The First World War in 261 weeks

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006 Albert I and the ties of friendship and kinship

Albert I

Albert I

Transgressed Belgium determines its own course

It is Sunday 2 August 1914. It is the sixth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans try to make Belgium believe that France is about to invade the country.

The Belgians do not fall for this and say ‘no’ to the free passage demanded by the Germans, who in their turn transgress the borders with both Luxemburg and Belgium.

British parliament cheers its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey who makes a firm stand for Belgium’s neutrality.

It is raining declarations of war.

American president Woodrow Wilson offers to mediate in the European conflict.

Battle also commences at sea here and there, while the British Expeditionary Force lands in France.

Supreme command of the Russian forces is put into the hands of grand duke Nicholas Nicolaevich. 

The Germans have to defend their colonial territories in Africa against French and English troops.

And the Belgian defenders of Liège decide to hold their position to the last man, encouraged by their king Albert I.

Wilhelm II, the German emperor with the huge ego, sends a message to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on the night of 2 August 1914. It is not a reassuring note but an ominous ulthimatum. Within twelve hours Belgium should open its borders to the Germans on their way to France. If the country fails to comply, Germany will consider this a hostile act with all the entailing consequences. The Belgians should know that France is the true aggressor. And it goes without saying that Germany has the right to be ahead of the French on Belgian soil.

Albert, third king of the Belgians, now knows that it has been of no avail. The night before he made one final attempt – among princes- to ward off the disaster for his people. His wife, queen Elisabeth, helped him compose a letter to kaiser Wilhelm. Elisabeth is the daughter of a Bavarian duke from the house of Wittelsbach. She translated the words which Albert most carefully chose verbatim into German.

He can see that Germany is not in a position to comply openly with the pressing demand of the British to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality. At the same time he trusts the kaiser to promise him personally to leave Belgium in peace. After all there are ‘ties of friendship and kinship’, aren’t there? In the letter Wilhelm is addressed with ‘Du’. Albert ends wih ‘Your faithful and devoted cousin’, though the two are not full cousins. Albert’s mother is a Hohenzollern just like Wilhelm, but from the Sigmaringen side.

Though timid by nature, Albert is certainly not naive. For a long time he has feared the Teutonic fury, a characteristic ‘true’ Germans are so proud of. A year earlier Albert was in Berlin. There the kaiser took him aside. Albert saw him rant and rave. The French should stop their provocations! It would lead to war! No doubt about it! German chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke had also been fishing during a talk with the Belgian military attaché and wondered how Belgium would act if a certain country invaded one day.

Back in Brussels Albert had immediately looked into the mobilization plans. Things did not look good for the Belgian army. All attention in previous years had been focused on domestic problems. Catholics and liberals had not recognized the importance of the defence of the country for decades. After all the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed, according to the Treaty of London of 1839, by the powers behind the Concert of Europe: the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, France and Prussia. In the centuries before the Belgian provinces had regularly been transgressed by troups of Burgundy, France, Spain, Austria and finally Holland.  But during the past three quarters of a century the young country had only known peace. The French-Prussian war of 1870 had passed the Belgians by nicely. However, Albert knew better. Like his uncle Leopold II before him, he had had to fight with the political elite in order to straighten out the defence system. It had been the heart of his ‘active kingship’.

After the assassination at Sarajevo Albert, too, had been on holiday, climbing mountains in Switzerland. When the situation became critical at the end of July, the Belgian government still had no idea how to put up a defence against an invading enemy. Should they defend the borders behind the river Meuse, or should it be a central defence on more suitable terrain, behind small rivers and streams such as the Gete, the Nete or the Velpe. Albert tried to make a case for a defence of the borders and the maintenance of the fortresses near Liège and Namur. Forced by circumstances he now had to accept a compromise.

On the night of 2 August 1914 the king summons his cabinet to study the German ultimatum. He cannot withstand the temptation to throw the inadequate military preparation in the face of his ministers. For the rest the king and his office holders are in complete agreement. They loudly and clearly say ‘no’ to the German ultimatum and the suggestion that French troops would already have crossed the borders. Belgium is a free country, not a marching route. Let the king’s generals cross swords again about the strategic plan.

When German troops cross the border at Gemmenich on 4 August, poor little Belgium’s martyrdom is a fact and Albert is ready to face history as a cavalier king. Enthusiastically cheered in the Brussels streets, he hurries to parliament in his boots with spurs. He asks for a ‘résistance opiniâtre’, a persistent resistance. The members of parliament repeatedly interrupt his speech with ‘vive le roi’ and ‘vive la Belgique’. After a standing ovation the king leaves parliament and heads for the front. At Louvain headquarters the following day he addresses the ‘army of the Nation’: ‘Caesar said of your ancestors: of all the people of Gaul the Belgians are the bravest. (..) Remember, Flemings, the Battle of the Golden Spurs and you, Wallons of Liège, who are at this moment at the place of honour, remember the 600 Franchimontois.’

But the dominance of the enemy will prove too big. The king has to withdraw with his army to the Antwerp stronghold. The situation there becomes untenable and it becomes clear that the king has got himself in an awkward position. Prime minister Charles de Broqueville urges Albert to make the best of a bad job and to join the allied forces. The king, however, refuses to let the people of Antwerp down. Eventually Albert has to take refuge behind the river Yser.

Although he most certainly was no trueborn soldier and openly and frankly admitted his lack of strategic qualities, he commanded the Belgian army in person for four years, taking ministerial responsibility for granted. For Albert it was not simply  a matter of responsibility, being obedient to the royal oath ‘to maintain the independence of the country and to keep its soil intact’. Moreover Albert was distrustful of his general staff. Even autocratic colleagues such as Wilhelm II and Nicholas II left warfare to their generals. Albert did not and he also refused to hand over supreme command to the allied forces. He wished to remain in control in his own country, however little of it was left in freedom.

Certainly, it was not easy for his allied friends. Already on 6 August 1914 the French general Joseph Joffre has to accept with gnashing teeth that the Belgians stubbornly refuse to make the counter-attack which he had planned. Albert is horrified by the ease with which English and French alike sacrifices tens of thousands of their soldiers for a little territorial gain. According to his war diary he carefully keeps the statistics of the fallen. The Belgian king expresses his horror about the jusqu’au boutisme of the allied generals with ‘They will have to justify themselves before the Almighty’. Together with his confidant commanding captain Emile Galet he supports the doctrine of a realistic balance of power.

Although the Germans had violated the integrity of the country, Albert holds on to the principle of neutrality during the whole war. Negotiated peace is his aim. Without informing his ministers, he has his envoy Emile Waxweiler hold exploratory talks with the German envoy Hans Veit Graf zu Törring-Jettenbach, who is married to the sister of Albert’s wife. Albert’s plan will not be successful, however. The Belgian monarch cannot bring the superpowers that are trampling his country to their senses.

When gradually his Belgian ministers start daydreaming about a peace that will make Belgium bigger, with large tracts of land from the neutral Netherlands and Luxembourg, which was also transgressed, Albert calls them to order.The king of the Belgians keeps his head rather cool in a war where emotions come before common sense. He will lose four foreign secretaries in the process.

His cabinet is in France, near Le Havre, but Albert remains right behind the front during the entire war. Until 1917 the royal family lives in a villa near the seaside town of De Panne, without running water, electricity  or central heating. When in 1917 De Panne is designated to the English zone, the king moves towards Veurne.

He regularly visits his soldiers in their trenches. On his way to Houtem headquarters on horseback he frequently chats with a farm worker. And now and then he gets on an airplane to scout the front line. This is how the king and the Belgians are on guard at the Yser front, behind the water plain that had come into being after one Karel Cogge had opened an old sluice called Kattesas near Nieuwpoort.

Eleven days after the armistice of 11 November 1918 Albert makes his joyful comeback in the capital, Brussels. It is an unprecedented celebration. Leaning on gates and swinging from branches the Belgians cheer their grave monarch. His people, divided by language, are impressed by Albert. He uses the opportunity to regulate the universal right to vote. Conservative powers grumble. But Albert does not want to accept that the front line soldiers who defended the country from the mud have no vote in peacetime. Already before the war he has a reputation as a monarch who recognises the social issue. When he became king in 1909 he had also made a name by addressing his people both in French and Dutch, which was something new. His biographer, Jan Velaers, calls Albert I ‘an inspiring force in Belgian society’.

During the decades after the armistice he continued to be kindly disposed towards the cause of the Flemish emancipation. As a constitutional monarch, however, he slowly vanished from the centre of power, where vehement crises of a financial, political and linguistic nature raged.


Albert must have felt happiest when high in the mountains, lonely and alone. He was an experienced mountaineer, a fact which makes it hard to believe that an accident had ended the life of the 59-year-old monarch. On a wooded slope near the rocks of Marche-les-Dames, not far from Namur, the royal body was found. His spectacles were discovered a bit further in a crack. The king was familiar with the area. Could it have been murder? Or suicide? Apparently unfounded speculations.

His son Leopold III has to take the helm. He lacks his father’s character. When the Germans invade Belgium again in 1940, Leopold takes command of the Belgian army, just as his father had done. But this time there is no cure against the German Blitzkrieg. Leopold is forced to capitulate and decides to make the most of it. He accepts an invitation for coffee by Hitler and by doing so makes himself impossible after the war. Not every king is an Albert.

Next week: Bertha Krupp

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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