By Abdul Qadir Qureshi
(Pakistan News & Features Services)
The role of Belgium before and during the World War-I was highlighted by the Belgian Ambassador, Peter Claes during an exhaustive discourse at a get-together of the English Speaking Union of Pakistan, held the Beach Luxury Hotel on December 4.
The Belgian Ambassador's topic of the talk was "Belgium and the beginning of the great war" during which he dwelt at length about his nation's role at the beginning, during and after the war. Marking the centenary of the First World War, Ambassador Peter Claes recalled the history of Belgium and how it became a country.
In his discourse, he recalled when European leaders gathered in Vienna in 1815 to redraw the map of their region and thereby the Southern Catholic Netherlands and Northern Protestant Netherlands were united to form the Kingdom of Netherlands with two capitals, one in Amsterdam and the other in Brussels.
However, this union, he stated, lasted only for 15 years after the Belgians living in the kingdom revolted and seceded in 1830. After it became independent, the Belgians offered to Leopold to become their king which he accepted and the decision to do so, Ambassador Claes opined, had far-reaching implications since Leopold was related to the royal family of England, firstly as the son-in-law of King George IV and then as a maternal uncle of Queen Victoria.
It ensured two things-one the Great Britain recognized and supported the new country and the other Great Britain became the guarantor of its neutrality, which was one of the pre-requisites of European leaders in order to recognize the new country.
Germany was supporting Austria-Hungary. Germany faced a terrible choice because it had to fend off two enemies: France and Russia. France was particularly hostile to Austria-Hungary and Germany. The hostility between France and Germany dated back to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.”
“Germany promised us all kinds of help even going to the extent of promising us territorial compensation from France. We were given only 12 hours to decide. Everyone from the king to the Prime Minister to the parliament rejected the ultimatum. This automatically led to war and on Aug 4, 1914 the Germans entered Belgium and Liege was the first Belgian city that Germany attacked.”
The Ambassador said the battle lasted for seven days, which is a considerable period of time, since our policy of neutrality meant that our military strength was negligible and yet we defended ourselves which was a no mean thing especially against the enormous German forces who used heavy artillery and destroyed forts in the city.
According to Ambassador Claes, Belgium tried to organize as best as they could, but because of their policy of neutrality, they did not have a tradition of defence. Germany didn’t expect resistance from Belgians In fact in the Battle of the Silver Helmets the Belgian cavalry defeated the German troops.
The Germans kept advancing through Belgium and torched several towns and killing many defenceless civilians. Giving the example of the Battle of Ypres, he said the town was completely ruined by the Germans during the Great War. Speaking about Belgium's stance of neutrality in the Great War, he said during the first days of the war, Belgium maintained its neutrality. Officially it was never part of the alliance.
While concluding, Ambassador Claes became emotional when he recounted the services rendered by the soldiers of the subcontinent who had participated in the First World War.
“Nearly one-third of people of this soil that had nothing to do with the war, came in cold, misery and mud, away from their beloved to fight and defend our freedom and our homeland. The first Muslim to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery was given to a private named Khudadad Khan," he recalled.
On the occasion President ESUP, Aziz Memon, presented the ESUP plaque to Ambassador Peter Claes. Secretary General, Majyd Aziz, Senior Vice President, Abdul Kader Jaffer, Senior Vice President Byram D Avari, were also present on the occasion.