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The Alleged Military Alliance Between Belgium and Great Britain



      The most serious charges levied against Belgium came in October 1914 after Germany had captured Brussels and found in the government archives copies of the Conventions Anglo-Belges.[1]   For the Germans, this was proof of their prior suspicion that Belgium had allied itself with Great Britain, thereby becoming a belligerent and forfeiting any claim to neutrality.  Germany had made this allegation around the time of its ultimatum on Belgium but curiously omitted any mention of it in the text of the ultimatum, and since Germany had no proof, the allegations were ignored.  However, the archive documents proved that Belgium had consulted Great Britain regarding the entry of British troops into Belgium against Germany.  The German government then turned these documents into a propaganda machine, claiming that Belgium had predetermined to join Germanyís allies as a ěvassal state of England.î[2]   Furthermore, since Britain itself had plotted to send troops into Belgium, the very reason it cited for declaring war on Germany, the Germans claimed that British rhetoric about Germanyís violation of Belgium was utterly meaningless.[3]   And indeed, had there been an actual Belgian alliance with Britain against Germany, Germany would have been correct in considering Belgium a belligerent rather than a neutral on August 3, for the letter and the spirit of the Treaty of 1839 would have been violated as much by Belgium as by Great Britain.[4]

       However, this German propaganda campaign misrepresented the tone of the military conversations and omitted the key feature of the discussions.  The documents contained merely informal, non-binding discussions between Belgium and one of her guarantors, designed to enforce respect for the obligations of the 1839 treaty and insert British troops into Belgium only if Germany decided to disregard them, which she eventually did.[5]   The fact that Germany did not disclose the defensive character of the conversations proves that Germany was not engaged in legal argument, but merely a slanted propaganda campaign to deceive public opinion.  In fact, the German Secretary of State and Minister of War had even reaffirmed the neutral status of Belgium, as well as Germanyís duties to respect that status, in the German Reichstag on April 29, 1913, and as late as July 31, 1914, Herr von Below-Saleske stated to the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs that the German view had not changed.[6]   Though the Germans had not yet discovered the military conversations, the fact that they, who claimed to have been convinced that Belgian neutrality had been forfeited long ago, did not make the allegation at the outbreak of war (and indeed made official statements to the contrary) greatly undermines the persuasiveness of their claim.[7]

       In 1914, it was controversial whether defensive alliances violated neutral status,[8]  but many scholars thought it was legal for a neutral state to take steps to protect its neutrality.  There had been frequent perceived threats from one side or the other throughout much of Belgiumís history of neutrality.[9]   Despite these tensions, Belgium had relied on the good will of its neighbors and guarantors to the point that it maintained very low levels of armed forces, and upon attack from either side, it would struggle to defend itself.[10]   In fact, the Belgians took their guarantee so seriously that they also neglected frontier defenses, fortresses, and anything else that implied lack of confidence in the treaty.[11]   And therein lies the reason the Schlieffen Plan called for a move through Belgium, to overwhelm quickly and easily the tiny Belgian army and encircle the French fortresses along the Franco-German border.[12]   However, since the Belgian government could not gain the support for legislation to increase the size of the military to repel an attack, the military leaders resolved to seek out an agreement for military cooperation with friendly neighbors in order to resist the threats coming from both sides.[13]

       More importantly, Germanyís charge that Britain had made plans to violate Belgian neutrality herself does not somehow make Germanyís actual violation any less flagrant, because Germany did not invade Belgium to protect its neutrality (witness the atrocities committed by the Germans en route).  Britain, on the other hand, was preparing to send troops to Belgium for the sole purpose of carrying out her role as a guarantor of the 1839 Treaty, and comparing the two actions is grossly to distort reality.  Even the German military historian commissioned in 1916 to oversee the archives of the Anglo-Belgian conversations insisted that Belgium had not departed from the requirements of neutrality.[14]   Thus, even the most vigorous German attempts to justify the invasion of Belgium failed to present a convincing legal argument.

       In the end, history has clearly judged the German invasion as a violation of international law.  Indeed, the numerous German justifications all seem disingenuous in that they were presented only after the military necessity defense had failed to convince the world that their move into Belgium was not unlawful.  Moreover, they seem primarily to be desperate attempts to convince the German people that their cause was just and that they were not the aggressors, but rather the victims of their enemiesí aggression.[15]   Excellent proof of this proposition comes from the fact the German government never published the Belgian refusal to accept the German ultimatum, wanting to give the impression that Belgium had acquiesced and that her armed resistance was therefore illegal (possibly to justify the atrocities committed on Belgian soil).[16]

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Footnotes

1.     For a sample of the detailed conversations, see Alexander Fuehr, The Neutrality of Belgium, 1915, Ch. 4,  (http://raven.cc.ukans.edu/~libsite/wwi-www/belgneut/BelgTC.htm#TC).
2.     North German Gazette, December 2, 1914, quoted in Fuehr, Appendix G.
3.     Id.
4.     Jesse S. Reeves, ěThe Neutralization of Belgium and the Doctrine of Kriegsraison,î 13 Michigan Law Review 180, 183, (1915).
5.     James Garner, International Law and the World War, 1920, Vol. II, p. 207.
6.     Reeves, supra note 4, at 182.
7.     In Ch. 5 of his book, Fuehr claims the reason Germany did not mention in the ultimatum what it knew to be true was that she wanted to make the terms of the note acceptable to Belgium, in order to ěspareî Belgium from being drawn into the conflict.  See supra note 1.  However, the notion that Germany was looking out for the best interests of Belgium is hardly credible, given that Germany instigated the war and proceeded to burn Belgium to the ground.
8.     See statement of French Professor de Lapradelle, cited in Fuehr, supra note 1, at Ch. 4, ěThe perpetually neutral State renounces the right to make war, and, in consequence, the right to contract alliances, even purely defensive onesÖ.î
9.     See, e.g., Daniel H. Thomas, The Guarantee of Belgian Independence and Neutrality in European Diplomacy, 1830's-1930's, 1983, p. 397.
10.   Id. at 408.
11.   Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962, p. .
12.   Thomas, supra note 9, at 420.
13.   Id. at 422-423.
14.   Id. at 531.
15    Tuchman, supra note 11, at 127-128. 
16.   Tuchman, supra note 11, at 128.