An open letter from the editor to the Kingdom of Belgium. Originally written in 2001 two paragraphs have been adapted to take account of Belgium's attitude to the Iraq war.
10 March 2001
I was distressed to hear of your unilateral decision to abandon our mutual ally, Turkey. Before I address this directly, I would like to review the state of the long friendship between our peoples.
Your country stands at a strategic cross roads. Your neighbours include historic naval powers such as ourselves and the Dutch and great land powers such as the French and the Germans. You have been occupied at different times by more distant powers such as the Spanish and the Austrians. For five hundred years troops have been dispatched from these islands to fight for Belgium. You have faced invaders from every direction, but you have never faced an invader alone.
Long before your nation had a state of its own, we were your allies and your friends.
In 1815 we fought, and won, one of the greatest land battles in European history at Waterloo, in Belgium. We ended the imperial pretensions of one of our continentís most dangerous military dictators.
A few years later the state of Belgium was formed, and we became by treaty what we had been by custom for centuries: your allies. We signed a treaty guaranteeing your independence. We were not the only country to sign that treaty, but we were the only one to honour it.
In 1914, when German troops roared across the border of neutral Belgium, heading to France, we owed no obligations to the French. Our treaty with them was one of friendship, not alliance. But we had obligations to you, so we mobilised our troops, our ships and our planes.
Just as one of our greatest victories was fought in Belgium it was in that war for Belgium that we suffered our most terrible losses. Of the three worst battles of Great War two Ė Ypres and Passchendaele were fought on your soil. Millions of British soldiers died in the battles at Ypres. They lie there still.
It was a war which devastated and demoralised the whole of Europe. No-one wanted to fight it again. And yet, just one generation later, that is exactly what we had to do. On this occasion we were not in time to prevent your country being overrun. When your country and all our allies Ė your allies Ė had surrendered, we fought on, alone. While you were governed by collaborators it was our troops who were in combat, our pilots who were shot down, our ships that were sank and our civilians who were bombed. We took in government ministers, and though they had no country of their own we treated them with full diplomatic honours. We gave them airtime on the BBC to send home message of hope. And it was not just hope we sent you. While our soldiers fought for survival and our civilians at home suffered terrible rationing, we sent supplies to your resistance.
Our diplomats too were active on your part, as well as our own. Eventually, we had allies again. And we returned, just as we promised we would, and drove the invader from your land.
When the war ended, one of our former allies declined to disarm. They kept troops, tanks and planes in Eastern Europe and rehearsed the invasion that would send them across the north European plain to the Belgian coast. And where were our elite troops? At home to protect our shores? No, they were on the Rhine, directly in the path that would take Russian tanks to your coast.
Before you say that we did this for our own benefit and that we have a strategic interest in keeping our enemies from your coastline, then yes, I agree. But we could guard our own interests as easily by taking your land for ourselves. Yet, of all your neighbours, we alone have never sought to do that. Of all the countries that have sent troops to fight and die in Belgium, we, alone, have sent them for the sole purpose of keeping your country free. When we drove the French, Spanish, Austrians, Dutch, and most recently the Germans from your land, how much of your soil did we keep for ourselves? Not one inch.
In 1945 we returned to you your African Empire which we had held in trust. We had treated your subjects, even in wartime, with more respect than you had managed in peacetime, so perhaps they did not welcome this, but we did it all the same.
This record of friendship is remarkable. It predates not only the creation of your state, but also ours. English troops fought for Belgium in the reign of our first Queen Elizabeth, before even the historic Union with Scotland or with Ireland. It would be difficult to find a friendship between two peoples this long anywhere in the world.
So, it is not unreasonable to suppose that, over the years, the friendship would have flowed both ways and that Belgium would have done as much for Britain as Britain has for Belgium. Not unreasonable, but wrong.
Perhaps one would expect Belgium to support small countries threatened by a larger neighbour? But the small part of our Kingdom that has a land border is claimed by a larger neighbour, and what have you done? You have harboured the terrorists that have killed our people. British troops from Ulster have fought and died for Belgian self-determination, but you donít seem to have any respect for Ulsterís right to rule itself.
In 1991 British troops sailed for the Gulf, to fight for another small country threatened by a large, and aggressive neighbour. We didnít ask your support. We sent troops because a small and friendly power was in trouble. We are British. That is what we do. But we were surprised when your Parliament voted to disown your closest allies. And now our joint treaty obligations to Turkey are to be ignored by you. Worse, not only are you unwilling to defend Turkey, but you are actively blocking preparations by those of your allies who are willing to meet their obligations.
So what is it we ask of you? Some annual tribute? The sacrifice of your firstborn? Nothing so drastic. When the Nazi propagandists said that we planned to take the overseas empires of the countries they occupied, Winston Churchill said that we ask nothing of our neighbours except respect. It was true then and remains so today. It may seem like a small thing, given the quantities of British blood that have fertilised Belgian soil, but will you please stop insulting us?
Copyright © Quentin Langley 10 March 2001