In my last post, we looked at some of the medieval arms and armor at The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels, Belgium. The impressive medieval collection is only one part of this huge museum, which covers all periods of Belgian history. The Napoleonic and World War Two sections are extensive, but of most interest to me were the Colonial and World War One sections. You won’t find much about Belgian colonial wars outside of Belgium and the small nation had a unique role in the First World War.
Belgium may have been small, but it had colonies in Africa, China, and Guatemala, as well as economic interests in many other areas. The Colonial hall follows the history of Belgian military interventions in these regions.
Their biggest colony was of course the Belgian Congo, which for a time was the personal property of King Leopold II. This nation-sized private factory produced huge amounts of rubber and ivory that enriched the royal family. It came at a terrible cost. Workers who didn’t meet their quotas were punished, sometimes by having their hands cut off. Others were worked to death. When the Congolese resisted, the military stepped in. No one knows how many people died in the Belgian Congo, but the numbers are certainly in the millions.
Sadly, I saw no discussion of this in the displays. Belgium has been slow to own up to the dark side of its colonial past, although the Royal Museum for Central Africa, also in Brussels, has pledged to tackle the issue as part of its current renovation. One can only hope the military museum follows suit.
While holding onto the Congo, Belgium had to defend it from another empire, that of the Mahdi of Sudan. Mahdist forces invaded the Congo in 1897, but were eventually beaten back after several fierce engagements.
This conflict is little-known in the English-speaking world, which usually focuses on the British Empire’s fight against the Mahdi and his successors, so it’s interesting to find a good section covering it here. Included are several rare robes worn by the Mahdist soldiers, along with weapons from both sides.
The Italians also fought against the Mahdi, but to find out about that you’ll have to visit the military museums in Rome!
Belgium’s most famous war was, of course, World War One. Germany chose to violate Belgian neutrality in 1914, marching through it in order to flank the French army and get to Paris. They expected it to be a walkthrough, but the Belgians put up a stiff resistance. Even after losing 90% of their land, the Belgians continued to fight for the remainder of the war.
Violation of Belgian neutrality was the casus belli the British Empire gave for declaring war on Germany, although most historians agree that it would have probably come into the war in any case to stop Germany from gaining too much power on the Continent.
Earlier this year, the museum reopened its WWI section after a full remodel. The up-to-date exhibition now offers films, sound effects, interactive displays, and a wide variety of artifacts. There’s an extensive collection of weapons, including displays that show the evolution of some equipment, like the interesting section on steel helmets. None of the soldiers in 1914 were issued with steel helmets and the perils of trench warfare soon taught them to protect their heads. This led to some strange inventions by individuals and private companies before national governments could issue helmets to all their troops.
The soldiers often made or bought their own weapons too, as is shown in the photo below.
This was truly a world war, and the museum has amassed a collection of uniforms of a variety of countries. Not only are there the familiar French and German examples, but also ones from North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Since much of the country was occupied for the entire war, the exhibition focuses on this experience. Rationing, house searches, and nighttime arrests made life hard for the Belgians. Many people who tried to resist, or who were accused of resisting, were shot. In the early weeks of the war, German troops thought they were being attacked by snipers and took out reprisals on the local civilians, burning down buildings and shooting hundreds of people.
Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. It’s one of the best general-subject military museums in Europe. Sadly for Belgium, their land has been fought over far too many times!
Sean McLachlan is a freelance travel and history writer. He is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and the post-apocalyptic thriller Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.
All photos copyright Sean McLachlan. This trip was supported by Visit Belgium. All opinions are my own.