In August of 1914 Belgium refused entry to the German army, which then invaded Belgium. Apparently Belgium then invited the British and French armies into its territories, leading to Belgium becoming a huge battlefield.

I never see any description of how Belgium invited the British and French armies into their country. The histories describe, for example, the Battle of Ypres as though the British and French were just magically transported into those areas of Belgium. What happened?

4 Answers 4


There was no magic transportation, of course. France moved troops by land; British Expeditionary Force landed from sea, and then moved to Belgium during August 1914.

The relevant diplomatic documents are available in so-called "The Belgian Grey Book". Here is Russian edition of 1915. And here are English translations available online.

The events were as follows. Germany made ultimatum (also available in "Grey Book" under no. 20) to Belgium on the pretext of future French invasion:

The German Government cannot but fear that Belgium, in spite of the utmost goodwill, will be unable, without assistance, to repel so considerable a French invasion with sufficient prospect of success to afford an adequate guarantee against danger to Germany.

King Albert asked King George by telegram (no. 25) to make "diplomatic intervention... to safeguard the integrity of Belgium".

United Kingdom issued a diplomatic note (no. 28) stating that:

His Britannic Majesty's Government are prepared to join Russia and France, should Belgium so desire, in tendering at once joint assistance to the Belgian Government with a view to resisting any forcible measures adopted by Germany against Belgium, and also offering a guarantee for the maintenance of the future independence and integrity of Belgium

Finally under no. 40 on 4th August 1914 we have letter by Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs Davignon to British, French, and Russian Ministers:

The Belgian Government regret to have to announce to your Excellency that this morning the armed forces of Germany entered Belgian territory in violation of treaty engagements.
The Belgian Government are firmly deterrmined to resist by all the means in their power.
Belgium appeals to Great Britain, France, and Russia to co-operate as guaranteeing Powers in the defence of her territory.
There should be concerted and joint action, to oppose the forcible measures taken by Germany against Belgium, and, at the same time, to guarantee the future maintenance of the independence and integrity of Belgium.
Belgium is happy to be able to declare that she will undertake the defence of her fortified places.

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    @Anaryl My bet is they disemarked in Calais Well, as some searching suggests, that were Havre, Rouen and Boulogne on 9-17 August. But I don't think it's of much importance under this topic.
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 12:30
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    @Anaryl These are Russian sources. For example, Russian and Soviet General V.Novitsky (1869-1929) in his book "World war 1914-18. Campaign 1914 in Belgium and France", published in Moscow, 1938; Chapter 4 "Mobilization, concentration and deployment". It's available online in Russian at militera.lib.ru/h/novitsky_vf/index.html. Disemberkation points on French shore were Boulogne, Rouen and Havre, where expeditional forces landed on 12-17 August. Transportation by French railways to concentration area (Maubeuge, Landrecies) started on 14th, and ended on 20th August.
    – Matt
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 13:49
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    Minor note of contention; King George represented the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, not merely "England". ((Returns to his tea)) Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 15:07
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    @GeoffAtkins If we are being pedantic then one must state: "King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa, and Emperor of India." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion#List_of_Dominions) Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 15:21
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    @PieterGeerkens - lol, you are quite correct. My point was the use of England as if Ireland, Scotland, and Wales just didn't matter. There's guard's regiments whose wartime record beg to differ on that point. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 15:39

The so-called Scrap of Paper that was the Treaty of London (1839) committed the signatories to guarantee Belgian neutrality and independence. "by implication [it also] committed the signatory powers to guard that neutrality in the event of invasion."

Once Belgium refused free passage to German troops, and committed itself to forcibly opposing that passage, Britain and France as signatories of that treaty were committed to coming to Belgium's aid. Failing to do so would have been in violation of treaty commitments.

Britain in particular regarded the neutrality of Belgium as vital to the balance of power in Europe which had been the cornerstone of its foreign policy since the Glorious Revolution. Barbara W. Tuchman in The Guns of August outlines some of the efforts made by the British government in summer 1914 to ensure that the French army did not enter Belgium prematurely in reaction to German maneuvers.

The B.E.F. detrained in the vicinity of Amiens about Aug. 14, from whence it marched to concentration areas between Le Cateau and Maubeuge and thence into initial contact with the German 1st Army at Mons on Aug. 23. The great retreat to the Marne followed, in which the B.E.F. was to play a pivotal role. The final shape of the front in 1914 was the result of a northward "Race to the Sea" from the vicinity of Paris, with the B.E.F. always holding the leftmost flank of the Entente forces with an eye to future supply simplicity.

  • This does not answer my question. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 3:26
  • Technically Germany was a signatory too, so the invasion was a full-blown treaty violation.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 13:36

The histories describe, for example, the Battle of Ypres as though the English and French were just magically transported into those areas of Belgium. What happened?

So what Pieter describes is the political mechanism though which the French and British Armies were allowed onto Belgian soil. However the second part of your question seems to imply How did they physically get there?, which I would like to address.

Transport and Supply in World War One

So I was actually unable to find where the BEF disembarked in 1914. But what we do know is that they arrived at the front 3 days after the declaration of war. The BEF participated in the series of battles known as the Battles of the Frontier, quite notably the battle of Mons.

My best guess is that the BEF disembarked in Calais from Britain and were then deployed in Belgium via rail. They then deployed from the railhead to fight the Battle of Mons before retreating. The rest as they say is history.

I'll elucidate in a bit after dinner.

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    This is more along the lines of what I was hoping for an answer. Unfortunately, your link is dead and your description of the troop movements is pretty vague. One thing I am trying to figure out is how the transition from Belgiums fighting Germans in Belgium to English/French fighting Germans in Belgium happened. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 17:41
  • I don't have the link to hand (on my phone) but the first two volumes of the British official history cover the move to France in some detail, I believe, and are available on archive.org Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 18:38
  • @TylerDurden I was looking for that information and looked to provide it but was in fact depserately tired. I think Pieter updated his post regarding the deployment but in regards to the transition I can provide some information further to that as well.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 6:30
  • @Andrew I have looked through archive.org but it is incredibly difficult to search through those texts efficiently. It's more or less done by hand. It is a great source though.
    – Anaryl
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 6:31

After the German invasion of Belgium, Britain, then France, guaranteed military support to the country.

They delivered on that military support by lining up units at the French border, crossing that border, and linking up with retreating Belgian defending units at Mons (British) and Charleroi (French). This occurred after the Germans had overrun most of the rest of the country.

Unlike World War II, there was no co-ordinated plan of defense prepared previously, so the Allied forces just improvised, and helped each other as much as they could to limit the German penetration. Between them, the Allies managed to keep only a small slice of Belgium out of German hands.

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