Moral Significance Of The Belgian Campaign
( Originally Published 1918 )
IN the supreme alternative which was thrust upon her with such dramatic suddenness, Belgium, we are told, made the right choice. She chose resistance with honour rather than surrender with dishonour.
But although Belgium, we are told, did her duty nobly, she only did her duty. She only
fulfilled her treaty obligations. I do not think that such a statement accurately defines the position of the Belgian people, nor does it give the true measure of British indebtedness.
I do not think that the Belgians merely did their duty. They did infinitely more than their duty. It was not expected of Belgium, it could not be expected of her, that day after day, week after week, she should continue to stand between invading hordes and the allied armies who were preparing for the struggle.
It could not be expected of her that she should continue to resist after the surrender of her fortresses, after the capture of her capital. It could not be expected of her that she should go on fighting unaided by Great Britain and France, left to the mercy of a ruthless conqueror, with her villages razed to the ground, with her cities bombarded, with her armies bleeding to death, with her women outraged, with her old men and children driven out on the road.
I SUBMIT that Belgium was not in strict honour bound to resist to the bitter end. To save her honour it would have been enough if she had made a firm stand against the invader from the strong position of the Liége fortresses. It would have been enough if she had given the French army a short respite to come to the rescue. As the French army was not ready, the little Belgian army after the surrender of Liége might well have retired under the cover of the walls of Antwerp, the last stronghold and refuge of Belgian independence. As a matter of fact, no Belgian offensive had ever been contemplated. The original plan of campaign devised by the genius of Brialmont, a plan which was again and again elaborated in classical military treatises, had always been a purely defensive one. Liége and Antwerp had always been the beginning and the end of Belgian strategy. After the defence had broken down, Belgium might have well concluded an honourable armistice with the enemy. She might have tried to save herself from the horrors of a German occupation. She might have pleaded that an unequal fight of a hundred thousand against a million could only lead to needless slaughter. Belgium would still have satisfied the dictates of honour. She would still have fulfilled her treaty obligations.
WE have just stated what Belgium might have done even from the high plane of national honour. Let us now consider what she might have done from the lower plane of enlightened self-interest. From that lower plane Belgium was all the less bound to risk everything in a life-and-death struggle with Germany, as her economic interests, her commercial prosperity would still continue to be bound up after the war, as before the war, with the interests and prosperity of the German Empire. Owing to her geographical position, Germany must ever be the commercial Hinterland of Belgium. In recent years Antwerp had become for all practical purposes a German commercial metropolis, and twenty thousand Germans in Antwerp had taken advantage of Belgian hospitality. The Belgian sea-coast had become a health resort of the German middle classes. Considering the vital commercial interests involved, Belgian statesmanship might have urged that, while opposing with the utmost determination the aggression of German militarism, it might still be possible to come to terms with the German people. In any case, Belgium might have tempered valour with prudence, she might have counted the cost, she might have reserved for herself a way of retreat, like Italy or Holland. She need not have staked her all on a doubtful issue. Such a course would certainly have been the safer one. If the Allies did win, they would still have respected a neutrality which it was their interest to respect, and which moreover Belgium would have nobly defended. On the other hand, if the Germans did win they would have granted more favourable conditions to the Belgians who would have come to honourable terms, who would have refrained from the extremity of heroic despair.
WE are often reminded that the acquisition of wealth and power is the controlling factor in determining the policy of any nation. If this were so, Belgium might reasonably have thrown in her lot with Germany. So far as material prosperity is concerned, she had everything to gain and nothing to lose from the victory of Germany. If Belgium, after offering an honourable resistance, had come to honourable terms, and if Germany in consequence of that Belgian surrender had crushed the French armies as she would certainly have done, Belgium would probably after the triumph of Germany have become part of the Greater German Confederation. But she would have remained a self-governing kingdom. She would have retained a large measure of autonomy. She would never have become another Alsace-Lorraine, because Germany would still have had a vital interest in promoting the prosperity of Belgium. Antwerp would have risen into the most flourishing port on the Continent, Brussels into the most popular German capital. Belgium would have received an immense accession of wealth and weight instead of remaining a small, insignificant State without influence on the world's affairs. Belgium would have shared more than any other country in the expansion of the German Empire.
BUT Belgium preferred to remain a small independent nation rather than to become a partner in the German Empire. She rejected all the greatness that was offered unto her. She preferred suffering and death, the burning of her homes, the destruction of her cities. The Belgians refused to become German be-cause they would not give up their national personality. If they had become German they would have had to accept German discipline and German culture. And they would have none of German culture and discipline. They preferred to remain loyal to national ideals. And the first national Belgian ideal ever was freedom. For a thousand years the unruly and turbulent Belgian democracies had fought for that ideal. They had asserted it even against Spanish tyranny. They had retained it even under Austrian rule.
ONCE more, then, the alternative to the Belgian people in this war was not between honour and dishonour. It was not between duty and enlightened self-interest. The ultimate alter-native lay between a commonplace political realism and a lofty political idealism. The Belgians preferred the unpractical course which meant ruin and starvation to the practical, reasonable course which meant ease and comfort and material prosperity. They did not choose to take the lax and broad view of honour : they took the narrowest path, they took the strictest and sternest view. They did not adopt the attitude of frigid reason and of enlightened self-interest. They took the heroic and disinterested attitude. They left entirely out of account all commercial or economic considerations. They did not calculate their chances ; they did not count the cost. They only considered that their native soil had been invaded, that they were the victims of a cowardly attack on the part of an insolent aggressor, and they went out to defend that native soil, to meet that attack, to repel that invader, to assert their national independence. They only considered that a great crime was being perpetrated, and they resisted the perpetrators of that crime. They only considered that a great principle was at stake, and that they, even they, were the defenders of that principle, and that to them Destiny had entrusted a sublime duty. They only considered that even though they might be weak, the cause for which they were fighting was invincible, because it was eternal, because against right and justice all the millions of the Kaiser could not ultimately prevail. And having once taken the momentous decision, they threw themselves into the struggle even as their forefathers did in encounters in-numerable. Flemings and Walloons, Socialists and Liberals, Clericals and Anti-clericals, they all presented a united front to the invaders. They met the German Terror in the same spirit in which their forefathers had met the Spanish Terror in the days of Alva and the Inquisition. Inch by inch they defended their territory. When Liége was taken they withdrew to Namur. When the forts of Namur were blown to atoms by the 16 in. howitzer guns, the 12,000 soldiers who had been saved from an army of 26,000 retreated to France, and after three weeks they reappeared at Ostend again to take the field. When Brussels was captured the Belgians fell back on Antwerp. When Termonde was threatened the Belgians burst their dykes and flooded the enemy. When the numbers were too small for the offensive the Belgians were content with the defensive. When a new favourable opportunity arose they resumed the offensive. Time after time, cities were captured and recaptured. Even little villages like Hofstade and Sempst were again and again taken and retaken. Termonde changed hands twice. Malines three times repelled the enemy, and was bombarded five times.
No Britisher has yet learned all the details of the epic struggle, but every British school-boy knows the result and outcome of the Belgian resistance. Everybody knows that by holding in check the Teutonic hordes the little Belgian army has been a decisive factor in the final issue. If Belgium had not been ready to make the great sacrifice, the German armies would certainly have walked over. Paris might be and Calais would certainly be to-day in the hands of the enemy. In all human probability the armies of civilization would have suffered an appalling disaster from the hordes of barbarism. The ultimate issue might still have been the same, but the war would have been more protracted, the carnage infinitely greater, and the final victory more distant.
I MUST have made it abundantly plain that no mere motives of enlightened national interest or even of worldly honour could account for the desperate struggle which the Belgian people waged against Germany. In order to understand the dogged resistance of the Belgians, we must appeal to the deepest instincts of man, to the elemental impulses of liberty. And perhaps still more must we appeal to the higher motives of outraged justice, to the moral consciousness of right and wrong. Until we take in the fact that from the beginning the struggle was lifted to a higher plane, we shall fail to understand the true significance of the war. From the beginning the war was to the Belgian people much more than a national war ; it became a Holy War. And the expression " Holy " War must be understood not as a mere literary phrase, but in its literal and exact definition. The Belgian War was a crusade of Civilization against Barbarism, of eternal right against brute force.
So true is this that in order adequately and clearly to realize the Belgian attitude, we are compelled to illustrate our meaning by adducing one of the most mysterious conceptions of our Christian religion, the notion of vicarious suffering. In theological language Belgium suffered vicariously for the sake of Europe. She bore the brunt of the struggle. She was left over to the tender mercies of the invaders. She allowed herself to become a battlefield in order that France might be free from becoming a shambles. She had to have her beautiful capital violated in order that the French capital might remain inviolate. She had to submit to vandalism in order that humanity elsewhere might be vindicated. She had to lose her soul in order to save the soul of Europe.
THE general spirit in which the war was waged, the almost mystical temper which inspired the Belgian people, was strikingly illustrated at the crisis of Liége. Things were looking desperate. It was obvious that unless relief came at once to the besieged, the fortresses could hold out no longer. On the other hand, it was equally obvious that if relief did come Brussels would be saved from the in-dignity of German occupation. But French and British relief did not come. Yet the Belgians did not complain. They were not only disinterested, they were not only heroic, they were calmly resigned. They were indeed martyrs in the Greek sense of the word. They were witnesses for the European cause.