Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Bravery of Albert I

First-hand testimony of the King's courage and humor under fire, from the diaries of Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation in Belgium during World War I.
We were leaving the battery and were slipping and sliding through the cabbages on our way back to the road, when we met the King on foot, accompanied only by an aide-de-camp, coming in for a look at the big guns. He stopped and spoke to us and finally settled down for a real talk, evidently thinking that this was as good a time as any other he was likely to find in the immediate future.
After talking shop with the two colonels, he turned to me for the latest gossip. He asked me about the story that the German officers had drunk his wine at the Palace in Laeken. I told him that it was generally accepted in Brussels, and gave him my authority for the yarn. He chuckled a little and then said, in his quiet way, with a merry twinkle, "You know I never drink anything but water." He cogitated a minute and then, with an increased twinkle, he added, "And it was not very good wine!" He seemed to think that he had quite a joke on the Germans.
As we talked, the sound of firing came from the German lines not far away, and shrapnel began falling in a field on the other side of the road. The Germans were evidently trying to locate the battery in that way. Most of the shrapnel burst in the air and did no damage, but some of it fell to the ground before bursting and sent up great fountains of the soft black earth with a cloud of grey smoke with murky yellow splotches in it. It was not a reassuring sight, and I was perfectly willing to go away from there, but being a true diplomat, I remembered that the King ranked me by several degrees in the hierarchy, and that he must give the sign of departure. Kings seem powerless to move at such times, however, so we stayed and talked while the nasty things popped. His Majesty and I climbed to a dignified position on a pile of rubbish, whence we could get a good view up and down the road, and see the French guns which were in action again.
A little later Ferguson, who was standing not far away, got hit with a little sliver, and had a hole punched in the shoulder of his overcoat. It stopped there, however, and did not hurt him in the least. He looked rather astonished, pulled the little stranger from the hole it had made, looked at it quizzically, and then put it in his pocket and went on watching the French guns. I think he would have been quite justified in stopping the battle and showing his trophy to everybody on both sides.
The King was much interested in all the news from Brussels, how the people were behaving, what the Germans were doing, whether there were crowds on the streets, and how the town felt about the performances of the army.
He realised what has happened to his little country, and made me realise it for the first time. He said that France was having a hard time, but added that perhaps a sixth of her territory was invaded and occupied, but that every bit of his country had been ravaged and devastated with the exception of the little bit by the sea coast and Antwerp itself, which was getting pretty rough treatment, in order to put it in shape to defend itself. He spoke with a great deal of feeling. And no wonder!
Then to change the tone of the conversation, he looked down at my pretty patent leather shoes, and asked in a bantering way whether those were a part of my fighting kit and where I had got them. I answered: "I got them several months ago to make my first bow to Your Majesty, at Laeken!" He looked around for a bit at the soggy fields, the marching troops, and then down at the steaming manure heap, and remarked, with a little quirk to his lips, "We did not think then that we should hold our first good conversation in a place like this, did we?" He smiled in a sad way, but there was a lot more sadness than mirth in what he said.
Guy d'Oultremont came up and said something that I did not understand, and we started back toward the headquarters. We stopped opposite the inn, and the two colonels were called up for a little more talk.
Just then a crowd of priests, with Red Cross brassards on their arms, came down the road on their way to the battlefield to gather up the wounded. With his usual shyness the King withdrew a few steps to seek shelter behind a motor that was standing near by. As we talked, we edged back a little, forcing him to come forward, so that he was in plain sight of the priests, who promptly broke out in a hearty "Vive le roi!'' He blushed and waved his hand at them, and, after they had passed by, shook hands with us and followed them on foot out on to the field. In modern warfare a King's place is supposed to be in a perfectly safe spot, well back of the firing line, but he does not play the game that way. Every day since the war began, he has gone straight out into the thick of it, with the shells bursting all around, and even within range of hostile rifle fire. It is a dangerous thing for him to do, but it does the troops good, and puts heart into them for the desperate fighting they are called upon to do. They are all splendidly devoted to him.

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