Military history

THE CAPITULATION OF KING LEOPOLD

King Leopold III of the Belgians surrendered early on the morning of May 28. The headstrong young ruler, who had taken his country out of its alliance with France and Britain into a foolish neutrality, who had refused to restore the alliance even during the months when he knew the Germans were preparing a massive assault across his border, who at the last moment, after Hitler had struck, called on the French and British for military succor and received it, now deserted them in a desperate hour, opening the dyke for German divisions to pour through on the flank of the sorely pressed Anglo–French troops. Moreover, he did it, as Churchill told the Commons on June 4, “without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his ministers and upon his own personal act.”

Actually he did it against the unanimous advice of his government, which he was constitutionally sworn to follow. At 5 A.M. on May 25 there was a showdown meeting at the King’s headquarters between the monarch and three members of the cabinet, including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. They urged him for the last time not to surrender personally and become a prisoner of the Germans, for if he did he “would be degraded to the role of Hacha” in Prague. They also reminded him that he was head of state as well as Commander in Chief, and that if matters came to the worst he could exercise his first office in exile, as the Queen of Holland and the King of Norway had decided to do, until eventual Allied victory came.

“I have decided to stay,” Leopold answered. “The cause of the Allies is lost.”14

At 5 P.M. on May 27 he dispatched General Derousseaux, Deputy Chief of the Belgian General Staff, to the Germans to ask for a truce. At 10 o’clock the General brought back the German terms: “The Fuehrer demands that arms be laid down unconditionally.” The King accepted unconditional surrender at 11 P.M. and proposed that fighting cease at 4 A.M., which it did.

Leopold’s capitulation was angrily denounced by Premier Reynaud of France in a violent broadcast, and Belgian Premier Pierlot, also broadcasting from Paris but in a more dignified tone, informed the Belgian people that the King had acted against the unanimous advice of the government, broken his links with the people and was no longer in a position to govern, and that the Belgian government in exile would continue the struggle. Churchill when he spoke in the House on May 28 reserved judgment on Leopold’s action but on June 4 joined in the general criticism.

The controversy raged long after the war was over. Leopold’s defenders, and there were many in and outside Belgium, believed that he had done the right and honorable thing in sharing the fate of his soldiers and of the Belgian people. And they made much of the claim that the King acted not as chief of state but as Commander in Chief of the Belgian Army in surrendering.

That the battered Belgian troops were in desperate straits by May 27 there is no dispute. Valiantly they had agreed to extend their front in order to free the British and French to fight their way south. And that extended front was fast collapsing though the Belgians fought doggedly. Also Leopold was not told that on May 26 Lord Gort had received orders from London to withdraw to Dunkirk and save what he could of the B.E.F. That is one side of the argument, but there is another. The Belgian Army was under the over-all Allied Command and Leopold made a separate peace without consulting it. In his defense it has been pointed out that on May 27 at 12:30 P.M. he telegraphed Gort that he soon would “be forced to capitulate to avoid a collapse.” But the British commander, who was extremely busy and constantly on the move, did not receive it. He later testified that he first heard of the surrender only shortly after 11 P.M. on May 27 and found himself “suddenly faced with an open gap of twenty miles between Ypres and the sea through which enemy armored forces might reach the beaches.”15 To General Weygand, who was the King s superior military commander, the news arrived by telegram from French liaison at Belgian headquarters a little after 6 P.M. and it hit him, he later said, “like a bolt out of the blue. There had been no warning …”16

Finally, even as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, Leopold in this constitutional, democratic monarchy was bound to accept the advice of his government. Neither in that role nor certainly as chief of state did he have the authority to surrender on his own. In the end the Belgian people, as was proper, passed judgment on their sovereign. He was not recalled to the throne from Switzerland, where he took refuge at the war’s end, until five years after it was over. When the call came, on July 20, 1950, after 57 per cent of those voting in a referendum had approved it, his return provoked such a violent reaction among the populace that civil war threatened to break out. He soon abdicated in favor of his son.

Whatever may be said of Leopold’s behavior, there should be no dispute—though there has been*—about the magnificent way his Army fought. For a few days in May I followed Reichenau’s Sixth Army through Belgium and saw for myself the tenacity with which the Belgians struggled against insuperable odds. Not once did they break under the unmerciful and unopposed bombing of the Luftwaffe or when the German armor tried to cut through them. This could not be said of certain other Allied troops in that campaign. The Belgians held out for eighteen days and would have held out much longer had not they, like the B.E.F. and the French northern armies, been caught in a trap which was not of their making.

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