Nine years after the southern Netherlands revolted against Dutch rule, the great powers of Europe signed the Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. For the next seventy-five years, Belgium had no foreign enemies and prospered yet not all was peaceful in the new kingdom. Without an external threat, internal bickering was the norm between Walloons and Flemings, clerics and anti-clerics, socialists and liberals. Strikes were common over wage disputes and general strikes were called over universal suffrage and plural voting.
The everyday fraternal fighting was interrupted in August 1914 by a German army looking for a quick victory over the French by encircling Paris and capturing channel ports to prevent a British intervention. The German plan did not anticipate Belgian resistance and certainly did not anticipate the character of the King of the Belgians, Albert I.
“Belgium is a nation, not a road,” replied the King to a German ultimatum. An hour after the invasion began, the King addressed the Belgian Parliament wearing the field uniform of a brigadier general without decorations. “One duty alone is imposed upon us, namely the maintenance of a stubborn resistance, courage and union. Our bravery is proved by our faultless mobilization and by the multitude of voluntary engagements. This is the moment for action... Are you decided to maintain inviolate the sacred patrimony of our ancestors?” The chamber erupted in a chorus of yeses, seconded by the thousands of Bruxellois who lined the streets to cheer the King.
The Belgian Army fought valiantly defending the cities of Liege and Antwerp, but heroics alone could not defeat a larger German Army. King Albert and his army retreated behind the Yser River insuring a little piece of Belgium would not be occupied by the Germans and helping to protect the French ports of Dunkerque and Calais.
The army behind behind the Yser was small in the autumn of 1914 and winter of 1915. Rarely in the history of any army had there been a closer bond between a commander in chief, his family and his soldiers. King Albert was a regular visitor to the front lines in contrast to other heads of state who would visit troops only on the quiet days. A wounded soldier was likely to be cared for by Queen Elisabeth. Later in the war, a soldier of the 12th Regiment of the Line assigned to sandbag duty would find himself digging alongside the young Prince Leopold. Emmanuel Havenith, Minister of Belgium to the United States, 1911-17, told the story of the King taking the place of an exhausted soldier on the firing line and “fired....just as one of his soldiers.” A friend of the Minister wrote to him about the King taking command of a detail installing a wireless telegraph. “My friend said it was nervous work, as shells dropped near them repeatedly, and they tried to urge the King to find a safer place, but he would not.” The King remained in Belgium for the duration of the war sharing hardships with his soldiers, working along side them and earning their respect.
The army would grow as Belgians fled to Holland, crossed the North Sea to England, crossed the channel to France and traveled overland to the King's army. The King would become the commander Army Group Flanders that included French and British divisions and the added responsibilities meant fewer contacts with his soldiers whom he called “my friends.” Many of the prewar tensions returned to the army especially the linguistic divide as the majority of soldiers were Flemish and most of the officer corps was francophone. In time, after the glow of victory faded, internal bickering became the norm once more in Belgium.
National unity has been an elusive dream for Belgium, but it was achieved for a brief time by an able king who could inspire and encourage his people. It is a tragedy that it took a devastating world war and tens of thousands of Belgian lives to achieve it.
Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August, New York, Macmillan, 1962
Taylor, A.J.P., The First Word War, New York, Perigee, 1980
de Lilbert de Flemalle, Gabriel, Fighting with King Albert, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915
Lucas, Netley, Albert the Brave: King of the Belgians, London, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1935
Page, Walter Hines and Page, Arthur Wilson, The World's Work, Volume 29, New York, Doubleday, Page and Co., 1915