from the book
'At the Front with Three Armies'
by Granville Fortesque (December 1914)


at the Right Place at the Right Time




* see also Granville Fortescu's Account of the Siege of Liege / the Battle for Namur / the Battle of Dinant

BRUSSELS during the first weeks of the Great War was confident and courageous. If there was ever a note of fear as to the consequences of the impending conflict, it was drowned in the great outcry of indignation with which the Belgians received the news of the invasion of their beloved country. Brussels is the heart of the nation, and during these momentous days it throbbed violently. Up to the very last the people hoped to avoid war and all its calamities, but no sooner had the news reached the city that the first of the German soldiers had crossed the frontier, than, with one accord, the whole Belgian nation rose in defence of their liberty. The first expression of patriotic fervour took the form of the display of the national colours. Not to hang out the brave black, yellow and red of the national flag would almost open one to the suspicion of being lukewarm in the cause of Belgian defence. Looking down the Boulevard du Nord I saw the upper windows of every shop shadowed by the national emblem, - and beneath these flags a restless throng marched all day.

It seems that there is something so disturbing about the thoughts of war that it produces a restless mental condition which only finds relief in movement. All of Brussels spent most of the twenty-four hours of the day in the streets during this exciting period. With extraordinary eagerness they bought up each fresh supply of newspapers as it came from the Press. The thirst for information was unquenchable, and when the news of the first successes at Liege were published the crowds could not contain their enthusiasm. I have seen the Place Charles Rogier at night packed with a dense mob awaiting the arrival of trains from the beleaguered city, and as each batch of fugitives appeared in the portals of the Gare dn Nord this throng would send up cheer after cheer. They had invested Liege with a curious personality; for the people of Brussels the city "ardent," as it had been named, typified the whole Belgian nation. It would sacrifice itself even to the point of annihilation that it might hold in check the hordes of the invader.

This enthusiasm of the populace showed itself in the untiring pursuit of spies. Germany, without doubt, had a very efficient spy system throughout the length and breadth of the Flemish nation. The centre of this system was located in Brussels.

During the first weeks of war, when the Germans were beginning their now famous march through the neutral country, their spies were unceasingly active. While the Belgian authorities succeeded in running down a great many of the foreign agents, undoubtedly others kept up constant communication with the Intelligence Department of the advancing army; but the German great General Staff must have been thoroughly informed of conditions in Belgium long before the actual outbreak of hostilities. Relying confidently upon her guaranteed neutrality, Belgium had never made any effort to conceal the actual state of conditions within her borders. German investigators could have informed themselves of general and special conditions without let or hindrance; and as Belgium has been a great holiday ground for the German people, it may be assumed that they let no opportunity pass of picking up knowledge which might subsequently prove serviceable in war time. In their eagerness to eliminate the pest of spies, I am afraid the Belgians were led into a number of blunders. I, myself, had several disagreeable experiences, as it seems quite impossible for the Belgian people to distinguish between foreigners. The French they recognize immediately, but Englishmen and Americans were constantly being mistaken for the hated enemy.

Despite the efforts of the police, there were a number of attacks on German property in Brussels. In Europe the German beer shop has become an international institution; beer-houses owned wholly or partially by German citizens are found in all the cities of the Continent. In times of peace this type of café has always been popular. However, when the clarion note of war sounded, the people seemed to forget the many pleasant hours they had spent around the little tables of these beer shops. The very sight of the word "brasserie” seemed to be a challenge. At night the crowds that marched up and down the boulevards of Brussels would stop time and again before a beer-shop bearing a German name and vent their fury on the property of the citizen of the enemy. Popular outbreaks of this kind, I know, are difficult to control, but to me it has always seemed that such attacks are the acme of cowardice. In the first place, it is unintelligent to destroy property of this kind as the shops in themselves can have no military value; then, it can be taken for granted that the average German citizen who has established himself in a foreign city has in a measure cut the ties that bind him to the Fatherland. Under any circumstances he, individually, is in no way responsible for the course taken by the powers that be in his country. In fact, I know personally that a great many Germans established in foreign cities deplore the position of Germany in this war.

I have seen some half a dozen cafés practically gutted by the mobs that roam the streets. Not only were the brasseries attacked, but no shop known to be the property of a German was safe. A shot was fired through the window of one of the largest stores of the city and this shot in no way endangered the proprietor, but narrowly missed a Belgian employee. The municipal government quickly realized that these outbreaks should not continue, and all German property was at once put under police protection.

Of constant interest to the people of Brussels were the aeroplanes that at times hovered above the roofs of the houses. One morning the whole city was thrown into something of a panic, when at a height far beyond rifle shot, a Taube aeroplane was discovered. All the people watched with untiring gaze this messenger of the enemy as long as it was in sight. The German aviator turned oft to the South and left Brussels without dropping a bomb.

There is one feature of these troubled weeks which stands high in the credit of Belgium; that is the manner in which the expelled Germans were sent out of the country. As I have indicated, the hatred and indignation of the populace in the capital sought expression by attacking everything German. Knowing this, the authorities had to contrive to arrange the departure of the 4,000 odd citizens with the utmost care. The American Legation had taken over the affairs of the German Legation, so the responsibility of the welfare of these aliens was placed upon Mr. Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, in co-operation with the Belgian authorities. The 4,000 German men, women and children were got out of the country without suffering any hostile act. In fact, the Belgian troops guarding them acted more in the way of protectors and friends than enemies. With their own money they bought milk for the children, and bread and wine for the men and women.

All during this first week of war the people of Brussels were supremely confident. I could not help thinking at the time that they were overconfident. I had had occasion to study the military organizaton of Germany and I knew that this small determined people, no matter how brave individually they might be, could not hold back the host that Germany could pour into their land. At that time it was not believed that the Kaiser would make his smashing blow against France through this neutral nation. After the Belgians had so courageously refused the German Emperor's request to let his forces pass through their land without molestation, there were those who believed that the march of the invaders would be directed to the south. How wrong this belief was has long been proved. Again, the Belgian people were certain that France and England would put their whole forces into the firing line of the smaller nation. The unmilitary man of the people could not comprehend the physical impossibility of doing this, and of course he had no conception of the enormous blunder this would have been from the military point of view. As I have said in another chapter, the whole nation was awaiting eagerly the arrival of the first detachments of English and French soldiers. They were certain that these soldiers would come.

As day after day passed with no sign of the Allies, I heard on all sides rather acrid remarks. Even after Liege had fallen, the citizens of Brussels firmly believed their city would escape attack. It was argued that if necessary the whole Belgian army could be concentrated in front of the capital and so turn the on-marching Germans from their course. Again, the Belgians seemed to think that Germany had no distinctive quarrel with them, and for this reason they would do as little injury to their land as possible, and reserve the fury of their fighting for France. There were several American ladies in Brussels at the time of which I write. These ladies had been told by one of King Albert's equerries that there was no need for them to leave Brussels. They were, he said, perfectly safe in that city. It was with the greatest difficulty that, at the suggestion of Mr. Whitlock, the Minister, I persuaded these ladies to leave the Belgian capital. While I knew that there was little danger of their suffering any physical violence, yet as there could be no possible reason for their remaining in the zone of operations, the quicker they left the city the better. The censor was undoubtedly responsible for the buoyant attitude which was characteristic of both the Walloon and Flemish citizens of the country at this time.

To the last they denied the German victories. I had accurate information that German troops crossed the Belgian frontier at Visé as early as August 2. This information I telephoned direct to the Daily Telegraph. By using the telephone I got the news into London before any rival. However, the fact of the invasion was officially denied by the Belgian War Office the next day. On August 4, they reluctantly admitted that their neutrality had been violated. I have not yet been able to fathom the motive of the first denial. This denial was certainly a political mistake. It took oft the edge of the indignation that at the moment filled the nations of the earth because of this flagrant disregard of the sanctity of treaties. How the denial could have been of any military value is not apparent. The delay in giving out the news only lulled the people into a sense of false security which made it easier for the invading Germans. The poor people in many of the frontier villages believed that they were safe, until the Uhlans came clattering down their quiet streets.

One of the bravest sights of the first week of war was the ride of the King to Parliament. At the head of a brilliant staff all mounted on splendid chargers, he rode from the Palace to the Chamber of Deputies. Wearing the field uniform of a General, King Albert was in striking contrast to the officers who followed him. His uniform symbolized war. The people saw their monarch as he would take the field at the head of the army. The grave soldier-like figure aroused intense enthusiasm. Cheer after cheer greeted the little group of horsemen at whose head rode the King.

But warm as the reception of the King was, it seemed to me that the Queen and the royal children who followed in an open carriage, came in for an even greater share of applause. One could not fail to notice the shadow of sorrow that already darkened the Queen's brow, but the children looked on it all as an engrossing show. The charming princess Marie José, with her rebellious hair, turned her wide-open eyes from side to side as she viewed the applauding mob.

After the Royal party came the different diplomatic corps. Of these the French and English representatives received the most cordial receptions. As of allied nations this was to be expected.

Though the Chamber of Deputies met under the shadow of war there was no note of apprehension in the utterances of those assembled. All took their cue from the speech of the King. That was a short strong appeal to the patriotism of the people. It was not boastful; it was in part a simple statement of what the people must do in defence of their liberty. It was a demand for sacrifice. The world has seen how Belgium has made that sacrifice. The King ended his speech with the words "Vive la Belgique idépendente! " The whole chamber broke into wild applause.

It must be remembered that the Belgian Chamber of Deputies has as many divisions and as many animosities as any other legislative organization. In the first place Belgium is divided into two bitterly antagonistic races, the Flemish and the Walloons, which mix as readily as milk and lemon juice. Ever since the nation existed as such, these two races have been rivals for honour and place. Then this radical division of the people is complicated by the existence of three political parties - Socialist, Catholic and Hebrew. The disputes of these parties have kept the whole nation in a ferment for years. But with the first note of war sounding, these rivalries disappeared as mist before the summer sun. It was a nation firmly knit together that met the Germans.

The business of war preparation went on in Brussels with feverish haste. Class after class was called to the colours. To supplement these there were thousands of volunteers. Whenever any body of troops marched through the streets traffic was at once paralysed. Even the comic Garde Civique came in for its share of applause. The history of the misfortunes of this force quickly turned from comedy to tragedy. Originally they were a sort of Home Guard. Their first duty was to supplement the police in the cities. Later they were given duties of a purely military nature. They built trenches, erected barricades, and I have met them doing duty as outposts. As force was not actually a part of the army, this work was out of its sphere. Finally the Civil Guard took part in several of the earlier actions. According to German standards they were civilians and not soldiers. Therefore the enemy treated them with the extreme of rigour. Captured with arms in their hands they were summarily shot.

This was a most outrageous proceeding on the part of the Germans. The Civil Guard was an organization with uniform and officers. The uniform, I will admit, was grotesque, yet it was distinctive. It labelled the wearer as a member of a quasi-military force. The Civil Guard of Belgium was more of a military organization than the militia regiments that form part of the armed forces of the United States. Suppose that during the war with Spain, members of the 71st Regiment, N.Y. had been captured and executed without ceremony. The case would have been similar to what has happened in Belgium. Germany had no right to deny to members of the Civil Guard the status of prisoners of war.

The truth is these civilian soldiers were a thorn in the side of the invading force. They did not understand how to cope with them. I understand the difficulty of dealing with irregular troops. It was one of the serious problems which confronted American officers in the Philippines. Yet no matter how flagrant was the violation of the laws of war, no Filipino was denied the consolation of a Court Martial. Under the theory by which Germany makes war, if she should come into conflict with the United States, only members of the regular army would be entitled to the rights of soldiers. Every other citizen bearing arms would be shot if captured. As part of the scheme to intimidate the people of Belgium as a whole by a military order, they legalized murder.

When the news of the constant skirmishing that was going on day after day along the frontier came to Brussels, the people still seemed confident the city would not be touched. Why they persisted in this belief remains a mystery. I think that the absurd censorship which kept the people in ignorance of the seriousness of the situation was responsible also for the panic that swept over Brussels when the facts became known. Long after Liege had been taken, the papers in the capital printed story after story about the gallant way the forts were holding out. With the greatest reluctance the press admitted the capture by the Germans of some of the outlying defences on August 15. Within three days, Brussels suddenly awoke to the truth. Then began the exodus.

There was something Biblical in the flight. They were as people fleeing before the wrath. No censor could suppress the news brought into the city by each new batch of refugees. From Liege, Tirlemont and Louvain they came, bringing stories of German savagery. Women wantonly shot, towns given over to the flames, the high men of the villages, men respected by all who knew them, given as short shrift as a mad dog. These and a hundred other cruelties were told and retold at every street corner. Then when the people realized that the authors of all this misery were now riding down on the gates of Brussels, confidence and courage died. A great fear gripped all. Were they to suffer as the people of Louvain? Haunted by the stories of the thousands who had tasted the German method of making war, the citizens of Brussels incontinently fled.


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