End July 1914: Reservist soldiers, their packs on their backs, cross Place Rogier in Schaerbeek, on their way to take the train to join their barracks. Contrary to what certain observers had feared, the mobilization decreed on 31 July was enacted without protest. The faces of the reservists displayed above all “resignation,” as reported by the press of the time. Most of them simply hoped that Belgium would stay out of the conflict, as had happened with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
If it unfolded peacefully, this mobilization was nonetheless exceptional. Since the troubled period of independence, Belgium had avoided the conflicts which hit Europe throughout the 19th century. Protected by a statute of neutrality, it maintained a modest-sized army. Military service was an issue only for the poor, as a yearly draw designated the conscripts, and the wealthier paid to be replaced. On the eve of the war, in 1913, military service became personal and obligatory. This reform nevertheless came too late for its effects to be visible. Among the 200,000 men mobilized in 1914, the working class was overrepresented.