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028 Désiré-Joseph Mercier and the burned incunables

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Désiré-Joseph Mercier

Belgians suffer during the occupation

It is Sunday 3 January 1915. It is the 28th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British draw up plans to start the attack on Constantinople via the Gallipoli peninsula in order to relieve the Russians.

The Third Army of the Turks perishes on the freezing cold front of the Caucasus.

The Russians approach the Hungarian border via the river Bukovina.

Ada Ciganlija, an island in the river Sava off Belgrade, is occupied by Austrian troops.

The French show modest successes in the Argonne and the Alsace.

The Germans repay a French attack by shelling the northern French town of Soissons with its medieval cathedral.

Lord Kitchener explains the military situation in the House of Lords.

Kaiser Wilhelm II agrees to an air raid of England on the condition that only military targets will be bombed.

The South African government announces the imprisonment of the last rebels in the Transvaal.

And the Belgian parishioners are incited to ‘patriotism and endurance’ by cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

The hero of the resistance in occupied Belgium was a cardinal with the splendid name Désiré-Joseph Mercier. Today the prelate lies as a recumbent effigy in stone on his tomb in the cathedral of Mechelen or Malines. On a poster from 1916 Monsignor  Mercier is still standing straight in best bib and tucker. Mercier is bound to have enjoyed this propaganda print. He assumed his role as fearless patron with fervour throughout the war.

Behind Mercier on the poster we can see the Belgians suffer. They are drawn grey and ashen. But the cardinal, clad in bright red garments, stands firmly before them. He stares ahead with a surly expression on his face. The message to those who caused all this suffering is clear. ‘Enough!’, the cardinal orders. His right hand reaches out to the poor Belgians. With his left hand Mercier clutches the bishop’s crosier as if it were a Lee Enfield. The caption on the poster reads: ‘Cardinal Mercier protects Belgium’. Well, in French of course: ‘Le cardinal Mercier protège la Belgique’.

His fame spread worldwide. Brave little Belgium had a pastor who had the guts to defy German rule. In the first week of the year 1915 the Belgian parishioners take note of a pastoral letter of their cardinal. It is entitled ‘Patriotism and Endurance’. In this letter he lashes out against the devastations the German troops have caused and against the execution of innocent citizens.

To the Belgians it is very important now to persevere in patriotism, which is a Christian virtue according to Thomas Aquinas. As a neo-Thomist cardinal Mercier takes this church father as the subject of a study which he produces in the years before the war. This makes Mercier such a prominent man that some tip him as the new pope. A few weeks after the outbreak of the war Mercier also has to make the journey to Rome to choose together with his colleagues a successor for the deceased Pope Pius X. He travels via London, where Belgian refugees cheer him passionately. It comes as no surprise, however, that in Rome the Holy See goes to another Italian.

What should the new pope, Benedict XV, do with his rebellious cardinal in Mechelen? It is of the utmost importance to the Vatican to maintain a neutral position between the warring parties. In this noble ambition there is no place for a prelate who is doing politics. German cardinal Felix von Hartmann shares this opinion. In quite a roundabout way he urges the Roman Curia to make Mercier keep a low profile.

To the annoyance of the German authorities Benedict XV prefers to pass the buck. He does not silence Mercier. In Rome, January 1916, the two have spoken with each other for over an hour. No doubt Mercier has tried to convince the Holy Father of the need to speak against the German evil. Benedict will certainly have warned the cardinal not to bring things to a head. But neither is going to change course essentially.

In his study ‘Cardinal Mercier and the Flemish Movement’ Robrecht Boudens writes: ‘Mercier has always suspected the pope of having German sympathies. What Benedict XV saw as a duty to neutrality, Mercier considered a lack of courage to advocate a just cause in a fearless manner.’

Mercier remains the necessary irritant to the Germans. How could this man ever have forgiven the Germans for the barbarism with which they had showered his Leuven, Louvain, at the end of August 1914? More than two hundred civilians killed, the old centre set fire to. The university library and nearly a thousand manuscripts, eight hundred incunables and three thousand books went up in flames. Half burned pages fluttered out of the town. It must have been a nightmare for a man of learning like cardinal Mercier, who had even founded a Higher Institute of Philosophy in Leuven.

For fear of turning him into a catholic martyr, the Germans dare not deal with him. In the first week of 1915 rumours circulated that Mercier had been arrested. King Albert, the other figure head of Belgian intransigence, already cried out against it on the other side of the front, but the rumours proved false. The Germans did, however, barge into several parsonages and they also confiscated 40,000 copies of Mercier’s pastoral letter at the printer of the archbishopric. But make the cardinal a prisoner-of-war? The Germans have not got the guts to go that far.


The occupation will show an ever more forbidding face. Those who would like to learn in detail how the Belgians fared under German rule, should read ‘The Great War’ by Sophie de Schaepdrijver. It is the humiliating account of the decline of a country, which in 1914 was the most densely populated in the world. Belgium counted 7.6 million inhabitants. It was the fifth economic power in the world, until the war started to degrade the population to a bunch of down and outs, that were enslaved into the bargain.

The hunger had to be fought with charity, but the Belgians had also lost their freedom. Travelling by train became too expensive and time-consuming. Letters had to be sent in open envelopes. Newspapers had discontinued, they prefered not to publish rather than publish under censorship. Automobiles, carts, carriages, bicycles, everything was requisitioned, even carrier pigeons and plough horses. The Germans put the Belgian clock an hour ahead in order to stay in line with the Heimat, and also the Deutschmark was forced upon the Belgian people. ‘The omnipresence of sentries, Passierscheine, Personalausweise and Verboten led to despair’, writes De Schaepdrijver.

But more sips has to be taken from the poisoned cup. As the war progresses and it becomes increasingly clear that Germany will not be able to finish this gigantic job, Berlin looks more and more hungrily at the Belgian flesh-pots. Hindenburg and Ludendorf agree that the Belgians will also have to contribute to the justifiable battle. After all we are talking about conquered territory.

In Brussels Governor General Moritz von Bissing witnesses the eagerness of headquarters with great disquiet. His main concern is to keep the peace among his Belgians. Unpopular measures play directly into the hands of a man like cardinal Mercier. But Von Bissing has to change his tack. Young men are carried off to German factories as workers or to the front in France or on the river Yser, to dig trenches and shelters. The recruitment often takes place in a rough way. Without being able to say goodbye to wife and children the workmen are put on the train.

At the railway station of Vorst near Brussels a note, thrown from the train, was found. It read: ‘We are all from Aalst and we are on our way to Germany. We are brave Belgians and we will not sign or work. Long live our country!’ Over 120,000 Belgians were used as forced labourers, admittedly a lot less than Hindenburg had planned. 2,614 of them did not survive. Many more returned home, but often broken for life.

The spoils of war contain more than just labourers. With great skill Belgium is looted by the German oppressor, who claims all sorts of raw materials via many regulations and decrees. From 1916 onwards the Germans also force their way into the homes of the Belgians. The army especially needs brass and wool. Whether it is a doorknob or a bedspring, nothing is safe any more. In 1918 the Germans are even keen on church organs and churchbells. Again Mercier raises his voice and this time he gets the support of his German colleague Von Hartmann. The German successfully insists that the emperor spare the Belgian places of worhship. Not much later is the armistice.


Now it is time to put the status of cardinal Mercier as a hero in a Belgian perspective, which means a Flemish-Wallonic perspective.  To the Francophones the unrelenting cardinal may be the paragon of resistance, to many Dutch speaking Belgians he is indeed the symbol of oppression. To them the cardinal is a franskiljon, who considered Flemish unsuitable for the public domain. And in the Flanders of priest and poet Guido Gezelle language is ‘all the people’.

The German oppressors cleverly played along with the disunity of the Belgian nation. Using the Flamenpolitik they tried to provoke collaboration among the Flemish, and they were frequently successful. Mercier wanted to keep Belgium unitary, with French culture as the best guarantee against German dominance. The dutchification of Ghent University for example that the Germans made possible, was a horror to him. Mercier held the opinion that Dutch was not suitable for higher education.

Likewise the cardinal incurred the hatred of the tempestuous poet Paul van Ostaijen. When Mercier visits Antwerp in 1917, Van Ostaijen is one of forty activists who have organized a counter demonstration. He is arrested and put in prison for three months. When the war has ended, he still has to serve his time. Van Ostaijen decides to take refuge in Berlin, together with his girlfriend, who combed the streets with German officers in the nightlife of Antwerp. Van Ostaijen himself is also still blamed by many for Deutschfreundlichkeit  (sympathy for the German cause).

Post-war Belgium is not the place for revolutionaries like the poet Paul van Ostaijen. The prelate Désiré-Joseph Mercier feels completely at home there. He picks up his old life again and until his death in 1926 he will especially devote himself to a reunion of his Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. These attempts are recorded as the Malines Conversations. But apparently it is too early for this oecumenism. The same goes for the Flemings and the Walloons, who will continue their troubled relationship until well after the cardinal’s demise.

There is another war poster of cardinal Mercier, one which he will have appreciated less. A French rooster is resting on his mitre, while a procession of meek priests parades past the blessing cardinal. ‘I belong to a race that is predestined to rule and you belong to a race that is predestined to serve’, says Mercier in French, followed in Dutch by the following conclusion: ‘Never has the oppression of pro-Flemish priests been so enormous as under the dictatorship of this Wallonic ruler.’

Next week: Paul-Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

023 August de Block and the last bit of hope of escape

August de Block  (photo amsab)

August de Block (photo amsab)


The Netherlands puts away Belgian soldiers 

It is Sunday 29 November 1914. It is the 23rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Austrian army first occupies Belgrade, but already within days has to accept heavy losses during the Battle of the Ridges.

 King George V visits the front in Flanders.

 A German attempt to raft across the river Yser below Diksmuide fails.

A heavy battle for the Polish town of Łodz blazes away.

In South Africa the Boer general Christiaan de Wet and his rebels surrender.

After the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki the Russians put up a line of defence behind the Polish rivers Rawka and Bzura. 

In France the Yellow Book is published, a collection of diplomatic documents about the July crisis which preceded the declarations of war.

The Russians take the Armenian towns of Sarai and Bashkal.

In the German Reichstag Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg categorically puts the blame for the war on the British.

And Belgian soldiers revolt in a Dutch internment camp, where one of the prisoners is called August de Block.

Belgian soldiers are heard to call out ‘chocolate soldiers, chocolate soldiers’ to pester their Dutch guards. It is 3 December 1914 and the tension in internment camp Amersfoort-Zeist is so great that you could cut it with a knife. A day earlier three Belgian inmates were arrested. Female relatives had smuggled civilian clothing inside, which was sufficient proof for the Dutch authorities that the three Belgians were planning to escape.

Now the fat is in the fire. The frustration about the poor facilities in the camp comes to a release. This has been built up for weeks on end. The food is like reinforced concrete. Behind the barbed wire lice and rats flourish. The canteen, where the price of one glass of beer was equal to a day’s pay, has already been demolished. The Belgians now shift their attention to the exit of the camp. A threefold warning in Dutch and French has little effect. Then the camp commander decides it is time for his men to take aim. They open fire and kill five men on site. Later another three of the twenty-one Belgians that were hit will die.

How did these Belgians end up behind bars in neutral Holland? Well, this was a result of the declaration of neutrality of 4 August 1914 which the Dutch government strictly observed throughout the war. Soldiers who were with the warring parties and entered Dutch territory were mercilessly disarmed and robbed of their freedom. So it was stipulated at the Second Hague Convention of 1907.

A considerable group of Germans, among whom quite a few deserters, suffered the fate of internment. But also British soldiers who had not been able to prevent the fall of Antwerp found themselves again in a Dutch encampment. By far the biggest group of inmates, however, were the Belgians. Over 33,000 spent the war in a Dutch internment camp. Seven thousand succeeded in escaping, mostly with the aim to stand guard with the rest of the Belgian army at the river Yser.

Amersfoort-Zeist and Harderwijk were the biggest. But also Gaasterland, Oldebroek, Kampen, Assen, Loosduinen, Nunspeet and Zwolle, all of them far away from the border, had these camps of Belgians. In the four years of the war a camp like Harderwijk developed into a complete village, with its own school, church, hospital and washing and bathing facilities. With the support of King Albert in free Belgium the Central Administrative Commission introduced a system, which enabled learned Belgians to teach their illiterate fellow countrymen in the camps. Many inmates started to fill the places in the Dutch firms which mobilized workers had left vacant. Equal pay was not at all obvious.

In 1917 there were 43 sports clubs in the camp of Harderwijk. Lots of Dutchmen came to watch races on the biggest cycling track in the Netherlands, constructed in the camp of Belgians. In due time many women and children of the interned soldiers settled in the immediate surroundings. In the beginning of 1916 villages for women arose near the three biggest internment camps.

Most Belgian inmates fared like August de Block, a workman’s son from Sint-Niklaas, who experienced the bloodbath of december 1914 in Amersfoort-Zeist at first hand. ‘This ‘fusillade’ made a deep impression on De Block’, his biographer Joris De Coninck writes. ‘It deprived him of the last bit of hope of escape.’

At the outbreak of the war August de Block’s military service has not finished yet. As Private first class he has to help defend the fort of Sint-Katelijne-Waver. But the line of defences around Antwerp cannot withstand the German howitzers. ‘When the fort was shelled, our boys realized that they were wasting their gunpowder because their artillery only carried fifteen kilometers, whereas the Germans bombarded us from a distance of twenty kilometers’, De Block has recorded.

He is facing a dilemma. Should he let himself fall into the hands of the Germans or should he flee across the Dutch border? The big group who chooses the second option just like De Block, will have to defend themselves after the war against the reproach of desertion. ‘However, as he was directly involved, August de Block interpreted the escape to the Netherlands completely differently’, his biographer writes. ‘He admitted that the commander-in-chief of the Antwerp stronghold, general Deguise, wanted to defend this bastion to his dying day. Yet on their own initiative several other officers gave their troops the order to flee to the Netherlands. A third group of military commanders abandoned the troops that were subordinate to them just like that. Each soldier from these units had to choose for himself between captivity in Germany and internment in the Netherlands. De Block chose internment, hoping to flee the Netherlands and join the Belgian army.’

Locking up the Belgian soldiers was a small job compared to containing the enormous flood of civilians who were on the run from the violence in the first few months of the war. This exodus was a huge humanitarian disaster. The journalist of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant noted down: ‘From Antwerp to our border it was one long and sad procession of people and animals. Herds of cattle were driven along by farmers from the surroundings who were running away in mortal fear. There were young people transporting an old grandmother on a wheelbarrow. One could see all sorts of vehicles. And all these people, fleeing, kept looking back at their town, that went up in smoke and flames.’

The Netherlands has to take in no fewer than a million Belgian civilians. The small towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal see most of them pass by. In the beginning there is considerable willingness among the Dutch population to take care of these poor Belgians. The Dutch Committee for Support of Belgian War Victims starts a collection which in November has already yielded 300,000 guilders. In his book ‘Buiten Schot’, which is about the Netherlands in 1914-1918, the author Paul Moeyes quotes a story of a Belgian who in gratitude wants to name his daughter, born in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, after the Dutch queen.

But there will also have been scenes such as Jos Wijnant described in 2008. As a 12-year-old boy from Antwerp he arrived at the railway station of Den Bosch, Bois-le-Duc, in 1914. As a 106-year-old he still heard them chant: ‘Down with the Belgians, they eat up everything’. Wijnant was to become deputy town clerk and, still in the possession of a Belgian passport, he would eventually be declared the oldest man of the Netherlands.

For fear of contagious diseases and out of necessity to keep the roads clear for the Dutch army, the Belgian refugees are dispersed over the country as quickly as possible. The Belgians are split into two groups, the needy and the workers on one side and the affluent without possessions on the other. A private individual who provides shelter for an adult refugee from the category of the needy gets a compensation from the Dutch State of 35 cents. For a well-to-do refugee twice this rate is reimbursed.

The number of one million refugees will soon decrease. Now that the battle has abated, the Germans promise the Belgian exiles a safe return. Through burgomasters and local committees the Dutch government, too, gives the Belgians the urgent advice to go back to their own homes. The Dutch state will also pay for the single train journey. Many Belgians accept this. In December 1914 only 124,000 Belgian refugees are left, in January 1916 this number is reduced to 80,000.

The ‘Belgian villages’ that were built in Nunspeet, Epe and Uden have never fully used their capacity. The memory of the neighbouring guests would quickly fade after the war. However, especially in the past few years initiatives have been taken to revive the history of the camps of Belgians. Plans were made to rebuild barracks such as from the Refugee Camp Uden.

August de Block spent four years of his early life in Dutch captivity. His first weeks stuck in his memory as follows: ‘The barracks were not heated, were badly insulated and rain came in. Many inmates died of the consequences of pneumonia and tuberculosis. They also suffered from rheumatism and bronchitis. […] Only once every ten days a shower could be taken, open barrels were used as toilets and waste was dumped in pits.’

These miserable circumstances and the exorbitant prices in the canteens drove the defeated front soldiers to despair. Many took to drinking or gambling. Some committed suicide. Others revolted. Eight of them died in the process. The outrage in the Netherlands about 3 december 1914 was big, but an official committee of inquiry was to judge that the authorities were not to blame.

It was not until 2 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, that De Block and the other Belgians are given back their freedom by the Dutch government. Apparently they wanted to make sure. The Dutch authorities will present ruined Belgium with a bill for the internment of their soldiers: 53 million guilders. This debt was not paid off by the Belgians until 1937. On the basis of international treaties the relief of Belgian civilians, which was a humanitarian feat, came at the expense of the Netherlands itself.

After the war De Block developed into an influential socialist politician. When in the camp he had already manifested himself as the local chairman of the Union of Belgian Workers in the Netherlands. In this capacity he had come into contact with Rachel Hamel, daughter of a jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam. In the camp there was little opportunity to meet, but the relationship held out. They got married and in the Second World War took refuge to England in time.

August de Block died in 1979. According to his biographer he never showed any bitterness or resentment about the way he was treated in the Dutch camps. In his own country the government and army command have never granted August de Block the rehabilitation he so passionately longed for.

Next week: Christiaan de Wet

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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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