Organization of the Belgian Army, 1914-1918

The Belgian Army of August, 1914 differed very little from its predecessors in the second half of the nineteenth century. Another section of this website discusses the uniforms, arms and equipment at the start of war as well as the changes they underwent over the ensuing four years. This section will look at the Army’s organization along the same lines. The changes to the organization and structure of the Belgian Army were far less drastic than those made to its uniform and equipment. If anything, the war forced the Belgian military to expand and to reorganize at a faster rate than it had anticipated at the turn of the century, but it did so more or less according to pre-war plans and reforms that had simply not yet taken effect by the summer of 1914.

Throughout its relatively short history, Belgium had organized its military forces based on the two assumptions that if their neutrality was violated they could expect the arrival of military assistance from the guarantors of the Treaty of London, and thus they they need primarily be concerned with defensive operations aimed at holding or at least delaying any possible invaders. For these reasons, Belgian strategic thinking focused on the construction of a series of mutually-reinforcing Fortresses that guarded the likely invasion routes from the east, the south west, and from the sea. Toward the turn of the century, as the German Empire became the more likely of the major powers to even consider violating Belgian neutrality, the focus shifted to the Forts that covered the Meuse Valley and the major crossings along the Meuse River, those at Liége and Namur. Regardless of their foe, the Belgians always planned on falling back, if need be, to the Fortified city of Antwerp, the Réduit National, from which they could await their allies while still maintaining access to the sea. Both the size and the organization of the Belgian military must be understood within the context of this fortress system. The field army was not comparatively small simply because the Belgian population was some seven million in 1914, but also because it was assumed that only a small field army was needed when they could rely on such a formidable system of fortresses. Unfortunately, Belgium's extensive system of forts were largely obsolete by the time it was finished. Unbeknownst to the entente and the Belgians alike, the Central Powers had developed new tactics and produced new siege guns that were more than capable of demolishing even the most updated fortifications.

Like many of the combatants, the Belgian soldiers were given a nickname that was at once both pejorative and complimentary. From the time they reached the Yser front in October of 1914, the Belgian soldiers came to be known as Jas or Jass. The name is a French form of the Flemish or Dutch word regenjas, which means ‘weatherproof’ or ‘rain coat’. The name seems to have had two possible origins; one being the ability of the Belgian soldier to live in the extremely damp conditions of the Yser front, and the other being their initial lack of appropriate clothing for those very same conditions.

One other general note about the Belgian army should be made here. It was the only army in the Great War to be led in the field by its Monarch. The top Jas was none other than King Albert I. Albert’s strategic role may have been limited, as he was surrounded by a capable staff and experienced generals, but his symbolic role was enormous. He was with the field army from the early days of August through to the armistice, something that did not go unnoticed by his soldiers or his people. Nor, for that matter, did it go unnoticed by his allies. Albert’s dual roles as monarch and commander-in-chief were appreciated by British, French, and later American politicians and commanders, thus ensuring that the Belgian insistence on autonomy in command was respected.

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Illustration depicting King Albert I in command of his forces during the siege of Antwerp, Sept.-Oct., 1914