The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1

Alexander Meddings - December 9, 2017

The Great War might be (in)famous for many things, but instances of admirable leadership isn’t one of them. One of the deadliest conflicts in human history, the war’s enormous loss of life can largely be explained in terms of obsolete military tactics coming up against newly mechanised forms of warfare. Adding fuel to the fire was the failure of many of the war’s generals to adapt, giving rise to the phrase “lions led by donkeys.” But things weren’t quite so black and white. The First World War also had its lions that led, and few were more remarkable than the King of Belgium, Albert I.

What makes Albert’s biography all the more impressive is that he was never destined to be king. Originally the third in line to the throne, his accession as the third king of Belgium came about only after a rapid succession of royal deaths: first of his older brother, then his father, then his uncle, Leopold II. Crowned on December 23 1909, Albert immediately struck a good note with his Belgian subjects, not least because his and his queen Elisabeth’s humble, modest lifestyle stood in stark contrast to his autocratic predecessor’s.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1
Albert and Elisabeth. Pinterest

Albert dedicated much of his early reign to passing a series of reforms intended to benefit the native population of the Belgian Congo—Belgium’s only colonial possession which he had visited before his coronation. But as Europe’s unworkable web of alliances became ever more tangled, and the continent’s appetite for war became ever more palpable, Albert was forced to turn his attention inwards towards affairs at home.

It may be a small country, but Belgium was very much the fulcrum of the First World War. Sandwiched between an aggressive Germany and an increasingly fearful France, Belgium’s only hope of surviving any potential war was to remain neutral. Fortunately for Belgium, her neutrality was protected by a treaty signed in 1839. The British, amongst others, were obliged to come to her defence if her neutrality were violated. But what was fortunate for Belgium was unfortunate for European history: as, for the Germans, Belgian neutrality simply wasn’t an option.

For the Germans to successfully carry out their famed Schlieffen Plan (which they believed would win them the war before the Russians could mobilise to the East), it was crucial that they passed unopposed through Belgium and Luxembourg, circumventing French forts on the eastern border and quickly capturing Paris from the northeast. As storm clouds gathered over Europe in the summer of 1914, the Germans repeatedly requested safe passage through Belgium for their approaching invasion of France, eventually issuing an ultimatum on August 2. Yet despite being related to Kaiser Wilhelm II on his mother’s side, Albert had no intention of rolling over.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1

British “Punch” Cartoon showing a small Belgium boldly standing up to the burly Germans. The National Archives

When the Germans invaded Belgium two days later on August 4, they set about waging a brutal campaign against the Belgian population as a whole. Belgian resistance proved far more effective than anyone had previously imagined. As commander of the Belgian Army, Albert initiated extreme measures to hold back the German advance: stationing snipers around towns and villages, mobilising troops by bicycle, and even mustering dog-drawn artillery. Frustrated by their lack of progress, and increasingly concerned at the speed with which the Russians were mobilising in the East, the Germans resorted to extreme measures, committing a series of atrocities and waging a war of terror on Belgium’s population.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1
The arbitrary execution of Belgian citizens was just one of the many atrocities carried out during “the Rape of Belgium”. Histclo

The long list of German atrocities against civilians, and their total razing of the city of Leuven beginning August 25, soon came to be known as the “Rape of Belgium”. It’s difficult to know how much of what we know was exaggerated for propagandistic purposes—not least to try to bring the USA into the war on the Allies’ side. But between fanciful stories of German soldiers bayonetting (and even eating) babies and verified accounts of mass public executions, even for a time of war the German campaign in Belgium was gratuitously violent.

The German chief of general staff himself, Helmuth von Moltke, conceded that, “our advance into Belgium is certainly brutal, but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in our way must face the consequences.” But although Belgian men, women, and children would ultimately count among the victims of German atrocities, it doesn’t appear that all who got in the way were destined to face the consequences. Reports on both sides recalled that either out of respect for his status or through fear for killing a relative of the German Kaiser, no German troops fired on Albert.

We’ll never know whether or not this was just rumour. We do know, however, that Albert never shied away from grave danger. He personally led the Belgian defence at the Siege of Antwerp: one of the most decisive battles of the war’s early stage. The city was well defended by a series of forts and other defensive positions, and while Belgian forces could never hope to hold off any invaders completely, they could at least expect with some determined resistance to hold off an attacking army until her European protectors came to her relief.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1
Albert I inspecting defences on the frontline. War History Online

After nearly two weeks of fighting, staggering losses, and some heroic sorties launched by the outnumbered and outgunned Belgians, Antwerp eventually fell to the Germans in October. Albert retreated his forces to Yser on the North Sea coast, drawing up a last line of defence along the Yser canal. He might have been propped up by French divisions and the British Expeditionary Force, but Albert was fighting a losing battle. And eventually, after suffering 3,500 deaths and 15,000 wounded, the Belgian king resorted to drastic measures to stem the German tide.

Opening the canal’s locks and flooding the surrounding the Low Countries, he forced the German Fourth Army to retreat to nearby Ypres (more or less the area where they dug in for the next four years). The Belgians couldn’t exactly claim a victory, but in failing to capture Paris and bring the war to a speedy conclusion the Germans had unquestionably suffered a defeat. What’s more, for good or for bad, Albert’s decision effectively ended the Race to the Sea and ensured the beginning of trench warfare on the Western Front.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1

Albert I of Belgium. Pinterest

Albert was not the only member of the Belgian royal family to lay his life on the line. Although he was just 14 years old, Albert’s son Leopold III was allowed to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private. He may not have served for long; the following year Leopold was sent to Britain to receive a traditional, aristocratic education at Eton. But especially given Albert’s introduction of conscription before the war, his enlistment sent a powerful and motivating message to both sides: showing the lengths to which Albert and his family were prepared to go to defend their country.

Albert’s wife Queen Elisabeth also took on an active and impressive role throughout the First World War. Following in her Bavarian mother’s footsteps, sponsored a nursing unit, served as a nurse, and made frequent trips to the frontline to administer aid. The royal couple didn’t spend their whole time on the frontline however. After the Germans broke the Belgian lines at Antwerp, the king and queen retreated to the town of De Panne on the North Sea coast, using it as a base from which to visit the frontlines for medical or military purposes.

We know unfortunately little about Albert’s specific conduct on the frontline: only that he offered much-needed morale boosts to his soldiers and was officious in inspecting Belgian defences. We do know that he led the final offensive against the Germans in the Spring of 1918. Commanding the several divisions of Belgian, French, and British troops that made up “Army Group Flanders”, Albert personally led the push that saw Germany’s withdrawal from the war and his country’s liberation. Such was the eminence of this effort that he and his family received a hero’s welcome when they made their way through the newly liberated streets of Brussels on November 22.

The Belgian Royal Family Served on the Frontline Side by Side With their Subjects during WW1
King Albert receives a jubilant welcome upon his arrival in newly liberated Ghent in November 1918. Wikipedia

Albert’s impressive record didn’t with the conclusion of the war. As well as being instrumental in pushing through universal male suffrage, he played a vital part in international post-war politics. Following Germany’s signing of the armistice on November 11 1918, Albert spoke out against punishing them with extreme, financially crippling terms. Given that the passing of such punitive measures created the breeding grounds for Nazism and led to the outbreak of the Second World War (or continuation of the First, depending on how you look at it), his allies would have done well to listen.

Though Albert’s death in 1934 can hardly be described as peaceful, he at least died doing what he loved. A passionate mountaineer throughout his life, the 58-year-old monarch suffered a fatal accident while climbing alone in the Ardennes, falling to his death from a height of around 60 feet. Because he was such a proficient climber, some questioned the accidental nature of his death, suggesting that he had been assassinated. Such rumours were soon put to bed however, and unable to attribute blame for his passing the world was instead left shocked and saddened by the loss of both a remarkable man and a magnificent monarch.