In August 1914 German troops crossed the Belgian border and the Great War started. In 1919 Peace Conference in Paris decided on the German reparations, the borders between Romania and Hungary. The worked on the issues of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Austria, Poland and Italy. In April 1919, the Belgian delegates arrived and asked why they had been forgotten.
Almost all of Belgium had been occupied in the war. They had suffered all the usual depredations of war but in addition the German war machine had stripped the country of anything useful including; machinery, factories, transport and livestock. By the winter of 1918/1919 the country was starving and had to rely on food aid from the Allies. By April 1919 demonstrators were on the streets of Brussels with placards that read ‘Has England forgotten August 1914?’
The Council of Four: President Woodrow Wilson; Prime Minister Lloyd George; Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau and Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando had indeed forgotten Belgium. When reminded, their response was less than gracious. Wilson ignored them and concentrated on ‘bigger issues’. This had been his response to many of the smaller countries in Europe and underlined his lack of understanding of European history, politics and geography. Lloyd George thought the Belgians were being greedy in their requests for extending their territory on the German border and was reported to have said ‘Belgium lost comparatively few man in the war… they had not made a greater sacrifice than Great Britain.’ It was a crass remark and did little to enhance his reputation in Europe. Clemenceau supported Lloyd George’s position and suspected that the Belgians were using the peace negotiations to annexe Luxembourg. In one bitter exchange between Clemenceau and Paul Hymans the Belgian foreign minister, Clemenceau told Hymans ‘the best thing you can do for Belgium is die or resign’.
The main demand from the Belgians was to receive war reparations, including a priority payment to get the country on its feet. In Belgium’s case the costs of war included all the borrowing their government had been forced to take on as well as the destroyed industry, agriculture and infrastructure. While Wilson was sympathetic and put forward a figure of $500 million. Lloyd George and Clemenceau disagreed and spent the following years whittling the figure down as much as they could. Germany delayed payment as long as possible and Lloyd George and Clemenceau both refused to put pressure on the Germans to pay. Belgium did not receive its priority payment until 1925 and never received its full payment from Germany.
The cloth hall in Ypres.
It has never been satisfactorily explained why Belgium was treated so shabbily at the Peace Conference. The Council of Four were tired; they were dealing with several contentious issues; Wilson and Lloyd George had domestic politics that were demanding their attention. This was all true but had been true throughout the conference and Belgium was an ally that had been lauded as ‘plucky little Belgium’ in 1914. The diaries of Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando remain frustratingly blank on this issue.