Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Albert I, King of the Belgians & National Hero

Albert I succeeded to the Belgian throne in 1909 and ruled until his death in 1934. He was the third king of the Belgians to reign since the independence of the country in 1830. Like many of the ruling family, he was a devout Catholic, but he was also a social progressive pushing for universal suffrage and for linguistic equality between the two language groups making up the country.

His reign is mostly associated with the Great War, during which virtually the whole of Belgium was occupied by the Germans. Constitutionally at the head of the armed forces during time of war, he led the country through these difficult times while gaining an international reputation for heroism and integrity. He was idealized in the written and illustrated Entente and Allied media during the war, while at the same time being mistrusted by war leaders and politicians. Both Britain and France feared that Albert I might make a separate peace with the Germans. That is why his government and military were never informed about or participated in any of the great Allied offensives until the very last months of the war. The Belgian overall strategy was to wait out events and hope for the best. In the last weeks of the war, Albert's forces, supplemented by French and American divisions, went on the offensive.

His strategy was borne out by events, and Albert I returned to a liberated Belgium, welcomed as a returning hero, ever steadfast in his resolve. After the Great War, his stature and personal integrity were unquestioned. An avid mountaineer and rock climber, he died in an accident while climbing in 1934. He would not be available when Belgium was once again threatened with invasion five years later.

Antwerp, Belgium

In the postwar years, towns and cities in many countries vied to erect public monuments commemorating the war. Even Paris has an equestrian monument of King Albert. The memorial in Antwerp shown above is one of many that were built during this period. An equestrian Albert dominates the ensemble. which includes side groupings of Belgian soldiers and mourning families. Dedicated in 1930 in the presence of the king and queen themselves, it was of a grand design in the realistic school, one of the more ornamental and imposing monuments to the Great War in Belgium. Its official title is Monument for the Dead. It was designed and sculpted by Belgian artist Edward Deckers.

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