Neutral Belgium, a barrier or a way across

A fledgling University of Liège historian gets to grips with the strategic importance of Belgian railways in the country’s defence policy and in the war plans of powerful neighbours, throughout the whole of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In his doctoral thesis (1), Christophe Bechet lifts a corner of the veil on a neglected aspect of European geopolitics before the First World War.

railsThe railroad as the major mode of international communication over land, but also as a success story of the Belgian business community in the four corners of the planet, constitutes one of the most examined questions in the discipline of history. Numerous works such as those of the historian Ginette Kurgan-van Hentenryk have demonstrated to what extent this mode of transport revolutionised economic relationships between countries and led Belgian industrial know how to be put into practice in China, the Middle East and the Russian Empire. Conversely, the strategic importance of the railways, from Belgium’s independence up until the First World War, had never been so closely studied.

It is to Christophe Bechet’s great credit that he has got down to the task, over seven years, in exploring the multiple national and international archives, amongst them the Belgian Engineering reports preserved in the ‘Moscow Fund’ at the Royal Army Museum, the archives of the History Department of the Land Army at Vincennes, the reports of British embassy officials to Brussels conserved at the National Archives in London, without forgetting the microfilmed reports of the German legation. A documentary work which has enabled him to bring to light the crucial importance of the Belgian rail network in Prussian-German and French war plans.

‘The concept of the crossing of the Belgian territory between France and Germany established itself in my mind as the ideal axis for thinking through the question,’ explains Christophe Bechet, ‘likely to bring together in the same work diverse events, sometimes distant from each other by several decades.’ And he cites, higgledy-piggledy, the Risquons-Tout incident of 1848, the Franco-Belgian rail crisis of 1869, the border crossings of the 1870 conflicts, the German and French mobilisation  plans concerning a new ‘fresh and joyful’ war, the Belgian railway destructions in August 1914, etc. A thinking through over the long term which enables light to be cast on the major stakes of European history and Belgian history in particular.

The nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth in many respects constitute the epoch par excellence in which the railway was conceived of as ‘a tool for the projection of States’ economic and military power.’ Mobilising in record time significant masses of troops whilst using in a much more rational manner the resources of their territory should allow the emergent empires to equip themselves with new advantages. ‘The railway policy implanted by Bismarck contributed much to consolidating the Zollverein and the political unity of the nation,’ Christophe Bechet reminds us. ‘In the same way, the German war plans aimed at countering the 1893 Franco-Russian alliance would never have been conceivable without a massive development of railways enabling entire divisions to be transported from one front to the other.

The Risquons-Tout incident

In the nineteenth century a Belgian banker could already take the train at Brussels in the early morning to meet a client in Paris, have lunch with him, deal with his business and then take the evening train to return home. You cannot stop progress. Since its creation in 1846, the Paris-Brussels line constantly brought the two capitals closer together. Leopold I, very concerned about the economic development of his kingdom, was delighted with it at the time. Hadn’t Belgium constructed the first railway network on the continent?

(1) Traverser la Belgique?  De l’indépendance au plan Schlieffen (1839-1905), Thesis presented by Christophe Bechet, in order to obtain a Doctorate in History, Art and Archaeology, supervised by Catherine Lanneau and Francis Balace.

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