Exercising Neutrality. The Practice of Manoeuvres in the Belgian Army before the Great War

Studies of soldiers’ lives and military culture in peacetime have hitherto mainly focused on life in the barracks. The role of maneuvers, exercises for all ranks and all arms aimed to train military men’s movements for specific strategies, have garnered far less attention. In this article, we examine the practice of maneuvering by the Belgian army from Independence (1830) until the Great War. Because the Belgian army participated very rarely in warfare, in this period, the goals and perceived utility of these exercises will be closely examined: if not in preparation for actual war, why did the army command insist on yearly maneuvers ? The answer, we argue, is that the maneuvers contributed substantially to the cultivation of the nation as a neutral state (i.e. armed and with military experience, but also open to international cooperation). They also helped to forge a bond between the nation’s army and its population. Especially toward the end of the century, when the maneuvers were held on different terrains every year, the forced interaction between soldiers and the local population of the maneuvering regions played a part in the process of militarization of Belgium before the Great War.