The Citizen Army of Holland

By Hendrik Willem Van Loon

[The National Geographic Magazine, June 1916]

The Holland with which we are all familiar is a picturesque combination of dikes and windmills, smiling girls with pretty lace caps, and very small boys with very big cigars. There is another side to this picture to which we have paid less attention; that is the Holland of the modern merchant and the modern scientist—a small bit of land teeming with industry and busy with a thousand different affairs—a country administering a vast colonial empire without the use of a large military establishment and capturing Nobel prizes at a most enviable rate.

This modern Kingdom, with its harbors and its vast foreign trade, forms a small but concise national unit in the midst of very powerful neighbors, who for over two years have been engaged in the most gigantic of all wars. Yet Holland has managed to keep out of the struggle with lasting success. It was able to do this because in a military sense it was fully prepared for all eventualities.


The Kingdom of Belgium was not prepared for war and it was invaded and overrun by a hostile army. The Netherlands, although smaller in number of inhabitants, had the entire arm–bearing force of its male population at the frontier 48 hours before any of the other nations of Europe mobilized. As a result, the neutrality of the country has been rigorously respected.

Strategic reasons, however, for an invasion of the country have been present ever since the month of October of the year 1914, when the Germans captured Antwerp. A cursory glance at the map will show that the Germans thereby acquired the most important naval base in their warfare upon England. Yet they could not use it as long as Holland closed the mouth of the Scheldt with mines and gunboats and land fortifications.

Upon several occasions there, was an uneasy and panicky feeling that the German armies might try to force the mouth of the Scheldt and make Antwerp a naval port for the benefit of their submarines and warships. During many anxious weeks the people of the Netherlands have had the unpleasant sensation that the General Staff of the German armies was figuring and computing the exact debit and credit side of a violation of Dutch territory. Often it seemed that the next morning might bring the news of a German invasion. But every time thus far the careful accountants of the efficient Imperial Staff must have come to the conclusion that an invasion of Dutch territory would cause more harm than good. The troops which had been massed on the southern frontier of Holland disappeared; the guns went rumbling back across the heavily paved roads of Flanders, and the port of Antwerp remains closed to this day.

The activity of the Dutch army, however, has not been directed exclusively against the eastern neighbors. Holland knows that it would provide an excellent thoroughfare to the Rhine region and the steel works of the Krupp family; therefore every quarter mile of the entire coast is guarded day and night. The sand-dunes, which provide a wonderful natural barrier, have been fortified with hidden guns and well-covered positions for machine guns. The towns and villages situated behind the dunes are well garrisoned, and an excellent system of roads running parallel with the coast enabled the Dutch Government to transport artillery and infantry to any threatened spot within less than an hour. Torpedo boats and a flotilla of submarines patrol the coast at all times. Thus far they have been able to save the lives of many shipwrecked sailors, but they have not been called upon to do active service.


All this is in keeping with the heavy sacrifices which the Dutch people have for years made for the defense of their country. They do not intend to use their army for any purpose of aggrandizement; they do not expect that the few hundred thousand men which they are capable of bringing into the field will ever decide the fate of Europe; but they intended to create an army and a navy of such strength that any enemy who should wish to attack the small country would be obliged to reckon the cost before he dare to make the attack.

They made a soldier of every man capable of bearing arms. They prepared the principal part of the country for immediate inundation, and then quietly made it known to their neighbors that they would regard a nation which should cross their frontier as their enemy.

The result thus far has been beneficent to the small Kingdom. The conflagration has spread to all parts of Europe. This little triangle of sand and marshes, situated right in the middle of the terrible upheaval, has been spared. Unless unforeseen circumstances shall happen, Holland will not take part in the war. The outlay of countless hard-earned millions and the willingness of all men to submit to a few months of drill has accomplished this feat.

Together with Switzerland and Denmark and Norway and Sweden, Holland owes its salvation to its own labors and sacrifices. It was a lesson which was not easily learned, but which will not lightly be forgotten after the terrible example of Belgium.


It is a sad reflection that just one hundred years ago Holland was in the same position in which her southern neighbor finds herself at the present moment. The old Dutch Republic of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had grown too rich in the eighteenth century. Millions for tribute, but not a cent for, defense had become the watchword of the self-contented rentiers, whose grandfathers had amassed fortunes and who were not willing to spend a penny of their comfortable dividends upon either an army or a navy. Whenever they needed soldiers they hired a few regiments of Germans or Scotchmen. They allowed the ships of the navy, which had made their country the leader of Europe's foreign policies, to rot in the harbors, and for over forty-three years did not spend a guilder for the maintenance of the fleet.

Several times the government of the Republic was called upon to fulfill the stipulations of some ancient treaty of alliance and to provide her friends with a certain number of ships and a few thousand men. Instead of sending ships, the Dutch Government produced an unlimited checkbook, made some sort of humiliating compromise, and bought herself out of all honorable engagements.

When the Dey of Algeria captured Dutch ships trading in the Mediterranean, he was offered an annual bribe if he would desist from bothering Dutch commerce. When British privateers burned Dutch fishing smacks off the coast of Zeeland, the people rushed into print and denounced the wicked Englishmen. But nobody thought of fighting these enemies as their fathers had done.

It was a sad story. The less we say about it the better. The reward for this policy of indifference and cowardice came in the year 1795. In less than a week the entire Dutch Republic of mighty memory fell into the hands of the French revolutionary hordes. Holland in the sixteenth century had been a large business house defended by a mighty fleet. In the eighteenth century it became an opulent savings bank, which refused to provide for a new door and new shutters because "it would cost too much." The French revolutionary soldiers soon followed by Napoleon the First, pushed their way into the treasure-house of this feeble Commonwealth, declared it to be part of the French Empire, removed everything of any value, and after twenty years of systematic pillaging they turned the erstwhile powerful Republic into a geographical idea, without men, without money, without hope, and without courage.

When finally, on the nineteenth of October, 1813, old Blücher, cursing and swearing at the Corsican usurper, forced his way into the city of Leipzig and turned the French defeat into a rout, there were not more than a dozen men in the former Republic willing to risk their lives for the liberty of their country. It is a matter of record that during the first week after the flight of the French troops from Holland the regular Dutch army did not count more than 651 men.

From that moment, however, there was a steady improvement. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed, under the leadership of the old House of Orange. Every man capable of bearing arms was drafted into the national defenses, and much of the ultimate success of the battle of Waterloo was due to the Dutch forces at Quatre Bras, who engaged the superior advance guard of Marshal Ney until the Duke of Wellington had put his army into battle array.


From the year 1815 on, every boy of nineteen in the Kingdom has been obliged to prepare for military service. It is not desirable to give the exact number of soldiers in the army which has been mobilized since July of the year 1914. But in a general way we can state that every male, being in the country who is of good physical condition and who can walk with a gun across his shoulder has in some direct or indirect fashion given part of his time and his services for the benefit of his country. The old law, which made an exception for only sons, was rescinded several years ago. The Napoleonic system, which allowed rich young men to buy themselves out of the army, has been abolished. The army is now a democratic school, in which classes are thrown together for one common purpose.

Every young man who has reached the age of 19 years appears at his special garrison. For a full year he is instructed in the rudimentary principles of a soldier's trade. If he cares to enter the special service of artillery, aircraft, or submarine work, he will have to spend one or two years more. In that case, however, he learns a useful trade which will help his chances in his future work.

When he has been taught his business he goes back into private life. Except for a short annual maneuver, he has nothing further to do with the military system until a sudden emergency shall call him back to the colors.


Holland can hope to accomplish great things with comparatively weak forces, because it has an ally, mightier than either steel or iron or high explosives. That ally is the North Sea. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a mud-bank conquered from the ocean. Open the dikes which defend the land against the angry aggression of the sea and the country will disappear beneath 3 feet of water. This excellent method of defense was known to our ancestors. It was first used in the year 1572. In the month of April of that year a number of starving Dutch revolutionists captured a small Dutch town named Brielle. The Spaniards tried, to reconquer it. The Hollanders opened the locks of the Meuse. The water came and the Spaniard went.

A few years later the town of Leiden, situated in the heart of the country, was delivered from Spanish siege by a fleet of Dutch catboats and flat-bottomed scows sailing across an impromptu lake and storming Spanish forts after a charge of swimming and wading sailors.

A century later the entire military power of Louis XIV of France was turned against the Dutch Republic. The French army, fresh from victories in many parts of Europe, came to grief when William III inundated the principal part of the Province of Holland and threatened to drown the invader.

In the year 1815, when the new Kingdom of the Netherlands was definitely reconstructed, it was decided to use the water in a scientific fashion for the defense of the country. The eastern part, flat and covered with heath, was to be left open to invasion. The heart of the country, 9 feet below the level of the sea, was to be turned into an ingenious fortress.

At the present time the old idea has been continued with but small changes. A strong force of cavalry and infantry provided with bicycles is left for the defense of this territory. These men must try and stop the invading power as long as possible. It is their duty to destroy all bridges and to dispute any attempt of the enemy to cross the big rivers.


Meanwhile the regular army has retired behind the system of fortresses and inundations, which are all together designated as the "Waterline."

The "Waterline" consists of two parts. The first line of defense runs from the Zuyder Zee due south to the lower parts of the rivers Meuse and Rhine. It cuts off the provinces of north and south Holland and half of the province of Utrecht. It creates a large artificial lake, from 6 to 10 miles wide, which covers all roads, canals, bridges, railroad tracks, and fences.

In many places where an attack might be expected barbed-wire fences have been constructed in such a fashion that they shall be completely covered by the water. The few trenches which guard this line of defense on the east can be turned into ditches. It will offer the forlorn aspect of a large tract of flooded territory. The thousands of trees, the network of fences just below the surface of the water, will make navigation an impossibility.

At irregular intervals there are more than 40 little islands armed with heavy guns. They cover all the roads which in normal time cross this territory, and they know the exact range of every foot of ground (or rather mud) in the waterline.

Behind this first line of defense stretches the second one, which is also the most important. It consists of another group of inundations and some forty-eight fortifications, and forms a broad circle of defense for the town of Amsterdam. Here the strength of the country has been concentrated, and ever since the beginning of the present war every lock and every dike has been guarded. Within six hours this territory would be ready to resist an invasion. Within twelve hours thousands of acres of the most fertile grazing grounds would be covered with' four feet of salt water. After a day and a night neither man nor machine could cross the artificial sea surrounding the heart of the country. The much dreaded shells of the heavy siege guns would cause a big splash, but would do no damage.

This is not a mere supposition written in a moment of patriotic self-glorification. Our statement is based upon the German experience along the Yser front. The southern part of Flanders, in which the heaviest fighting of the year 1914 occurred, greatly resembles the watery part of the Netherlands. It is a region of low pastures and high skies, ditches, rain, and salt spray. The opening of the locks at Nieuport flooded the land on both, sides of the Yser Canal. Behind this the remains of the Belgian army were able to withstand the first shock of the German army marching for Calais.

After almost two years of patience and ingenuity, the Germans have not advanced a single yard against this stagnant lake, which is now the burying ground of many thousand young and brave fellows. The ordinary methods of war were of no avail. Boats, floats, complicated rafts have all been tried and have been given up as useless. The remaining part of Belgium is safe behind this bulwark of our faithful old ally, the North Sea.

The people of the Netherlands know that they will exist as an independent nation just as long as they are able to take care of themselves. For this purpose they have made it the duty of every man to give part of his time to the service of his country. For this ideal they are willing to sacrifice the better part of their territory and to surrender it temporarily to the waves rather than allow an occupation by the force of an enemy.

Because of their industry and foresight in preparing themselves for the unexpected, no hostile force has crossed the frontiers of their tiny country during the last one hundred years.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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