The view on Leopold III through French glasses
After the capitulation on May 28, 1940, France prime minister Reynaud reacted very disappointedly and negative towards Belgium and its King. To understand this reaction and the image of Leopold III, it is necessary to look back to some earlier actions.
The French ambassadors were very suspicious from the beginning towards the young King. They saw he wanted to strike a balance. In that case, e.g. he was giving more attention towards the growing "Flemish evolution". Furthermore, it seemed that the King had a bigger inclination towards the British and wanted to decrease the Belgian obligations to a minimum. The French saw this as a threat of the French-Belgian military agreement. They even feared an increasing gap in the French-Belgian friendship because of the marriage between Leopold III and the Swedish princess Astrid. Sweden in fact was considered by France as traditionally pro-German. The fact that the King increased the defense of southern Belgium, fed these feelings in France.
On October 14, 1936 the King gave a speech about the political independence with as biggest point the realization of an independently behaving Belgium. This was only possible if the "big powers" (France, Great Britain but also Germany) agreed to accept Belgium’s neutrality. The speech generated the end of the secret French-Belgian military agreement. The French reacted furiously. In newspapers, Leopold III was put on the same line as Hitler. Belgium and its King were, sometimes more explicitly, declared as traitors and word breakers.
The French opinion about Leopold III didn’t change much in 1938 and 1939. They saw him as a strong King with a great personal influence on the Belgian politics and, which was worse, a great care for the Flemish sensitivities and was affected towards the British. Belgium wasn’t any longer a reliable and an unconditional ally. Relations with France were therefore based on caution. Unfortunately, it became clear that in times of crisis, misgiving and denunciation weren’t far away.May in Belgium under Leopold III
That crisis came soon: on May 10, 1940 the Germans invaded massively Western-Europe. In Belgium they invaded by attacking the buckling of the "Albertkanaal" at Maastricht. Also the pearl of the Liège fortresses, Eben-Emael, was captured.
On May 11, the Belgian army was forced to retreat behind the line Antwerp-Leuven-Wavre-Namur, towards which the British and French were advancing. A day later, the Belgian and British troops were placed under the command of the French general Billotte, who had to coordinate the allied moves. Despite this great move, the Germans keep on advancing. Thanks to their quick, unstoppable march, the Belgian army was threatened to be cutoff. On May 15, 1940 (!) the French prime minister Reynaud said in a phone call with Churchill: "We are defeated, we have lost the battle". These would soon became prophetic words.
The situation on the front decreased, but neither the British, nor the Belgians did receive any orders from Billotte. De French general didn’t give orders nor any coordinated action. When Leopold III and Lord Gort, commander of the British expeditionary force, sent an envoy, he was told the allied forces to retreat. In the night of May 16-17, they retreated to the channel of Willebroek; in the night of May 17-18, to the Dendre downstream of Aalst and in the night of May 18-19 to the Ghent bridgehead.
At that moment, Leopold III was thinking about capitulation. He saw it would be a very heavy battle between the allied infantery and artillery against the German tanks and planes. Meanwhile there wasn’t any coordination between the allied troops. Leopold III and the British were planning an idea of a bridgehead pointed inland. This would (temporaryly) protect the Pas de Calais and gave the British the possibility to board. But on the other hand, the sea would be the border for the Belgians and French. King Leopold knew this but his ministers saw this as defeatism. They believed in a miracle (such as Marne 1914). That’s the reason they fled towards France.
On May 20, 1940, the inevitable happened. The German 2nd Panzerdivision invaded Abbeville, while the 8th Panzerdivision captured Montreuil-sur-Canche. This caused a cutoff for the northern armies. The new French liaison officer Weygand wanted to cut the top of the offensive with an assault from the north and south. The Belgians had to cover the northern front by retreating slowly across the Yser river. The King wasn’t pleased with this: sinds May 16, the Belgian troops fought during the day and marched through the nights. The troops were too tired to make this move. The Belgians had already retreated across the Leie, "Afleidingskanaal" and Leopold Canal.
On May 21, Billotte, who was hardly seen, was involved in a traffic accident. His successor, Blancard, started on May 25 (!). Between those days, few contacts were made between primary the French and secondly the Belgians and British.
On May 24, Hitler prohibited his armored divisions to cross the line Lens-Béthune-Saint Omer-Gravelines. He wanted to save his tanks for the last phase of the campaign. This decision had serious consequences for the Belgians. Initially the focus of the German attack was aimed on the right hand side of the front (mainly against the French and British troops). By its decision, in the north the Belgians came into the crosshairs. The same day, the "Leieslag" battle between the Belgian artillery and infantery and the Germans started in full force. The 6th army of Walther von Reichenau put everything in and gained success, especially in the sector of Kortrijk. The Belgian artillery gained some success but the exhausted troops couldn’t resist the pressure.
For the first time, the French High Command took a wise decision. Blanchard gave the order to retreat on May 25, across the waterline formed by the Aa-canal, the Leie and the Afleidingskanaal. That was the British bridgehead which the King had hinted earlier. Most of the ministers fled to France. Despite fierce insistence of his government, Leopold III staid with his troops. The British historian Lidell Hart wrote about this that the Belgian army definitely would have surrendered if the King would have left the country. This would lead to a German walkover towards the British troops. The loss of the British Expeditionary Force would be a heavy blow for Great Britain.
But the decision came too late. The flanks of the front were breached. On May 26, the British Expeditionary Force urgently boarded. From that moment, the Belgians didn’t have any support. They counterattacked, but on May 27, the front center was breached. Reserve troops were out. Leopold sent an envoy to the German lines. The allies were warned.
When the envoy arrived at the German High Command, he was told it was too late to negotiate. Thanks to the resistance of the Belgian Army, the Germans couldn’t capture the British expedition army. Therefore Hitler demanded an unconditional surrender. Firing was ceased on May 28, at 04h00. The King didn’t want to fight anymore and sacrifice his soldiers to a lost battle, while more than thousand refugees were hiding behind the lines. He found that his troops fulfilled their roles. The enemy was stopped on a distance from the sea, whereby the British could evacuate. Also, referring to the agreement of 1937 by the "big powers", Belgium was a neutral country and only required to defend its borders. That was what it did and Leopold III found he couldn’t let the soldiers die for a lost battle. There were few discussion about the military capitulation, but the ministers couldn’t agree with the political conclusion that Leopold had signed (Remain in Belgium as a POW to try to defend the interests of Belgium). The King had to follow the government to continue the fight..
Leopold III held consequently on to his political view. The war in Belgium wasn’t over with its capitulation, because there wasn’t a peace treaty. But in reality the Belgians were no longer at war. Therefore, Leopold III, looked again to the neutrality policy: as long as there was a war going on, the country should remain neutral. For that reason, Leopold declined an invitation from Adolf Hitler. Although official, because he wanted to meet Hitler anonymously. Hitler didn’t want to do so and delayed the meeting with a few weeks. Leopold wanted to gain as many of the Belgian interests, whoever be the final victor. In that way he just wanted to put himself into a safe position.
Reactions on the capitulation
The capitulation of Belgium and the leading role of Leopold III were criticized strongly, especially in France. The France press spoke about "la trahison de Léopold". He surrendered without deliberation with or warning to the allies. This was pure nonsense. Both French and British knew exactly that the Belgian situation was going down. There were a lot of memo’s in which the predicament was addressed. The King even wrote a letter to King George VI. The British War Office received the news at 17h54 while the French headquarters received the news at 18h10. Both French and British documents prove this.
The French government also accused Leopold III. The two original communiqués below of May 28, 1940 prove this:
Communiqué 536 – 28 mai (soir)
La décision prise par le roi des Belges a permis à l'ennemi de renforcer sa pression dans le Nord, où les troupes brittanniques et français combattent avec la même résolution.
Des combats qui se développent favorables pour nos troupes continuent sur la Somme. Notre aviation de bombardement a poursuivi de jour et de nuit son action sur les terrains d'aviation et sur les colonnes ennemies.
Communiqué 536 – 28 mai (matin)
La situation militaire s'est aggravée d'une manière imprévue dans le Nord par suite de la capitulation du roi des Belges, dont l'armée était engagée aux côtés des troupes brittanniques et français.
Celles-ci font face à cette nouvelle situation et continuent à combattre.
Rien d'important à signaler sur le rest du front
The French told they were surprised by the Belgian capitulation while it wasn’t so. The speech of prime minister Reynaud of May 28, left nothing to the imagination: "I have to announce a serious event to the French people. It happened last night. France can no longer count on the Belgian army. Since 4 o´clock this morning, only the French and British army are fighting the enemy in the north " [...] It is the Belgian army that suddenly in plain country unconditionally has surrendered on order of his King, without warning to its French and British friends, and opened the way for the German divisions to Dunkirk [...] You can see now that in full combat, without looking to general Blanchard, or a thank you to the French and British soldiers who supported the Belgians in need, King Leopold III of Belgium has surrendered. This is a non-precedent fact in history. [...] "
It’s obvious that after this declaration the French press and people didn’t wanted to support the Belgians and his King. How to explain this? It was clear that, since the reign of Leopold III, the French government and press weren’t happy with the Belgian King. Especially the termination of the French-Belgian military agreement was out of the question. Therefore the French troops (like the British) couldn’t preventively march into Belgium in the days before the war started. Did they look for a scapegoat to cover their own mistakes? It’s a fact that the French had the command but didn’t manage to provide clear communication and coordination. E.g. the French liaison officer Weygand had to learn from Leopold that Abbeville was captured by the Germans. Leopold wrote in his memoirs: "Both French and British have a bad conscience. The French because the final breakthrough in May 1940 was in their sector which they could have easily supported and organized and this led to a good German ending of the advances in Western-Europe. The British because they planned their embarkation in May 20, without telling us."
The Belgian ministers – in exile in France – had a significant role in the stigma of Leopold. Especially prime minister Pierlot had a problem with the active political role of the King. The fact that Leopold III was the commander-in-chief and fulfilled this role, was the biggest problem for Pierlot. He spoke the following words on Radio Paris on May 28: "Belgians! The King has ignored the rules of the government to not negotiate with the enemy. Belgium will be speechless beaten, but the mistake of one man can’t be blamed on the whole nation. Our army didn’t deserve this destiny. [...] After a meeting in Paris [...] the government has decided, convinced they speak for the whole country, not to give up the battle for freedom [...]". This sort of reactions heated tempers and led to a more negative but unfair image of Leopold and Belgium.