How the Belgian Army Defended the Territory
NOW it was for the Army to make its stand against aggression and to fulfil the mission Belgium had undertaken. On behalf of neighbouring countries, as well as for her own sake, she had undertaken "to defend with all her forces the frontiers of Belgium against any aggression or invasion and to prevent Belgian territory from being used for the passage of troops or as a base of operations for aggression against another State."
After mobilization, the Army available for carrying out this mission consisted of:
5 Regular Army Corps and 2 Reserve Army Corps consisting in all of:
12 Regular Infantry Divisions.1 Cavalry Corps of 2 Cavalry Divisions and 1 Brigade of Motorized Cavalry.
2 Divisions of "Chasseurs Ardennais."
6 Reserve Infantry Divisions.
1 Brigade of Cyclist Frontier Guards.
2 Reconnaissance Regiments (Gendarmerie).
4 Air Force Regiments.
2 Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiments.
4 Army Artillery Regiments.
Army Troops (Engineers, Signals, etc.)
The Belgian plan, in the event of a German aggression, provided for:
(a) A delaying position along the Albert Canal from Antwerp to Liège and the Meuse from Liège to Namur, which was to be held long enough to allow French and
British troops to occupy the line Antwerp-Namur-Givet.1 It was anticipated that the forces of the guarantor Powers would be in action on the third day of invasion.
(b) Withdrawal to the Antwerp-Namur position.
(c) The Belgian Army was to hold the sector--exclusive Louvain, inclusive Antwerp--as part of the Main Allied defensive position.
During the evening of May 9th, the Belgian Military Attaché in Berlin intimated that the Germans intended to attack on the following day. Offensive preparations and troop movements on the Belgian frontier confirmed this information.
May 10th.--At ten minutes past twelve (midnight) on May 10th, General Headquarters gave the alarm. For the third time since mobilization had taken place, the Belgian troops took up their war stations (Map 1).
At four o'clock, without ultimatum or declaration of war, a powerful German Air Force bombed and machine-gunned the aerodromes, stations, and communication centres. The Belgian Air Force, taken by surprise, lost over half its machines on the ground.
FIRST PHASE: DEFENCE OF THE DELAYING POSITION AND WITHDRAWAL TO THE MAIN POSITION ANTWERP-NAMUR
May 10th-13th (Maps 1, 2, and 3).--An unusually daring coup de main was carried out on the front Eben-Emael-Vroenhoven-Veldwezelt-Briedgen (Map 2), where one salient of our defensive position skirting the frontier of Holland could not be covered by outposts. Troops transported by gliders were landed behind the bridges of Vroenhoven, Veldwezelt, and Briedgen, whilst German
aircraft incessantly bombarded the whole of the sector. The glider troops, reinforced by parachutists, surprised the detachments guarding the bridges and captured them from the rear. The artillery of the fort of Eben-Emael, covering these bridges, had already been put out of action by a new method of warfare. A few gliders, taking advantage of the dark, landed on the roof of the fort. Their crews succeeded, by means of explosives, in putting out of action or damaging the defensive armament of the fort.
Transport aircraft showered parachutists on Eben-Emael. These parachutists established themselves on the fort, entered through the breaches, and began to destroy the galleries, while the aerial bombardment was continued, with redoubled intensity, no neighbouring units of the fort, and especially on the artillery, so as to prevent them from giving any help.
The Belgian Army could not by itself fulfil its mission of throwing back the aggressor. In their Declaration on April 24th, 1937, Great Britain and France had confirmed their promise to assist Belgium, as provided in the Locarno agreements. While the fort of Eben-Emael and the neighbouring units were fully engaged in battle, in very difficult circumstances, the Government appealed to the guarantor Powers.
In an Order of the Day, General Gamelin said: "The attack we have been expecting since last October began this morning."
As promised by the Minister of National Defence in Parliament on February 7th, the authorities had neglected non step to enable the guarantor Powers to fulfil their obligations. Our southern frontier was opened to the French and British Armies, which were to occupy the positions assigned to them, according to a carefully thought-out plan.
The heads of motorized columns of the Seventh French Army (General Giraud) began an advance into Holland in the direction of Breda and Tilburg to defend the mouths of the Scheldt and Zeeland.
May 10, 1940
In the evening, mobile troops of the B.E.F. (General Gort) took up a position on the Dyle between Wavre and Louvain, while the Prioux Cavalry Corps, preceding the First French Army (General Blanchard) reached the Wavre-Namur line. A group of light divisions belonging to the Second French Army (General Huntzinger) advanced into Belgian Luxemburg in the direction of Marche, Bastogne, and Arlon. It encountered strong enemy resistance, and was brought back in the evening to the Etalle-Neufchâteau line.
The light troops of the Ninth French Army (General Corap) reached the Ourthe cuttring (see Map 1).
Early on the morning of May 19th, the King had gone to his General Headquarters at Breendonck, near Antwerp.
May 11th.--By taking the bridges at Vroenhoven, Veldwezelt, and Briedgen, and putting the fort of Eben-Emael out of action, the enemy obtained a footing on the left bank of the Albert Canal on the front held by the 7th Infantry Division.
The regiments in this division (2nd Grenadier Regiment at Canne, 198th of the Line at Vroehnhoven, 2nd Carabineers at Veldwezelt-Briedgen) held on to their positions desperately. In spite of an aerial bombardment of unparalleled violence, in spite of disorganization in the rear and of the disorganization caused by enemy parachutists, there were many counterattacks for the purpose of retaking the bridges. By dint of heroic efforts, the bridge at Briedgen was retaken and destroyed. But the enemy had had time to establish firmly anchored bridgeheads at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt. His supporting fire and still more his fighter aircraft tied down the Belgian battalions and inflicted heavy losses on them. The intervention of our reserves and motorized troops recalled from the Ardennes did not succeed in restoring the situation. A Belgian squadron, offering itself up as a sacrifice, flew over and bombed the bridge of Vroenhoven: eleven machines out of twelve were brought down.
There was no response, up to midday, to the requests addressed to the British and French Commands asking for bomber aircraft. It was not until the morning of May 12th
that the R.A.F. set out on its expedition to bomb the Maastricht bridges.
From the very beginning, the German Air Force had an overwhelming superiority. There was never to be an opportunity of wresting from it, even locally, the mastery of the air. Its action was favoured by specially good weather conditions throughout the eighteen days of the campaign. For eighteen days, the Belgian Army had the depressing feeling that it was manœuvering and fighting under a sky that belonged exclusively to the enemy.
After resisting desperately for thirty-six hours, the 7th Infantry Division withdrew. The fort of Eben-Emael fell. The enemy armoured divisions hurled through the gap, advanced beyond Tongres, threatening to envelop the whole of the Albert Canal position and the fortified town of Li`ge. The withdrawal of the 7th Infantry Division was followed by that of the 4th Infantry Division on its left.
May 12th.--On the evening of May 11th, the High Command decided to withdraw our troops behind the Antwerp-Namur line.
Beginning on the night of May 11th-12th, our forces deployed on the Albert Canal and the Meuse gradually withdrew, covered by a network of demolitions and by rearguards posted astride Tongres, then on the line of the Gette.
During the day of May 12th, there was a conference between King Leopold, General Van Overstraeten, M. Daladier, General Georges, General Billotte, General Champon, and General Pownall, Chief of the British General Staff, at the Château of Casteau, near Mons. The King and General Pownall agreed that General Billotte, commanding the French Northern Army Group, should be delegated by General Georges2 "to ensure that the operations of the Allied Armies in Belgium and Holland were co-ordinated."
The Belgian Army reorganized in order to range itself in good order on the prepared position from Antwerp to
Louvain. The Third Army Corps had evacuated the fortified town of Liège in order to escape being encircled. But the forts, with the exception of Eben-Emael, held on and acted as strong-points, hindering the invader's communications.
Colonel Modart, one of the defenders of Loncin in 1914, who was now commanding the Liège Fortress Regiment, followed General Leman's example, and shut himself up in the Flemalle fort to direct and to put heart into the defence.
The British Army had three divisions in position on the Louvain-Wavre front. Six other divisions were echeloned in depth between the Dyle and the Scheldt.
The First French Army, covered in the direction of Tirlemont-Huy by a cavalry corps, reached its dispositions on the Wavre-Gembloux-Namur front.
The Namur position, defended by the Seventh Belgian Army Corps (8th Infantry Division, 2nd Division of "Chasseurs Ardennais," 12th French Infantry Division), absorbed also the troops of the Keyaerts group (1st Division of "chasseurs Ardennais"), who fought a delaying action throughout the whole depth of the Ardennes and did considerable demolition work.
In the south, the Ninth French Army established itself on the Meuse from Namur to Mézières. In Holland, the situation was not clear. Airborne troops which landed at The Hague and at Rotterdam paralysed the defence, preventing the Allies from making contact with the main Netherlands forces. The Seventh French Army was faced by superior forces which emerged from the Peel marshes.
In short, in spite of the fall of Eben-Emael and the loss of two bridges, the Belgian army carried out the only independent mission for which it was responsible--it held on to the Liège and Albert Canal position for long enough to enable the bulk of the Allied forces to occupy the Antwerp-Namur-Givet line.
In accordance with the decisions reached at Casteau, it was henceforward to take part in the general plan of the Allied forces.
May 13th (Map 3).--While the greater part of the Belgian
Army, already in position, feverishly organized the defence of the Antwerp-Louvain position, detachments of our cavalry corps posted as rearguards on the Gette were responsible for covering the withdrawal of our rearmost divisions. Violent fighting took place at Haelen and Tirlemont, where the 2nd Regiment of Guides and the 1st and 2nd Carabineer Cyclists particularly distinguished themselves.
The King issued the following proclamation to the troops:
"The Belgian Army, brutally assailed by an unparalleled surprise attack, grappling with forces that are better equipped and have the advantage of a formidable air force, has for three days carried out difficult operations, the success of which is of the utmost importance to the general conduct of the battle and to the result of the war.
"These operations require from all of us--officers and men--exceptional efforts,sustained day and night, despite a moral tension tested to its limits by the sight of the devastation wrought by a pitiless invader.
"However severe the trial may be, you will come through it gallantly.
"Our position improves with every hour; our ranks are closing up. In the critical days that are ahead of us, you will summon up all your energies, you will make every sacrifice, to stem the invasion.
"Just as they did in 1914 on the Yser, so now the French and British troops are counting on you: the safety and honour of the country are in your hands.
Alarming news came from the French front. At seven o'clock the Germans had attacked the Ninth French Army at Houx--where only the advanced troops were in position--and infiltrated into the valley of the Meuse from Yvoir to Givet. An enemy attack supported by artillery and a very powerful air force on the Second Army front seized
No. 3: May 13th, 1940
Sedan at 5 p.m. and made a breach in which a formidable mass of armoured divisions concentrated.
Was not the German attack to the north of the Meuse simply a diversion to deprive the Allied centre of its reserves?
SECOND PHASE: THE BREAK-THROUGH AT SEDAN AND THE GERMAN PUSH TO THE CHANNEL, INVOLVING THE ABANDOBNMENT OF THE ANTWERP-NAMUR POSITION, May 14th to 20th. (Map No. 4)
May 14th, 15th, and 16th.--Confining itself to exerting a firm pressure on the Belgian-British front, the enemy directed its main effort against the French Armies.
Between the Sambre and the Meuse, the French Ninth Army broke up in disorder. General Giraud, who had just been given the Command, was captured on the 16th at La Capelle.
The irresistible drive of the Panzer Divisions thrown into the Sedan breach seriously threatened to envelop the whole of the Allied troops engaged in Belgium. This led the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies on the evening of the 15th to a decision which had very important results--the abandonment of the Antwerp-Namur position and a withdrawal behind the Escaut; that is to say, the abandonment, without any real resistance, of a powerfully organized position and the taking up of an improvised position.
The fortified position of Namur, isolated by the French withdrawal, was abandoned. The forts, as at Liège, acted as strong-points and held up the enemy's advance. The withdrawal of the Seventh Belgian Army Corps, which was endangered by the speed with which the French withdrew, was only possible thanks to the skilful dispositions of its Commander, General Deffontaine.
The Seventh French Army, unable by its offensive in Zeeland to prevent the capitulation of the Netherlands Army, fell back in disorder on Antwerp. Most of it was diverted as reinforcements in the direction of the First Army.
The magnificent resistance put up by the Liège forts was
recognized by this message from the King on the 16th:
"Colonel Modart, commanding the Liège Fortress Regiment. Officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the Liège fortifications, resist to the last for your country.
"I am proud of you.
The resistance put up by the Liège and Namur forts came up to the expectations of the King and the Army. The fort of Chaudfontaine did not fall until the 17th, Pontisse and Barchon until the 18th, Evegnee until the 19th, Neufchâteau until the 21st, Pepinster (Commandant A. Devos) was still holding out on the 28th.
At Namur, the fort of Marchovelette fell on the 18th, Suarlee on the 19th, St. Heribert and Malonne on the 21st, Dave, Maizeret, and Andoy on the 23rd.
May 17th to 20th (Map 4).--During the night of the 16th-17th, the French and British withdrew, step by step, to Ghent and Termonde in three phases:
- Behind the Willebroeck Canal.
- Behind the Dendre.
- Behind the Scheldt.
Violent fighting took place on the Nethe, the Rupel, the Willebroeck Canal, the Scheldt, Flanders Head, and on the Dendre. During the fighting, Belgian artillery gave many proofs of its worth.
For three days--from May 18th to 20th--our divisions, disposed in good order on the Escaut and the Ghent bridgehead, held out against every attack, while the manœuvre which was to end in the breaking up of the Allied armies into two groups was developing on the Oise.
The British communiqué of May 21st paid tribute to the bearing of the Belgian Army in these words:
"The Belgian Army has contributed largely towards the success of the defensive battle now being fought."
On the evening of the 18th, the Panzer Divisions
approached Peronne. There was nothing to stop their rapid advance. The King had warned his Ministers that a final breach of the Allied front was not impossible, and that this would lead to the isolation of the Belgian Army and part of the French and British Armies, and might have serious consequences, that is to say, capitulation.
On the 19th, M. Gutt, Minister of Finance, who was on a mission to Paris, drew the attention of M. Reynaud, President of the Council, to the growing danger to the Belgian Army, which was exposed to envelopment with all its consequences. He pressed for urgent decisions by the High Command in order to avert the impending disaster.
On May 20th, hearing of the fall of Cambrai and of the German threat to Abbeville, and aware of the state of exhaustion of the French northern forces, the King informed London of his anxiety.
THIRD PHASE: ATTEMPT TO COUNTER-ATTACK TO REUNITE THE ALLIED FRONT. MISSION OF THE BELGIAN ARMY: TO COVER THIS OPERATION BY DEFENDING THE LYS ON A FRONT EXTENDED FROM 50 TO 90 KM. (May 20th to 24th))
May 21st.--On May 21st, the Germans entered Amiens and Montreuil: a strategic situation of the utmost gravity was thus created. It was in these dramatic circumstances that General Weygand, recalled from Syria, succeeded General Gamelin as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies.
Exposed to the full onslaught of the enemy, the British left the Escaut and fell back to the Lys, and this compelled us to take a new line on the Lys, while at the same time we had to protect ourselves from Walcheren Island, which had fallen on the 19th.
On the same day, the Allied Commanders-in-Chief held a conference at Ypres. General Weygand's plan for a double counter-attack to restore the Allied front on the Arras-Albert line was discussed. It was agreed that the Belgian army should extend its front in order to release
some of the British troops to take part in these operations. The Belgian Army was also to cover these operations by holding the line of the Lys, extending in the north to the mouth of the Escaut, and eventually to withdraw to the Yser.
May 22nd.--The French and British attempts to re-establish contact with their armies on the Somme drew the bulk of their forces in the direction of Arras. Twice the Belgian front was weakened by an extension to the south, and on May 22nd it held a front over 90 km. long.
The Franco-British attack under command of General Blanchard made some progress. The French light mechanized units reached the Sensee, in the direction of Cambrai, but their thrust was broken by the German Panzer Divisions.
At the same time, south of the Somme, General Georges was preparing to attack north.
From north to south, the dispositions of the Belgian Forces were, first the Cavalry Corps which held the advanced position at Terneuzen, then from north to south ranged side by side the Fifth, Second, Sixth, Seventh, and Fourth Army Corps. One reserve division guarded the coast.
In reserve our First Corps had only two incomplete divisions which had been sorely tried during the preceding encounters. The 60th French Division with two regiments held the Leopold Canal in the district north of Bruges behind our Cavalry Corps.
Acting on our own authority, we sent the Sixteenth French Corps to hold the canal from Gravelines to St. Omer, in order to secure the Lys and ensure freedom of action for the Allied withdrawal in the south.
In these circumstances, the Belgian Army once again accepted battle. Whilst the armoured divisions were reported to be at Boulogne and then at St. Omer and the French and British were trying to re-establish the connection between Cambrai and Peronne, our troops held out courageously, so as to give the necessary time and space for this decisive operation.
No. 4: May 20th, 1940
It was the Belgian Army, however, which was to bear the chief weight of the German forces in Belgium.
The picture would be incomplete if we did not mention the complications due to a number of motor convoys and movements of all kinds crowded along the French frontier, which was more often closed than open; the congestion caused by hundreds of thousands of refugees moving hither and thither in search of a safe area, and by bombardments which laid waste the whole of the coastal area.
May 23rd.--General Blanchard's offensive had been halted; it could not be resumed. In the south, General Georges' offensive had been stopped on the Somme: everywhere the Germans maintained their positions on the north bank of the river. It became obvious that the counter-attack planned by General Weygand could not be carried out. Similarly, a second counter-attack towards Abbeville on the same day failed.
Enemy pressure compelled the Belgians to abandon Terneuzen and Ghent. The British attempt to break through at Arras had failed. The French units were not in a condition to attack.
On the other hand, motorized detachments from Boulogne at St. Pol threatened the rear of the Allies. The encircling movement was rapidly closing in. In the air, the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Most of the airfields in the north-east of France were occupied by the enemy. There was no direct contact, and the only means of communication with the R.A.F. and the French Air Force was by wireless.
The Belgian Army was no longer allowed to use the bases at Gravelines, Dunkirk, and Bourbourg which had been placed at its disposal, and had only the ports of Ostend and Nieuport left. It was compelled to move its reserves of food, ammunition, and oil, as well as its hospital trains, along one of the few railway lines still usable.
May 24th.--A heavy German attack forced a crossing over the Lys on both sides of Courtrai on the front held by the 1st and 3rd Divisions. The great battle had begun.
Our 10th and 9th Divisions intervened and filled the gap, in spite of the enemy's violent air attacks. Two hundred prisoners were captured in a counter-attack on the front of the Second Army Corps. Our Intelligence established the fact that the attacking force consisted of four regular divisions. The Belgian artillery displayed the greatest activity in harassing the enemy day and night at all ranges. To break down this stubborn resistance, the German General Staff decided to resort to a mass air attack. Formations of over fifty bombers, protected over the coast by fighters, continuously bombed and machine-gunned our lines, our batteries, our headquarters, and our transports, preparing the way for a deadly infantry attack employing the tactics of infiltration. Unfortunately, in spite of our earnest entreaties, our troops never had the benefit of any appreciable help from the Allied air forces.
On May 24th, the enemy brought into line a fresh division from Menin to Ypres which threatened to cut us off from the British. Our 2nd Cavalry Division and our 6th Infantry Division were brought round from our left to our right and frustrated this attempt. In conjunction with the 10th Infantry Division, they kept the assailant at bay on the Ypres-Roulers line.
Twice during the 24th, M. Gutt, Minister of Finance, who had moved from Paris to London, saw Lord Halifax, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and considered with im what measures could be taken to deal with the critical situation in which the Belgian Army was now placed.
FOURTH PHASE: FAILURE OF THE COUNTER-OFFENSIVE AND ALLIED RETREAT TO DUNKIRK. RESISTANCE OF THE BELGIAN ARMY ON THE LYS UNTIL ITS MEANS WERE EXHAUSTED, May 25th to 27th. (Map No. 5)
May 25th.--The counter-offensive designed to break the envelopment having failed, the British troops, set free by the extension of the Belgian front which was agreed upon at the conference in Ypres on the 21st, withdrew to Dunkirk.
The vice in which the British, French, and Belgian forces were held continued to close in. From this moment, the fate of the Belgian Army was in no doubt. All hope of saving it disappeared. On the preceding days, the Germans had scattered through the Belgian lines pamphlets inviting the soldiers to lay down their arms. A rough map gave a striking illustration of their desperate situation. "In any case," said the working, "the war is over for you. Your leaders are about to escape by air. Throw down your arms!" (Appendix 19).
The only object of continuing the fight was to try to save part of the Allied troops by embarking them at Dunkirk. At dawn on May 25th, the King informed first his Ministers and then his Army of his unshakable determination to resist to the limit of his forces and to share in the fate of his soldiers. His Order of the Day to the troops was as follows:
"The great battle which we have been expecting has begun. It will be fierce. We will fight on with all our strength and with supreme energy.
"It is being fought on the ground where in 1914 we victoriously held the invader.
"Belgium expects you to do honour to her Flag.
"Whatever may happen, I shall share your fate.
"I call on you all for firmness, discipline, and confidence.
"Our cause is just and pure.
"Providence will help us.
"LONG LIVE BELGIUM!
"IN THE FIELD, May 25th, 1940."
He sent a straightforward message to London describing the imminent danger and his own intentions. The death of General Billotte, representative of the Commander-in-Chief in the north, and the actual breakdown of
communications with France, prevented him from sending a similar notification to Paris. But in Paris, as in London, the Ministers described the situation which was causing them the gravest anxiety.
When General Sir John Dill visited G.H.Q. on May 25th, his attention as drawn to the possibility of a break-through west of Menin, towards Ypres and Dunkirk, and to its dangers. Furthermore, at about six in the evening, Colonel Davy, Head of the British Military Mission to G.H.Q., was informed that the Belgian Army would henceforward be quite unable to extend its front any farther.
May 26th.--During the night of the 25th-26th and the day of the 26th, 2,000 wagons were brought up and placed end to end to form an anti-tank barrier on the railway line from Roulers to Ypres.
The front was giving way at Iseghem, Nevele, and Ronsele; the First Division of"Chasseurs Ardennais" restored the position by bitter fighting at Nevele and Vynckt, but suddenly the battle extended to the north of Eecloo. The Germans forces a crossing over the canal at Balgerhoeck. For a moment, contact with the British to the west of Menin was lost. The last reserves were assembled, the defence of the coast was taken over by Lines of Communication troops, the defence of the Yser towards the south-west, carried out up to this time by the 15th Division, was now undertaken by units that were exhausted. Auxiliary troops formed a barrier in the rear with 75-mm. guns taken from training centres.
On May 26th at midday, the Belgian Command handed the Head of the French Mission a note on the situation of the Belgian Army which said:
"The Belgian Command asks you to inform the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies that the Belgian Army is in a serious situation and that the Commander-in-Chief intends to carry on the fight as long as his resources permit. The enemy is at present attacking from Eecloo to Menin; the Army has nearly reached the limits of its endurance."
No reply to this message was received from the Commander-in-Chief.
At six o'clock in the evening, General Blanchard arrived to present himself to the King as successor to General Billotte. He announced that the British were evacuating the frontier [position on our right and were withdrawing farther to the rear on the Lille-Ypres line. All that could be spared to fill the gap thus left between them and the Belgians was a small light mechanized division with about fifteen tanks. Moreover, in the absence of contact with General Gort, there was no means of knowing his intentions.
On the other hand, the Belgian Command handed to the Head of the Belgian Mission with British G.H.Q. the following note":
"To-day, May 26th, a very violent attack was launched against the Belgian Army on the Menin-Nevele front, and at the present moment fighting is continuing throughout the whole of the Eecloo region. In the absence of Belgian reserves, we cannot extend the boundary notified yesterday any farther to the right. We are compelled regretfully to say that we have no longer any forces available to bar the way from Ypres. Furthermore, to retreat to the Yser is impossible, since it would, without loss to the enemy, destroy our fighting units even more rapidly than if we stand and fight. Flooding of the Yser-Yperlee region has not yet been begun. The ditches of the drainage works on the eastern bank have been filled.3 All the preparatory work for flooding has been completed. The order to flood the eastern bank of the Yser, and the Yperlee, was given at nine o'clock on May 26th. It should be noted that flooding will be fairly slow, as this is the season of low tides. Until further instructions, there will be no flooding to the north of the Passchendael Canal."
In the evening, the King decided to make arrangements for establishing his G.H.A. at Middelkerke, a seaside resort
a few kilometres from Ostend, and an advanced echelon of G.H.Q. established itself there on the 27th.
May 27th (Map No. 5).--Twenty-four hours earlier, the Belgian Command had suggested that the British should counter-attack between the Lys and the Escaut on the flank and rear of the German attacking force. The British Command replied that the expeditionary force was not in a fit state to undertake this operation. Despite the fact that the Allies were informed that no fresh troops were available and that the limits of resistance were rapidly approaching, no hope whatever of direct assistance from the French was forthcoming. That was the situation at the beginning of May 27th.
The last reserves, three weak regiments, were committed. Somehow or other we managed on our own to maintain contact with the British, but the enemy was determined to break down our resistance which was delaying him and causing him considerable losses. Our troops held along the whole of the front. They fought their ground, yielding only step by step under the repeated assaults of an enemy supported bb an overwhelmingly large air force; they inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The gunners emptied their ammunition limbers, firing point-blank and blowing up their guns when they were about to fall into the hands of the enemy. Despite such heroism, by about eleven o'clock large gaps were made on the front north of Maldegem, in the centre near Ursel, and to the right near Thielt and Roulers. The enemy advanced by infiltration. In the Thielt region, 6 to 7 km. of the front was left undefended; the enemy had only to pour through to reach Bruges. At about 12.30, the King telegraphed the following message to General Gort:
"The Belgian Army is losing heart. It has been fighting without a break for the past four days under a heavy bombardment which the R.A.F. has been unable to prevent. Having heard that the Allied group is surrounded and aware of the great superiority of the enemy, the troops have concluded that the situation is desperate. The time is rapidly
No. 5, May 26-27, 1940
approaching when they will be unable to continue the fight. The King will be forced to capitulate to avoid a collapse."
At about 2.30 p.m. the French liaison authorities were told that:
"Belgian resistance is at its last extremity; our front is about to break like a worn bowstring."
The losses were heavy. The wounded were pouring into the hospital units which were already overflowing; many of the guns lacked ammunition. The Army could no longer offer organized resistance. It had its back to the sea. The arc of fire narrowed down; thousands of refugees and the local population were wandering in a restricted area entirely at the mercy of enemy guns and aircraft. More than 3 million people were crowded into less than 1,700 square km. Many of them were homeless. Food was beginning to run short. The Army no longer had access to a railway. The roads were congested and traffic had great difficulty in moving.
Our last means of resistance gave way under the crushing weight of technical superiority. There was no hope of help and no solution other than complete destruction. Shortly before 4 p.m., the Belgian Command was forced to realize: "(1) that from the national point of view, the Belgian Army had carried out its task; it had resisted to the limit of its capacity; its units were unable to continue the fight. There could be no retreat to the Yser; it would do more to destroy the units than the fighting in progress; it would increase the congestion of the Allied forces to the highest pitch; (2) from the international point of view, the despatch of an envoy to ask for terms for the cessation of hostilities would have the advantage of allowing the Allies the night of the 27th-28th and part of the morning of the 28th, an interval that, if the fighting were continued, could be gained only at the cost of the complete destruction of the Army." There was no possibility of embarking; indeed, even if this solution had been possible, it would have left uncovered the retreat of the French and British forces to Dunkirk.
At 5 p.m., the King decided that an envoy should be sent
to the German Command to ask for an armistice between the Belgian Army and the German Army. This decision was at once communicated to the French and British Missions. The Head of the French Mission, while fully appreciating the justice of the decision, expressed the view that the negotiations should be conducted by the three armies in conjunction with one another. A little later, a reply was given to the effect that the mission would confine itself to enquiring into the terms for the armistice. General Champon said, incidentally, that he had succeeded in getting into touch with General Weygand by wireless, but that he had been unable to reach General Blanchard, whose G.H.Q. was not where it was expected to be. He added that with our approval he would place on the Yser the 60th French Division which we had undertaken to send to Dunkirk in Belgian lorries so that it would come directly under French Command. Furthermore, he no longer knew where General Gort was to be found. His G.H.Q., which was to have established itself at Cassel, had had to give up this idea because of an attack by German tanks. Telephonic communication was impossible, because the Lille exchange had been destroyed.
At 5 p.m., Major-General Derousseaux, Deputy-Chief of the General Staff, left Belgian G.H.Q. He returned at 10 p.m. from G.H.Q. of the Eighteenth Germany Army with the reply: "The Führer demands that arms be laid down unconditionally" (Bedingungslos).
At 11 p.m., bowing to the inevitable, the King, in full agreement with his Chief of Staff, decided to accept the terms and proposed that firing should cease at 4 a.m.
May 28th.--At 1.30 a.m., the Head of the French Mission, who had moved, in the meantime, to La Panne, was informed of the capitulation.
At 4 a.m., firing ceased along the whole of the Belgian front, except in the Roulers-Ypres sector, where the Belgian units had not been informed of the capitulation and continued to defend their positions until about 6 a.m.
At about 9 a.m., a message from the envoy was received
to the effect that the German Command demanded free passage for its columns towards the sea. The message was at once telephone to the Head of the French Mission. Shortly afterwards, communications between the representative of the Allied Command and the Belgian Command were finally severed by the breakdown of the telephone system.
The Protocol signed on May 28th by General von Reichenau for the German Army and General Derousseaux for the Belgian Army contained the following provisions:
"The Belgian Army shall unconditionally lay down its arms at once and shall from that time onwards regard itself as prisoner of war. An armistice was entered into this morning at 5 a.m.4 at the request of the Belgian Command. The German operations against the British and French troops will not be suspended.
"Belgian territory will at once be occupied, including all the ports. No further damage shall be done to the locks or coastal fortifications.
"1. As a mark of honourable surrender, the Officers of the Belgian Army shall retain their weapons.
"2. The Château of Lacken shall be placed at the disposal of His Majesty the King in order that he may reside there with his family, his military attendants and his servants."
This painful conclusion of an eighteen-day campaign was not unexpected. The British and French Government authorities were duly informed of our growing exhaustion and of our determination to defend our positions until all our means were expended: this was done. Capitulation was not the result of a free decision; it occured, at the last extremity, under the inexorable pressure of events.
Before parting with his Army, the King made a final proclamation:
"G.H.Q., May 28th, 1940.
"OFFICERS, NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS, AND MEN,
"Plunged unexpectedly into a war of unparalleled violence, you have fought courageously to defend your homeland step by step.
"Exhausted by an uninterrupted struggle against an enemy very much superior in numbers and material, we have been forced to surrender.
"History will relate that the Army did its duty to the full. Our Honour is safe.
"This violent fighting, these sleepless nights, cannot have been in vain. I enjoin you not to be disheartened, but to bear yourselves with dignity. Let your attitude and your discipline continue to win you the esteem of the foreigner.
"I shall not leave you in our misfortune, and I shall watch over your future and that of your families.
"To-morrow we will set to work with the firm intention of raising our country from its ruins.
The Army had resisted the German aggression with all the means in its power. Its inability to check it was due to military events outside its control, events which occurred elsewhere. The Army had continued to fight desperately, despite the fact that it was irrevocably lost by the failure of the counter-attack to check the German envelopment. It did not lay down its arms until--with its back to the sea, hemmed in to the last remaining strip of territory, and with no means of escape--it could continue the struggle no longer. As he had proclaimed in order to strengthen the courage of his soldiers at the height of the battle, its Commander-in-Chief has since linked up his future with that of the Army. By his dignified attitude, in the captivity to which he has condemned himself, he has shown himself to be the incarnation of a people which will not accept servitude.
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