Revolution in Belgium
Workers’ Republic, 12th June 1915.
After the defeat and final deposition of Napoleon the Allied Sovereigns met at Vienna in 1815 and proceeded to settle Europe. All during time war against Napoleon all the Continental Powers in alliance with the British Empire had loudly declared to the world and to their respective peoples that they were fighting for Liberty, for National rights, and against foreign oppression. But when they met at Vienna the Allies proceeded to ride roughshod over all the things for which they were supposed to be fighting. Nations in many instances were ruthlessly partitioned, as in the case of Italy, or were subjected to new foreign rulers without being consulted in any manner. This latter was the case of Belgium. That country was forcibly placed under the rule of Holland. Belgium could not resist as the whole of Europe, except France, was represented at the Vienna Congress, and the armies of all Europe were at the call of the Powers for the enforcement of the decrees of that Congress. In passing, it may be said that this settlement of Europe by the Allied Powers was so utterly at variance with the will of the people, so flagrant a denial and suppression of all that the Allies had pretended to fight for that it led to revolution, subsequently, in every state in Europe.
Holland in its rule over Belgium was accused by the Belgians of a systematic campaign against every expression and manifestation of Belgian national life. It was alleged that it penalised the native language of Belgium, and gave undue official preference to the Dutch, that it sought to place Dutch officials in all posts to the exclusion of equally well qualified Belgians, that it unduly favoured Dutch industries by legislation and retarded Belgian, and that in every possible way Belgium was treated more as a conquered province than as an Allied State.
These grievances were agitated in many ways, and many efforts were made to obtain remedies without avail. Eventually in 1830, fifteen years after the settlement by the Congress of Vienna revolution broke out in Brussels.
On the 25th of August, 1830, a partially armed mob attacked the house and printing establishment of the chief pro-Dutch paper, the National. After wrecking these they obtained more arms by sacking gunsmiths’ shops. Then the official residence of the Dutch Minister of Justice, M. van Mannen, was attacked, gutted, and burned to the ground.
On the 26th the troops were called out and fighting took place in the streets. The crowd had got possession of a large amount, of arms and ammunition and successfully withstood the soldiery. Eventually the troops withdrew in a body to the Place Royale, the reason for the withdrawal being thus stated in the English Press of the time that –
The streets of the city were thus left clear to the people, who proceeded to wreak their vengeance upon the houses and offices of the Government officials. The houses of the Public Prosecutor (Procureur du Roi), of the Director of Police, and of the Commandant of the city were sacked, the furniture being taken out, piled up in the street and burned.
Up till this period the middle class Belgians had only looked on passively, but now they organised themselves into a Burgher Guard to defend their property, and took possession of the city partly by force, partly by agreement with the armed workers who up to this time had done all the fighting. Five thousand Burgher Guards were enrolled, the Commandant being one Baron Hoogvorst. All the military posts in the city were occupied by the Guard, the military remaining inactive outside.
A Committee of Public Safety elected by the Burgher Guard issued a Manifesto setting forth the grievances of the Belgian Nation, and instituting reforms. Clause XI of the Manifesto ordered that
On the 20th of August Royal troops marched upon Brussels, but halted outside upon being told that if they attempted to enter they would be resisted, but the Guard would keep order within if the troops remained outside. As yet there had been no talk of separation, but all Royal colours had been torn down, and distinctive Belgian colours hoisted on the buildings, and worn by the armed people.
On the 30th of August the Prince of Orange arrived outside Brussels and sent in word that he was about to enter. He was informed that he could only enter alone or with his own aide-de-camp. He then threatened to storm the city, and the people replied by building barricades in all the leading streets, and occupying the gates in force. Then the Prince issued a proclamation commanding the inhabitants to lay aside their rebellious colours and badges, and that he would enter the city and take over their duties. This was refused, and he then consented to enter the city alone.
A deputation had been sent to the king at the Hague to lay before him the demands of the Belgians. He met the deputation very courteously, as kings always do when in difficulties, promised many reforms, but insisted that his son, the Prince, should enter Brussels at the head of his troops, and that the deputation should confer with the Minister of the Interior. This latter conference took place, and at it the delegates presented a new demand – the separation of Belgium from Holland, and its erection into an independent Kingdom under the same king.
On this point, like Ireland in our day, the country was divided. Antwerp and Ghent petitioned against separation. Tournay, Verviers, Mons and Namur declared for separation, and in each of them the Civic Guard seized the town and proclaimed the revolution. Bruges followed suit. In each of those places, whilst the Civic Guard was hesitating, the working class took the lead and forced the pace, bringing the guard eventually into line.
On the 19th September the working class of Brussels, tired of the hesitation and inaction of the middle class represenatives, took matters in their own hands, rose in rebellion and marched on the Town Hail. There they seized 40 stand of arms. Next day they took possession of the Town Hall, and all the military post’s in the city, and were fortunate enough to get possession of a large supply of arms and ammunition. They dissolved the middle class Committee of Public Safety, and established a Provisional Government.
On the 21st September Prince Frederick advanced upon Brussels and ordered that the guard should surrender their posts, all rebel colours should be taken down, all armed strangers expelled, and threatening to hold responsible personally all members of the Committee of Public Safety, of the Council of Officers of Guards, and of the Municipal Administration. But as all these bodies had been dissolved the Proclamation fell rather flat. The people prepared to fight.
Barricades were thrown up in all the streets and at the gates. Pavements were torn up, stones carried to the top of houses in streets through which the troops would have to pass, and every preparation made, the women being specially busy in the preparations. The attack began on the 22nd, the middle class citizens who had been in the Burgher Guard kept carefully to their houses and out of the fighting. The troops made the attack upon six different points, or districts towards which they opened, Flanders, Auderlecht, Lacken, Schaarbeck, Namur, Louvain. The artillery easily broke through the gates and adjoining barricades but as they advanced, obstacle succeeded obstacle, resistance seemed to multiply itself with every step, and the fighting increased in intensity the farther into the city they penetrated. At the Flanders gate the troops swept at first everything before them with their artillery fire. They advanced with great steadiness until they were met by a strong barricade at a curve in the street which prevented the artillery from being brought to bear. Here they were exposed to a deadly fire from behind the barricade, and overwhelmed from above with showers of paving stones, heavy pieces of furniture, hatchets, fire-irons and every species of missile. Beaten back, they were compelled to retreat. At Auderlecht gate the same fate overtook the soldiery, and at Lacken the insurgents compelled a retreat with great loss.
The division which attacked at Schaarbeck gate fought its way in until it reached an open park in which it took refuge from the close quarters and dreadful hostility of the streets. Then it halted afraid to advance further against the streets. The divisions attacking by Namur and Louvain gates also fought their way in for a short distance and then halted, fearful of attempting a further advance.
On the 24th the middle class joined the insurgent working class, and the fighting was renewed. After a long day’s contest the troops were unable to advance, although they had made themselves masters of one of the main streets. The insurgents were still in possession, but too badly organised to expel the troops from their foothold in the city.
On the 26th and 27th volunteers from neighbouring towns joined the insurgents, and, encouraged by their aid, the insurgents began to close in on the troops and drive them back. Eventually, believing their position to be hopeless, the soldiery gave up the struggle and withdrew from the city.
The total insurgent loss from the 22nd to the 27th was stated to he 165 killed and 311 wounded.
After the retreat from Brussels the Government had no foothold in Belgium except in its fortresses. The populace rose in the towns, the Belgian regiments declared in favour of the revolution, and one after another the fortresses fell into the hands of the insurgents.
At Ath and Mons the Dutch garrison was made prisoner. At Namur the garrison surrendered the fortress on condition that it was allowed to depart. At Liege 1,100 men, constituting the garrison, made the same arrangement. Ghent held out against the revolution until October 16th, when it also surrendered on like terms to Namur. By the end of October the Belgians were in possession of all the fortresses except Antwerp, Maastricht and Luxemburg.
On the 10th November a National Congress established the Kingdom of Belgium, which was afterwards formally acknowledged by all the powers.
The Revolution in Brussels and the successful stand of an insurgent body against regular troops, made such an impression upon Europe that it was long held as an axiom that it was the duty of the officers in command of the army, confronted with such a condition, to refuse to fight in the streets, and content themselves with a regular investment or siege of the city. The official English view has always dissented from this advice.
Two things have to be kept in mind in studying the Brussels Revolution:
First – that, unlike Continental revolutions in general, there were no defections among the troops. It was two nations in conflict. Hence the revolution at Brussels won purely because of its military position and strength.
Second – that the invention of smokeless powder would tend to make such street fighting far more deadly and demoralising to an army which could not see from whence came the shots that decimated the ranks.
Last updated on 15.8.2003