Monday, August 6, 2012

The King Decides Strategy

When the war leadership of King Albert I is talked about, the thought remains for many that his position of commander-in-chief was really only symbolic or ceremonial and that he did not really have anything to do with making decisions on fighting the war. This of course is completely the opposite of reality. The King was not a military man by nature, he did not have the militaristic character in him but he was a trained military leader and had been prepared for the possibility of taking this position, as required by the law, and he always took his duties to heart. When the war first started, or was about to start with Germany demanding surrender or invasion, the King even then had to make a crucial decision on what strategy the Belgian army would pursue. He was presented by two very opposite plans of action by two accomplished military men and it was the King who had to decide which action to take and what the army would do in the face of the German attack. This was a very big decisions and many lives, even the fate of the country, depended on it.
The first plan was put forward by Lieutenant General Antonin Selliers de Moranville, the Chief of Staff of the army. He looked at the still outdated condition of the Belgian army, the innocence of the reserve troops quickly being called up and feared a horrific waste of life. He advocated that the army retreat beyond Brussels and leaving the river forts to hold out as best they could with the forces they had on hand. This was obviously the most cautious plan, perhaps the most realistic but would certainly have been far from popular.
The other plan came from the Deputy Chief of Staff General Baron Louis de Ryckel which was a somewhat more audacious approach to say the least of it. He actually wanted to take the Belgian army into an invasion of Germany, a surprise attack, to spoil the German offensive and, as the general said, to, "Send them back where they belong!" This was certainly the most daring plan, surely no one would have expected that to happen, for the Belgians to invade Germany, and had the most audacity.
Of course, it was also practically suicidal. King Albert I rejected the plan of his chief of staff, which seemed defeatist, giving up and retreating before the battle had started or the enemy was engaged. He also rejected the opposite extreme of the preemptive attack on Germany. Instead, he and his military staff worked out another option which was the strategy Belgium would adopt. To hold the force with supporting units between them while building up strength and if and when those forts fell to then fight a delaying action across the country to the "National Redoubt" of Antwerp where the big fight would be. It was he who decided to accept no Allied help until the Germans actually violated Belgian territory (to do otherwise would have played right into the hands of the Germans) and it was the King who ordered the destruction of the bridges over the Meuse and the destruction of the rail bridges at the Luxembourg border. It was the King who made all the big critical decisions of the conduct of the war, especially on those early days when Belgium was fighting totally alone. He never wanted to be battlefield commander or a soldier-king but when the crisis of the hour forced him into that position King Albert I proved to be the greatest.


  1. Personally I liked the second option (!!) but history agrees with you: the King knew best!
    Interesting post! Always enjoy hearing these tidbits!

    1. I might have suggested the same. It would be hopeless but the whole thing seemed hopeless to begin with anyway and if you are beaten at least you are in a more advanced position to retreat from. The King made the right decision though. What would have been better is if the British had come more quickly and we could have held on to Antwerp. I think that would have made a big impact on the war.