Monday, August 4, 2014

A Talk with a King

In her book, Kings, Queens, and Pawns, available on Project Gutenberg, American writer and reporter Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) gives an appreciative account of her meeting with King Albert I of Belgium during World War I. At the time of the audience, Albert and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were living at La Panne, on the Belgian coast, near the front lines. Most of Belgium was under German occupation, following Germany's invasion of the country on August 4, 1914, in violation of treaties which guaranteed Belgian neutrality and independence. The United States had not yet entered the war.

This is how Rinehart describes her meeting with the King:

... There was little formality. I was taken in charge by the King's equerry, who tapped at a closed door. I drew a long breath.

"Madame Rinehart!" said the equerry, and stood aside.

There was a small screen in front of the door. I went round it. Standing alone before the fire was Albert I, King of the Belgians. I bowed; then we shook hands and he asked me to sit down.

It was to be a conversation rather than an interview; but as it was to be given as accurately as possible to the American people, I was permitted to make careful notes of both questions and answers. It was to be, in effect, a statement of the situation in Belgium as the King of the Belgians sees it.

I spoke first of a message to America.

"I have already sent a message to America," he informed me, "quite a long message. We are, of course, intensely appreciative of what Americans have done for Belgium."

"They are anxious to do what they can. The general feeling is one of great sympathy."

"Americans are both just and humane," the King replied, "and their system of distribution is excellent. I do not know what we should have done without the American Relief Committees."

"Is there anything further Your Majesty can suggest?"

"They seem to have thought of everything," the King said simply. "The food is invaluable- particularly the flour. It has saved many from starvation."

"But there is still need?"

"Oh, yes- great need."

It was clear that the subject was a tragic one. The King of the Belgians loves his people, as they love him, with a devotion that is completely unselfish. That he is helpless to relieve so much that they are compelled to endure is his great grief.

His face clouded. Probably he was seeing, as he must always see, the dejected figures of the peasants in the fields, the long files of his soldiers as they made their way through wet and cold to the trenches, the destroyed towns, the upheaval of a people.

"What is possible to know of the general condition of affairs in that part of Belgium occupied by the Germans?" I asked. "I do not mean in regard to food only, but the general condition of the Belgian people."

"It is impossible to say," was the answer. "During the invasion it was very bad. It is a little better now, of course, but here we are on the wrong side of the line to form any ordered judgment. To gain a real conception of the situation it would be necessary to go through the occupied portions from town to town, almost from house to house. Have you been in the other part of Belgium?"

"Not yet, I may go."

"You should do that- see Louvain, Aerschot, Antwerp- see the destroyed towns for yourself. No one can tell you. You must see them."

I was not certain that I should be permitted to make such a journey, but the King waved my doubts aside with a gesture.

"You are an American," he said. "it would be quite possible and you would see just what has happened. You would see open towns that were bombarded, other towns that were destroyed after occupation! You would see a country ruthlessly devastated, our wonderful monuments destroyed, our architectural and artistic treasures sacrificed without reason- without any justification."

"But as a necessity of war?" I asked.

"Not at all. The Germans have saved buildings when it suited their convenience to do so. No military necessity dictated the destruction of Louvain. It was not bombarded. It was deliberately destroyed. But, of course, you know that."

"The matter of the violation of Belgium's neutrality still remains an open question," I said. "I have seen American facsimile copies of documents referring to conversations between staff officers of the British and Belgian armies- documents that were found in the ministerial offices at Brussels when the Germans occupied that city last August. Of course I think that most Americans realize that, had they been of any real importance, they would have been taken away. There was time enough. But there are some, I know, who think them significant."

The King of the Belgians shrugged his shoulders.

"They were of an unofficial character and entirely without importance. The German Staff probably knew all about them long before the declaration of war. They themselves had, without doubt, discussed and recorded similar probabilities in case of war with other countries. It is a common practice in army organizations to prepare against different contingencies. It is a question of military routine only."

"There was no justification, then, for the violation of Belgian neutrality?" I inquired.

"None whatever! The German violation of Belgian neutrality was wrong," he said emphatically. "On the fourth of August their own chancellor admitted it. Belgium had no thought of war. The Belgians are a peace-loving people, who had every reason to believe in the friendship of Germany."

The next question was a difficult one. I inquired as to the behavior of the Germans in the conquered territory; but the King made no sweeping condemnation of the German army.

"Fearful things have been done, particularly during the invasion," he said, weighing his words carefully, "but it would be unfair to condemn the whole German Army. Some regiments have been most humane, but others behaved very badly. Have you seen the government report?"

I said I had not seen it, though I had heard that a careful investigation had been made.

"The government was very cautious," His Majesty said. "The investigation was absolutely impartial and as accurate as it could be made. Doubts were cast on all statements- even those of the most dependable witnesses-until they could be verified."

"They were verified?"

"Yes, again and again."

"By the victims themselves?"

"Not always. The victims of extreme cruelty do not live to tell of it, but German soldiers themselves have told the story. We have had here many hundreds of journals, taken from dead or imprisoned Germans, furnishing elaborate details of most atrocious acts. The government is keeping these journals. They furnish powerful and incontrovertible testimony of what happened in Belgium when it was swept over by a brutal army. That was, of course, during the invasion- such things are not happening now as far as we know."

He had spoken quietly, but there was a new note of strain in his voice. The burden of the King of the Belgians is a double one. To the horror of war has been added the unnecessary violation and death of noncombatants.

The King then referred to the German advance through Belgian territory.

"Thousands of civilians have been killed without reason. The execution of noncombatants is not war, and no excuse can be made for it. Such deeds cannot be called war."

"But if the townspeople fired on the Germans?"

"All weapons had been deposited in the hands of the town authorities. It is unlikely that any organized attack by civilians could have been made. However, if in individual cases shots were fired at the German soldiers, this may always be condoned in a country suffering invasion. During an occupation it would be different, naturally. No excuse can be offered for such an action in occupied territory."

"Various Belgian officers have told me of seeing crowds of men, women, and children driven ahead of the Germany Army to protect the troops. This is so incredible that I must ask whether it has any foundation of truth."

"It is quite true. It is a barbarous and inhuman system of protecting the German advance. When the Belgian soldiers fired on the enemy they killed their own people. Again and again innocent civilians of both sexes were sacrificed to protect the invading army during attacks. A terrible slaughter!"

His Majesty made no effort to conceal his great grief and indignation. And again, as before, there seemed nothing to say.

"Even now," I said, "when the Belgians return the German artillery fire, they are bombarding their own towns."

"That is true, of course, but what can we do? And the civilian population is very brave. They fear invasion, but they no longer pay any attention to bombs. They work in the fields quite calmly, with shells dropping about. They must work or starve."

He then spoke of the morale of the troops, which is excellent, and of his sympathy for their situation.

"Their families are in Belgium," he said. "Many of them have heard nothing for months. But they are wonderful. They are fighting for life and to regain their families, their homes, and their country. Christmas was very sad for them."

... I referred to my last visit to Belgium, when Brussels was the capital, and to the contrast now, when La Panne, a small seaside resort, hardly more than a village, contains the court, the residence of the King and Queen, and of the various members of his household. It seemed to me unlikely that La Panne would be attacked, as the Queen of the Belgians is a Bavarian.

"Do you think La Panne will be bombarded?" I asked.

"Why not?"

"I thought that possibly, on account of Your Majesty and the Queen being there, it would be spared."

"They are bombarding Furnes, where I go every day," he replied. "And there are German airplanes overhead all the time."

..."Belgium has made a great sacrifice in flooding her lowlands," I said. "Will that land be as fertile as before?"

"Not for several years. The flooding of the productive land in the Yser district was only carried out as a military necessity. The water is sea water, of course, and will have a bad effect on the soil ... "

The conversation then shifted to America and its attitude to the war. At the end of the audience:

The King had risen and was standing in his favorite attitude, his elbow on the mantelpiece. I rose also.

"I was given some instructions as to the ceremonial of this audience," I said. "I am afraid I have not followed them!"

"What were you told to do?" said His Majesty, evidently amused. Then, without waiting for a reply:

"We are very democratic- we Belgians," he said. "More democratic than the Americans ... "

... I looked at the clock. It was after three and the interview had begun at two. I knew it was time for me to go, but I had been given no indication that the interview was at an end. Fragments of the coaching I had received came to my mind, but nothing useful, so I stated my difficulty frankly, and again, the King's serious face lighted up with a smile.

"There is no formality here, but if you are going we must find the general for you."

So we shook hands and I went out, but the beautiful courtesy of the soldier King of the Belgians brought him out to the doorstep with me.

That is the final picture I have of Albert I, King of the Belgians- a tall young man, very fair and blue-eyed, in the dark blue uniform of a lieutenant-general of his army, wearing no orders or decorations, standing bareheaded in the wind and pointing out to me the direction in which I should go to find the general who had brought me.

He is a very courteous gentleman ... a tragic and heroic figure, but thinking himself neither- thinking of himself not at all, indeed, only of his people, whose griefs are his to share but not to lighten, living day and night under the rumble of German artillery at Nieuport and Dixmude in that small corner of Belgium which remains to him...

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