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The Dutch Army during World War I Bout, John Jacob


From August 1914 to November 1918 the Kingdom of the Netherlands maintained a mobilized army of roughly 200,000 men. In addition to the burden this placed upon the country, the Dutch were very much affected in other ways by the war outside their border: trade was disrupted, ships were lost, there were food and raw material shortages, and the pressures and demands from the belligerent neighbours had to be endured in order to avoid war. All these things would have caused problems for any nation occupying a similar geographic position as the Netherlands, but for the Dutch people these were especially difficult years. On the one hand they were faced with the apparent necessity of maintaining an armed force to repel a possible invasion; on the other hand they possessed an inherent and century old dislike for things military. After the initial months of uncertainty and fear, the nation was faced with the exceedingly difficult problem of maintaining an armed force consisting of men who had no interest in serving, for a population which was at best apathetic and at worst hostile, led by a government divided on the question of the need for such a large mobilized army. The primary function of the army—defending the country against a foreign invasion—was soon supplemented by a number of other roles: caring for refugees and prisoners of war, preventing the extensive smuggling of goods along the borders, maintaining internal order, and frustrating foreign attempts to use the Netherlands as a base for espionage and drafting men for service in foreign armies. The army had to carry out its roles while suffering from the deteriorating economic situation, the increasing social divisions within the country, as well as growing pressure and propaganda from the various anti-military organizations. After four years of mobilization the army was on the verge of collapse and unable to fight the forces threatening to destroy the nation from within. Civilian volunteers from all walks of life had to be called up while the army was sent home. Yet the nation learned nothing from the 1914-1918 experience. In fact, all the wrong conclusions were drawn in the years following the Peace of Versailles. The general consensus was that the Netherlands had stayed out of the war because it had wanted to remain neutral and had created and maintained an adequate defence force. In the post-war years the army was neglected again, anti-militarism was given free voice, defence installations were uncared for, foreign events were not considered in the light of their possible consequences for the Netherlands, and warnings of an impending invasion were disregarded. The quick defeat at the hands of the German troops in May 1940 caused many Dutch people to look in anguish for the reasons for their inglorious surrender. Many writers have sought the explanations in the twenty years before 1940, but the roots go back much further. They were already growing before 1914, and became firmly embedded during the Great War. The Dutch people did not grasp the lessons of the 1914-1918 period, never changed their ideas or ways during and after that time, and were therefore an easy victim of German military aggression in 1940. The explanation for the fiasco of May, 1940 can be understood if the Dutch national attitude towards their military responsibilities during the Great War is understood.

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