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Belgian Neutrality


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Britain supported the terms of the 1839 Treaty of London by which the major powers guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. While I can see the appeal of this to the continental countries, I can't see why it was still wise, in the 1900s, for Britain to promise intervention if that neutrality was overridden. Can any historian explain why a rigid commitment was deemed necessary? Would a veiled threat, without commitment, have sufficed, leaving us an opt out? Was the thinking of 1839 still applicable in 1914?

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I'm not a professional historian, but I'll have a go.

 

Belgian neutrality ensured that a power hostile to Britain could control a large section of the Channel coastline. It has also been a cornerstone of English/British foreign policy for about a thousand years that Europe should come under the control of one "Great Power". Britain became a guarantor of Belgian neutrality because she was a Great Power at the time, and without her participation, guarantees by Prussia/Germany and France could easily be set aside by agreement between those Powers, if it suited their interests to do so.

 

We could still have taken an "opt out" in 1914 had we wished, and important voices in the Cabinet argued that we should do just that, but it would have branded Britain as a power which did not keep its word under international obligations. This would have greatly diminished our status in the world - a status which was already beginning to decline.

 

Ron

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Dai Bach y Sowldiwr
10 minutes ago, PhilB said:

Was the thinking of 1839 still applicable in 1914?

 

I always assumed that once a treaty was signed, your word was your bond.

The passage of so little time (in historical terms) does not invalidate or change the terms of the treaty.

 

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The 1867 treaty which instituted the status of neutrality to Luxembourg also said that all the Great Powers would guarantee their neutrality.

Withinh six weeks the Freign Secretary, in answer to a Parliamentary question about having 'take on onerous military obligations in Europe' was telling the House that 'this is a collective guarantee which has no real legal meaning. That is to say, if any guarantor declines to carry out the guarantee in the event of invasion, then the others need do nothing.

A quick look at a map wil show that the only countries that could invade were the guarantors. No one in Luxembourg appears to have noticed this question and answer nor to have appreciated what 'collective' meant to the diplomats.

In the event, in reply for an appeal to the guarantors for help on 2 August, after the German invasion, Grey replied (after a delay of 24 hours), "Thand k you for the two telegrams (there were three). The serious matters to which they allude will receive the most serious attention of his Majesty's government". That's diplomat for ..................... off.

So, after six weeks Britain proclaimed that their treaty obligations weren't anything at all.

Never, ever buy a used car from a diplomat. It was probably a Foreign Office that invented the sign GUARANTEED. USED CAR.

 

Strangely, on 10 May 1940 when an appeal for help was sent invoking the same treaty, the British response was, "We shall come to your aid with all the force at our disposal". Of course, it was nonsense, but at least it showed some interest.

 

 

 

 

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2 hours ago, PhilB said:

Are you implying, H, that a similar opt out was available on the 1839 treaty - that it also was "without legal meaning"?

The word 'collective is not in the Belgian trety although the rest of the treaty is identically worded.

There is some dispute as to whether the treaty was in force in 1914, but mostly from those who bring in the British declarations in 1870 that anyone who invaded Belgium that Britain would join in on the other side. That declaration (in fact, treaties signed with France and Germany) was made until 1871.

But it still means that 'obligation' is something that governments invoke as and when they feel so inclined.

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21 hours ago, Dai Bach y Sowldiwr said:

What is your opinion healdav?

Was Britain obliged to help Belgium once she was invaded in 1914?

I'm not sure that it really matters what the legal/treaty position was. However, the Belgian independence treaty signed in 1839 does say that the country is neutral with its independence guaranteed by the Great Powers (including Germany).

British foreign policy ever since time began was not to allow the European coastline to be in the grip of one power. This had been the case in the time of Mlborough, Franco-Prussian War, and so on.

The Germans should have known that invading Belgium and taking over the coastal area (and even more if they then invaded Picardy) would bring Britain in as it continued its normal foreign policy. If they didn't know, it would tend to show a remarkably ignorant foreign office and Kaiser.

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Belgium was a part of the Netherlands from1815 after Napoleon's defeat when Belgium and Holland formed the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Through the influence of Great Britain Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830.The First King of the Belgians was Prince Leopold of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha of Germany who was "sponsored" by the British, being elected by the National Congress in 1931.The 1831 London Conference acknowledged Belgium's independence and the accession by King Leopold.The settlement was not accepted by William1 of Orange,the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and war broke out between Belgium and the Dutch.

 

Since the British had influenced the creation of Belgium,they became the guarantors of its independence when the status and independence of Belgium was achieved on 19 April 1839.William 1 of Holland then accepted Belgium's independence.

 

Overall Great Britain assured the independence of Belgium in both world wars which was from its commitment to the birth of the new nation in which Great Britain played a leading role in its creation.NATO as an alliance now, has that responsibility.

 

 

 

Edited by Frank_East
Typo on date
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3 hours ago, Frank_East said:

Belgium was a part of the Netherlands from1815 after Napoleon's defeat when Belgium and Holland formed the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Through the influence of Great Britain Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830.The First King of the Belgians was Prince Leopold of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha of Germany who was "sponsored" by the British, being elected by the National Congress in 1931.The 1831 London Conference acknowledged Belgium's independence and the accession by King Leopold.The settlement was not accepted by William1 of Orange,the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and war broke out between Belgium and the Dutch.

 

Since the British had influenced the creation of Belgium,they became the guarantors of its independence when the status and independence of Belgium was achieved on 19 April 1839.William 1 of Holland then accepted Belgium's independence.

 

Overall Great Britain assured the independence of Belgium in both world wars which was from its commitment to the birth of the new nation in which Great Britain played a leading role in its creation.NATO as an alliance now, has that responsibility.

 

 

 

Not 'the guarantors', 'A guarantor'. The other Great Powers were in it as well.

Incidentally, to show how hopeless the treaty of London about Luxemboirg was, it actually says that Belgium was excused any military obligations towards Luxembourg as it was itself a neutral country. No wonder the Luxembourgers assumed that guarantee meant guarantee.

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Does the invasion of a guaranteed neutral by a guarantor country have any effect on the obligations of the other guarantors? 

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Never mind the legality (though Grey did use the Treaty to justify British entry) the mere idea of the High Seas fleet having bases  within a few hours steaming of England's South Coast and the Thames estuary explain our entry. In 1870 UK did not lift a finger when Prussia/Germany (which did not have a fleet) went to war with France.

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Dai Bach y Sowldiwr
27 minutes ago, yperman said:

Never mind the legality

 

Hmm.

Not sure I'm from the Blair/Bush school of international intervention myself.

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The guarantors, apart from Britain,  were France , Russia, Austria and Germany.  However the story is a bit more complex  than that has been so far revealed. With  French hegemony in Europe  neutered after Waterloo, Britains military interest in Europe wained during Canning's administration in the 1820s. In essence, provided the status quo remained intact  post Waterloo, Britain had little interest in Europe; her interests were in the east.  Indeed, in mid-century, Lord Salisbury  stated that Britains foreign policy was like "floating lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boathook to avoid collisions". In the 1839 treaty Britain clarified her involvement  and said would not go "beyond the limits of Belgium."  This was reiterated in the 1870 treaty on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war  in which France and Prussia  separately agreed to continue with their treaty obligations at the behest of the British government. Britain's assurance about limits was to assure Europe  that she was not a threat.

 

The geographical location of the newly formed state of Belgium was also important. It was not by accident that this area had become known as the "cockpit of Europe". A number of important battles had been fought there, and it is this area that provided a strategic route from the east into northern France, and as far as Britain was concerned the capture of ports  along the coast that would be a threat to Britain.

 

Move forward to the Anglo-French Naval agreement of 1912 in which Britain agreed protect the French northern coast , particularly the French channel  ports, in return for the French navy protecting  the Mediterranean, and thus the "all red route" to the east via the Suez canal.  There was then, and is now, much debate as to the value of this to Britain, but it does indicate how vital the northern coast-line was to us. 

 

To take this a stage further, the defence of the northern battlefields was crucial to the BEF. The pathway through Belgium  and  into France as mentioned was crucial to Britain's participation in the war, not just in 1914/15 but also in 1918.  The move by the Germans to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 caused huge problems for the Royal Navy.  Should certain channel ports be captured, this would allow German submarines to be based there and then get into the Atlantic from a south westerly direction thus  shortening  the route which had previously had to go north. A shorter route meant more time at sea and more attacks on shipping vital to Britains's supply line.

 

There is  a longer story to this particular phase, but the 1839 treaty did have a long-term effect and was as relevant in 1914-1918 as it was at the outset.

 

TR

 

 

 

Edited by Terry_Reeves
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21 hours ago, PhilB said:

Does the invasion of a guaranteed neutral by a guarantor country have any effect on the obligations of the other guarantors? 

In the case of Luxembourg the British said (in 1867) that they didn't have to do anything if the other 'guarantors' didn't do anything (for example, if the German State refused to action against the German army).

In the case of Belgium, Britain used the invasion by Germany as an excuse to declare war on Germany.

 

21 hours ago, yperman said:

Never mind the legality (though Grey did use the Treaty to justify British entry) the mere idea of the High Seas fleet having bases  within a few hours steaming of England's South Coast and the Thames estuary explain our entry. In 1870 UK did not lift a finger when Prussia/Germany (which did not have a fleet) went to war with France.

But they negotiated or rather presented treaties with both parties for signature, saying that from then until the peace treaty was signed, if either party invaded Belgium, Britain would join in on the other side.

Edited by healdav
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In 1870, whichever side had won would theoretically have had access to the whole coast except Belgium. In that case, why would the Belgian bit be so important?

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22 hours ago, PhilB said:

In 1870, whichever side had won would theoretically have had access to the whole coast except Belgium. In that case, why would the Belgian bit be so important?

Because it would have put the entire coast in the hands of one Power.

If Ostend had been taken by either side it would mean that there was no port available on the entire coast for British use if they ever had to move an army to the continent. The original reason for making sure that the Belgo-France frontier was in Belgian/Dutch hands was to ensure that if there was another war with France, Ostend could be used to take over the British army.

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Thanks, H. So basically, it was all about retaining Ostend as a disembarkation port. It`s hard to see, in that case, why any power that held all the rest of the coastline would hang back from seizing Ostend, treaty or no treaty. They`d be leaving the door open otherwise!:unsure:

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2 hours ago, PhilB said:

Thanks, H. So basically, it was all about retaining Ostend as a disembarkation port. It`s hard to see, in that case, why any power that held all the rest of the coastline would hang back from seizing Ostend, treaty or no treaty. They`d be leaving the door open otherwise!:unsure:

Well, there were only three: France, Holland, Germany.

France and Germany guarantors of neutrality.

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4 hours ago, PhilB said:

So basically, it was all about retaining Ostend as a disembarkation port.

For whom, Phil? I don't think the French or Belgians would have needed it, and I'm fairly sure the British never used it for disembarkation of either men or supplies.

 

Ron

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I was quoting Healdav's conclusion, Ron. The theory seems to be that, whatever happened to the rest of the coastline, Ostend would provide Britain with a port of entry. That, of course, depends on the warring countries observing Belgian neutrality which certainly couldn't be assumed.

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13 hours ago, PhilB said:

I was quoting Healdav's conclusion, Ron. The theory seems to be that, whatever happened to the rest of the coastline, Ostend would provide Britain with a port of entry. That, of course, depends on the warring countries observing Belgian neutrality which certainly couldn't be assumed.

The main point is that Britain had NEVER allowed the entire European-Channel coast to be in the hands of one country. The Germans should have known that; that fact by itself was enough to bring Britain in.

Equally, the Belgian-French frontier was put where it is after 1815 so as to stop French expansion northwards and leave Ostend free to bring in a British army (as it had been used at the time of the 100 days). Wellington seems to have insisted on it.

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The opportunity for "Never" occurred when Britain advocated for Belgium neutrality at the time when Belgium and Holland formed the Kingdom of the Netherlands,it broke what would have been an alliance which stretched from the Dutch/German border on the Ems estuary to the Belgium /France border at De Panne. Thus Britain ensured that there would not be a single country alliance facing her across the north side of the Channel..

 

Belgium itself was occupied by the French from 1795 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.The Prussians shared in the spoils in the defeat of Napoleon and the districts of Malmedy and Eupen were ceded to Prussia.Over 100 years later the Prussians, in the form of Germany ceded the districts back to Belgium in accordance with the demands of the Versailles Treaty.

 

Post Great War,the British military assumption relating to the new dimension of air warfare focused on France.British military planning identified a future potential enemy to be the French.The Air Ministry took precautions to protect London and made the decision in the 1923 "expansion" to maintain and develop a number of fighter airfields around London from the NE to the SW along with an ACK ACK screen....these airfields proved their worth the B of B in 1940.

 

As regards the continuation of Belgium's neutrality. On the onslaught from May 10 1940,Leopold 111 King of the Belgiuns insisted on maintaining Belgium neutrality and delayed the BEF entering Belgium when the Wehrmacht broke through after neutralising Fort Eben Emael. Even though Leopold 111 went into the bag along with his army,the Belgians were unhappy when he reclaimed his kingdom and later was replaced by the Dauphin.

 

Ostend...well remembered as the port of entry for the BAOR.

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Bizarrely, Ostend also became the way to get to northern Europe by train despite the crossing Dover/Calais being so much shorter. The reason for that was that in the 1850s Britain was again having an intimate discussion with Frnce, and so when the railway to northern Italy was built (by the Luxembourg Company, by the way - although a British company), the railway went Ostend, Brussels, Luxembourg (remember that Sherlock Holmes and Watson spent the night there on the way to the Reichenbach Falls), Koblenz, and down to Switzerland and through to Genoa.

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In WW1 terms and had the need arisen, gents, could Ostend have been viewed as a viable one port solution to the "Supplying an Expeditionary Force" question? Could the RN have maintained it?

Edited by PhilB
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