Pre-War/Early War

        In their brief study of the Belgian Army in the First World War – The Belgian Army in World War 1 (Osprey, 2009 ) - Ronald Pawly and Pierre Lierneux suggested that although the latest military advances had been studied in Belgium, few were actually adopted or implemented by the time the war started. For instance, although the Belgian armaments included both Maxim guns and Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié guns, they had only some 112 machine guns total in their arsenal. The uniform and equipment worn by the Belgian soldier at the start of the conflict was also somewhat behind the times. Pawly and Lierneux wrote that:

       “[u]nlike the French or Germans the Belgians had not experienced        the instructive shock of wars in the late 19th century, and the        [Belgian] soldier’s general appearance had changed little since the        major reforms of 1853”.

In addition to James Thiriar's illustrations, there is a series of colour images, available here, that show in some detail the uniforms and equipment of the various branches in the years leading up to the war.

        There were a few areas in which the Belgian forces enjoyed some advantages. Because of its predominantly defensive strategy, the Belgian military had given special attention to the training of its Artillery and Engineer units. The former comprised a considerable portion of the Belgian Army, given the comparatively smaller size of its infantry and cavalry branches. The primary field gun used by the Belgian Artillery was the Krupp/Cockerill M1905 75mm Tir Rapide, nearly 350 of which had been purchased by the Belgians in 1907. These had a maximum range of around 6,000 meters, and a rate of fire of between 10 and 15 shots per minute. Finally, the Kingdom had adopted the 7.65mm Mauser Model 1889 as the primary service rifle for its forces. The M1889 was a sound bolt-action rifle with a 5-round magazine capacity; although some foreign rifles like the French M1886/93 Lebel and Turkish M1890 Mauser were issued to Belgian soldiers in 1915 and 1916 as an emergency measure, the 1889 Mauser remained the favoured rifle for all of the infantry units and, in its carbine variation, for the artillery and cavalry. Another area to which the Belgians had devoted much of their pre-war energy was a system of fortresses built to halt any advance into their country. These will be looked at in more detail in the ‘Organization’ section.

        The following four pages will look at the uniforms and equipment of the various branches that took to the field in 1914.The first two pages discuss the different infantry units, while page IV looks at the Garde Civique and the Engineer and Artillery branches, and page V discusses the Cavalry and la Gendarmerie.

        The descriptions are based primarily from the Handbook of the Belgian Army, which was prepared for the General Staff of the British War Office in 1906. This, and the addendum added in 1914, are two valuable English-language sources on the pre-war Belgian military. The Handbook does however offer a simplified account of uniforms, equipment, and organization, and there are a number of minor factual and chronological errors or misprints. It also fails to account for the various changes made to the Belgian uniform in 1910 and 1914. Still, because these changes were minor and far from universally applied by 1914, the 1906 descriptions offer a good starting point for gaining some understanding of what the typical Belgian soldier looked like during the opening weeks of the war. It remains clear that despite some minor variations, there would have been some degree of uniformity among the different branches. Additional information gathered from other sources was added when relevant, and corrections were made to any errors in the Handbook whenever possible.

Click to continue to page II.