Defending neutrality. The Netherlands prepares for war, 1900-1925, Wim Klinkert

Reviewer: Jelmer Rotteveel

Wim Klinkert, Defending neutrality. The Netherlands prepares for war, 1900-1925

Koninklijke Brill Uitgeverij, Leiden 2013
ISBN: 97 890 04 227 47 7

Hardback, with index, bibliography, glossary of Dutch terms and illustrations in b/w.
History of warfare, Volume 90.

336 pages
€125, 00

Defending neutrality

In Defending neutrality, the ninetieth volume in the Brill-series History of warfare, Wim Klinkert analyses the efforts of the Netherlands to come to terms with the problems of modern industrial war. In many ways it is related to two books that were reviewed here earlier, Small powers in the age of total war edited by Herman Amersfoort and Wim Klinkert and Guarding Neutrality by Susanne Wolf. In this volume Klinkert aims to contribute to our knowledge of the behaviour of small states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by presenting us with a detailed case study of the Netherlands. He also wants to show that major international developments, either military, technological or societal all left their mark on a small state.
He has therefore based his book on three main principles. First, the idea that insight in specific internal circumstance, national political and military culture of a state is vital to understand its foreign and military policies. Second, that to appreciate the internal developments, transnational developments need to be taken into account as well. Third, that a comparative approach can foster an understanding of national histories in their proper perspective and contribute to a better general understanding of the war years.
Klinkert starts by discussing the general state of the Dutch army between 1900 and the outbreak of war in 1914. Among other things, he discusses the perceived threat posed by the various possible belligerents and the Dutch army command’s and political response to this.
Interestingly enough he approaches some of these issues from an international viewpoint, devoting attention, among others, to the plan of Vizeadmiral Eduard von Knorr for a rapid occupation of the Thames from a base on the Scheldt (i.e. Belgium and the Netherlands) that was, fortunately for the Dutch, shelved by the end of 1897. A second mention of a possible violation of Dutch territory appeared in the official Aufmarschplan (marchingplan) (1905-1906) of the Oberste Heeresleitung (Army high command), but it too was later shelved, not out of respect of Dutch neutrality as such, but as a necessary relief of pressure on the German right flank as it swung through Belgium into northern France. When war broke out in 1914, Dutch neutrality was indeed respected, but there were still many military and diplomatic issues to be dealt with.
First and foremost, there were the efforts to provide a credible response to the rapid development of weaponry on the battlefield. The Netherlands needed to acquire weaponry and ammunition at an incredible pace. Measures needed to be taken by the government and armed forces to keep up with developments abroad on a technical, tactical and organisational level. In 1915 the Munitiebureau (Munitions bureau) was founded, a milestone in the development of the Dutch war effort. It was to supply the Dutch army in a qualitative as well as quantitative sense, two tasks that became more and more difficult as the war progressed. Among others, problems were caused by shortages in raw materials, unwilling suppliers, production facilities, etc. Moreover, even when new weaponry could be produced or acquired in sufficient (or somewhat sufficient) amounts, the Dutch army needed equipped, and properly instructed in their use. Although the Munitiebureau was somewhat successful in some cases, in many it would be unable to meet demands for the duration of the war.
One major issue was the production of gas shells. The first use of this new and terrifying weapon at Ypres on 22 April 1915 saw a quick response by the Dutch army leadership. Efforts were made to produce useful types of gas, and methods of ‘delivery’, such as gas cylinders were tested. The produced (and thus available) quantity of poison gas would by war’s end be relatively small. In that sense it is illustrative for most issues Klinkert discusses in his book; in most cases it would be too little, too late. The country, through various constraints, would and could only hope to resist any attacker, from the east, south or west, for a very short time. Simply because it was impossible to produce sufficient ammunition, weapons and numbers of men; however great the efforts of politicians or army leaders. Another example of this is the formation of the Dutch air force, or Luchtvaartafdeling (LvA). In 1913 Dutch Parliament approved the founding of a military aviation department as part of the land army. One and a half years later it would be an important element in the maintenance of neutrality in its own right, in the form of aerial patrols. Army leadership and the Luchtvaartafdeling, spurred on by events abroad, quickly understood the size of the air force (equipped with only seven French Farman aircraft in 1914) needed to be increased. Moreover, the LvA needed to carry out a variety of tasks, not just reconnaissance; artillery observation methods were to be developed, the means for aerial photography and aerial combat to be acquired. Observation of troop movements for intelligence purposes quickly followed. Army leadership opted for the establishment of a national aircraft industry, procurement of foreign aircraft or parts thereof, and the purchase of interned aircraft. As with the issue of the production of other weaponry, such as the abovementioned production of war gases, the efforts to build a credible air force of sufficient size and quantity would in the end prove futile. Though the sizable number of ‘enemy’ aircraft force-landing on Dutch soil would help keeping the LvA somewhat up to speed in the field of airframe construction, means of aerial photography, armament (and installation thereof) it was again a question of too little too late. The national aircraft industry, despite all efforts, would by November 1918 be ‘a far cry from what looked like a modern air force’(p. 163).
Klinkert also devotes a whole chapter to the often neglected matter of intelligence-gathering, a very welcome addition to the general subject. Being a neutral meant dealing with a great number of spies and informants, who operated in, for, but also against the Netherlands.
Klinkert is able to present all of the above, and much more, in a clear and interesting manner. His attempt to show all the various problems the Netherlands encountered during the First World War is indeed greatly helped by his attention to transnational developments, and the German, French, Belgian and British viewpoints. His meticulous reconstruction of the internal developments is aided by his analysis of a wide variety of different subjects, like the three mentioned above.
This variety makes for a great variety and interesting reading. This is important, because as this book deals with what some, at first sight, might consider the rather dull subject of Dutch ‘war preparations’, simply because it would never be actually involved in the Great War itself. In conclusion, Klinkert has provided us with a clear insight on the Dutch preparation for war, but also the great variety of subjects that it involves. Therefore, for anyone interested in the First World War in general, or in the troubles of small states in particular, Defending Neutrality is highly recommended.

Jelmer Rotteveel