Belgian Army in Action - 1914
The collection of photographs above shows the Belgian Army in action during the first months of World War One. It shows Belgian infantry and cavalry manning hastily prepared defenses, lining the banks of canals and firing on advancing German troops.
The role of the Belgian army during the First World War is often forgotten or charecterised by the slogan ‘Brave Little Belgium’ holding off the invading Germans until they were quickly overwhelmed. The Belgian Army were instrumental in slowing the initial German advance and they performed far better than their allies and the Germans had expected this line of thought still minimises their role. The photographs collected above show the Belgian Army in action during the first months of the war during fighting around Liege, Namur and during the retreat to and defence of Antwerp until late October when they were pushed back and held only a small corner of southwest Belgium.
The Belgian strategy in the event of war was to gather its field army in the centre of the country behind the Gete River while the National Redoubt, a 95 mile long belt of defensive fortifications ringing Antwerp, would hold the Belgian left flank while forts at Liege and Namur would buy the main field army time to mobilise. One of the most concerning issues was that the Belgian Army had never in its history fought a single major engagement, the country’s neutrality until now unbroken, had precluded this. No Belgian general officer had ever commanded troops in the field and none of the troops, even the most seasoned veterans have ever fired a shot in anger or been fired upon.
When war came the Belgian army followed their plans and the forts at Liege and Namur were soon engaged by the enemy. The main Belgian field army concentrated behind the Gete River. However, in the face of modern German heavy artillery Liege fell in just ten days, Namur in just four and Brussels had to be abandoned. The majority of the Belgian Army retreated towards Antwerp fighting delaying actions along the way. By late August the French and British had advanced north into Belgium but had underestimated the weight of the German attack and were forced to retreat leaving the Belgians to face the Germans at Antwerp.
German map showing the German attack on Antwerp and the Belgian withdrawal on the 10th Oct. (source)
A strong German holding force under the command of Hans von Beseler ringed the city in late August. The Siege of Antwerp began on the 28th September with the main Belgian force now holding the city’s defensive lines. On the 28th September, the Germans brought up the heavy artillery that had reduced Liege, Namur and Maubeuge. The outer forts quickly came under heavy fire steadily making the Belgian position untenable. The Belgian army launched a number of division-sized counterattacks, sortieing from the city on three separate occasions. The first on the 24th of August was made in support of British and French forces fighting in southern Belgium, the second sortie saw three infantry divisions supported by cavalry strike southeast reaching as far as Leuven. This was an attempt to draw further German troops north away from the main allied line. The final sortie was made on the 26th September attacked German troops east of Antwerp.
At the Belgian command’s request elements of the British Naval Division arrived in early October with Naval infantry and a brigade of Royal Marines arriving to bolster the city’s defence. Winston Churchill the First Lord of the Admiralty arrived to survey the situation and quickly volunteered to take command of the city’s defence. However, his suggestion was rejected. Further reinforcements were planned with two British divisions landing further west at Ostend but were unable to reach Antwerp before the Belgian Army was forced to abandon the city.
Sailors of the British Naval Division on the march near Antwerp (source)
By the beginning of October, the heavy German artillery was systematically destroying Antwerp’s outer forts and German infantry was probing the Belgian line. On the 2nd October the German’s began attacking in force and the Belgian command began preparations to withdraw west to Ostend if the National Redoubt became untenable. The British Naval Division joined some 80,000 Belgian garrison troops manning the 25 principal forts. The outer forts were indefensible and abandoned by the 4th and the decision to withdraw the main Belgian Army west was made on the 7th October. By the 9th the Belgian Army had withdrawn leaving the garrison troops and the British Naval Division holding the line. The last troops began to withdraw with the British forced to retreat north hoping to loop west however, their line of retreat was cut by German artillery fire and they were forced to cross into neutral Holland where they were interned by the Dutch. About a third of the Belgian garrison met a similar fate while approximately 30,000 Belgian troops were captured the remainder retreated west joining the rest of the Belgian army near Ostend. On the morning of the 10th October Antwerp surrendered.
The remaining Belgian forces took up a position west running between Nieuport and Dixmude. With the Belgian Army exhausted King Albert ordered the sluice gates at Nieuport opened and the coastal plain flooded to impede the German offensive. For the next four years the Belgian Army held onto this corner of western Belgium while the German Army occupied the rest of the their country. In 1918, during the Hundred Days offensive the Belgian Army took to the offensive with the rest of the allied forces pushing the Germans back.
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More on the Belgian Army during World War One here