campaign and a small unit of Belgian soldiers also served on the Eastern Front.

Occupation 1914-18

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The Germans governed the occupied areas of Belgium through a General Governorate of Belgium, while a small area of the country remained unoccupied by the Germans.

The whole country was ruled under martial law. On the advice of the government, civil servants remained in their posts for the duration of the conflict, carrying out the day-to-day functions of government.

The German army executed between 5,500 and 6,500 French and Belgian civilians between August and November 1914, usually in near-random large-scale shootings of civilians ordered by junior German officers. Individuals suspected of partisan activities were summarily shot. Several important Belgian figures, including politician Adolphe Max and historian Template:Henri Pirenne were deported to Germany.

Flemish feeling of identity and consciousness grew through the events and experiences of war. The German occupying authorities viewed the Flemish as an oppressed people and had had taken several Flemish-friendly measures, known as Flamenpolitik. This included introducing Dutch as the language of instruction of all state-supported schools in Flanders in 1918. This prompted a renewed Flemish movement in the years following the war. The Flemish Frontbeweging (Soldiers' Movement) was formed from Flemish soldiers in the Belgian army to campaign for greater use of Dutch language in education and government, though not separatist.

The Germans left Belgium stripped and barren. Over a 1.4 million refugees fled to France or to neutral Netherlands. After the systematic atrocities by the German army in the first few weeks of the war, German civil servants took control and were generally correct, albeit strict and severe. There was never a violent resistance movement, but there was a large-scale spontaneous passive resistance of refusal to work for the benefit of German victory. Belgium was heavily industrialized; while farms operated and small shops stayed open most large establishments shut down or drastically reduced their output. The faculty closed the universities; many publishers shut down their newspapers. Most Belgians "turned the four war years into a long and extremely dull vacation," says Kossmann. In 1916 Germany shipped 120,000 men and boys to work in Germany; this set off a storm of protest from neutral countries and they were returned. Germany then stripped the factories of all useful machinery, and used the rest as scrap iron for its steel mills.

International relief

Belgium faced a food crisis and an international response was organized by the American engineer Herbert Hoover. It was unprecedented in world history. Hoover's Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) had the permission of Germany and the Allies. As chairman of the CRB, Hoover worked with the leader of the Belgian Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation (CNSA), Émile Francqui, to feed the entire nation for the duration of the war. The CRB obtained and imported millions of tons of foodstuffs for the CN to distribute, and watched over the CN to make sure the German army didn't appropriate the food. The CRB became a veritable independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills, and railroads. Private donations and government grants (78%) supplied an $11-million-a-month budget.

At its peak, the American arm, the ARA fed 10.5 million people daily. Great Britain grew reluctant to support the CRB, preferring instead to emphasize Germany's obligation to supply the relief; Winston Churchill led a military faction that considered the Belgian relief effort "a positive military disaster."

Belgium had a prosperous economy in 1914 but after four years of occupation, Belgium emerged ruined at the end of the war—the Germans had "brutally and efficiently stripped the country bare. Machinery, spare parts, whole factories including the roofs, had disappeared eastward. In 1919, 80 percent of its workforce was unemployed."

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