Belgium in 1950

Tuesday, 25th June 1950 was a largely uneventful day in Belgium. 20,000 kms away, in a small country called Korea on the other side of the world, a war began.

Few Belgians could ever have imagined that, in less than a year, their soldiers would be fighting in the key engagements that would help decide both the outcome of that war, and the fate of 21 million Koreans.


1950 was not a good year for Belgium. Like every country on mainland Europe, Belgium had problems left by four years of Nazi Occupation during the Second World War. However, far more dangerous was the so-called "Royal Referendum" (Question royale/Koningskwestie) which divided the country along already fragmented linguistic and political lines, already aggrevated by war.

The Royal Question surrounded the issue of whether Leopold III had been guilty of collaboration during the Second World War. In May 1940, when Belgium was attacked by German forces, many senior politicians (including the Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot) escaped to England to form a "Government in Exile". Leopold, however, claimed that it was his duty as head of the army to remain in Belgium to oversee the campaign. With the surrender of the Belgian army on May 28, 1940, Leopold became a prisoner of war, furnishing the Germans with a great propaganda victory because it cast doubts on the legitimacy of Pierlot's Government in Exile in London. In 1945, with the allied victory in Europe, Leopold was freed and attempted to regain his position, leading to the first fierce demonstrations and riots. In 1949, a referendum (Consultation populaire) was envisaged to solve the problem. This proved inconclusive (57% overall in favour of Leopold's return) but the results were sharply different between French-speaking regions of Wallonia and Brussels and Dutch-speaking Flanders, escalating tensions between the linguistic groups. Only with parliamentary elections did an increased Christian Social Party (CSP-PVC) allow the king to return. If the Royal Question had been destructive before the King's return, it was as nothing to the reaction following it. The were widespread marches, demonstrations, riots and even general strikes. The coal-mining industry in Charleroi, the industrial heartland of Belgium, known as Le Pays Noir or 'Black Country', ground to a halt in July as 20,000 workers poured onto the streets bearing anti-monarchist banners ("We defy Leopold III to put one foot in Charleroi!" and "To the gallows with Leopold!"). Similar demonstrations, increasing in both size and violence, followed. A wave of bomb attacks - on railway lines, bridges and roads - struck Belgium, leading the newspaper La Dernière Heure, described a "climate of civil war" on the streets on August 1. Walloonian (seperatist) flags were raised in several cities across Belgium, including Liège, in place of the national flag. The situation was only be restored on August 1, when, fearing a total collapse of both state and monarchy, Leopold resigned in favour of his son Baudouin.

Given this turbulent background, why did Belgium send soldiers to fight in what was, on the face of it, a local war in a far-off country?

It is important to remember that since 1945, relations between the capitalist "western world" (and its colonies) and communist "eastern block" were turbulent at best. The centre-right Christian Social Party government was keen for Belgium to maintain good relations with the US and other key western powers, especially the other countries in Benelux. At the same time, the Belgian government was alarmed by the spread of Communism in South East Asia, following the start of the war in French Indochina in 1945 and Chinese Revolution of 1949. Furthermore, sending troops to fight communist aggression abroad might even have allowed the country to unite behind it by demonstrating the influence of a united Belgium abroad, as well as sending a strong message to communists at home. Many Belgians genuinely believed in the policy of "Collective Security" through the United Nations Organisation where co-ordinated military action by several countries could prevent a repeat of the need to persue a policy of Appeasement which led to the Second World War. If Korea would be the trigger to a "Third World War" as many feared, Belgium had to firmly lay out her stance on the matter.

Formation of BUNC

Initially, Belgium pledged three aircraft from the national airline, Sabena, for the "Pacific Airlift". However, the Belgians were originally reluctant to send ground forces to Korea, since the Belgian army was already overstretched as a result, both of its re-organisation to fit into the N.A.T.O., created in 1949 and commitments in the Army of Occupation in Germany. Under pressure from the U.S. and U.N., it was decided that a unit of elite paratroopers and commandos be formed in order not to put too much extra strain on the army.

The new unit was named Belgian United Nations Command or 3rd Parachute Battalion, and was comprised exclusively of volunteers.