Measures taken by Belgium to strengthen the National Defence System
THE object of these measures is:
- To reinforce the fortified system and to strengthen the protective measures of the country.
- To increase the number of effectives on a war footing.
- To modernize and augment material and armament.
I. THE BELGIAN FORTIFIED SYSTEM AND PROTECTIVE MEASURES
The construction of the Belgian fortified system, which was begun in 1928, was continued at an ever-increasing speed down to May 1940. The plan for the fortified system and protective measures was closely connected with the plan of campaign, and the two were developed on parallel lines.
In the Province of Liège
The rearming and modernization of eight old forts at Liège (the six forts on the right bank and the forts of Flemalle and Pontisse on the left bank) was begun in 1928.
To meet the danger of a sudden attack, designed to hamper the mobilization of the Belgian Army, a chain of pillboxes against invasion was established on the line running from Jupille, Chenée, and Renory, covering all the roads into Liège. They were equipped with 47-mm. guns, searchlights, machine-guns, and sub-machine guns, and were guarded by anti-tank obstacles. They were manned permanently. For the same purpose, fortified posts covering important road junctions were constructed near the frontier at Homburg, Henrichapelle, Dolhain, Jalhaye, and Malmedy.
In the gaps between the old forts, a beginning was made in 1934 with the construction of flanking casemates for automatic weapons.
After these measures of security had been taken, the construction was begun on a new fortified line comprising the new forts of Eben-Emael, Neufchateau, Battice, and Pepister, and a number of flanking casemates for automatic weapons were constructed in the gaps between these works.
From the frontier to the Meuse there were several lines along which provision had been made for the destruction of roads and bridges, the efficacy of which depended on fire from the new and old forts.
The fortified town was also provided with an underground telephone system, control-rooms, a planned road system, gun-emplacements for heavy artillery on railway-tracks, stores of ammunition and materials. To guard, maintain, and man all these fortifications and to carry out demolition work it was necessary to form special units on a voluntary basis. These consisted of battalions of cyclist frontier guards.
In the Provinces of Limburg and Antwerp
The defences had necessarily to follow the water-lines. Defensive structures were established, in the first place, along the canal from Maastricht to Bois-le-Duc and the canal joining the Meuse and the Escaut. They consisted of:
Casemates for automatic weapons enfilading the water-level and pillboxes covering the bridges;
Arrangements for flooding and demolition work.
As the Albert Canal was cut, similar works were constructed. They were finished in 1939.
The Limburg structures, when completed, were linked up with the fortified town of Liège by the Eben-Emael fort.
In the Provinces of Namur and Luxemburg
The defence system was based on the fortified town of Namur, which was rearmed and modernized on the same lines as the fortified town of Liiège (ring of old forts; pillboxes in the gaps, line of pillboxes against invasion, fortified posts on the frontier, progressive lines of demolition). In order to take advantage of the broken Ardennes country, a division of "Chasseurs Ardennais," specially trained in skirmishing, was formed. Tactics of this kind, which would be facilitated by the valleys and by demolition work, were calculated to inflict heavy losses on an invader and to cause considerable delay.
From 1936 onward, the Government was obliged, because of the repudiation by Germany of the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Locarno, to strengthen the national defence system still further. Its aim was to build up a military machine sufficiently strong to discourage Belgium's neighbours from attempting to use Belgium as a battlefield or as a base for an attack. From the military standpoint, the risks involved by the changed situation iun Europe had to consequences:
1. It became necessary to strengthen the protective measures.
The period of military service was extended to a year, and a considerable part of the contingent in the 1973-41 classes was required to so seventeen months' service.
2. It became necessary to modify the fortified systems.
The concrete and iron framework established on the frontier on the Antwerp-Liège-Namur line could no longer be used as the backbone for a position of resistance. The Belgian Army could not hold a front over 200 km. long.
In 1939, the construction of a fortified position on the Antwerp-Namur line was begun. This position, known as K.W. from the names of the terminal points (Koningshoyckt and Wavre), consisted of a number of works disposed on several lines. They were protected in front by a continuous anti-tank barricade and by flooding, whilst anti-tank traps were set deep in the position,. An underground telephone system and a planned road system completed the equipment of the position. These works were completed in May 1940.
II. INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF EFFECTIVES ON A WAR FOOTING
In 1930 the Belgian Army had one cavalry corps consisting of two divisions and three army corps each consisting of two divisions of infantry on a war footing. It was obvious that its military machine was inadequate. Six reserve divisions (with the same composition as the divisions on active service) were therefore put into working order. In 1936 it was decided to organize six divisions of the second reserve. For protective purposes, a division of "Chasseurs Ardennais" was formed.
In August 1939, the Belgian Army had on a war footing:
1 cavalry corps consisting of 2 cavalry divisions and a brigade of motorized cavalry.
5 army corps and 2 reserve army corps, consisting in all of:
12 divisions on active service and in the reserve;
2 divisions of "Chasseurs Ardennais"; 6 divisions of the second reserve;
1 brigade of cyclist frontier guards.
On May 10th, 1940, the Belgian Army consisted of 650,000 regulars.
It was the strongest Army Belgium had ever had. The order for general mobilization brought the strength up to over 900,000 men, representing more than one-tenth of the population--that is to say, the maximum military effort of which a country is capable.
III. MODERNIZATION AND AUGMENTATION OF ARMS
A small, peaceful country must organize, train, and equip its Army for the defensive.
Acting on this principle, the Belgian General Staff rejected
a priori the idea of forming a military air force and armoured units and devoted the maximum credits to acquiring defensive weapons.
The infantry was well-equipped with a very valuable anti-tank arm: the 47-mm. gun (sixty 47-mm. guns to each infantry division). It was provided with new bomb-throwers; its submachine-guns were renewed, the rifles being brought up to date, and the number of 75-mm. mortars was trebled.
The artillery was expanded. Provision was made for increasing the number of groups in the infantry divisions from four to five and those in the Army Corps from four to six. As an experiment, part of the artillery of the Army Cops was motorized. A new Land Anti-Aircraft Defence Gun (40-mm. Bofors gun) was put into service.
The light troops were completely motorized. Their mobility and radius of action were thus very considerably enlarged.
Lastly, having regard to the primary importance of communications in modern warfare, the Belgian Army was equipped with a considerable amount of first-rate telephone and wireless material.
That, in broad outline, is a description of the military burden which Belgium took upon herself. No sacrifice in either men or money was spared. The number of army effectives on a war footing was over 10 per cent. of the population, a figure which was not reached by the belligerent nations during the 1914-18 War. The expenditure incurred in setting up a military machine of this magnitude and in constructing our fortified system increased year by year, and in 1939 it amounted to 20 per cent. of the total budget.
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