Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

Through Belgium to France

"When all was ready to their hand,

They loosed the hidden sword

And utterly laid waste a land

Their oath was pledged to guard."

—R. Kipling.

There had never been any suspicion of unfriendliness on the part of Germany towards Belgium. King Albert and the Queen Elizabeth had paid an official visit to Potsdam in 1910, which was returned soon after by the Kaiser and the Empress with their young daughter. Brussels had spared no efforts in her decorations for the royal guests, and the Kaiser, after looking down on the market-place from the balcony of the Town Hall, had exclaimed to the Empress: "We did not expect anything so beautiful."

Did Belgium, which had not been seen by William II. for thirty-two years, seem then a possible addition to the Great Empire ever hungering for expansion? The Belgian army had long been on a peace footing, but with war-clouds hanging over Europe, universal service had been introduced. Still the army was small and incapable of defending the little Belgian kingdom, through which her great neighbour now proposed to march. On the evening of 2nd August, in a highly confidential Note, came a request from Germany for leave for German troops to pass quietly through Belgium, using the citadels of Liege and Namur for operations against France. Belgium must desert her trust as a "neutral" to allow the troops to pass; her territory will be restored after the conclusion of peace, and indemnity for any damage that may be done. On the other hand, if Belgium uses armed resistance, she will be treated as an enemy. Twelve hours were given for the reply. It was enough. There was no hesitation. The answer went swiftly back. Belgium would defend her neutrality sword in hand. It was a brave decision, for with a small and ill-equipped army there could be little chance of success against the mightiest war machine in the world.

"I have faith in our destiny," said King Albert, who with the Queen and their three young children—Princes Leopold, Charles, and the little Princess Marie José—passed into the National Palace amid a scene of great enthusiasm.

"A country which defends itself merits the respect of all. That country will not perish. God be with us in this just cause. Vive la Bélgique indépendante."

And the King placed himself resolutely at the head of his little army as their Commander-in-Chief.

The later position was well illustrated in an English paper. The King stands in the midst of ruins, alone, uplifted, and the Kaiser stands near —triumphant and confident.

"So you see—you've lost everything," he is saying, to which the King of the Belgians, young and resolute, replies, "Not my soul."

But the foe was already across the frontier. On the night of 1st August, after their declaration of war with France, German motor-cars followed by trains had burst through the neutral Duchy of Luxemburg, and the following day loud explosions, caused by the destruction of bridges, told the Belgians that the Germans had crossed their frontier, and were making straight for the fortress of Liege, which barred their way to Paris. They did not rate Belgian valour high, and anticipated an easy task. Speed and secrecy were of supreme importance before the English and French were ready. They were not prepared for the strong defence put up at Liege by the Belgians. The first German assault failed, and the enemy was driven back with heavy loss. The following day the southern forts were pierced, and on 7th August, the city fell; but the German army had been held up for two days, Belgians still commanded the railways, and the German troops could not proceed.

The Germans now revealed to the world one of the great surprises of the war. Quickly they brought up their huge cannon, moved about easily on broad wheels, to positions already prepared in secret. The forts commanding the railway were shattered to bits, but precious days had been lost by the foe. It was already 15th August when the great German army marched towards Namur—Namur held by the Belgians to be impregnable. But the great fortress fell in thirty-six hours, and the road into France was now open.

The collapse of Namur was the "first resounding success of the Germans in the war."

Across the French frontier now swept the vast host of German soldiers—over a million strong,—such an army as the world had never seen before. Perfect in every detail, the grey-clad soldiers pressed on in a never-ending stream, accompanied by their terrifying engines of destruction.

With pride and confidence in his own perfect war machine, it were small wonder if the Kaiser had really said the words ascribed to him, and ordered his troops to "annihilate the contemptible little English army."

Contemptible in size it may have been, but matchless in deeds of valour.

The situation in England was serious enough when Lord Kitchener agreed to become Secretary of State for War in response to popular clamour.

"There is no army," he had asserted on his appointment. And indeed it was common knowledge that the first small Expeditionary Force under Sir John French—leader of cavalry—was wholly inadequate for the colossal task before them.

Lord Kitchener saw the truth at a glance, and it is to his undying fame that he created the wondrous new armies which were to fight and die in a cause in which all believed.

"Your king and country need you.
A call to arms.

So ran the posters throughout the land those hot August days in 1914. "An addition of 100,000 men to His Majesty's Regular Army is immediately necessary in the present grave National Emergency. Lord Kitchener is confident that his appeal will be at once responded to by all those who have the safety of our Empire at heart."

Four days after the declaration of war, a hundred thousand men joined the colours; within a fortnight they were in camp—the first of the new armies to be enrolled, housed, fed, clothed, trained, armed, and equipped with guns, rifles, and ammunition, henceforth to follow to France the Expeditionary Force now on its way. Every man of this first force knew his duty well. Each active service pay-book contained a reminder of what was expected of him.

"You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience.

"Remember that the honour of the British army depends on your individual conduct. It will be your duty, not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness under fire, but also to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping in this struggle.

"Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted; your conduct must justify that welcome and that trust."

"Do your duty bravely,

Fear God,

Honour the King."

Soon long lines of these khaki-clad men were moving slowly along the dusty white roads of France, enthusiastically welcomed by their French allies. In physique and equipment they were unrivalled. It is said they went as young happy boys going to the unknown war in a "sporting spirit as though it were a game."

What if their own marching song of "Tipperary" was to become later the death dirge of that gallant host!

"Think that when to-morrow comes

War shall claim command of all,

Thou must hear the roll of drums,

Thou must hear the trumpet's call.

Now, before they silence ruth,

Commune with the voice of truth.

England! on thy knees to-night

Pray that God defend the right."

Sir H. Newbolt (The Vigil).


The Western Front, 1914. The German Onrush.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The World at War  |  Next: Towards Paris
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.