Let Them Pass

Chapter 1: The Die is Cast


This TL is based on a thread I started a week ago entitled Albert Capitulates. I would encourage everyone who reads this to first seek this thread out and read the discussion there and add to it if you like @Michel Van being a present native and knowledgeable of Belgian history I would especially appreciate your insights. On that note I humbly present, Let them Pass.

Let Them Pass

A timeline/story by Geon​

In August 1914 the German Army was preparing to invade France using a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan. The plan called for the German Army to swing through neutral Belgium and attack the French on their vulnerable left flank. The Belgians led by King Albert I refused to allow the Germans passage through their nation. As a result, the Germans declared war on Belgium on August 3rd and invaded the next day. The invasion of Belgium and the atrocities committed by the Germans both real and concocted by propaganda later in the war shocked the world. Britain would declare war on the Central Powers using Belgium as a partial casus belli and the “rape of Belgium” would serve as one influence to the United States to declare war in 1917. However, what if Albert had made a different decision.

August 2nd, 1914, Brussels, Belgium: King Albert I officially receives an ultimatum from the German ambassador informing him that the Germans have “discovered” a plot by the French to launch a strike into Belgium to attack the Germans. For this reason, the Germans have decided to preempt the French by entering Belgium first. The ultimatum indicates that Germany will respect Belgian territory and will withdraw once peace has been established. The ultimatum also warns that if Belgium decides to impede the progress of the German Army then Germany will regrettably have to decide this matter by “military force.” Despite this threat however the document emphasizes that if Belgium allows the Germans free access the German Army will behave itself and pay any indemnities it may incur while in Belgium territory and even negotiating a fee for the use of Belgian railways through that nation.

King Albert I had just last month been invited to Germany. While there he had watched the German Army during maneuvers and seen its abilities. His German hosts wanted to clearly show Albert the force he and his people would be facing if they thought to oppose Germany. Albert is considering what he saw at that visit. If he refuses the Germans will invade and his nation will be facing a military powerhouse with only five barely battle-ready infantry divisions and one equally unprepared cavalry division, all of which had mostly antiquated equipment and barely enough ammunition for a few days fighting.

For King Albert and his ministers his next decision may either save his nation or seal its doom.

There are many in his government who would urge a heroic stand against the Germans. But what would this accomplish? Albert looks at the German ambassador and asks, “if we agree to this will we have the Kaiser’s guarantee that he will honor the terms of this agreement, all of them?” The German ambassador assures him that the Kaiser will do exactly that. Albert then tells the ambassador to return later that night and he will have his answer.

At a late-night meeting of the King’s cabinet including leaders from Parliament there is a brief but fierce discussion. After an hour of debate a vote is taken. It is decided that Belgium will honor the German ultimatum and allow German troops to pass through the country. But the Belgian army will be placed on alert and will be under orders to maintain order along the German line of march. The Germans will not be hindered but if there is any sign of looting or harassing of the civilian population the army will act appropriately.

Later that night the German ambassador is summoned again. Albert tells the ambassador that Belgium will comply with the German ultimatum but with the condition that the Belgian Army will be active and prepared to defend Belgian territory if German units should act in “any hostile manner.”

After the ambassador leaves several of the cabinet angrily state that Albert has just doomed Belgium. Albert I wearily sighs and says, “Which is better going down in one last noble and futile battle or standing at the end knowing we did all in our power to save this nation?”
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Chapter 2: Reactions and Counterreactions


Chapter 2: Reactions and Counterreactions

August 3rd, 1914; Berlin Germany: King Albert’s acquiescence is received with great relief in Berlin by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Belgian resistance, it was feared, could have cost an unnecessary number of delays in implementing the offensive against the French.

The fact that the Belgian army is on alert for any German misbehavior prompts the Kaiser to consult with the General Staff and issue an order entitled German Army Conduct in Belgium. The directive outlines the behavior expected of German Army soldiers from privates to senior officers during their time in Belgium. It includes.

  1. All German troops are expected to behave correctly to the civilian population of Belgium. Any misbehavior of any degree by any soldier regardless of rank will be punished to the fullest degree possible according to German Army regulations.
  2. All German troops during their time in Belgium will respect the private and public property of the Belgian people. Any violations will be prosecuted and punished.
  3. The Belgian Army has been alerted specifically to maintain public order as the German Army passes through their nation. Any attempt to provoke the Belgians will result in the immediate arrest of those responsible. The German Army will behave in a way commensurate with the Belgians willingness to allow us to move through their nation.
The Kaiser also instructs the German ambassador to Belgium to begin negotiations with the Belgian King on a reasonable remuneration to the Belgians for the use of their railways. Finally, as a further gesture of reconciliation he directs that modern artillery pieces ordered by the Belgians from the Krupp works are to be shipped to Belgium as soon as they are ready.

Paris, France: At the presidential palace in Paris two words can describe the mood of French President Raymond Poincare, utter fury! The Belgians had received assurances dating back to the early 19th century of French support in the event their nation was invaded. Yet now they are willing to cave in to German demands to cross their territory.

Poincare considers the actions by King Albert I as a betrayal of the first order. He summons the Belgian ambassador to the palace and tells him to deliver an ultimatum to Albert. If Albert allows the Germans to freely pass through Belgian territory France will consider Belgium a co-belligerent with Germany and will declare war on her. Albert has 24 hours to reverse his decision. In the meantime, Poincare orders General Joffre to prepare plans to invade Belgium to stop the German juggernaut. He also orders General War Plan 17 to be postponed so troops can be moved to the Belgian border to intercept the German Army.

London, England: Prime Minister Asquith spends much of the day with his war cabinet debating the Belgian crisis. Winston Churchill later writes, “There was no real consensus during those first few hours, merely a growing feeling that things were spiraling beyond anyone’s ability to control.”

Three factions quickly form with different ideas on how to deal with the present Belgian matter.

The first, the peace faction, feels that Belgium’s willingness to allow the Germans to pass through should be allowed to stand and that Britain should stay out of this war. Belgium is a sovereign nation and should be allowed to decide for itself on such matters as passage of troops through their nation. In any case it is argued do they have any choice?

The second faction is the war faction. They want Belgium held accountable for breaking numerous international agreements and argue if the Belgians want to ally themselves with the Germans even if they say they are not doing so, they should be treated as German allies.

The third faction is the wait-and-see faction. They counsel that for now Great Britain should not commit to any action until they see how the situation on the continent develops.

In the end Prime Minister Asquith decides to side with the third faction for the moment but does order the naval forces and army to be on full alert for deployment at a moment’s notice.

Following the meeting Asquith speaks privately with Churchill. The First Lord of the Navy believes that if Belgium has indeed decided to allow German troops to march through into France clear action must be taken to deprive the Germans of the port of Antwerp. After an hour of discussion Asquith agrees and Churchill begins developing plans for what will be called Operation Gravelines, recalling the name of a successful British naval battle against the Spanish Armada.
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Nice start.

If I may offer some advice as someone who has done a TL with this section of history as the PoD? The 1914 offensive in the west is one of the most pored over pieces of history, and for good reason as the timing of events and movement of very small forces had huge effects. Pay attention to the timing of certain events and the speed at which they happened as these details will have a huge impact on your TL. For example the BEF didn't mobilise until the 6th IIRC and took until the 19th to cross the channel and concentrate at Mauberge ready for action. Similarly look at when the French armies began action, as their train timetables are as rigid as everyone else's and can't be changed once they started.

If you do this your TL will write itself to a large extent, it may not go exactly where you want it to go, but it will be highly realistic and as accurate alternative history as you can make it.
like @Michel Van being a present native and knowledgeable of Belgian history
I have to point out one thing, i'm NOT a Native of Belgium, i just live there for some years, the rest is eh "know your enemy" stuff

Back to topic
i wonder what for a piece of evidence, the German ambassador gave to Belgium King and Government ?
Next to that how much counter check could Belgium do in France ?
Let assume that 1911 plans by Général V.C. Michel are consider ideal and French army is deploy closer to Belgium border
(note those plans involved British military support)

The outcome would quite be interesting
France "Stab in back" will hate Belgium forever :evilsmile:
The British European safety policy with Belgium as Buffer state is just became absurd !
and we have a WW1 without British involvement (and USA likely)
leaving France with Russians to fight the Central Powers...
...poor french.
This is off to a good start. More details on the OTL decision making and specifically what was changed would be good.
I agree, that vis-a-vis Belgium, France is now formally the aggressor. The most Britain can do is nothing.

Coulsdon Eagle

Monthly Donor
Nice reading of Britain's debate over Belgium. A public declaration from the Belgians that they are allowing passage to the Germans of their own free will 'in the spirit of neutrality' or similar language will put the ball firmly in the French court. If they follow through on their threat of counting Belgium as a co-belligerent with Germany it will be France that violates Belgian neutrality and the British will have to choose if they uphold their commitments to Belgium and declare against France. Considering it was the invasion of Belgium rather than Germany's war against France that decided British entry into the war OTL, we could very well see the Royal Navy blockading French ports!
Then again, I think it equally likely for France to back down from declaring against Belgium so as not to antagonize Britain, leaving Asquith & Co. to 'wait and see'.

Looking forward to seeing this go forward!
As posted on another thread, ATL Belgium breaches both the 1839 Treaty of London and the 1907 Hague Convention, so I don't believe Britain would regard France as being the nation to breach Belgian neutrality. Belgium has a responsibility to maintain its neutrality, and allowing another nation to break that neutrality is in itself a breach.
Chapter 3: To Be A King of Ruins


Chapter 3: To Be a King of Ruins

Armchair historians and those involved in alternate history have often wondered what would have happened if King Albert I had decided to resist the Germans. Certainly, at the start of that fateful meeting on August 2nd most of the cabinet wanted to push for resistance. Even though every plain fact pointed to a hopeless struggle the sentiment was, if we are to go down, let us go down fighting.

Albert was almost tempted to go along with his cabinet ministers. But he had seen the might of Germany arrayed before him the previous month. He had been shown just how formidable the German war machine was. And he also knew that France would be an uncertain ally at best. France would, according to some of his military advisors, be more then willing to sacrifice the majority of Belgium if it would mean doing so bought them time to bring up troops to stop the Germans as they entered France. From this view Belgium was seen more as a sacrificial lamb then a valiant ally.

After his trip to Germany Albert had taken time to visit the old city of Louvain. He toured the great cathedral there as well as the town hall and the library. As he toured the city, he considered what it would be like if the Germans invaded. And he saw these lovely buildings in his mind’s eye as ashes. And not only Louvain but Brussels and so many other cities. He looked into the eyes of the people he met on that trip and thought of how their lives would be affected if he made the wrong choice.

So had begun an uphill battle to find some way to preserve Belgian neutrality in the face of the two powerful nations that bordered Belgium. As Albert I would write later, “I fully came to understand what it meant to be between Scylla and Charybdis in the days following my visit to Germany. And I also came to the realization that I did not want to become a king of ruins”. (from the personal memoirs of King Albert I)

Thus, when that fateful cabinet meeting started after the German ultimatum was issued on August 2nd Albert mustered all the forces at his disposal to convince his ministers that compliance with the German demands was the only sensible choice.

Secretly many in the cabinet harbored feeling like those of King Albert. More specifically many were suspicious of the French and their plans. Like Albert, it seemed painfully obvious to many in the cabinet that France would fight to the last drop of Belgian blood. This suspicion coupled with the image Albert painted of a Belgium in ruins from German occupation caused many of those who initially wanted to resist to come around to the side of compliance or to abstain once the final vote was taken.

Albert hoped that what he was doing would save his nation and to blazes with what the international community might think of him. Sadly, Belgium was still fated to become a battleground, one of many in the next World War. (From Days that Changed the World, by Samuel Poincaire, Paris, 1989.)
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Coulsdon Eagle

Monthly Donor
I would like to clarify my thoughts on this.

In the eyes of the French, & probably the British, Belgium's actions are close to actively aiding an invasion of France, not least by increasing the size of the German assembly areas for the Schleiffen Plan, and there is certainly a case that Belgium is breaking its international obligations.

If I were Albert I would probably do the same in the view that it is the least-worst option for his nation & citizens. He had better hope for a CP victory (preferable swift) or at worst a white peace, for the vengeance dropped on his (& his country's) heads by the French (& possible the British) would be terrible.

No decision he makes is perfect. OTL the western part of his country was a much-fought-over battlefield, while all except a sliver fell under German occupation and - in some cases- the harshness of military rule. 40,000 Belgian soldiers died in the Great War, with nearly 9,000 civilian deaths, of which 6,453 occurred inside the first six weeks. Nearly 80,000 other deaths were believed to have been hastened by the war. It maybe that Albert's decision ATL will reduce some of those numbers. OTOH it may be worse if the war drags on and Belgium suffers the consequences of the British blockade.

I wonder what the Netherlands attitude would be.
Chapter 4: Passing Through Belgium


Chapter 4: Passing Through Belgium

August 4, 1914; German-Belgian Border: German forces begin crossing into Belgium at 6 A.M. According to direct orders of the Kaiser all weapons are in the “at rest” position. As they come across, they are greeted by the Belgian border guards who wave them through. Artillery pieces are loaded on Belgian freight cars to be driven to the Belgian/Franco border. For the most part the first day of the German march through Belgium is peaceful. While there are some local incidents of name-calling and rock throwing these are handled by local authorities. To quote one Belgian policeman’s diary. The Germans behaved with surprising correctness to the local population. If there was a difficulty, they were more then happy to allow the Belgian constabulary to deal with it. At one point things almost came to a head when what sounded like a shot was heard from one of the roofs in our town as the soldiers passed through. No one was hurt and it was quickly discovered the sound was caused by a firecracker set off on the roof by some miscreants.

Toward the end of the day General Karl von Bulow visits King Albert at his residence in Brussels and assures him that the German Army will act in accordance with the Kaiser’s directives and act in the finest traditions of the German military toward the Belgian people. He also commends the Belgian military for helping to maintain order.

Regarding the French declaration of war against Belgium Bulow is dismissive. He does not believe that the French will be able to mount any serious attack against Belgium. And by the time they are ready the Germans will be deep into French territory.

Albert expresses his gratitude to Bulow but privately expresses his concerns regarding the French. After the majority of the German forces have passed through, he gives orders that the Belgian army is to take up defensive positions on the Franco/Belgian border.

Paris: In Paris there is a massive show of support by the public to the French declaration of war on Belgium. Demonstrations in the streets of Paris and in other French cities express the public outrage of the French against those “turncoat Belgians,” as they are now called. Several Belgian businesses are sacked and burned throughout France and many Belgian citizens are beaten in cities throughout the country by the mobs. And the Belgian ambassador to France is nearly attacked by patriotic mobs several times on his train journey back to the Franco/Belgian border.

President Poincare in the meantime is sequestered with General Joffre planning the French counter move. Joffre declares it will take three to six days to reroute the soldiers scheduled to take part in Plan XVII westward to the Belgian border. In the meantime, Joffre is hurriedly preparing a plan to push the German invaders back through Belgium. Poincare is not a vindictive man, but he tells Joffre that when he does push the Germans back to make sure “the Belgians understand the extent of the mistake they have made.” Poincare wants to make it clear to the Belgians that reneging on established international agreements will have grave consequences.

London: In London as well as in several cities in the UK peace demonstrations occur calling upon Parliament not to bring Britain into the war. The peace demonstrators believe Britain’s interests are not being directly threatened at present and that this should be a local matter for the French. In contrast counter-demonstrations demand Britain declare war on Germany and Belgium by the end of the day. They argue that if no action is taken now the Germans will be at the gates of London within a few months. Both groups of demonstrators clash in London and several cities throughout England. Several dozen people are hurt during the clashes and a total of 249 people are arrested in London alone.

At Whitehall the French ambassador tells Prime Minister Asquith of “Belgian Perfidy” and asks that Britain honor her treaty obligations. However, rather then receiving a firm affirmation he is simply told the British are monitoring the matter and will decide shortly regarding intervention. Asquith is keeping his options open. He does not want to commit to a war his fellow countrymen are divided on joining.

Washington, D.C.: President Woodrow Wilson announces that the United States will remain neutral in the present European conflict. Even as he makes this statement however Wilson is much concerned about the violence in many French cities toward Belgian citizens and what this may portend for Belgium should the French decide to invade that nation.
oh this gonna be interesting
The French Plan XVII dependent on British military support in form of Troops
Those now missing,
While germans move much faster true Belgium als OTL 2 months, 3 weeks and 6 days as they had to fight way true Belgium...
Means in TL the Germans are already August in North France combating in full force.
oh this gonna be interesting
The French Plan XVII dependent on British military support in form of Troops
Those now missing,
While germans move much faster true Belgium als OTL 2 months, 3 weeks and 6 days as they had to fight way true Belgium...
Means in TL the Germans are already August in North France combating in full force.
Which in turn means, especially with the missing troops on france‘s side, that they might get farther. And they got damn close to Paris, which is essentially France...
Sometimes massive centralization is a boon, but sometimes it is a gigantic problem...
I'm honestly more concerned that Churchill seems to be plotting a surprise attack on and occupation of Antwerp, to deny it to the Germans. Considering the local geography and geology both, plus the lack of experience in and specialized equipment for amphibious operations, Gallipolli might as well be a stunning success to what's going to happen. Especially since reaching Antwerp would require the Royal Navy to pass through Dutch territorial waters, and the Dutch aren't stupid enough to give the Germans any excuse to see them as members of the Entente.

TLDR, I foresee a Dutch entry into the war on the German side, and Michiel de Ruyter's ghost laughing at the British's expense.
I've done a lot of reading recently about neutrality in the early 1900s.

Onr of my favourite comments was from the Spanish ambassador to Japan when asked about the Russian fleet coaling in Spainish ports on the way to the far east.

He invited the Japanese ports to coal in Spain when they counter attack in the Baltic or Black Seas.

Neutrality works both ways.

If Belgium claims to be neutral and have invited German armies into Belgium they have invited anyone at War with Germany to come into Belgium too. Whether its by seeing them as a neutral and offering both sides the same courtesy or whether it's by being seen as being a cobeligerent of Germany.
Except France hasn't asked the Belgians for passage. They've outright declared war on them, and from the sound of things, Poincare and Joffre have signed off on a blanket warrant to allow poilus to "teach the Belgians a lesson...for collaborating with les boches..."


Monthly Donor
Artillery pieces are loaded on Belgian freight cars to be driven to the Belgian/Franco border.
Doesn’t this qualify as Belgium actively helping the Germans? Wouldn’t the neutral course of action be to allow German trains to cross the border instead?