LOCKED IN THE SAFE of Herr von Below-Saleske, German Minister in Brussels, was a sealed envelope brought to him by special courier from Berlin on July 29 with orders “not to open until you are instructed by telegraph from here.” On Sunday, August 2, Below was advised by telegram to open the envelope at once and deliver the Note it contained by eight o’clock that evening, taking care to give the Belgian government “the impression that all the instructions relating to this affair reached you for the first time today.” He was to demand a reply from the Belgians within twelve hours and wire it to Berlin “as quickly as possible” and also “forward it immediately by automobile to General von Emmich at the Union Hotel in Aachen.” Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle was the nearest German city to Liège, the eastern gateway to Belgium.
Herr von Below, a tall, erect bachelor with pointed black mustaches and a jade cigarette holder in constant use, had taken up his post in Belgium early in 1914. When visitors to the German Legation asked him about a silver ash tray pierced by a bullet hole that lay on his desk, he would laugh and reply: “I am a bird of ill omen. When I was stationed in Turkey they had a revolution. When I was in China, it was the Boxers. One of their shots through the window made that bullet hole.” He would raise his cigarette delicately to his lips with a wide and elegant gesture and add: “But now I am resting. Nothing ever happens in Brussels.”
Since the sealed envelope arrived, he had been resting no longer. At noon on August 1 he received a visit from Baron de Bassompierre, Under-Secretary of the Belgian Foreign Office, who told him the evening papers intended to publish France’s reply to Grey in which she promised to respect Belgian neutrality. Bassompierre suggested that in the absence of a comparable German reply, Herr von Below might wish to make a statement. Below was without authority from Berlin to do so. Taking refuge in diplomatic maneuver, he lay back in his chair and with his eyes fixed on the ceiling repeated back word for word through a haze of cigarette smoke everything that Bassompierre had just said to him as if playing back a record. Rising, he assured his visitor that “Belgium had nothing to fear from Germany,” and closed the interview.
Next morning he repeated the assurance to M. Davignon, the Foreign Minister, who had been awakened at 6:00 A.M. by news of the German invasion of Luxembourg and had asked for an explanation. Back at the legation, Below soothed a clamoring press with a felicitous phrase that was widely quoted, “Your neighbor’s roof may catch fire but your own house will be safe.”
Many Belgians, official and otherwise, were disposed to believe him, some from pro-German sympathies, some from wishful thinking, and some from simple confidence in the good faith of the international guarantors of Belgium’s neutrality. In seventy-five years of guaranteed independence they had known peace for the longest unbroken period in their history. The territory of Belgium had been the pathway of warriors since Caesar fought the Belgae. In Belgium, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Louis XI of France had fought out their long and bitter rivalry; there Spain had ravaged the Low Countries; there Marlborough had fought the French at the “very murderous battle” of Malplaquet; there Napoleon had met Wellington at Waterloo; there the people had risen against every ruler—Burgundian, French, Spanish, Hapsburg, or Dutch—until the final revolt against the House of Orange in 1830. Then, under Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, maternal uncle of Queen Victoria, as King, they had made themselves a nation, grown prosperous, spent their energies in fraternal fighting between Flemings and Walloons, Catholics and Protestants, and in disputes over Socialism and French and Flemish bilingualism, in the fervent hope that their neighbors would leave them to continue undisturbed in this happy condition.
The King and Prime Minister and Chief of Staff could no longer share the general confidence, but were prevented, both by the duties of neutrality and by their belief in neutrality, from making plans to repel attack. Up until the last moment they could not bring themselves to believe an invasion by one of their guarantors would actually happen. On learning of the German Kriegesgefahr on July 31, they had ordered mobilization of the Belgian Army to begin at midnight. During the night and next day policemen went from house to house ringing doorbells and handing out orders while men scrambled out of bed or left their jobs, wrapped up their bundles, said their farewells, and went off to their regimental depots. Because Belgium, maintaining her strict neutrality, had not up to now settled on any plan of campaign, mobilization was not directed against a particular enemy or oriented in a particular direction. It was a call-up without deployment. Belgium was obligated, as well as her guarantors, to preserve her own neutrality and could make no overt act until one was made against her.
When, by the evening of August 1, Germany’s silence in response to Grey’s request had continued for twenty-four hours, King Albert determined on a final private appeal to the Kaiser. He composed it in consultation with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, a German by birth, the daughter of a Bavarian duke, who translated it sentence by sentence into German, weighing with the King the choice of words and their shades of meaning. It recognized that “political objections” might stand in the way of a public statement but hoped “the bonds of kinship and friendship” would decide the Kaiser to give King Albert his personal and private assurance of respect for Belgian neutrality. The kinship in question, which stemmed from King Albert’s mother, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a distant and Catholic branch of the Prussian royal family, failed to move the Kaiser to reply.
Instead came the ultimatum that had been waiting in Herr von Below’s safe for the last four days. It was delivered at seven on the evening of August 2 when a footman at the Foreign Office pushed his head through the door of the Under-Secretary’s room and reported in an excited whisper, “The German Minister has just gone in to see M. Davignon!” Fifteen minutes later Below was seen driving back down the Rue de la Loi holding his hat in his hand, beads of perspiration on his forehead, and smoking with the rapid, jerky movements of a mechanical toy. The instant his “haughty silhouette” had been seen to leave the Foreign Office, the two Under-Secretaries rushed in to the Minister’s room where they found M. Davignon, a man until now of immutable and tranquil optimism, looking extremely pale. “Bad news, bad news,” he said, handing them the German note he had just received. Baron de Gaiffier, the Political Secretary, read it aloud, translating slowly as he went, while Bassompierre, sitting at the Minister’s desk took it down, discussing each ambiguous phrase to make sure of the right rendering. While they worked, M. Davignon and his Permanent Under-Secretary, Baron van der Elst, listened, sitting in two chairs on either side of the fireplace. M. Davignon’s last word on any problem had always been, “I am sure it will turn out all right” while van der Elst’s esteem for the Germans had led him in the past to assure his government that rising German armaments were intended only for the Drang nach Osten and portended no trouble for Belgium.
Baron de Broqueville, Premier and concurrently War Minister, entered the room as the work concluded, a tall, dark gentleman of elegant grooming whose resolute air was enhanced by an energetic black mustache and expressive black eyes. As the ultimatum was read to him everyone in the room listened to each word with the same intensity that the authors had put into the drafting. It had been drawn up with great care, with perhaps a subconscious sense that it was to be one of the critical documents of the century.
General Moltke had written the original version in his own hand on July 26, two days before Austria declared war on Serbia, four days before Austria and Russia mobilized, and on the same day when Germany and Austria had rejected Sir Edward Grey’s proposal for a five-power conference. Moltke had sent his draft to the Foreign Office, where it was revised by Under-Secretary Zimmermann and Political Secretary Stumm, further corrected and modified by Foreign Minister Jagow and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg before the final draft was sent in the sealed envelope to Brussels on the 29th. The extreme pains the Germans took reflected the importance they attached to the document.
Germany had received “reliable information,” the note began, of a proposed advance by the French along the route Givet-Namur, “leaving no doubt of France’s intention to advance against Germany through Belgian territory.” (As the Belgians had seen no evidence of French movement toward Namur, for the excellent reason that there was none, the charge failed to impress them.) Germany, the note continued, being unable to count on the Belgian Army halting the French advance, was required by “the dictate of self-preservation” to “anticipate this hostile attack.” She would view it with “deepest regret” if Belgium should regard her entrance on Belgian soil as “an act of hostility against herself.” If Belgium should, on the other hand, adopt “a benevolent neutrality,” Germany would bind herself to “evacuate her territory as soon as peace shall have been concluded,” to pay for any damages caused by German troops, and to “guarantee at the conclusion of peace the sovereign rights and independence of the kingdom.” In the original the sentence had continued, “and to favor with the greatest goodwill any possible claims of Belgium for compensation at the expense of France.” At the last moment Below was instructed to delete this bribe.
If Belgium opposed Germany’s passage through her territory, the note concluded, she would be regarded as an enemy, and future relations with her would be left to “the decision of arms.” An “unequivocal answer” was demanded within twelve hours.
“A long, tragic silence of several minutes” followed the reading, Bassompierre recalled, as each man in the room thought of the choice that faced his country. Small in size and young in independence, Belgium clung more fiercely to independence for that reason. But no one in the room needed to be told what the consequences of a decision to defend it would be. Their country would be subjected to attack, their homes to destruction, their people to reprisals by a force ten times their size with no doubt of the outcome to themselves, who were in the immediate pathway of the Germans, whatever the ultimate outcome of the war. If, on the contrary, they were to yield to the German demand, they would be making Belgium an accessory to the attack on France as well as a violator of her own neutrality, besides opening her to German occupation with small likelihood that a victorious Germany would remember to withdraw. They would be occupied either way; to yield would be to lose honor too.
“If we are to be crushed,” Bassompierre recorded their sentiment, “let us be crushed gloriously.” In 1914 “glory” was a word spoken without embarrassment, and honor a familiar concept that people believed in.
Van der Elst broke the silence in the room. “Well, sir, are we ready?” he asked the Premier.
“Yes, we are ready,” De Broqueville answered. “Yes,” he repeated, as if trying to convince himself, “except for one thing—we have not yet got our heavy artillery.” Only in the last year had the government obtained increased military appropriations from a reluctant Parliament conditioned to neutrality. The order for heavy guns had been given to the German firm of Krupp, which, not surprisingly, had delayed deliveries.
One hour of the twelve had already gone by While their colleagues began rounding up all Ministers for a Council of State to be held at nine o’clock, Bassompierre and Gaiffier started working on a draft of the reply. They had no need to ask each other what it would be. Leaving the task to them, Premier de Broqueville went to the palace to inform the King.
King Albert felt a responsibility as ruler that made his awareness of outside pressures acute. He had not been born to reign. A younger son of King Leopold’s younger brother, he was left to grow up in a corner of the palace with a Swiss tutor of more than ordinary mediocrity. Coburg family life was not joyous. Leopold’s own son died; in 1891 his nephew, Baudouin, Albert’s older brother, died, leaving Albert heir to the throne at sixteen. The old King, embittered by the loss of his own son and of Baudouin to whom he had transferred his paternal affections, did not at first see much in Albert whom he called a “sealed envelope.”
Inside the envelope were enormous physical and intellectual energies of the kind that marked two great contemporaries, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, whom otherwise Albert resembled not at all. He was reserved where they were extroverts; yet he shared many tastes, if not temperament, with Roosevelt: his love of the outdoors, of physical exercise, of riding and climbing, his interest in natural science and conservation and his gluttony for books. Like Roosevelt, Albert consumed books at the rate of two a day on any and all subjects—literature, military science, colonialism, medicine, Judaism, aviation. He drove a motorbicycle and piloted a plane. His ultimate passion was mountaineering, which, incognito, he pursued all over Europe. As heir apparent he toured Africa to study colonial problems at firsthand; as King he studied the army or the coal mines of the Borinage or the “Red country” of the Walloons in the same way. “When he speaks the King always looks as if he wished to build something,” said one of his Ministers.
In 1900 he had married Elizabeth of Wittelsbach, whose father, the Duke, practiced as an oculist in the Munich hospitals. Their obvious affection for each other, their three children, their model family life in contrast to the unseemly ways of the old regime gave Albert a head start in popular approval when, in 1909, to general relief and rejoicing, he took the place of King Leopold II upon the throne. The new King and Queen continued to ignore pomp, entertain whom they liked, exercise their curiosity and love of adventure where they liked, and remain indifferent to danger, etiquette, and criticism. They were not bourgeois, so much as bohemian royalty.
In military school Albert had been a cadet at the same time as a future Chief of Staff, Emile Galet. A shoemaker’s son, Galet had been sent to the school by popular subscription of his village. Later he became an instructor in the War College, and resigned when he could no longer agree with its dauntless theories of the offensive which the Belgian Staff, regardless of the difference in circumstance, had taken over from the French. Galet had also left the Catholic Church to become a strict Evangelical. Pessimistic, hypercritical, and dedicated, he was intensely serious about his profession as about everything else—it was said he read the Bible daily and was never known to laugh. The King heard him lecture, met him at maneuvers, was impressed by his teachings: that offensive for its own sake and under all circumstances was dangerous, that an army should seek battle “only if there is prospect of important success,” and that “attack calls for superiority of means.” Though still a captain, though a workingman’s son, though a convert to Protestantism in a Catholic country, he was chosen by King Albert as his personal military adviser, a post specially created for the purpose.
Since, according to the Belgian constitution, King Albert would become Commander in Chief only after the outbreak of war, he and Galet were unable in the meantime to impose their fears or their ideas of strategy upon the General Staff. The Staff clung to the example of 1870 when not a toe of either the Prussian or French armies had stepped over the Belgian border, although if the French had crossed into Belgian territory they would have had room enough to retreat. King Albert and Galet, however, believed that the huge growth of armies since that time made it clearer each year that if the nations marched again they would spill over onto the old pathways and meet again in the old arena.
The Kaiser had made this perfectly clear in the interview which so stunned Leopold II in 1904. After his return, Leopold’s shock gradually wore off, for, as van der Elst, to whom the King reported the interview, agreed, William was such a weathercock, how could one be sure? On a return visit to Brussels in 1910, the Kaiser proved indeed to be most reassuring. Belgium had nothing to fear from Germany, he told van der Elst. “You will have no grounds of complaint against Germany .… I understand perfectly your country’s position .… I shall never place her in a false position.”
On the whole, Belgians believed him. They took their guarantee of neutrality seriously. Belgium had neglected her army, frontier defenses, fortresses, anything that implied lack of confidence in the protective treaty. Socialism was the raging issue. Public apathy to what was happening abroad and a Parliament obsessed by economy allowed the army to deteriorate to a condition resembling the Turkish. Troops were ill-disciplined, slack, untidy, avoided saluting, slouched in the ranks, and refused to keep step.
The officers’ corps was little better. Because the army was considered superfluous and slightly absurd, it did not attract the best minds or young men of ability and ambition. Those who did make it a career and passed through the Ecole de Guerre became infected with the French doctrine ofélan and offensive à outrance. The remarkable formula they evolved was, “To ensure against our being ignored it was essential that we should attack.”
However magnificent the spirit, this formula conformed ill with the realities of Belgium’s position, and the doctrine of the offensive sat oddly upon an army staff committed by the duty of neutrality to plan for the defensive only. Neutrality forbade them to plan in concert with any other nation and required of them to regard the first foot put inside their territory as hostile, whether it was English, French, or German. Under the circumstances a coherent plan of campaign was not easily achieved.
The Belgian Army consisted of six divisions of infantry plus a cavalry division. These would have to face the thirty-four divisions scheduled by the Germans to march through Belgium. Equipment and training were inadequate and marksmanship inferior in view of army funds that permitted enough ammunition for only two firing practices of one round per man a week. Compulsory military service, not introduced until 1913, only served to make the army more unpopular than ever. In that year of ominous rumblings from abroad, Parliament reluctantly raised the annual contingent from 13,000 to 33,000 but agreed to appropriate funds for modernizing the defenses of Antwerp only on condition that the cost be absorbed by reducing the conscripts’ period of service. No General Staff existed until 1910 when the new King insisted upon creating one.
Its effectiveness was limited by the extreme dissidence of its members. One school favored an offensive plan with the army concentrated at the frontiers upon threat of war. Another school favored the defensive with the army concentrated in the interior. A third group, consisting chiefly of King Albert and Captain Galet, favored a defensive as close as possible to the threatened frontier but without risking the lines of communication to the fortified base at Antwerp.
While the European sky was darkening, Belgium’s staff officers wrangled—and failed to complete a plan of concentration. Their difficulty was compounded by their not permitting themselves to specify who the enemy would be. A compromise plan had been agreed on but existed only in outline, without railroad timetables, supply depots, or billets.
In November 1913, King Albert was invited to Berlin as his uncle had been nine years before. The Kaiser gave him a royal dinner at a table covered with violets and set for fifty-five guests, among them Secretary of War General Falkenhayn, Secretary of the Imperial Navy Admiral Tirpitz, Chief of Staff General Moltke, and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. The Belgian ambassador, Baron Beyens, who was also present, noticed that the King sat through dinner looking unusually grave. After dinner, Beyens watched him in conversation with Moltke, and saw Albert’s face growing darker and more somber as he listened. On leaving he said to Beyens: “Come tomorrow at nine. I must talk to you.”
In the morning he walked with Beyens through the Brandenburg Gate, past the rows of glaring white marble Hohenzollems in heroic postures, mercifully shrouded by the morning mist, to the Tiergarten where they could talk “undisturbed.” At a court ball early in his visit, Albert said, he had received his first shock when the Kaiser pointed out to him a general—it was von Kluck—as the man designated “to lead the march on Paris.” Then, prior to dinner the evening before, the Kaiser, taking him aside for a personal talk, had poured forth a hysterical tirade against France. He said France never ceased provoking him. As a result of her attitude, war with France was not only inevitable; it was near at hand. The French press treated Germany with malice, the Three-Year Law was a deliberately hostile act, and all France was moved by an unquenchable thirst forrevanche. Trying to stem the flow, Albert said he knew the French better; he visited France every year, and he could assure the Kaiser they were not aggressive but sincerely desired peace. In vain; the Kaiser kept insisting war was inevitable.
After dinner Moltke took up the refrain. War with France was coming. “This time we must make an end of it. Your Majesty cannot imagine the irresistible enthusiasm which will permeate Germany on The Day.” The German Army was invincible; nothing could stand up to the furor Teutonicus; terrible destruction would mark its path; its victory could not be in doubt.
Troubled by what motivated these startling confidences, as much as by their content, Albert could only conclude they were intended to frighten Belgium into coming to terms. Evidently the Germans had made up their minds, and he felt that France should be warned. He instructed Beyens to repeat everything to Jules Cambon, the French ambassador in Berlin, and to charge him to report the matter to President Poincaré in the strongest terms.
Later they learned that Major Melotte, the Belgian military attaché, had been treated to an even more violent outburst by General Moltke at the same dinner. He also heard that war with France was “inevitable” and “much nearer than you think.” Moltke, who usually maintained great reserve with foreign attachés, on this occasion “unbuttoned” himself. He said Germany did not want war but the General Staff was “arch-ready.” He said “France must absolutely stop provoking and annoying us or we shall have to come to blows. The sooner, the better. We have had enough of these continual alerts.” As examples of French provocations, Moltke cited, apart from “big things,” a cold reception given in Paris to German aviators and a boycott by Paris society of Major Winterfeld, the German military attaché. The Major’s mother, Countess d’Alvensleben, had complained bitterly. As for England, well, the German Navy was not built to hide in harbor. It would attack and probably be beaten. Germany would lose her ships, but England would lose mastery of the seas, which would pass to the United States, who would be the sole gainer from a European war. England knew this and, said the General, taking a sharp turn in his logic, would probably stay neutral.
He was far from finished. What would Belgium do, he asked Major Melotte, if a large foreign force invaded her territory? Melotte replied that she would defend her neutrality. In an effort to find out whether Belgium would content herself with a protest, as the Germans believed, or would fight, Moltke pressed him to be more specific. When Melotte answered, “We will oppose with all our forces whatever power violates our frontiers,” Moltke pointed out smoothly that good intentions were not enough. “You must also have an army capable of fulfilling the duty which neutrality imposes.”
Back in Brussels, King Albert called at once for a progress report on the mobilization plans. He found no progress had been made. On the basis of what he had heard in Berlin, he obtained De Broqueville’s agreement for a plan of campaign based on the hypothesis of a German invasion. He got his own and Galet’s nominee, an energetic officer named Colonel de Ryckel, appointed to carry out the work promised for April. By April it was still not ready. Meanwhile De Broqueville had appointed another officer, General de Selliers de Moranville, as Chief of Staff over De Ryckel’s head. In July four separate plans of concentration were still being considered.
Discouragement did not change the King’s mind. His policy was embodied in a memorandum drawn up by Captain Galet immediately after the Berlin visit. “We are resolved to declare war at once upon any power that deliberately violates our territory; to wage war with the utmost energy and with the whole of our military resources, wherever required, even beyond our frontiers, and to continue to wage war even after the invader retires, until the conclusion of a general peace.”
On August 2, King Albert, presiding at the Council of State when it met at 9:00 P.M. in the palace, opened with the words: “Our answer must be ‘No,’ whatever the consequences. Our duty is to defend our territorial integrity. In this we must not fail.” He insisted, however, that no one present should allow himself any illusions: the consequences would be grave and terrible; the enemy would be ruthless. Premier de Broqueville warned waverers not to put faith in Germany’s promise to restore Belgian integrity after the war. “If Germany is victorious,” he said, “Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the German Empire.”
One aged and indignant minister who had recently entertained as his house guest the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, brother-in-law of the Kaiser, could not contain his wrath at the perfidy of the Duke’s expressions of friendship and kept up an angry mumbling as chorus to the proceedings. When General de Selliers, the Chief of Staff, rose to explain the strategy of defense to be adopted, his Deputy Chief, Colonel de Ryckel, with whom his relations were, in the words of a colleague, “denuded of the amenities,” kept growling between his teeth, “Il faut piquer dedans, il faut piquer dedans” (We must hit them where it hurts). Given the floor, he amazed his hearers with a proposal to anticipate the invader by attacking him on his own territory before he could cross the Belgian frontier.
At midnight the meeting adjourned, while a committee of the Premier, Foreign Minister, and Minister of Justice returned to the Foreign Office to draft a reply. While they were at work a motorcar drew up in the dark courtyard beneath the single row of lighted windows. A visit of the German Minister was announced to the startled Ministers. It was 1:30 A.M. What could he want at this hour?
Herr von Below’s nocturnal unrest reflected his government’s growing uneasiness about the effect of their ultimatum, now irrevocably committed to paper and irrevocably working upon Belgian national pride. The Germans had been telling one another for years that Belgium would not fight, but now when the moment arrived they began to suffer an acute if belated anxiety. A valiant and ringing “No!” from Belgium would peal round the world with effect on the other neutral countries hardly beneficial to Germany. But Germany was not so worried about the attitude of neutral countries as she was about the delay that armed Belgian resistance would inflict upon her timetable. A Belgian Army that chose to fight rather than “line up along the road” would require the leaving behind of divisions needed for the march on Paris. By destruction of railroads and bridges it could disrupt the Germans’ line of march and flow of supplies and cause an infinity of annoyance.
Prey to second thoughts, the German government had sent Herr von Below in the middle of the night to try to influence the Belgian reply by further accusations against France. He informed van der Elst who received him that French dirigibles had dropped bombs and that French patrols had crossed the border.
“Where did these events take place?” van der Elst asked.
“In Germany,” was the reply.
“In that case I fail to see the relevance of the information.”
The German Minister offered to explain that the French lacked respect for international law and could therefore be expected to violate Belgian neutrality. This ingenious exercise in logic somehow fell short of making its point. Van der Elst showed his visitor the door.
At 2:30 A.M., the Council reconvened in the palace to approve the reply to Germany submitted by the Ministers. It stated that the Belgian government “would sacrifice the honor of the nation and betray its duty to Europe” if it accepted the German proposals. It declared itself “firmly resolved to repel by all means in its power every attack upon its rights.”
After approving the document without change, the Council fell into dispute over the King’s insistence that no appeal to the guarantor powers for assistance should be made until the Germans actually entered Belgium. Despite vigorous disagreement he carried his point. At 4:00 A.M. the Council broke up. The last Minister to leave turned and saw King Albert standing with his back to the room and a copy of the reply in his hand, staring out of the window where the dawn was beginning to light the sky.
In Berlin, too, a late meeting was being held that night of August 2. At the Chancellor’s house, Bethmann-Hollweg, General von Moltke, and Admiral Tirpitz were conferring about a declaration of war on France as they had conferred the night before about Russia. Tirpitz complained “again and again” that he could not understand why these declarations of war were necessary. They always had an “aggressive flavor”; an army could march “without such things.” Bethmann pointed out that a declaration of war on France was necessary because Germany wanted to march through Belgium. Tirpitz repeated Ambassador Lichnowsky’s warnings from London that an invasion of Belgium would bring England in; he suggested that the entry into Belgium might be delayed. Moltke, terrified by another threat to his schedule, at once declared this to be “impossible”; nothing must be allowed to interfere with the “machinery of transport.”
He did not himself, he said, attach much value to declarations of war. French hostile acts during the days had already made war a fact. He was referring to the alleged reports of French bombings in the Nuremberg area which the German press had been blazing forth in extras all day with such effect that people in Berlin went about looking nervously at the sky. In fact, no bombings had taken place. Now, according to German logic, a declaration of war was found to be necessary because of the imaginary bombings.
Tirpitz still deplored it. There could be no doubt in the world, he said, that the French were “at least intellectually the aggressors”; but owing to the carelessness of German politicians in not making this clear to the world, the invasion of Belgium, which was “a pure emergency measure,” would be made to appear unfairly “in the fateful light of a brutal act of violence.”
In Brussels, after the Council of State broke up at 4:00 A.M. on the morning of August 3, Davignon returned to the Foreign Office and instructed his Political Secretary, Baron de Gaiffier, to deliver Belgium’s reply to the German Minister. At precisely 7:00 A.M., the last moment of the twelve hours, Gaiffier rang the doorbell of the German Legation and delivered the reply to Herr von Below. On his way home he heard the cries of newsboys as the Monday morning papers announced the text of the ultimatum and the Belgian answer. He heard the sharp exclamations as people read the news and gathered in excited groups. Belgium’s defiant “No!” exhilarated the public. Many expressed the belief that it would cause the Germans to skirt their territory rather than risk universal censure. “The Germans are dangerous but they are not maniacs,” people assured one another.
Even in the palace and in the ministries some hope persisted; it was hard to believe that the Germans would deliberately choose to start the war by putting themselves in the wrong. The last hope vanished when the Kaiser’s belated reply to King Albert’s personal appeal of two days before was received on the evening of August 3. It was one more attempt to induce the Belgians to acquiesce without fighting. “Only with the most friendly intentions toward Belgium,” the Kaiser telegraphed, had he made his grave demand. “As the conditions laid down make clear, the possibility of maintaining our former and present relations still lies in the hands of Your Majesty.”
“What does he take me for?” King Albert exclaimed in the first show of anger he had allowed himself since the crisis began. Assuming the supreme command, he at once gave orders for the blowing up of the Meuse bridges at Liège and of the railroad tunnels and bridges at the Luxembourg frontier. He still postponed sending the appeal for military help and alliance to Britain and France. Belgian neutrality had been one collective act of the European Powers that almost succeeded. King Albert could not bring himself to sign its death certificate until the overt act of invasion had actually taken place.