Magazine article The Spectator

Surrender Monkeys

Magazine article The Spectator

Surrender Monkeys

Article excerpt

On the morning of 4 August 1914 - 90 years ago next Wednesday - the British Cabinet, with 15 votes against two and four abstentions, declared war on Germany. It felt compelled to do so by the Treaty of London (1831), which obliged Britain to guarantee the territorial integrity of the newly established state of Belgium.

German troops on their way to France had crossed the Belgian border earlier that morning. After the assassination in Sarajevo, on 28 June 1914, of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, Austria had declared war on Serbia. Berlin, an ally of Austria, and Paris, an ally of Serbia, felt it was time for war again. If Britain had kept out of it, the event would have been a repetition of the Franco-German tussle of 1870. Coming to the rescue of 'poor little Belgium', however, cost Albion dearly. Four years later, 700,000 young British men had been massacred (1.7 per cent of the entire population), and the poor little Belgians had lost 41,000 men (0.6 per cent).

The man the Belgians still honour for saving their grandfathers from death in the Flemish trenches is King Albert I, grandfather of the present King Albert II. When, on 2 August, the Kaiser had presented Brussels with an ultimatum to allow his army free passage to France, the Belgians had refused. The Belgian general staff was of the opinion that the German army was vastly inferior to the Belgian and French armies. Some had even hoped for a German attack on Belgium, which would allow them to counterattack towards Cologne and Trier and occupy the Rhineland. 'Such an offensive is within our means,' a secret report of the Belgian general staff in the summer of 1913 stated.

Albert and his generals soon discovered that the Germans' military strength was vastly superior to theirs. When the German Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff arrived in Liège on 7 August and rang at the gate of the citadel, the garrison opened the door and surrendered. The Belgian army was in a chaotic state. The officers were all Francophones, while the lower ranks were Flemish. As the Flemings were commanded in French, frequent misunderstandings occurred. Flemish artillerymen who received the order 'Visez la meule' (Shoot at the haystack) dutifully destroyed a nearby mill (meulen in their native tongue).

The Belgian defences collapsed. Brussels fell without a fight on 20 August. King Albert went to the little coastal village of De Panne, the last hamlet before the French border. He settled with his wife Elizabeth in Villa Maskens, literally the last house on Belgian soil. The King was determined to await the arrival of the Germans and surrender. He forbade Belgian soldiers to cross the border and continue fighting the Kaiser from France. According to Albert, Belgium had only defended its own territory against aggression, which under international law a neutral country was allowed to do; but it had never joined the Allied side and, hence, was not an enemy of Germany. He hoped that this argument would persuade the Kaiser to allow him to keep his kingdom.

Two simple Flemish civilians, however, saved the day. Charles Cogge, a civil servant responsible for guarding the dykes surrounding the city of Nieuwpoort at the mouth of the River Yser, and Hendrik Geeraert, an elderly alcoholic, suggested flooding the Yser estuary, creating a water boundary of one mile wide between the Germans and the Belgians. The flood gates were opened on 27 October, submerging the Flemish meadows. The Germans were never able to cross the Yser barrier.

The danger now came from the south: 25 miles from De Panne, not protected by water, lay the mediaeval town of Ypres. The Belgians had fled from it on 7 October, allowing the enemy to enter the town. The British, however, recaptured it on 13 October. They held on to it during the following four weeks, but with the heavy toll of 58,000 men. In the spring of 1915, the Germans launched a new offensive against Ypres. This battle cost the British another 59,000 men. …

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