- Specially contributed by EMILE VANDERVELDE Belgian Minister of State
HURRAH FOR THE BRAVE BELGIAN ARMY !
King Albert decorating a Belgian soldier
How King Albert's Fighting Forces have been Reorganised since the Retreat from Antwerp
If there is one country that will command the love and admiration of posterity, that country is Belgium. But for the Homeric stand of King Albert's Army, veritably on the anvil of the German sledge hammer, the Kaiser's hordes might have succeeded in their cherished plan for the lightning execution of France. Before the war the hope of Belgium was merely to hold the Germans at bay for twenty- four hours. Their wonderful resurgence and determination have helped to hold the enemy ever since the war began, and constitute, a great, inspiring feature of the campaign in the West. The moment is fitting, after their enduring the rigours of the most unequal contest in the history of racial strife, to review the position and development of Belgium's military forces. The following article by M. Vandervelde, the world-famous Belgian Socialist, who, instantly on the outbreak of war, proved his patriotism by supporting King Albert and accepting office in his Government, has therefore been specially written for our readers.
When Antwerp had fallen, then, after nine days of a difficult retreat, the friends of Belgium sought to know, in grave anxiety, what remained of the Belgian Army. I shall remember all my life .the pitiful impression, which was made upon me by the defiling, on the twenty kilometres of road between Furnes and Dunkirk, of our fortress troops, disbanded, and in complete disarray, having lost nearly one-half of their strength, which had passed over into Holland.
Happily the divisions of the army in the field covered the retreat. They were asked to hold out for forty-eight hours until the arrival of the French. They held out for twelve days, until the moment when, aided by the floods, the German offensive on the Yser was definitely arrested. But in order to obtain this essential result, in order to preserve to Belgium a shred of territory, the Army had lost 12,000 men out of a total strength of 50,000 combatants. It was a question, then, of remaking, reconstituting, re-organising these forces which had been so cruelly tested. At that time when winter was about to commence, when the rains of the bad season fell in a deluge over the Flemish marshes, our men., unsheltered in their trenches, were without boots, without woollens, without change of clothing. We appealed, in order to aid them, to British generosity which was, as ever. splendid. The commissariat also made a great effort, which was not long in producing good results. And at present the Belgian soldiers want for nothing, on condition that our friends in Britain and France continue to send to them comforts of all kinds which other armies receive from their own country.
An Army Without a Base
I come now to military reorganisation, properly so called; and in order to say nothing which may be either incorrect, or indiscreet, I asked the General Staff to give me the facts which follow. It can thus be seen that if there is any astonishing situation in the present war it is that of the Belgian Army after the retreat from Antwerp. People are well aware of the importance in previous wars of the communications of armies with the particular territory in which were accumulated their reserves of all kinds reserves of men, of horses, of arms, of munitions, victuals, clothing. To safeguard the base of an army and the line of communication which led to it was the very raison d'etre of many battles. But this importance is to-day still further increased in consequence of the greatness of strength, the complexity of armaments and equipment, the greater difficulty of feeding from the resources of occupied territory, the enormous masses of men, and the development of the sanitary establishments in which the sick and wounded are cared for. Until recent times it has seemed that an army cut from its base was a lost army.
Now, the Belgian Army, leaving Antwerp, abandoned the city in which for years the Government had accumulated its military resources, the city which apparently ought to be the final refuge, over which to the last would wave the national flag. And, by an unexpected phenomenon, the Belgian Army, instead of being a lost army, increased to such an extent that it is at the present moment considerably stronger than at the commencement of the campaign, while its armaments, its equipment of all kinds, its provisions of all sorts are better than they have ever been.
The Cradle of the New Army
Let no one think from this that the Belgians have taken without scruple the resources of the countries with whom their cause is in common, thus diminishing their assets. Certainly, and especially at first, it was necessary to have recourse to the French arsenals and commissariat, but rapidly and progressively the military administration reconstituted all the bases of production.
Under the energetic and tenacious impulse of the King and the War Department, by the intense and fruitful work of all, training camps have been created from which are produced for all branches of the Service well drilled and disciplined recruits. In French territory, schools for infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineer officers have been founded, completing by theoretic instruction the experience acquired during a year's campaign by the most apt of war subaltern ranks.
The units of the array which marched from Antwerp have been. famished with excellent young soldiers, educated, animated by the best military spirit, of whom many have, at the risk of their lives, crossed the German lines to join their brothers-in-arms. The ranks of these units have been reconstituted, rejuvenated, and reinforced, and a number of well-trained young men formed at the front a nursery of Sub-lieutenants able to take immediate command.
The infantry has seen its armaments well kept up and in perfect condition; the number of machine-guns at its disposal is, at the present time, proportionately greater than in any other army. Its supplies of munitions enable it to face all eventualities. Our field artillery equipment has shown admirable qualities of precision and resistance, though it was obliged, after having exhausted all the munitions of the peace establishment stores, to utilise French munitions scarcely suitable to its ballistic characteristics. Since then the base furnishes once again "75" munitions made specially for our guns.
The heavy field artillery which did not exist at the time of mobilisation has been created. It now comprises guns and mortars of great calibre in sufficient number for our strength. Leaving Antwerp -with a division of cavalry, the Belgian army has increased its light forces both in squadrons of cyclists and in squadrons of motor guns and motor machine-guns. Nothing is more superb than its horses, kept in perfect condition, which, are the admiration of the French and British cavalry officers. The cavalry and the cyclist carabiniers have received machine- guns. The Belgian engineers equal the other arms in the progress achieved. The proportion of engineers in the: army divisions have been doubled by means of the corps drawn from the fortified places. It has been the same with special troops.
As to military aviation, it has accomplished marvels, having started from almost nothing. What is to be said of the transport troops? Beginning at the mobilisation with motors and horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds, mostly secured by requisition, they have now been able to form their transport trains of the best makes, uniform models, with power according to the use for which they are needed. Thus the re- victualling, which in the early part of the campaign worked in a very satisfactory manner, now controls perfectly homogeneous columns. The trains assure the service of food, munitions, and the removal of wounded under conditions which never existed before.
It is thus that, after a year of war, the Belgian Army, which the Germans held at the onset to be a negligible factor, holds better than ever its place at the side of its great Allies. They fight to recover their hearths, to give liberty to their country, to find their relations, their friends, their families. They are proud to fight in the Great Army of Right and of the Independence of the Nations.
from 'les Annales' - the Belgian Army behind the Yser