Henri-Alexis Brialmont

Henri-Alexis Brialmont

Leutenant-General Henri-Alexis Brialmont (1821-1903) was a Belgian army officer, engineer, politician, prolific writer during the second half of the 19th century. As a military architect he is considered to be the father of the Belgian national defense concept up to the outbreak of the Great War. An ardent admirerer of the Duke of Wellington he actively pressed for the continued expansion of the Belgian army amidst a shifting European political en military environment. The construction of the chains of forts guarding the key strongpoints of Antwerp, Liège and Namur and Bucharest would become his masterpieces .

He was the son of Mathieu Laurent Jospeh Brialmont who served as the garisson commander of the fortress of Venlo during the Belgian Uprising / Revolt of 1830-1839 . His father would become minister of defense of Belgium and Henri-Alexis was therefore well-connected. He married Justa-Sophie de Potter (1834-1875), she was the daughter of Louis de Potter (1786-1859) – a well known Belgian revolutionary and member of the provisional government, politician – a link which secured his political position even further. He had close ties with minister of defense Félix Chazal (1808-1892) who he served as privaty secretary. He did have a strained relationship with Prime Minister Frère-Orban, Charles Woeste, following the debate on capping the military expenditure and Brialmont’s aid to Carol I which might have undermined Belgium’s policy of armed neutrality follwing the country’s independence in 1839. Later in life this continued to be a renewed diplomatic issue.

Born in Maagdenberg (Venloo, The Netherlands), he lived his early live in Antwerp and attended the Royal Atheneum in 1836. Henri-Alexis was admitted in to the Royal Military Academy (KMS) in 1839 and graduated in 1841. He became an army engineer officer in 1843 and was sent to Liège. In 1844 he was transferred to Diest and later to Brussels. Next he served as staff officer (1855) and in 1859 his plans entailing the fortification of Antwerp were approved. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 he became commander of the Army of Antwerp and later he rose to position of director of the fortress of Antwerp (1874). At the end of his career he served as Inspector-General of the Army en the Corps of Engineers (1877-1892). He strongly advocated universal suffrage and conscription, Belgian imperialism and the construction of forts to deter any changes on the international geopolitical scene.

Henri-Alexis Brialmont convinced Leopold II of Belgium to agree to fortify the city of Antwerp thereby opposing the sentiment of both popular opinion and politicians. In order for Belgium to become a world power – so it was argued during the time of high imperialism – he supported the establishment of the Congo Free State project of Leopold’s. The fortifications of Antwerp made a strong impression to visitors to Antwerp especially during the World Exhibition organised in 1885 by which he won international acclaim. He was asked by Carol I of Romania to design chains of forts to deter Ottoman pressure which were built between 1883 and 1900 – an enterprise he conducted as a private citizen since the Belgian government did not give permission to do so – although he retained the support of minister of Foreign Affairs Emile Banning. Other counties (e.g. Greece, the Ottoman Empire, Thailand) also seeked his advice. Later he became deeply concerned by the growing might of the German Empire. He did retire from public life in 1892 but served as a member of parliament for the Liberal Party (right-wing) interveneing in debates on colonial and defensive policies; he was also appalled by growing anti-militarist sentiment curtailing the Belgian Army especially by the Catholic Party and the (Jules) Vandenpeereboom project.

During his early career he was greatly influenced by Laurillard-Fallot at the military academy and by Dandelin. Subsequently wrote several publications (in French) some written under his pseudonym “Keller”, historical works (e.g. Simon Stevin – military engineer), and even launched a newspaper “La Belgique Militaire” supported by General Renard which enraged politicians. The campains of the Duke of Wellington remained one of his favorite topics. His work influenced later Belgian army engineers and architects like Emile Wangermée. French fortification engineers and architects would deploy his altered designs to guard the cities of Verdun and Belfort located close to the German border.

Henri-Alexis Brialmont died in 1903 without issue (Sint-Joost-ten-Node, Brussels) aged 82 still working on the plans to upgrade the fortress of Antwerp sensing increasing international tensions. Honoring his explicit request there no public ceremony were held or military honours bestowed. He was buried at the Brussels Cemetery. A statue was erected close to the Belgian Parliament designed by the Antwerp sculptor Frans Huggelen (1878-1940) in 1927 (revealed in 1928) attended by King Albert I and the Royal Military Academy has his buste on display. Several streets and locations are named after him.