In the early years of the 20th century, when many felt that a war between the major powers of Europe was inevitable, Belgium could feel less anxious than most. She had long declared her neutrality, and this was guaranteed by a number of major powers including Germany, France and Great Britain through the Treaty of London in 1839. This was in large measure why the Belgian Army was neither large nor modern when the Germans launched their invasion on 3rd/4th August 1914, yet the Belgians defended their homeland more ferociously than the Germans had expected, and caused them delays which were to have serious consequences, allowing France and Britain time to organise their response. Nevertheless the gallant Belgian Army soon had to retreat in the face of overwhelming numbers and resources, and despite heroic defences of a number of forts, they eventually found themselves expelled from most of their country. Ahead lay four difficult years holding the Western Front, but those early months, despite immense difficulties and a far stronger enemy, would bring huge international admiration for the army and people of Belgium, so it is only fitting that a set of their troops should at last be made.
So this is the set from HaT, and there are only eight poses. At the time of writing no one else has made similar figures, although there is also the HaT set WWI Heavy Weapons which expands the range of weapons, so all in this set are carrying rifles. We have poses marching, firing and advancing, so a fairly standard selection and it covers all the bases, about as much as eight poses can. In these early days there was little trench warfare, so these figures are likely to be arrayed in an open area, for which these poses are appropriate, and of course with a highly mobile front line the marching figure is especially pertinent.
These men wear the uniform of ordinary infantry on the eve of the German invasion, which was quite old-fashioned at the time. They all have short shakos, some of which still have the pompon at the front, although this would gradually disappear over the weeks and months as a more modern peaked cap was issued. The men also all have a double-breasted greatcoat in the French style, with skirts buttoned back to aid movement, and short boots with short gaiters, which had been discarded by most other armies by this time. The shock of the invasion and the desperate call-up of troops caused great supply problems, and some men even fought with little or no uniform at all, so there are many accounts of the rather ragged and very un-uniform look of many units as the fighting progressed. So these figures are something of an ideal, which is normal in this hobby, but many men certainly looked like these so there are no accuracy issues here.
All here carry the large knapsack with bedroll round three sides and mess tin attached, but here we do have a problem. There are many modern reconstructions and illustrations that show the bedroll or tent section like this, but despite that this was a temporary experiment in early 1914, and by the outbreak of war the arrangement was for it to be rolled on top only, or more often to be absent entirely. Since the mistake seems to date back almost to the time itself, this is a case of an error repeated often enough gets accepted as historical fact, so HaT can be excused for making it, but nevertheless this is wrong on these figures. The rest of the kit is more correct, starting with the large ammunition pouch over the stomach, a haversack, water bottle, entrenching tool and bayonet scabbard, all of which is present here. The unusual arrangement of belts for this kit has also been mostly reproduced correctly on these figures, although the central ammunition pouch should be in the middle as every man is wearing a pack, which meant the pouch was central to help balance it. If no pack had been worn then the skew to the right seen on these figures would have been correct, so these figures seem to have mixed up different sources.
The sculpting is quite good but also quite vague when you look closely at the detail. The general proportions are good but finer details are quite vague, leaving buttons that are hard to make out and faces which are remarkably basic for figures made today. The hands are little more than blobs, and even then the kneeling and prone firing figures have no ‘blob’ under or to the left of the rifle on their left hand, so cannot be supporting it. If the hands are poor then the rifles are almost without any definition at all, making any attempt at identification impossible and even having bayonets which are simply an extension of the rifle barrel, with no attempt to offset them which of course would actually be the case. Our information is that the Army rarely fixed bayonets anyway - modern warfare certainly would find very little combat use for them - so in truth the bayonets should not be on the rifles anyway, though these are easily removed. On the plus side there is zero flash and zero excess plastic, but close up these remain very disappointing sculpts from a manufacturer that has produced far better in the past.
As the Germans overran their country the Belgians had to hurriedly clothe and arm their men with whatever could be obtained, and to modernise them where possible. This basic blue uniform would last until well into 1915, but gradually elements were changed, and eventually a khaki uniform of much more modern style would appear. However during the initial invasion these men wear the correct uniform, so are appropriate for those days, and also for the following few months to a gradually lesser extent. These were traumatic times for an ill-prepared army, and we were pleased to see these figures get produced, even though there are a number of errors, and in useful poses. However the sculpting should have been much better, as it is well short of the best being produced by some manufacturers today or for many years past.