Tragic Isolation Of Belgium And The True Cause Of The Fall Of Namur
( Originally Published 1918 )
IT was always understood that the only function of Belgian defence was to delay the German advance and to give the Allied Armies time to rush to the rescue. The theory was that, if the Germans could only be held up for forty-eight hours, Belgium would have played its allotted part. The Belgians did play their allotted part. They not only did their duty, they did more than their duty. They held up the German advance for forty-eight hours, for five days, for fourteen days. But the allied troops did not come to succour the Belgians in their desperate plight.
We war correspondents did not understand why the Allies did not appear on the scene and we felt uncomfortable as we passed through Belgium. Wherever it leaked out that we were British, we were confronted by anxious Belgians.
It was always the same question which was on everybody's lips : " Où sont les Anglais ? " " Où sont les Français ? " But both the French and Sir John French were too far away to help the two thousand little Belgian gunners shut up in their cupola forts, isolated from the rest of humanity.
IT was a mystery, and we wanted to clear up the mystery. For days we motored on all the high roads of Belgium which were still unoccupied by the Germans, in quest of the Allies. But somehow the Allied Army seemed to vanish at our approach. I dubbed it the " phantom army," and the definition seemed appropriate. It is true that ocular witnesses had seen the French and British troops. They could even locate their exact position. They had gone far north to cut off the German lines of communication. They were entrenched in the camp of Beverloo, in Limburg. But, alas ! we discovered that in time of war ocular witnesses can hardly be trusted, and that the war fever produces the strangest hallucinations. What the ocular witnesses possibly had seen was one remarkable motor-car, with one British military attaché, with a Belgian chauffeur, also in khaki, and a Belgian interpreter, also in khaki. That solitary British officer, with the two Belgians dressed in khaki, represented to the Belgian people for many anxious days all the might and majesty of the British Army. For that motor-car was ubiquitous. I saw it at Louvain ; I saw it at Namur and Dinant. I again found it in the small hours of the morning at Mons, after my escape from the capital. Everywhere this solitary British motor-car made the Belgian people believe that the English Army had actually arrived. As war correspondents we had good reason to notice that remarkable British car. It first had seemed to follow us. We soon found that it was in our interest to follow it. Just then the spy mania was at its height. On our way from Brussels to the French frontier we had been arrested for three hours at Namur as German spies. It suddenly dawned upon us that the best way to escape suspicion was to follow closely in the wake of the British motor-car. We seemed to form part of its suite. We shared in the enthusiasm which its passage called forth amongst Belgians, civilians and soldiers alike. From that enthusiasm we first realized what British and French support actually meant to the Belgians. We realized what a few French or British regiments might have done to restore confidence to the much-tried Belgian troops.
WHY, then, it will be asked, did the Allied Armies not come to the rescue of the Belgians ? Why were the two thousand little Belgian gunners allowed to fight alone in their cupola forts ? The reason is only too obvious. The Allies were not ready. Far be it from me to make any complaint or to pass any judgment. I am merely stating a fact, and it is a fact which is not in the slightest degree disparaging to the Allies. The preparedness of the Germans will redound to their eternal shame. The unpreparedness of the Allies will redound to their lasting honour.
The Allies were not ready because they had been taken by surprise, and they had been taken by surprise because they had trusted in the good faith and pacific professions of the Germans. Germany was negotiating for peace, and all the time was treacherously massing her troops on the Belgian frontier, with the result that twenty-four hours after the declaration of war three army corps were appearing before Liége. France and England continued to negotiate for peace in all sincerity, with the result that on the declaration of war England was not able for ten days to disembark her troops, and France had to think of her own defence instead of rushing to the defence of the Belgians.
THE Belgians, of course, were not told the real reason why they were not assisted. They could not be told that the Allies were not ready. They were told that the French and English were prevented from co-operating mainly for " strategic reasons." They were told that the general plan of campaign had best be carried out, independently of Belgium ; that it was better that Belgium should be left to her fate ; that the occupation of Brussels was merely a spectacular display ; and that it was better far that Brussels, which was undefended, should be taken than that the Germans should threaten the capital and stronghold of France.
The Belgians accepted the explanation. One might have sympathized with the Belgians if they had keenly felt their abandonment, if they had bitterly resented the humiliation of the capture of Brussels, the horrors of Louvain. As a matter of fact, they did not complain. The attitude of the Belgians in this connexion was strikingly characteristic of the magnanimous disposition which they showed all through the crisis. As I suggested in a previous chapter we shall best understand their temper when we say that it was almost mystical. To them, indeed, this was a Holy War, and in a Holy War one must be prepared to suffer vicariously. One must be resigned to be a martyr, a witness for a common cause.
ALTHOUGH the Belgians did not complain, although their attitude was calmly resigned, yet the abandonment of Belgium had fatal con-sequences. It no doubt sealed the doom of Liége and Namur. Military critics have wondered at the fall of Namur, and certainly at first sight the immediate collapse of Namur was only less surprising than the persistence of the defence of Liége. The Namur forts were apparently quite sufficiently manned and equipped. They had ample ammunition. The town had a superabundance of provisions. Yet the formidable stronghold fell to the enemy almost at the first attack, as soon as the Germans brought their heavy artillery.
Several explanations have been given. It has been said that the little Belgian Army was not sufficient to defend and garrison three such forts as Liége, Namur, and Antwerp, and at the same time keep in reserve a field force. It has been said that the desertion of the Allies utterly demoralized the besieged. Neither ex-planation seems to me adequate. The Belgian garrison amounted to z6,000 well-trained troops. They were sufficiently prepared for any sacrifice. As a matter of fact, out of that gallant division of 26,000 only 12,000 survived.
But from the beginning there was a misunderstanding as to the relative parts to be played by the Belgians and by the Allies, and it is that misunderstanding which ultimately proved fatal. The Belgians depended on the Allies to oppose the approach of the enemy. They made no sorties, trusting to outside co-operation. They kept to the defensive, whereas a vigorous offensive alone could have saved the situation. It is true that, the German heavy siege guns once placed in position, nothing could save the Namur forts. But it would have been possible to prevent the Germans from bringing out their heavy artillery. It is the inaction of General Michel which lost the stronghold to the Belgian Army, and that inaction was entirely the result of the misunderstanding referred to. If the Allies had clearly intimated that they were not going to co-operate with the Belgians, the Belgians would have exchanged their defensive for offensive tactics, Namur would have been saved, a joint Belgian and French army would have harassed the Germans in the rear, and the advance of the enemy into France would have been checked.