Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Paper Promises Cannot Be Trusted

Sometimes people ask me why I so much support the military or even accuse me of being a warmonger. The real reason for this, at centre, is that knowing my history has taught me that paper promises is not real ensurance against foreign aggression. In 1839 the French, British and Prussians all signed a treaty that promised to respect Belgian neutrality. Yet, in 1914 the French had armies posted as far north as the fortress of Maubeuge and plans for the invasion of Belgium through the Ardennes in a war with Germany. The Germans, as we know, also had a plan to invade Belgium to outflank the primary French military concentration across from Alsace-Lorraine and this was the plan they put into action. In the same way, during the World War II the Germans also ignored the neutrality of Belgium to attack the country. When I point this out the usual answer is that there is now no danger from anyone because France and Germany are close friends and partners of Belgium because of the shared membership in the European Union and other organizations.

This forgets that after 1910 Germany became a greater partner in trade than France. Belgium was prospering, the government focused on domestic issues and wanted to spend nothing on the military because we were neutral and really had no need for a military at all. Why would there be any trouble with Germany? They signed a promised to respect Belgian neutrality and Germany was our biggest business partner. When war came everyone was surprised and the country was largely unprepared for such a disaster. The only reason Belgium was prepared at all was thanks to the foresight of King Leopold II and King Albert I. There was also the officers of the army who were almost alone in society as being pro-French when almost everyone else at the time was pro-German and refused to conisder the possible threat. Belgium was at least fortunate to have strong monarchs determined to defend their country even if the government was not supportive of them.

King Leopold II saw, after the war of 1870, that Germany was a new potential danger and he had built the line of fortresses along the Meuse which would be the backb0ne of the defense of Belgium in the future. He tried to have the regular army expanded but the government was totally uncooperative and finally, just before his death, voted some expansion but greatly restricted length of service which would mean that the soldiers would have little training or experience at any given time. Under King Albert I the military was given slightly more attention but even then, best estimates were that, in 1912, it would take until 1918 for the army to reach the strength generals thought the bare minimum needed to defend the country by means of the six field divisions and fortress garrisons defending Antwerp, Namur and Liege. The refusal of the government to spend on weapons meant that the Belgian army was woefully ill-armed. King Albert I tried to get his soldiers better modern weapons in 1913 but the place to get them, the German Krupp company, naturally delayed delivery because of the impending invasion.

Things were not helped by the way the military was unprepared with a working plan. France had Plan XVII and Germany had the Schlieffen Plan but Belgium had no plan at all. Army Chief of Staff De Selliers de Moranville wanted to focus the whole army on Antwerp, leaving the fortresses at Liege and Namur only as a delaying screen. Adjutant-General De Ryckel, on the other hand, wanted to defend all territory starting at the border with special attention on the fortress at Liege, to deal with the enemies as they appeared, fighting for every foot of ground and only falling back to Antwerp as a last resort. To almost the last minute there was no agreement until King Albert I stepped in and settled the dispute, concentrating the army on the left bank of the Meuse with a second defensive line along the Gette and the main reserve at Antwerp. This decision was finally made on August 2, 1914 when German forces were marching into Luxembourg.
No country, certainly not one in so strategic a location, can afford to ignore possible threats or think about the unthinkable. Paper promises are no protection from danger nor are trade agreements and economic cooperation. There must always be those who plan for how to deal with the worst scenarios and we must support the military and thank God for all the men and women who are willing to put their lives in danger to defend their people and country.

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