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Belligerents and Participants
As soon as the Great War erupted, Queen Wilhelmina declared Netherlands’ neutrality, but her kingdom’s army had already begun fully mobilizing for defense by the end of July. Just like Belgium, they too could read a map and there was always the possibility that German armies might spill across their border on their way to France. The Germans however did not have enough troops to expand far beyond the narrow Belgian front they attacked. While there would be some advantage in using Dutch railroads, General Moltke felt that a neutral Netherlands would be more valuable as a supply conduit should the War last longer than expected. As it turned out, they eventually allowed the Germans to supply their army operating in Belgium through their ports even though they theoretically remained neutral.
Many Dutch still harbored ill feelings against Great Britain dating from the Boer War, and the new British blockade that tried to prevent all trade between the Netherlands and Germany only antagonized them further. Afraid of pushing them into German arms, the Allies were at least able to establish the Netherlands Trust, which administered import quotas that were supposed to limit supplies that might aid the German war effort. Though some supplies got through to Germany, the Allies saw it as a fair exchange in that this arrangement allowed the Netherlands to retain their neutral status, which in turn denied the Germans use of their coastline for air and U-boat bases that could damage Britain further. Germany, always fearful that the Allies might open a new front through the Netherlands was also happy with their neutrality. Despite these accommodations, politics in the Netherlands always had to navigate the looming dangers imposed by heavily armed neighbors. Its policies would not be internally driven but always a mater of negotiation.
Many in the Netherlands had pro-German leanings, but this did not dilute their distress over the invasion of their Belgian neighbor. There had already been warnings issued by the government in August 1914 for newspaper publishers to be fair in their reporting of the War, but not all publishers followed this line. The most notable example was the newspaper Der Telegraaf that expressed its anti-German bias through the political cartoons of Louis Raemaeker. Others would publish controversial postcards as well, but most of these seem to have been printed early in the conflict, and were more pro-Belgium than anti-German. For the most part publishers in the Netherlands self-censored themselves so not to upset the delicate balance of neutrality.
Despite their neutrality and cooperation, full mobilization in the Netherlands forced Germany to hold troops in reserve on their side of the border just in case of an attack. This scenario began to look like a possibility once the unrestricted U-boat war began taking a toll on Dutch shipping. Although the Netherlands had a significant army based on the German model, and all its Landstorm forces had completed their mobilization in 1915, they were not equipped to wage an offensive war. With no real arms industry, most of the weapons they did have came from Germany. They already knew that they could not resist a sustained attack by either Germany or Great Britain, so military plans just called for the border to be guarded with these troops falling back to defend important industrial centers and ports if pressed hard. Amsterdam ringed by an extensive system of forts was the main line of defense.
Dutch publishers produced many of the same types of military cards typically found in warring nations. They covered very little of the War itself though there are many depictions of barracks, training, maneuvers, and posing solders. Some of these cards try to convey a sense of war readiness, but these are not as common as one might think considering that their military remained fully mobilized throughout the configuration that surrounding them. Unlike other neutral nations that sent reserves home in periods of calm, the Dutch were always at risk of seeing nearby fighting spill over their borders.
Even though both Germany and the Allies saw a benefit in keeping the Netherlands neutral, it always remained a tempting target. There is no telling what the kingdom’s fate might have been if either side had enough troops to spare to launch such an invasion. This was not lost on the people of the Netherlands who feared their defenses might be overrun leaving them vulnerable to being occupied by foreign armies. They were well aware of the problems faceing the people of occupied Belgium. While most postcards tried to allay these fears with depictions of brave Dutch troops, some publishers directly addressed these anxieties with scenes of the horrors taking place just beyond their borders. Sometimes specific incidents peaked these fears as with the Easter Alarm of March 1916. After the German Foreign Minister claimed he had information of an impending British attack on Zeeland, he informed the Dutch government that Germany would take appropriate defensive measures. This forced the Netherlands to bolster the defense of its coast, thus keeping the Germans out by keeping the British out. Although the rumors of invasion proved ti be unfounded, the public was led to continue believing that the possibility was real. This helped keep the unpopular mobilization in place, while allowing the government to begin restricting movement and introducing censorship.
Early in the war many soldiers from the Belgian Army and British Expeditionary Force were trapped behind German lines as they quickly advanced through Belgium. This was especially true after the fall of Antwerp in November 1914. While many of these men ended up in Germany as Prisoners of War, thousands escaped into the Netherlands where they were interned at Groningen and Vlissingen. Those who signed a declaration not to escape were granted a rather liberal lifestyle but those that did not were imprisoned at Fort Wierickerschans. The Germans eventually built an electrified fence along the Belgian-Dutch border to prevent enemy soldiers, and even Belgian civilians from seeking refuge here.
While the vast majority of internees held in the Netherlands were Belgian soldiers, Germans wound up in their camps as well. There was little forgiveness for anyone who strayed over the border, whether it was troops who took the wrong road on their way to Belgium or home guards out on patrol. Neutrality could only be maintained if the border remained secure. Pilots of both sides often joined the ranks of internees when their planes drifted over the border after being shot down.
There was also a great influx of Belgian civilian refugees when the War started. Most would return to Belgium within a year but a very large number had nowhere to return to. Some sought passage to Britain, but those that remained were often housed in government sponsored refugee camps. A number of organizations were set up to provide them with aid. In 1915 the National Relief Committee issued a large set of artist drawn charity cards depicting the plight of Belgian refugees.
A tense status quo was maintained for most of the War, but in March 1918 a crisis erupted when the United States and Great Britain requisitioned all Dutch merchant vessels that sat in their ports to help make up for the transport being lost in the U-boat war. When the Dutch government could do nothing but protest the theft, Germany accused the Netherlands of aiding the Allies and demanded compensation for this breach of neutrality. Afraid of Allied action if they gave in to German demands, negotiations grew strained and war drew near. When the Allies grew fearful that the Germans would invade, they encouraged the Dutch to acquiesce to Germany. This incident only added to the increasing political unrest; and when elections were held in July, power shifted to the conservatives under the leadership of Charles Ruys de Beerenbrouck. While most welcomed this change, perpetual hardships caused further labor unrest and riots broke out. Even the army, mobilized longer than in any other neutral nation began to mutiny in October 1918. It has been said that this action left the Netherlands defenseless if attacked, but it is impossible to verify this claim. While some thought a socialist revolution might be imminent, increased food rations and promises to demobilize calmed the situation.
Just as the Great War drew to a close, the Netherlands became embroiled with the Allies over unilateral decisions that seemed to favor Germany. They opened their borders to German troops that had been occupying Belgium, and allowed them to return home without interning any of them. While this breach of neutrality drew ire, it was dismissed much faster than when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the German thrown in November and sought refuge in the Netherlands. Once asylum was reluctantly granted, he took up residence in Doorn. The Allies tried to have Wilhelm extradited as a war criminal, but Queen Wilhelmina refused and lectured them on the meaning of asylum. During the Paris Peace Conference, Belgium used less than neutral wartime policies of the Netherlands as an excuse to annex the Dutch provinces of North Brabant and South Limberg but they were unsuccessful in maintaining their land grab.
The full mobilization of of both the regular army and the reserves for the duration of the Great War put substantial strains on most families. A number of cards were produced that deal with the hardship of separation as well as the call to duty, just as in belligerent nations. Separation was such a common theme that cards could be issued as generic greetings. Above is one of many such postcards produced by E.J. Cammelbeek of Rotterdam.
A number of propaganda cards were also produced in the Netherlands during the Great War. These tend not to take one side or the other in the conflict as much as they decry the horrors of war or call for peace. As a neutral nation they were one of the few who had the luxury of publishing postcards that did not promote the War. Perhaps the most outstanding of these sets was illustrated by the artist Berndsen and printed by Emrik & Binger of Haarlem. They were issued as New Year’s cards in hope that he horrors expressed through allegory would come to an end in the upcoming year.
Although Louis Raemaeker was a Dutch landscape painter, he began to produce illustrations for the Amsterdam newspaper Der Telegraaf. outlining German atrocities in Belgium. The paper in conjunction with the French Consul reproduced these images as a charity postcard booklet to aid wounded soldiers. This became a huge embarrassment to the Dutch government, which strained their delicate relations with Germany. By the end of 1915, the paperís editor was arrested, and while he escaped prosecution, Raemaeker moved to London where he found work with the British War Propaganda Bureau in 1916. There he produced many illustrations of the brutal German occupation of Belgium and other atrocities in both realistic and allegorical form. These images were published as charity cards for the French Red Cross and printed with English and French captions. They would later be republished in Italy. While he personally visited the front lines, he admitted not to have actually seen the terrible atrocities he depicted. It was reported that the Kaiser was so upset by these powerful pictures that he placed a bounty on Raemaeker’s head, but this story may have just been an effort in self promotion.