Pre-War Organization of the Belgian Army
This section looks at the expansion and reorganization of the Belgian Army from the later decades of the nineteenth century through to the outbreak of the Great War. It focusses on three periods of reform and/or reorganization, each following major international events that served as impetuses for reform - the Franco-Prussian War, the Moroccan Crisis, and the build-up to the Great War. It shows that like the uniform and equipment reforms of the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s, the efforts to expand and restructure the Belgian forces came too late and left them in a state of flux by 1914.
Per the orders of August 1873, the Belgian Army was to consist of 19 regiments of infantry, 8 regiments of cavalry, 4 of artillery, and a single regiment of engineers, for a total of around 100,000 men. In addition to this field army, there were three regiments of fortress artillery that manned the growing system of fortifications along the country’s major rivers. With the Gendarmerie, Garde Civique, and other reserve corps, the total Belgian forces likely numbered some where between 120,000 and 150,000.
The 19 regiments of infantry included the following: 14 regiments of the Line, 3 regiments of Jägers or light infantry, and 1 regiment each of Grenadiers and Carabiniers. The Carabinier regiment was comprised of four active battalions, 2 inactive battalions, and 1 depot company. The other regiments each consisted of 3 active battalions, 1 inactive battalion, and a depot company. At this time, a battalion at full strength numbered 864 men, made up of four companies of 216 men each. A peacetime regiment would thus number around 2,800 for the line infantry, light infantry, and grenadiers, and 3,670 for the Carabinier regiment. At full mobilization, the former units would number 3,670, while the latter numbered around 5,400. The total infantry component of the field army when fully mobilized would therefore be
around 72,000 strong, with added staff, etc.
There were also 8 regiments of Cavalry; four of lancers, 2 of guides, and 2 of Chasseurs. The Cavalry regiments were each made up of 4 active squadrons and 1 inactive squadron. The Cavalry regiments were much smaller than their infantry counterparts per the 1873 orders, numbering around 520 in peacetime with an additional 130 men in the reinforcement squadrons. The cavalry forces numbered around 5,200.
The Belgian Army enjoyed a strong Artillery branch in the later decades of the 19th c. There were four regiments of artillery, each containing 10 batteries, or around 60 guns per regiment. They therefore had around 240 field guns. In addition to this, there were 3 regiments of fortress artillery, each containing 18 batteries. On paper at least, the fortress batteries would have included another 324 pieces of heavy artillery (108 per regiment). The total size of the artillery branch is difficult to determine, but it is likely that it numbered some 20,000 men.
Finally, there was a regiment of Engineers, numbering around 3,000 men, and a number of smaller companies designated to work as gunsmiths or on pontoons, telegraphs, the railways, etc.
The Belgian Army of 1905 largely maintained the organization and structure laid out in 1873, but it had doubled in size. This increase came about largely as a result of the added garrisons to the by then completed system of fortresses along the Meuse, and from the increase in the sizes of the pre-existing field units. These forces totaled some 87,800 men: 56,200 at Fortress Antwerp, 15,400 at Liége, 13,400 at Namur, and 2,800 at Huy. The 13th and 14th Regiments of the Line were assigned to the fortress forces. In addition to these were the reserve battalion of the Carabineer Regiment and six of the Field Army's reserve batteries. Apart from the Field forces that served as its garrison, the fortress system also had its own separate units, including 39 battalions of fortress infantry, 78 batteries of fortress artillery, and 24 companies of Engineers. The Fortress troops would continue to represent a large portion of the Belgian Army up through 1914.
The Field Army still consisted of 19 regiments of infantry, but with the 13th and 14th Regiments assigned to fortress duties. Additionally, the battalions of the Carabineer Regiment were assigned to the different divisions, or to the fortress duties. The other 16 regiments were assigned to four different divisions. A division had two brigades, each containing two regiments. Attached to each division was the battalion of Carabineers, plus a company of field Engineers, a squadron of Gendarmerie, and a regiment of field artillery consisting of either 7 or 8 batteries. While the number of Infantry Regiments had remained the same since 1873, their size had increased considerably ( by nearly 2,000 men per unit) The 1st and 4th Divisions were slightly larger than the 2nd and 3rd, their respective strengths being around 22,715 in the first and last divisions, and 22,500 in the each of the other divisions. The actual fighting strength of a Belgian division was closer to 18,000 bayonets, 100 sabres, and between 42 and 48 field guns.
Also assigned to the Field Army were two divisions of Cavalry. Each division consisted of two brigades, each containing two regiments or ten squadrons. As with the Infantry, while the number of cavalry regiments remained the same as it was in 1873, their size had increased considerably. Attached to the cavalry divisions were two batteries of horse artillery. The nominal strength of each division was around 4,500, but the actual fighting strength was closer to 3,000 sabres and 12 field guns.
The total estimated size of Belgian forces in 1905/06, at least on paper, was about 307,000. This included:
- 110,700 Infantry
- 9,575 Cavalry
- 29,800 Artillery
- 6,800 Engineers
- 3,075 Gendarmerie
- 20,000 Officer Corps and other branches
- 87,000 Fortress
- 40,000 Garde Civique
However, as noted above, the actual fighting strength of these forces was generally much lower than their total numbers would suggest. Additionally, the figures recorded by Belgian officials, and then by the British War Office in their 1906 Handbook, are likely not representative of the number of troops the Belgian Army could realistically put into the field on short notice. Regardless, the actual fighting strength of the Belgian Field Army was still around just 100,000, or more or less equal to the projected fighting strength of the fortresses.
The Belgian Army was essentially the same size at the outbreak of war in 1914 as it had been in 1906. However, there had been major steps made to not only implement an increase in its numbers, but also to reorganize its structure. Reforms adopted in 1912-1913 sought to expand the combined forces to 340,000. This saw an increase in the Field Army to 150,000, and increases in the Fortress forces to 130,000 and Auxiliary forces (Gendarmerie and Garde Civique) to 60,000. The increase in the Field Army was the result of the further expansion of the ranks of pre-existing units, plus the addition of two more regiments of artillery, a second peace-time regiment of Carabineers, and two peace-time regiments of cavalry. The Field Army was also reorganized into 6 divisions of Infantry and 1 division of Cavalry.
These reforms also changed the organization of the Belgian army at the regimental level. Rather than there being 3 active battalions and 1 inactive battalion per regiment, there would not be 3 active battalions in peacetime, supported by three fortress battalions that rotated between active and inactive service. At mobilization, the companies of the 3 active battalions would call up reserves and expand to double their number in order to field a second full regiment of the same type. In theory, this allowed the Belgian army to more or less double in size at mobilization, through a preset plan. Instead of 14 regiments of Line, for example, they could now field 28.
|Régiments de ligne||14||28|
|Régiments de chasseurs à pied||3||6|
|Régiments de grenadiers||1||2|
|Régiments de carabiniers||2||4|