Netherlands in World War I

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The Netherlands remained neutral during World War I. This stance arose partly from a strict policy of neutrality in international affairs that started in 1830 with the secession of Belgium from the north. Dutch neutrality was not guaranteed by the major powers in Europe, nor was it a part of the Dutch constitution. The country's neutrality was based on the belief that its strategic position between the German Empire, German-occupied Belgium, and the British guaranteed its safety.[1]

The Royal Netherlands Army was mobilized throughout the conflict, as belligerents regularly attempted to intimidate the Netherlands and place demands on it. In addition to providing a credible deterrence, the army had to house refugees, guard internment camps for captured soldiers, and prevent smuggling. The government also restricted the free movement of people, monitored spies, and took other wartime measures.

Pre-war status[edit]

Before the First World War, the Netherlands hosted two major international peace conferences. The first, the First Hague Conference, was held in May 1899 on the initiative of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.[2] Representatives of 26 nations conferred on the limitation of certain types of weapons, including poison gas, hollow point bullets, and aerial bombardment from hot air balloons.[3] The conference was a surprising success, and agreements were reached on the laws of war and on war crimes.[4]


The Dutch monarch, Queen Wilhelmina, was known for her fierce patriotism and strong-willed nature. Wilhelmina leaned towards sympathy for France and Belgium, but only in private. She evinced a neutral stance in public. Her German husband, the prince-consort Duke Henry of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was openly pro-German. His nephew, Frederick Francis IV, served in the German army.[5]

On 29 August 1913, a centrist liberal minority cabinet was appointed under the leadership of independent liberal Prime Minister Pieter Cort van der Linden.[6] His cabinet governed until 9 September 1918, an unusually long period for a Dutch cabinet. During this period, the important post of Minister of Foreign Affairs was taken by John Loudon.[7]

Although the government as a whole was strictly neutral, each member maintained individual preferences. Some ministers were in favor of France, while Prime Minister Cort van der Linden was privately seen as German-friendly and nicknamed "Kurt Unter der Linden," after Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard.[8]

During the war, the Dutch people were generally sympathetic towards the Allies.[9] However, in Dutch protestant or Neo-Calvinist circles, there was sympathy for the German cause. This was partly inspired by the memory of the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.[10]

Food shortages[edit]

War conditions disrupted the Netherlands' food imports and caused shortages. From 3 July 1917, authorities in Amsterdam held back the potato supply until there was enough to feed the whole city. This led to a large riot and looting of stores and markets. Rioters broke into warehouses and took potatoes intended to be exported to England.

Two thousand soldiers were called in to break up the riot but were repelled by the rioters. Another clash took place in the city of Kattenberg where three groups of workmen, one from the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland, protested the lack of food for manual laborers. They also demanded that they receive actual food and not promissory papers.[11][better source needed]


In the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia at 11 a.m. on 28 July 1914.[12] The Netherlands declared themselves neutral on 30 July. According to international law, neutrality had to be declared in each instance of a war declaration between two sovereign nations. During August, the Dutch declaration of neutrality had to be repeated regularly.

The declaration consisted of 18 articles. The most important article stated that hostilities were not allowed within the territory and waters of the Dutch Empire; that no nation was allowed to use this territory and waters as a base for military operations; and that foreign soldiers who, for whatever reason, crossed into Dutch territory would be interned in POW camps for the duration of the war.[13][verification needed]


Monument commemorating the dead fishermen of Scheveningen

At the beginning of the war the German army marched near the Dutch–Belgian border in the province of Limburg. For a stretch of 500 metres (550 yd) between border markers 42 and 43, the road was half Belgian and half Dutch territory. Dutch border guards made clear which part of the road was Dutch territory, and as a consequence, the German army avoided it on their westward march. Despite this, the Dutch were falsely accused by Belgian and French newspapers at the time of supporting the German invasion of Belgium.[14][better source needed]

Dutch sailors suffered from war-related incidents and neutrality violations. Several ships were torpedoed by German U-boats or sunk by British sea mines. The fishing town of Scheveningen lost 300 fishermen. In total, 862 fishermen died and 175 fishing boats were sunk. Some sea mines washed ashore and killed civilians or military specialists tasked with disarming the sea mines.[15] In order to protect merchant ships, the Netherlands negotiated a free channel from the coast via the Dogger Bank to the North Sea with Germany.

Both Allied and German military aircraft violated Dutch airspace. On several occasions, lost British and German pilots dropped bombs on Dutch towns. The worst incident occurred on 30 April 1917, when a lost British pilot of the Royal Naval Air Service mistakenly dropped eight bombs on the town of Zierikzee, damaging several houses and killing a family of three. After initially denying the incident, the British government apologized and agreed to compensate the Dutch for damage and loss of life.[16] A total of 107 airplanes and 24 seaplanes landed in the Netherlands, and 220 crewmen were taken prisoner. Of the crashed planes, 67 were repaired and added to the army's air department.[17]

German Zeppelins on bombing raids against England frequently violated Dutch airspace due to weather conditions such as wind or fog. It is unclear whether Dutch fire was responsible for the downing of the Zeppelin LZ 54. It came down in the sea and led to the King Stephen incident when British sailors let the German crew drown.


Due to its geographical significance and its international connections, the Netherlands became a hotbed of espionage.[18] The country's neutrality allowed citizens of belligerent countries to travel freely to or from the Netherlands. Most spy agencies had operatives in the country. MI6 had a station in Rotterdam under the command of Richard B. Tinsley. It handled several important spy networks in Belgium, such as La Dame Blanche. These networks provided the Allies with intelligence concerning German troops behind the Western Front. The German secret services also used Rotterdam as a base for espionage in Britain. From Rotterdam, spies were sent by ferry to spy on the Royal Navy.

Dutch citizens were in demand as spies, as they could travel freely throughout Europe. Some of these spies were executed for espionage. Haicke Janssen and Willem Roos, two unemployed Dutch sailors, were executed in 1915. Exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari, convicted of spying for Germany in France, was executed in 1917. In total seven Dutch citizens were executed by the British, French, and Germans. Many more were imprisoned.[19]

Armed forces[edit]

On 31 July, the Dutch government ordered the full mobilization of its conscript armed forces of 200,000 men, including reserves and regional militias. The chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Cornelis Snijders, was promoted to full general and commander-in-chief, a position which only existed in wartime. Snijders was the first non-aristocratic Dutch general to become commander-in-chief; a position which, until then, had been reserved for senior princes of the House of Orange.

The Dutch military strategy was purely defensive and rested on three pillars. First, there was the Dutch Water Line, a defensive ring of rivers and lowland surrounding the core Dutch region of Holland, that could be inundated. An older version had existed since the sixteenth century. The second line of defense was formed by a circle of 19th-century fortresses and further inundations around the capital of Amsterdam. The third pillar was the Veldleger or mobile field army, that would operate outside the Waterline in the rural eastern and southern provinces. In August 1914 the field army had an operational strength of 88,770 soldiers.[20]

During the war, militarily sensitive border areas and places considered essential to national defense were declared to be in a state of siege, a status immediately below a state of war. There, military authorities ruled under martial law, and non-residents could only travel there with a special permit. These prohibited border areas were expanded during the war in order to fight espionage and restrict the access of suspect individuals.

The main weapons used by the Dutch army were the Männlicher rifle and the Schwarzlose machine gun, both manufactured in Austria. Artillery was German and French, but was mostly outdated. The fortifications were also outdated.[21] At the start of the war, there was no air force, only a small aviation department within the army. During the war, foreign planes which crashed in Dutch territory were repaired to serve in the aviation department.

Volunteers in foreign armies[edit]

Some Dutchmen volunteered for service in the French, British, German or Austro-Hungarian armies, but exact numbers are unknown. The German army did not accept foreign volunteers unless they possessed German nationality; they were often directed to allied armies such as the Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian or Ottoman. Some immigrants from the Netherlands to Canada, and a few who lived in the United States, served with various Canadian regiments of the British Expeditionary Force. About 80 of those who served have been identified through the personnel records of the First World War held at Library and Archives Canada.[22][incomplete short citation]


After the German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914, one million Belgians—out of a total population of six million—fled their country to the Netherlands. The first wave consisted of Belgians of German descent, German-speaking East Europeans, and Jews, who fell victim to the Belgian public’s outrage directly after the invasion. Many chose to leave because their businesses and homes were raided by angry mobs.

The second wave was caused by the German army’s invasion and its war crimes against civilians. Most of these refugees returned when the focus of military action became concentrated on the Western Front. Others moved on to England or France. An estimated 100,000 Belgians stayed in refugee camps during the war; the largest of the camps was in Nunspeet.

As well as Belgian civilians, there were political refugees from Germany such as the German-American socialist Carl Minster, Germans escaping conscription into the army, and prisoners of war who had escaped from German camps – mostly Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles.

Prisoners of war[edit]

Commemorative monument to interned Belgian POWs

According to international law, soldiers of the warring nations who entered a neutral country were to be interned for the duration of the war. Of the soldiers who entered the Netherlands, on purpose or by mistake, 33,105 were Belgian, 1,751 British, 1,461 German, eight French, and four American. Among these prisoners were pilots who had flown into Dutch airspace and crashed.[23]

The majority of Belgian and British internees had fled to the Netherlands after the fall of Antwerp in 1914. Belgian prisoners were held captive in a camp in Amersfoort. The camp initially had a very strict regime, but after a revolt that resulted in the death of seven Belgians, the rules softened. As the prisoners would not be released until the end of the war, their wives and children often sought accommodation in the vicinity.

Most British prisoners of war were members of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade. They were interned in Groningen, where they were held captive under a mild regime, which allowed for trips into the city. Some British soldiers formed a cabaret group named The Timbertown Follies, which toured throughout the country. The proceeds were donated to charities.

Many German soldiers entered the Netherlands by mistake. This occurred most frequently at the beginning of the war, as the border between the Netherlands and Belgium was confusing. The German prisoner of war camp was at Bergen in the province of North Holland.

Deserters were not considered foreign soldiers when they entered neutral territory if they were unarmed, removed badges from their uniforms, and proclaimed themselves deserters to the proper authorities. Numbers are unknown, but the majority of deserters by far were German. As deserters had no right to free accommodation or food, some of them were voluntarily interned in POW camps.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Netherlands". Int. Encyclopedia of the First World War. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  2. ^ "The Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907".
  3. ^ Telford Taylor (1 November 1993). The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-3168-3400-9. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
  4. ^ "The Avalon Project : Laws of War - Final Act of the International Peace Conference; July 29, 1899". Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  5. ^ Fasseur, Cees. Wilhelmina. De Jonge Koningin. Amsterdam: Balans, 1998, pp. 508–510.
  6. ^ Minderaa, J.T. (1979), "Linden, Pieter Wilhelm Adrianus Cort van der (1846–1935)", Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland, 1, retrieved 13 March 2008
  7. ^ "Dr. John Loudon, A Dutch Diplomat". New York Times. 13 November 1955. Retrieved 11 January 2014. John Loudon, former Netherlands Foreign Minister, died today after a long illness.
  8. ^ Ruis, Edwin. Spynest. British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914–1918. Briscombe: The History Press, 2016, p. 149.
  9. ^ S.J. de Groot, Het ‘Baralong-voorval’, 19 augustus 1915. Misdaad en straf volgens het Britse zeerecht, in Tijdschrift voor Zeegeschiedenis 14 (1995), p. 123.
  10. ^ Buiten schot: Nederland tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog: 1914-1918 / Paul Moeyes, 2001. p. 372 e.v.
  11. ^ Daily Telegraph Thursday 5 July 1917, reprinted in Daily Telegraph 5 July 2017 page 24
  12. ^ Fischer 1967, p. 73.
  13. ^ Moeyes, Paul. Buiten Schot . Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2014, p. 54.
  14. ^ Moeyes, Paul. Buiten Schot, pp. 97–88.
  15. ^ Lith, Hans van. Plotseling een vreselijke knal. Zaltbommel: Europese Bibliotheek, 2001, pp. 176–177.
  16. ^ Lith, Hans van. Plotseling een vreselijke knal, pp. 91–95.
  17. ^ Starink, Dirk. De Jonge Jaren van Luchtmacht. Amsterdam: Boom, 2013, p. 95.
  18. ^ Klinkert, Wim. "Intelligence and Espionage (The Netherlands) | International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1)". 1914-1918-Online. Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  19. ^ Ruis, Edwin. Spynest. British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914–1918. Briscombe: The History Press, 2016.
  20. ^ Abbenhuis, Maartje M. The Art of Staying Neutral. The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914–1918. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006, p. 47.
  21. ^ Abbenhuis, pp. 50–51.
  22. ^ Canada, Library and Archives (15 June 2016). "Personnel Records of the First World War". Retrieved 23 September 2019.
  23. ^ Roodt, Evelyn de. Oorlogsgasten. Vluchtelingen en krijgsgevangenen in Nederland tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Zaltbommel, 2000, pp. 16, 139–140, 173


  • Abbenhuis, Maartje. The Art of Staying Neutral. The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914–1918. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
  • Fischer, Fritz (1967). Germany's Aims in the First World War. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-09798-6.
  • Linden, Henk van der. The Live Bait Squadron: three mass graves off the Dutch coast, 22 September 1914. Soesterberg: Aspekt, 2014.
  • Ruis, Edwin. Spynest. British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914–1918. Briscombe: The History Press, 2016.
  • Tuyll van Serooskerken, Hubert P. van. The Netherlands and World War I. Espionage, Diplomacy and Survival. Leiden: Brill, 2001.