The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the sixth installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
February 21, 1912: The Belgian Question
After his previous attempt was rebuffed, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre (pictured) took the opportunity of a change in France’s civilian leadership to ask a second time to be allowed to violate Belgian neutrality in the event of war with Germany. However, at a secret meeting of the French Superior War Council on February 21, 1912, Joffre found the new premier, Raymond Poincare, not much more receptive to the idea than his predecessor, Joseph Caillaux; ultimately Poincare left the question ambiguous.
At first glance there seemed to be some good strategic arguments in favor of marching into Belgium before the Germans did so themselves. The Germans were likely to try to slip around heavy fortifications along France’s eastern frontier by sending one wing of their army through neutral Belgium to the north; a preemptive invasion of Belgium might be able to stop them before they got to France. Moreover, the French doctrine of offensive a outrance, or total attack, called for boldly bringing the fight to the enemy wherever he stood. On this point, the Belgian plains offered a good arena for offensive operations of the type envisaged by French strategy (in the event World War I combat was characterized by defensive stalemate, with little resemblance to outdated French offensive tactics).
Even in the context of “total attack,” however, there were good reasons to avoid violating Belgian neutrality first, as Poincare reminded Joffre. Most important by far was the likely British reaction: if Germany violated Belgian neutrality first, Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium would automatically put her on the French side against Germany (where the British government and public opinion wanted to be anyway). But if France gave up the moral high ground by violating Belgian neutrality first, Britain would very likely remain on the sidelines; stern reminders from British diplomats and officers reinforced the need to respect Belgian neutrality on several occasions around this time.
In this situation, the French leadership judged British aid more strategically valuable than trying to head off the German attack through Belgium. Indeed, at the February 21 meeting Joffre said he was counting on six British infantry divisions and one British cavalry division to be ready for action in France two weeks after mobilization, leaving him little choice but to accept British constraints and forgo a preemptive invasion of Belgium.
An Unsatisfying Compromise
But the idea of French intervention in Belgium wasn’t totally off the table. Poincare and the rest of the French leadership were aware of the German threat to Belgium, and through it France, but fear of diplomatic repercussions in Britain prompted them to split the difference with an unsatisfying compromise. The French military might be allowed to intervene preemptively in Belgium in the event of a “certain menace of German invasion.” Of course this didn’t serve to advance the argument – or French strategy – very much, as it simply restated the basic French dilemma without clarifying what, exactly, constituted a “certain menace.” Would a German troop buildup near Belgium suffice? And if this was the scenario, what about the British concerns about Belgian neutrality?
In his memoirs, Joffre recalled that France’s civilian leaders left the answers deliberately ambiguous to avoid alarming the British and give themselves flexibility – but ended up saddling Joffre and other war planners with the complex task of planning for multiple contingencies, many of them mutually exclusive, depending on the timing of German thrusts.
Ultimately the French military’s doctrine of total attack led them to focus on planning to attack German armies where they would be sure to find them – coming across the Franco-German border, from Germany. But Joffre never doubted that Belgium would be the main battlefield in a war between France and Germany, even if the exact shape of the German attack was still unclear, meaning he would essentially have to improvise strategy in the first days of the war.