Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was famous for her heroism during World War I. The tragedies of this period weighed heavily on her, yet she remained calm, courageous, cheerful. She was a splendid moral support to her husband, King Albert I, and spared no effort to relieve the sufferings of the war's victims. As she confided to an intimate friend and collaborator, the Countess van den Steen de Jehay: "My duty, my place is to help..." ("Mon devoir, mon métier est d'aider...")
The war was especially tragic for Elisabeth as it divided her from her Bavarian relatives. The strong, affectionate unity that had always characterized her family must have made the separation all the more bitter. Some of the Queen's close relatives, including her brother-in-law, Prince Wilhelm of Urach, were involved in the invasion of Belgium.. One day, when talking to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elisabeth sadly recalled her wedding in Munich in 1900. The officiating Archbishop had proclaimed: "Today, the hearts of Bavarian people beat in unison with those of the Belgian people..." "So far away- those happy days," the Queen remarked, with tears in her eyes. She reportedly told the French writer, Pierre Loti: "An iron curtain has fallen between my family and myself."
Elisabeth had a sensitive and sympathetic heart, and suffered terribly, quite independently of the familial divisions, from the tragedy of the war itself. Her son, Leopold, many years later, recalled her emotion, on the morning she woke her children with the news of the German invasion. The royal couple watched, in impotent horror, as the invading armies conquered most of Belgium, overwhelming the brave, but greatly outmatched, Belgian defenders. Elisabeth was especially distressed by the often brutal treatment of Belgian civilians. Tales of German atrocities, were, of course, greatly exaggerated in Allied propaganda, but undeniable crimes were committed. According to the American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, who met the Queen during the war, Elisabeth cried in horror: "It is the women and children! ... It is terrible! There must be killing. That is war. But not this other thing."
Driven from city to city by the invading armies, the royal couple finally settled at La Panne, near the French border, on the sea, in the tiny part (5%) of Belgium free of German occupation. By means of extensive flooding operations, the Belgian army had managed to halt the German advance on the River Yser. In cooperation with the Allies, the Belgians now took up a war of position which would last four years.
It was an agonizing period for the King and Queen. On the other side of the front, their people suffered under a harsh occupation; and, on their side, the horrors of trench warfare were constantly before their eyes. King Albert came to disapprove not only of German but also of Allied war aims; rather than the total victory sought by many in both camps, he favored a negotiated peace. Yet it was not to be. The King devoted himself to the war, while taking care to avoid unnecessary casualties. The Queen threw all her energy into his support, and into the care and consolation of war victims. The Belgian Chief of Staff, General Galet, praised the Queen's role in striking terms:
We can admire her inventive zeal, which immediately discovered a field of initiative which was her very own, and from which she never departed, namely, that of providing care to the wounded and moral support to the combatants.
But, in addition to this helpful activity of a general character, the Queen exercised upon the King, and upon us all, an influence of the most felicitous kind, above all, on bad days. She never lost confidence or good humor, and, however grim the situation was or the future appeared, she always found the words of encouragement capable of bringing comfort.
After the Battle of the Yser, Elisabeth arranged for the renowned Belgian surgeon, Dr. Antoine Depage, to establish a surgical hospital at La Panne, at a former seaside resort, the Ocean hotel. In his later years, the Queen's father had become a ophthalmologist and opened a clinic, and, as a young girl, Elisabeth had assisted him in his medical practice. Her early training was put to good use at the Océan hospital, where she took an active part in the nursing (on one occasion, she made such an effort in the operating room that she collapsed from exhaustion; the incident only served to increase her popularity among the other nurses). Through her combination of gentleness and valor, Elisabeth became a wonderful support to the patients. She comforted them through her compassionate visits and tender attentions, and made a specialty of caring for the most severely wounded soldiers. She was a very competent nurse, with an exceptionally delicate touch; she became known as la reine aux mains de lumière (the Queen with the hands of light).
Fearlessly brave, the Queen refused, throughout the war, to take refuge far from the front lines. On the contrary, she often visited the trenches. Her life was in danger even at the hospital, exposed to enemy bombardments. Yet she was always impatient of attempts to hurry her out of danger. "I do not know what it means to feel afraid," she declared, adding that those she admired were people who felt fear, yet persevered in their task.
In addition to her work on behalf of combatants, Elisabeth strove to alleviate the sufferings of the children caught up in the war. At her personal expense, she created a children's refuge at Vinckem, where war orphans and other displaced children were welcomed. Down to the slightest details, she took great care over their living quarters, education, and health care. She insisted that they receive a religious education, that Flemish (rather than simply French) be spoken, and that the strictest hygiene be practiced. Orphanages in Belgium tended to dress children in black, because they were "in mourning," but the Queen insisted that the orphans at Vinckem be allowed to wear cheerful colors. Thanks to her, they could play happily.
These are only a few of the Queen's humanitarian initiatives during World War I. Wherever possible, she strove to help those in need and in anguish, and, by all accounts, she did so with rare modesty and simplicity. Belgium owes a great deal to this heroic woman.
The Queen on her way to the trenches