Thursday, August 4, 2011

The King's Speech

Today is the anniversary of the German invasion of Belgium during World War I. Here is a description of King Albert's stirring speech to the Belgian Parliament on this grave occasion, taken from the diplomatic diaries of Hugh Gibson:
August 5.—Yesterday morning we got about early and made for the Chamber of Deputies to hear the King's speech. The Minister and I walked over together and met a few straggling colleagues heading in the same direction. Most of them had got there ahead of us, and the galleries were all jammed. The Rue Royale, from the Palace around the park to the Parliament building, was packed with people, held in check by the Garde Civique. There was a buzz as of a thousand bees, and every face was ablaze—the look of a people who have been trampled on for hundreds of years and have not learned to submit. The Garde Civique had two bands in front of the Senate, and they tried to play the " Brabanconne" in unison. Neither of them could play the air in tune, and they were about a bar apart all the time. They played it through and then began to play it over again without a pause between. They blew and pounded steadily for nearly half an hour, and the more they played the more enthusiastic the crowds became.
When I saw how crowded the galleries were I thought I would not push, so resigned myself to missing the speech and went out on to a balcony with Webber, of the British Legation, to see the arrival of the King and Queen. We had the balcony to ourselves, as everybody else was inside fighting for a place in the galleries to hear the speech.
When the King and Queen finally left the Palace we knew it from a roar of cheering that came surging across the Park. The little procession came along at a smart trot, and although it was hidden from us by the trees we could follow its progress by the steadily advancing roaring of the mob. When they turned from the Rue Royale into the Rue de la Loi, the crowd in front of the Parliament buildings took up the cheering in a way to make the windows rattle.
First came the staff of the King and members of his household. Then the Queen, accompanied by the Royal children, in an open daumont. The cheering for the Queen was full-throated and with no sign of doubt because of her Bavarian birth and upbringing— she is looked on as a Belgian Queen and nothing else.
After the Queen came a carriage or two with members of the Royal family and the Court. Finally the King on horseback. He was in the field uniform of a lieutenant-general, with no decorations and none of the ceremonial trappings usual on such occasions as a Speech from the Throne. He was followed by a few members of his staff who also looked as though they were meant more for business than for dress parade.
As the King drew rein and dismounted, the cheering burst forth with twice its former volume; and, in a frantic demonstration of loyalty, hats and sticks were thrown into the air. The two bands played on manfully, but we could hear only an occasional discord.
Just as the King started into the building an usher came out, touched me on the arm and said something, beckoning me to come inside. One of the galleries had been locked by mistake but had now been opened, and Webber and I were rewarded for our modesty by being given the whole thing to ourselves. In a few minutes the Bolivian Charge came in and joined us. Our seats were not ten feet from the throne, and we could not have been better placed.
The Queen came in quietly from one side and took a throne to the left of the tribune, after acknowledging a roaring welcome from the members of the two Houses. When the cheering had subsided, the King walked in alone from the right, bowed gravely to the assembly, and walked quickly to the dais above and behind the tribune. With a businesslike gesture he tossed his cap on to the ledge before him and threw his white cotton gloves into it—then drew out his speech and read it. At first his voice was not very steady, but he soon controlled it and read the speech to the end in a voice that was vibrating with emotion but without any oratory or heroics. He went straight to the vital need for union between all factions and all parties, between the French, Flemish, and Walloon races, between Catholics, Liberals, and Socialists in a determined resistance to the attack upon Belgian independence. The House could contain itself for only a few minutes at a time, and as every point was driven home they burst into frantic cheering. When the King, addressing himself directly to the members of Parliament, said, " Are you determined at any cost to maintain the sacred heritage of our ancestors?" the whole Chamber burst into a roar, and from the Socialists' side came cries of "At any cost, by death if need be."
It was simple and to the point—a manly speech. And as he delivered it he was a kingly figure, facing for the sake of honour what he knew to be the gravest danger that could ever come to his country and his people. When he had finished he bowed to the Queen, then to the Parliament, and then walked quickly out of the room, while the assembly roared again. The Senators and Deputies swarmed about the King on his way out, cheering and trying to shake him by the hand—and none were more at pains to voice their devotion than the Socialists.
After he had gone the Queen rose, bowed shyly to the assembly, and withdrew with the Royal children. She was given a rousing ovation, as everybody realised the difficulty of her position and was doubly anxious to show her all their confidence and affection. The whole occasion was moving, but when the little Queen acknowledged the ovation so shyly and so sadly and withdrew, the tears were pretty near the surface—my surface at any rate.
By a poignant coincidence, August 4, 1914 was also the eighth birthday of the little daughter of the King and Queen, Princess Marie-José.

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