Germany's Passage through Belgium

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Germany's Passage through Belgium

The German Request for Free Passage through Belgium

Reprinted from the World War I Document Archive, available online at

Belgium's Response to the Request for Passage

Reprinted from the World War I Document Archive, available online at

"If this hope is disappointed, the Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights."

From Belgium's Respons to Request for Passage

As soon as Germany decided to go to war against Russia and France, it set into motion war plans that had been prepared well in advance. The German war plan was known as the Schlieffen plan, named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), who was chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1905. Schlieffen predicted that Germany would one day be involved in a two-front war against France and Russia (a front is an area of contact between opposing forces in battle). The Schlieffen plan offered a way for the Germans to win such a war by first defeating the French and then turning their attention to the Russians.

In the first stage of the Schlieffen plan, Germany hoped to draw the French forces into the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany (the region had once belonged to France). As the French committed themselves to battle in this region, the main German force would cross Luxembourg and Belgium and begin entering France all along its northeastern border. By sweeping southward and westward, the Germans would then quickly capture Paris (the capital of France), cut off French supply lines, and encircle the entire French army.

Once they had defeated the French army, the Germans would speed back across Germany on its well-developed rail system and defeat the Russians, who might not yet be organized enough to do battle.

There was one problem with the Schlieffen plan: It required that Germany first cross Belgium, a neutral country that wanted no part of a major European war. Germany could not simply invade and conquer Belgium without creating negative feelings in other countries. More importantly, Germany did not want England to become involved in the war; yet the Germans knew that England would not stand by and do nothing if Germany invaded Belgium. International law required combatants to respect the rights of neutral countries. In order to create the appearance that they were behaving in accordance with the law, German diplomats made a formal request to enter Belgium. That request, reprinted below, was delivered to Belgian minister for foreign affairs M. Davignon by the German ambassador at Brussels, Herr von Below Saleske, on August 2, 1914. Davignon delivered Belgium's reply, also reprinted below, on the following day.

Things to remember while reading the exchange between German and Belgian diplomats regarding German entryinto Belgium:

  • Germany's note to Belgium is an excellent example of how diplomatic language can be used to disguise an unprovoked attack. Germany knew very well that Belgium had to refuse the request to open the country's borders to a conquering army.
  • Germany invented the story of a planned French invasion in order to give the Belgians a face-saving reason to accept Germany's invasion. Historians know of no plans on the part of France to invade Belgium. Does knowing this change the way you read the German request?
  • Belgian diplomats, who knew very well what Germany was up to, wisely pointed out that Germany was about to take actions that were morally wrong and illegal.
  • By August 2, the day the German note was delivered to Belgium, German troops were already lined up along Belgium's border.

The German Request for Free Passagethrough Belgium

August 2, 1914

(Very Confidential)

RELIABLE information has been received by the German Government to the effect that French forces intend to march on the line of the Meuse [River] by Givet and Namur. This information leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany.

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany. It is essentialfor the self-defence of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack. The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany's opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory.

In order to exclude any possibility of misunderstanding, the German Government make the following declaration:—

  1. Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany,the German Government bind them selves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.
  2. Germany undertakes, under the above-mentioned condition, to evacuate Belgian territory on the conclusion of peace.
  3. If Belgium adopts a friendly attitude, Germany is prepared, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities,to purchase all necessaries for her troops against a cash payment, and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops.
  4. Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy.

In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to thedecision of arms.

The German Government, however, entertain the distinct hope that this eventuality will not occur, and that the Belgian Government will know how to take the necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of incidents such as those mentioned. In this case the friendly ties which bind the two neighbouring States will grow stronger and more enduring.

Belgium's Response to the Request for Passage

3 August, 1914

…This note [asking free passage] has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government. The intentions attributed to France by Germany are in contradiction to the formal declarationsmade to us on August 1, in the name of the French Government. Moreover, if, contrary to our expectation, Belgian neutrality should be violated by France, Belgium intends to fulfil her international obligations and the Belgian army would offer the most vigorous resistance to the invader. Thetreaties of 1839, confirmed by the treaties of 1870, vouch for the independence and neutrality of Belgium under the guarantee of thePowers, and notably of the Government ofHis Majesty the King of Prussia.

Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality.

The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes aflagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law.

The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honour of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.

Conscious of the part which Belgium has played for more than eighty years in the civilisation of the world, they refuse to believe that the independence of Belgium can only be preserved at the price of the violation of her neutrality.

If this hope is disappointed, the Belgian Government are firmly resolved to repel, by all the means in their power, every attack upon their rights.

What happened next…

Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4 and almost simultaneously attacked the Belgian fortress town of Liège. The Belgian army, commanded by King Albert I (1875–1934), was willing to fight, but they had never planned to counter an army as strong as Germany's. From a string of solidly built forts surrounding Liège, the Belgians fought off the German army for over a week. After August 12, however, the Germans overran the forts and pushed deeper into the country. The Germans moved quickly across Belgium, facing scattered resistance from the Belgian army. By the end of the

third week in August, German forces were approaching the French border and preparing to invade France.

The German attack on Belgium had convinced England that she must join with France and Russia to repel the Central Powers. England declared war on Germany on the very day that Germany entered Belgium, and British forces proved essential to slowing and finally stopping the advance of the German armies in the fall of 1914. By October 1914, German and Allied forces had deadlocked in a long line of trenches that ran across France and Belgium (this area was called the Western Front). Both sides committed themselves to winning a war that would soon come to seem unwinnable.

Did you know…

  • When World War I began, most countries believed that it would be a short war, fought in a few decisive battles and decided by the fall of 1914. But modern weaponry and improved defensive tactics—especially trench warfare—turned the war into a battle of endurance that lasted over four years.
  • Belgium had a tiny and poorly armed army. With just 117,000 men in uniform, the Belgian army was no match for Germany's 4,500,000 troops.

For More Information


Clare, John D., ed. First World War. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Kent, Zachary. World War I: "The War to End Wars." Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1994.

Ross, Stewart. Causes and Consequences of World War I. Austin, TX: Rain-tree Steck-Vaughn, 1998.

Sommerville, Donald. World War I: History of Warfare. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Stevenson, D. The First World War and International Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Web sites

World War I Document Archive. [Online] (accessed February 2001).

The German Government bind them selves…to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full: Germany is saying that, as long as Belgium acts in a friendly manner toward Germany, Germany promises to make up for any Belgian property destroyed by Germany and respect Belgium's independence after the war. That is, Germany's occupation of Belgian territory would only be temporary.

To purchase all necessaries for her troops…and to pay an indemnity for any damage that may have been caused by German troops: Germany is offering to pay cash for any supplies it needs for its troops and to pay in advance for any damage those troops may cause.

Decision of arms: This means that the winner(s) of the war will determine relations between Germany and Belgium.

Treaties of 1839…treaties of 1870: These treaties between European powers guaranteed the independence of Belgium, which had been created in 1831.

Powers: The leading powers of Europe: France, Germany, England, and Austria-Hungary.

His Majesty the King of Prussia. The formal title of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Flagrant: Open and blatant.

Central Powers: The alliance of Germany and Austro-Hungary, which later grew to include the Ottoman Empire and several other countries.

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Germany's Passage through Belgium

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