Belgium Under German Occupation #N6 (1914)

Belgium Under German Occupation #N6 (1914)

Belgium Under German Occupation #N6 (1914)

Following its independence in 1830, Belgium had been obliged to remain neutral in perpetuity by an 1839 treaty as part of a guarantee for its independence. Until 1911, Belgian strategic analysis anticipated that if war came, the Germans would attack France across the Franco-German border and trap the French armies against the Belgian frontier, as they had done in 1870. British and French guarantees of Belgian independence were made before 1914 but the possibility of landings in Antwerp was floated by the British military attaché in 1906 and 1911, which led the Belgians to suspect that the British had come to see Belgian neutrality as a matter of British diplomatic and military advantage, rather than as an end in itself.

The Agadir Crisis of 1911 left the Belgian government in little doubt as to the risk of a European war and a likely German invasion of Belgium. In September 1911, a government meeting concluded that Belgium must be prepared to resist a German invasion, to avoid accusations of collusion by the British and French governments. Britain, France and the Netherlands were also to continue to be treated as potential enemies. In 1913 and 1914, the Germans made inquires to the Belgian military attaché in Berlin, about the passage of German military forces through Belgium. If invaded, Belgium would need foreign help but would not treat foreign powers as allies or form objectives beyond the maintenance of Belgian independence. Neutrality forced the Belgian government into a strategy of military independence, based on a rearmament programme begun in 1909, which was expected to be complete in 1926. The Belgian plan was to have three army corps, to reduce the numerical advantage of the German armies over the French, intended to deter a German invasion.

Conscription began in 1909 but with a reduction in the term of service to fifteen months; the Agadir Crisis made the government continue its preparations but until 1913 the size of the army was not fixed as a proportion of the population. The annual conscription of 13,300 recruits was increased to 33,000 so that a field army of 180,000 men could be attained. Older men would continue to serve as garrison troops and by 1926 340,000 men would be available. Implementation of the new scheme had disrupted the old one but had not become effective by 1914. During the crisis over the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, regiments were divided and eight conscription classes were incorporated into the army, to provide 117,000 men for the field army and 200,000 fortress troops. The Belgian army planned all-round defence, rather than concentrating the army against a particular threat. Belgian defences were to be based on a National Redoubt at Antwerp, with the field army massed in the center of the country 37 miles (60 kilometers) from the border, ready to maneuver to delay an invasion, while the frontiers were protected by the fortified regions of Liège and Namur.

On June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. On July 5th, the Kaiser promised “the full support of Germany” if Austria-Hungary took action against Serbia. On July 23rd, the Austro-Hungarian Government sent an ultimatum to Serbia. The next day the British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey proposed a conference to avert a war and the Belgian Government issued a declaration that Belgium would defend its neutrality “whatever the consequences”. The Serbian Government ordered mobilization on the 25th followed the next day by the Austro-Hungarian Government ordering partial mobilization against Serbia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th.

Belgium severed diplomatic relations with Germany on August 4, 1914, and Germany declared war on Belgium. German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and attacked Liège. This invasion came just days after presenting an ultimatum to the Belgian government to allow free passage of German troops across its borders. The German army advanced rapidly into Belgium, besieging and capturing the fortified cities of Liège, Namur and Antwerp and pushing the Belgian army, supported by their French and British allies, to the far west. Large numbers of refugees also fled to neighboring countries. In October 1914, the German advance was finally stopped near the French border by a Belgian force at the Yser and by a combined Franco-British force at the Marne. As a result, the front line stabilised with most of Belgium already under German control. In the absence of any decisive offensive, most of Belgium remained under German control until the end of the war.

While most of Belgium was occupied, King Albert I continued to command the Belgian Army along a section of the Western Front, known as the Yser Front, through West Flanders from his headquarters in Veurne. The Belgian government, led by Charles de Broqueville, established itself in exile in Le Havre in northern France. Belgium’s colonial possession in Africa, the Belgian Congo, also remained loyal to the Allies and the Le Havre government.

During the course of their advance through Belgium, the Germans committed a number of war crimes against the Belgian civilian population along their route of advance. These massacres were often responses to towns whose populations were accused of fighting as Francs-Tireurs or guerillas against the German army. Civilians were summarily executed and several towns deliberately destroyed in a series of punitive actions collectively known as The Rape of Belgium. As many as 6,500 people were killed by the German army between August and November 1914. In Leuven, the historic library of the town’s university was deliberately burned. News of the atrocities, also widely exaggerated by the Allied press, raised considerable sympathy for the Belgian civilian population in occupied Belgium. The sympathy for the plight of Belgian civilians and Belgian refugees continued in Allied newspapers and propaganda until the end of the war.

By the end of the invasion, the vast majority of Belgian territory (2,598 out of 2,636 communes) were under German occupation. From November 1914, occupied Belgium, together with the occupied French border areas of Givet and Fumay, was divided by the Germans into three zones. The first, the Operationsgebied (Operational Zone), covered a small amount of territory near the front line in the far west of Belgium. Near this zone was the Etappengebied (Staging Zone), covering most of East and West Flanders along with parts of Hainaut and Luxembourg. The remainder of the country, was the largest of the zones, the Kaiserliches Deutsches Generalgouvernement Belgien (Imperial German General Government of Belgium), which covered the majority of the country and the French territories. Unlike the Operational and Staging Zones, the General Government was intended to be a total administration and so was markedly less repressive that the other two zones whose governance was based on military concerns alone. Civilians in the Operational and Staging Zones were officially classed as “prisoners” by the German military.

The General Government was placed under the command of a German general who was accountable to the Army. After a brief tenure by Colmar von der Goltz in 1914, command was held by Moritz von Bissing and later, from April 1917, by Ludwig von Falkenhausen. The German authorities aimed to use the occupation to benefit the German economy and industrial production but hoped to keep the Belgian state and economy functioning if it did not impede their main objectives.

Administratively, the German administration had a Zivilverwaltung (Civil Administration) tasked with dealing with day-to-day matters and a network of local Kommandanturen in towns and cities across Belgium. It could also call on up to 80,000 soldiers. In most cases, however, the administration was content to use the existing Belgian civil service and local government for much of its administration.

At the start of the war, the Belgian government hurriedly removed silver coins from circulation and replace them with banknotes. With the German occupation, these banknotes remained legal and their production continued. To offset the costs of occupation, the German administration demanded regular “war contributions” of 35 million Belgian francs each month. The contribution considerably exceeded Belgium’s pre-war tax income and so, in order to pay it, Belgian banks used new paper money to buy bonds. The excessive printing of money, coupled with large amounts of German money brought into the country by soldiers, led to considerable inflation. The Germans also artificially fixed the exchange rate between the German mark and the Belgian franc to benefit their own economy at a ratio of 1:1.25. To cope with the economic conditions, large numbers of individual communes and regions began to print and issue their own money, known as Necessity Money (monnaie de nécessité), which could be used locally.

The first postage stamps issued by the Germans during their occupation of Belgium were overprinted German stamps of 1906-1911 released on October 1, 1914. These stamps were intended for the “Landespost” or “National Post Offices” within the General Government and spelled out the full denominations of Centimes and Franc. They were used through 1918. A second group of overprints were issued in May 1916 and used through 1918. Sixteen surcharge denominations on German stamps had the pfennig denominations abbreviated as Cent. and the mark high denominations were abbreviated F. All of these stamps were used concurrently with the stamps of the German Western Military Command from 1916. The Belgian Government moved to Le Havre, France, on October 13, 1914 and continued to print stamps for use in unoccupied Belgium.

By 1918, civilian morale in occupied Belgium reached an all-time low. The early successes of the Ludendorff Offensive in the spring of 1918 were believed to have made liberation virtually impossible in the foreseeable future. However, during the Hundred Days Offensive, the Allied and Belgian armies launched a series of successful offensives on the Western Front. The Belgian army, restricted to the Yser salient since 1914, advanced as far as Bruges. German forces on the front in Belgium launched a wide retreat. On November 11, 1918, the German army signed an armistice. The ceasefire did not, however, lead to the immediate liberation of Belgium and sporadic fighting continued. The Belgian army gradually advanced into the country, behind the evacuating German occupying force.

Following a mutiny in Kiel at the end of October, a wave of revolutions broke out among the German army. In occupied Belgium, soldiers of the Brussels garrison mutinied against their officers on 10 November 1918. The revolutionaries formed a Soldiers’ Council (Soldatenrat) and flew the red flag over the Brussels Kommandantur while many officers, including the Governor-General, left the city for Germany. Fighting in the streets soon broke out between German loyalists and revolutionaries. With the German police no longer keeping order, anarchy broke out in the city which was only restored when Belgian troops arrived. The remaining German forces in Belgium began moving eastwards towards the German border, gradually evacuating more territory. The final German troops left the country on November 23, 1918. On November 22nd, Albert I entered Brussels with the Belgian army of the Yser in a Joyous Entry. The King was widely acclaimed by the civilian population. In total, 40,000 Belgian soldiers and civilians were killed and 77,500 wounded during World War I.

The Scott catalogue includes the German occupation issues within the listings of the country of Belgium, following almost 500 “Q” prefixed numbers (parcel post and railway stamps, or chemin de fer). Scott #N6 is surcharged 75 centimes on a 60 pfennig magenta stamp portraying Germania (Germany Scott #89) which was printed by typography and perforated 14. The watermark is a design of lozenges. The Germania stamps were issued by the German Empire and the Weimar Republic between 1900 and 1922, representing the longest-running series in German philatelic history. The image of Germania, rather than that of the ruling monarch as was customary in many other European monarchies, made it a unifying feature and did not complicate the relationship with other German royalty and the coexisting German postal authorities of Bavaria and Württemberg. The engraving was performed by Paul Eduard Waldraff (1870–1917) who used the actress Anna Führing as model. Wearing the octagonal Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire and armor, she is wielding the “Reichsschwert” (Imperial sword) and holding an olive branch. The Jugendstil design depicting Führing was personally chosen by the emperor Wilhelm II.

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