The Netherlands in World War I

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The Kingdom of the Netherlands was 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 (or the Southern Netherlands) from the north. However, Dutch neutrality was not guaranteed by the major powers in Europe, nor was it in the constitution. Rather, the country's neutrality was based on the belief that its strategic position between the German Empire, German-occupied Belgium, and the United Kingdom guaranteed its safety.[1]

Nevertheless, the Dutch army was mobilized throughout the conflict, as belligerents regularly intimidated the Netherlands and put 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.

Monument commemorating 300 dead fishermen of Scheveningen

Position before World War I[edit]

Before the First World War, the Netherlands hosted two major international peace conferences in The Hague. The First Hague Conference was held in May 1899 on the initiative of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.[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 made on the laws of war and subsequent war crimes.

In 1907, there was a Second Hague Conference at the insistence of the American president Theodore Roosevelt. The conference was initially planned for 1904, but it had to be postponed because of the Russo-Japanese War. The second conference only secured a few additional treaties and is generally considered a failure.[citation needed]

Dutch politics[edit]

Royal House[edit]

The head of state of the Netherlands was Queen Wilhelmina. She was known for her fierce patriotism and strong-willed nature. Queen Wilhelmina leaned towards sympathy for France and Belgium, but only in private. In public, she remained purely neutral. Her husband, the German prince-consort Henry Duke zu Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was openly pro-German.[citation needed] His nephew, Frederick Francis IV Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was part of the German army.[4]


On August 29th, 1913, a centrist liberal minority cabinet was appointed under the leadership of independent liberal prime minister Pieter W.A. Cort van der Linden.[5] His cabinet governed until September 9th, 1918, an unusually long period for a Dutch cabinet. During this period the important post of Minister of Foreign Affairs was taken by Jonkheer John Loudon.[6] Former general Nicolaas Bosboomhe was the Minister of War until May 15th, 1917. Although the government as a whole was strictly neutral, every member maintained his individual preferences. Some ministers were in favor of France, but prime minister Cort van der Linden was privately seen as ‘German-friendly’ and nicknamed ‘Kurt Unter der Linden’ after Berlin’s main boulevard.[7]

Declaration of neutrality[edit]

In the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia. The Netherlands declared themselves neutral on July 30th, 1914. According to international law, neutrality had to be declared in each instance of a war declaration between two sovereign nations. During the month of August, the Dutch declaration of neutrality had to be repeated regularly. The declaration consisted of eighteen 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 said 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.[8][verification needed]

Dutch military[edit]

On July 31st, the Dutch government ordered a full military mobilization of its conscript armed forces of 200,000 men, including reserves and regional militias.[citation needed] The chief of staff lieutenant-general Cornelis Snijders was promoted to full general and commander-in-chief, a function that only existed in wartime. Snijders was the first non-aristocratic Dutch general to become commander-in-chief, a position that, until then, was reserved for senior princes of the House of Orange.[citation needed]


The Dutch military strategy was purely defensive and rested on three pillars. First, there was the New Dutch Waterline (Dutch: Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie), a defensive ring of rivers and lowland surrounding Holland proper that would be inundated.[citation needed] An older version had existed since the sixteenth century. The second line of defense was formed by a circle of nineteenth-century fortresses and further inundations surrounding the capital Amsterdam called the Vesting van Amsterdam (Fortress 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.[9]

During the war, militarily sensitive border areas and places essential to the national defense were declared to be in a state of siege, a phase preceding the state of war. There, military authorities ruled under martial law, and non-residents could only go there with a special permit. These prohibited border areas were expanded during the war in order to fight espionage and expel suspect individuals.[citation needed]


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 mostly outdated, especially the fortifications.[10] At the start of the war, there was no air force, only the beginning of an aviation department within the army. It had a couple of Farman planes built under license. Later during the war, foreign planes which had crashed into Dutch territory were repaired to serve in the aviation department.[citation needed]

Dutch volunteers in foreign armies[edit]

Some Dutchmen did volunteer for service in the French, British and German or Austro-Hungarian armies, but exact numbers are unknown. The German army did not accept foreign volunteers unless they possessed German nationality as well. Foreign volunteers were often directed to allied armies such as the Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian or Ottoman.[citation needed] There were certainly immigrants from the Netherlands to Canada (and a few who lived in the U.S.A.) who served with various Canadian regiments of the British Expeditionary Forces. About 80 of those who served have been identified [11] and were sourced through the Personnel Records of the First World War, held at Library and Archives Canada.[12]

Prisoners of war[edit]

According to international law, soldiers of the warring nations who entered a neutral country had to be interned for the duration of the war.[citation needed] Of the soldiers who entered the Netherlands on purpose or by mistake, 33,105 were Belgian, 1,751 British, 1,461 German, 8 French, and 4 American. Among these prisoners were also pilots who had flown into Dutch airspace and crashed.[13]

Monument built by Belgian POW's near Amersfoort.

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

Most British POW's were members of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade. They were interned in Groningen, where they were held captive under a mild regime, allowing for trips into the city. Some British soldiers formed a cabaret group named 'The Timbertown Follies' which toured throughout the country.[citation needed] The proceeds were donated to charities. Others knitted jumpers and socks for the British navy.[14]

Many German soldiers, often patrols, 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.[citation needed]


Deserters were not considered foreign soldiers when they entered neutral territory if they were unarmed, removed badges from their uniform, and proclaimed themselves deserter to the proper authorities. Numbers are unknown, but most deserters by far were German.[citation needed] As deserters had no rights to hand-outs like free accommodation or food, some of them were voluntarily interned in POW camps.


After the German invasion of Belgium on August 4th, 1914, one million Belgians (of a total population of seven million) fled their country to the Netherlands.[citation needed] 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 often raided by angry mobs.

The second wave was caused by the German army’s onslaught and war crimes against civilians. Between August and October 1914, a million Belgians fled to the Netherlands. Most of these refugees returned when the war became concentrated around the Western Front. Others moved on to England and France. An estimated 100,000 Belgians stayed in refugee camps during the war with largest of the camps in Nunspeet.[citation needed]

Apart from Belgian civilians, there were political refugees from Germany such as the German-American socialist Carl Minster, Germans who escaped conscription into the army, and prisoners of war escaped from German camps, mostly Russians or Russian-controlled nationalities such as Poles and Ukrainians.

Effect on food supply[edit]

War conditions disrupted the Netherlands' food imports and caused shortages.

On Tuesday, July 3rd, 1917, the city's authorities in Amsterdam had decided to hold back the potato supply until there was enough to feed the whole city at once. This lead to a massive riot and the plundering potatoes from stores and markets. Rioters used battering rams to break into warehouses and take potatoes intended to be exported to England. 2000 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.[15][additional citation(s) needed]

Foreign Violations of Neutrality[edit]

On Land[edit]

At the beginning of the war (August 4th, 1914) 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.[16][additional citation(s) needed]

At Sea[edit]

Dutch shipping and sailors suffered the most 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.[citation needed] Some sea mines washed ashore and killed innocent bystanders or military specialists tasked with disarming the sea mines.[17] In order to protect merchant ships, the Netherlands negotiated with Germany a free channel from the coast via the Dogger Bank to the north of the North Sea.[citation needed]

In the Air[edit]

Both Allied and German warplanes violated Dutch airspace. On several occasions, lost British and German pilots dropped bombs on Dutch towns. The worst incident occurred on April 30th, 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.[18] 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.[19]

German Zeppelins going to or returning from bombing raids on England violated Dutch airspace due to weather conditions such as wind or fog. Soldiers often opened fire, but without much effect. It is unclear whether Dutch fire was responsible for the downing of the LZ54 (L 19). It came down into the sea and led to the King Stephen incident when British sailors let the German crew drown.[citation needed]


Due to its geographical significance and its international connections, the Netherlands became a hotbed of espionage[20]. The country's neutrality allowed citizens of belligerent countries to travel freely to or from the Netherlands. Most spy agencies had operators in the country.[citation needed] MI6 had its most important station in Rotterdam. Under command of Richard Tinsley, the British intelligence service handled several important spy networks in Belgium, such as La Dame Blanche.[citation needed] These Belgian resistance 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.[citation needed]

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.[21]

Bibliography in English[edit]

  • Abbenhuis, Maartje. The Art of Staying Neutral. The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914-1918. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
  • 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.


  1. ^ "The Netherlands". Int. Encyclopedia of the First World War. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  2. ^ "The Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907; a series of lectures delivered before the Johns Hopkins University in the year 1908".
  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. ^ Fasseur, Cees. Wilhelmina. De Jonge Koningin. Amsterdam: Balans, 1998, p. 508-510.
  5. ^ Minderaa, J.T. (1979), "Linden, Pieter Wilhelm Adrianus Cort van der (1846-1935)", Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland, 1, retrieved 2008-03-13
  6. ^ "Dr. John Loudon, A Dutch Diplomat". New York Times. November 13, 1955. Retrieved 2014-01-11. John Loudon, former Netherlands Foreign Minister, died today after a long illness ...
  7. ^ Ruis, Edwin. Spynest. British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914-1918 '. Briscombe: The History Press, 2016, p. 149.
  8. ^ Moeyes, Paul. Buiten Schot . Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2014, p. 54.
  9. ^ Abbenhuis, Maartje M. The Art of Staying Neutral. The Netherlands in the First World War, 1914-1918. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006, p. 47
  10. ^ Abbenhuis, p. 50-51.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Library and Archives Canada,
  13. ^ Roodt, Evelyn de. Oorlogsgasten. Vluchtelingen en krijgsgevangenen in Nederland tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Zaltbommel, 2000, p. 16, 139-140, 173
  14. ^ Internet, retrieved 10 May 2016 (in Dutch):
  15. ^ Daily Telegraph Thursday 5 July 1917, reprinted in Daily Telegraph 5 July 2017 page 24
  16. ^ Moeyes, Paul. Buiten Schot, p. 97-88.
  17. ^ Lith, Hans van. Plotseling een vreselijke knal. Zaltbommel: Europese Bibliotheek, 2001, p. 176-177.
  18. ^ Lith, Hans van. Plotseling een vreselijke knal, p. 91-95.
  19. ^ Starink, Dirk. De Jonge Jaren van Luchtmacht. Amsterdam: Boom, 2013, p. 95.
  20. ^ Klinkert, Wim. "Intelligence and Espionage (The Netherlands) | International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1)". 1914-1918-Online. Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  21. ^ Ruis, Edwin. Spynest. British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914-1918. Briscombe: The History Press, 2016.