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Retiring and studious, Albert prepared himself strenuously for the task of kingship. In his youth, Albert was seriously concerned with the situation of the working classes in Belgium, and personally travelled around working class districts incognito, to observe the living conditions of the people. Shortly before his accession to the throne in 1909, Albert undertook an extensive tour of the Belgian Congo, which had been annexed by Belgium in 1908 (after having been previously owned by King Leopold II of Belgium as his personal property), finding the country in poor condition. Upon his return to Belgium, he recommended reforms to protect the native population and to further technological progress in the colony.
Based on the letters written during their engagement and marriage (cited extensively in the memoirs of their daughter, Marie-José) the young couple appear to have been deeply in love. The letters express a deep mutual affection based on a rare affinity of spirit. They also make clear that Albert and Elisabeth continually supported and encouraged each other in their challenging roles as king and queen. The spouses shared an intense commitment to their country and family and a keen interest in human progress of all kinds. Together, they cultivated the friendship of prominent scientists, artists, mathematicians, musicians, and philosophers, turning their court at Laeken into a kind of cultural salon.
Newspaper compilation in December 1909 shows Albert at top left after inspection of a mine. His wife and children are at bottom right.
Following the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Albert succeeded to the Belgian throne in December 1909, since Albert's own father had already died in 1905. Previous Belgian kings had taken the royal accession oath only in French; Albert innovated by taking it in Dutch as well. He and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were popular in Belgium due to their simple, unassuming lifestyle and their harmonious family life, which stood in marked contrast to the aloof, autocratic manner and the irregular private life of Leopold II. An important aspect of the early years of Albert's reign was his institution of many reforms in the administration of the Belgian Congo, Belgium's only colonial possession.
King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth praying to Our lady of the Sablon, stained Glass
King Albert was a devout Catholic. Many stories illustrate his deep and tender piety. For instance, when his former tutor General De Grunne, in his old age, entered the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous in Belgium, King Albert wrote a letter to him in which he spoke of the joy of giving oneself to God. He said: "May you spend many years at Maredsous in the supreme comfort of soul that is given to natures touched by grace, by faith in God's infinite power and confidence in His goodness." To another friend, a Chinese diplomat who became a Catholic monk, Albert wrote: "Consecrating oneself wholly to the service of Our Lord gives, to those touched by grace, the peace of soul which is the supreme happiness here below." Albert used to tell his children: "As you nourish your body, so you should nourish your soul." In an interesting meditation on what he viewed as the harm that would result if Christian ideals were abandoned in Belgium, he said: "Every time society has distanced itself from the Gospel, which preached humility, fraternity, and peace, the people have been unhappy, because the pagan civilisation of ancient Rome, which they wanted to replace it with, is based only on pride and the abuse of force" (Commemorative speech for the war dead of the Battle of the Yser, given by Dom Marie-Albert, Abbot of Orval Abbey, Belgium, in 1936).
World War I
Sword of honor offered by the city of Paris to Albert I of Belgium
Albert wearing the uniform of a British infantry officer inspecting the front line with British and Belgian officers.
Uniform with war honours
At the start of World War I, Albert refused to comply with Germany's request for safe passage for its troops through Belgium in order to attack France, which the Germans alleged was about to advance into Belgium en route to attacking Germany in support of Russia. In fact, the French Government had told its army commander not to go into Belgium before a German invasion. The German invasion brought Britain into the war as one of the guarantors of Belgian neutrality under the Treaty of 1839. King Albert, as prescribed by the Belgian constitution, took personal command of the Belgian Army, and held the Germans off long enough for Britain and France to prepare for the Battle of the Marne (6-9 September 1914). He led his army through the Siege of Antwerp (28 September - 10 October 1914) and the Battle of the Yser (16-31 October 1914), when the Belgian Army was driven back to a last, tiny strip of Belgian territory near the North Sea. Here the Belgians, in collaboration with the armies of the Triple Entente, took up a war of position, in the trenches behind the River Yser, remaining there for the next four years. During this period, King Albert fought alongside his troops and shared their dangers, while his wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked as a nurse at the front. During his time on the front, rumours spread on both sides of the lines that the German soldiers never fired upon him out of respect for him being the highest ranked commander in harm's way, while others feared risking punishment by the Kaiser himself, who was his cousin. The King also allowed his 14-year-old son, Prince Leopold, to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private and fight in the ranks.
The war inflicted great suffering on Belgium, which was subjected to a harsh German occupation. The King, fearing the destructive results of the war for Belgium and Europe and appalled by the huge casualty rates, worked through secret diplomatic channels for a negotiated peace between Germany and the Entente based on the "no victors, no vanquished" concept. He considered that such a resolution to the conflict would best protect the interests of Belgium and the future peace and stability of Europe. Since, however, neither Germany nor the Entente were favourable to the idea, tending instead to seek total victory, Albert's attempts to further a negotiated peace were unsuccessful. At the end of the war, as commander of the Army Group Flanders, consisting of Belgian, British and French divisions, Albert led the final offensive of the war that liberated occupied Belgium. King Albert, Queen Elisabeth, and their children then re-entered Brussels to a hero's welcome.
Upon his return to Brussels, King Albert made a speech in which he outlined the reforms he desired to see implemented in Belgium, including universal suffrage and the establishment of a Flemish University in Ghent.
In 1918, King Albert forged a post-war "Government of National Union" made up of members of the three main parties in Belgium, the Catholics, the Liberals, and the Socialists and attempted to mediate between the parties in order to bring about one man, one vote universal suffrage for men. He succeeded.
The Belgian Government sent the King to the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, where he met with the leaders of France, Britain and the United States. He had four strategic goals:
to restore and expand the Belgian economy using cash reparations from Germany;
to assure Belgium's security by the creation of a new buffer state on the left bank of the Rhine;
to revise the obsolete treaty of 1839;
to promote a 'rapprochement' between Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.
He strongly advised against a harsh, restrictive treaty against Germany to prevent future German aggression. He also considered that the dethronement of the princes of Central Europe and, in particular, the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire would constitute a serious menace to peace and stability on the continent. The Allies considered Belgium to be the chief victim of the war, and it aroused enormous popular sympathy, but the King's advice played a small role in Paris.
Albert spent much of the remainder of his reign assisting in the post-war reconstruction of Belgium.
A passionate alpinist, King Albert I died in a mountaineering accident while climbing alone on the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu at Marche-les-Dames, in the Ardennes region of Belgium near Namur. His death shocked the world and he was deeply mourned, both in Belgium and abroad. Because King Albert was an expert climber, some questioned the official version of his death and suggested that the King was murdered (or even committed suicide) somewhere else and that his body had never been at Marche-les-Dames, or that it was deposited there. Several of those hypotheses with criminal motives were already investigated by the juridical authorities but the doubts have been increased ever since, today still being the subject of popular novels, books and documentaries. Nonetheless, rumors of murder have been dismissed by most historians. There are two possible explanations for his death according to the official juridical investigations: the first was he leaned against a boulder at the top of the mountain, which became dislodged; or two, the pinnacle to which his rope was belayed had broken, causing him to fall about sixty feet. In 2016 DNA testing by geneticist Dr. Maarten Larmuseau and colleagues from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven on bloodstained leaves collected[when?] from Marche-les-Dames concluded that King Albert died at that location.
In 1935, prominent Belgian author Emile Cammaerts published a widely acclaimed biography of King Albert I, titled Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right. In 1993, a close climbing companion of the King, Walter Amstutz, founded the King Albert I Memorial Foundation, an association based in Switzerland and dedicated to honouring distinguished individuals in the mountaineering world.
To celebrate 175 years of Belgian Dynasty and the 100th anniversary of his accession, Albert I was selected as the main motif of a high-value collectors' coin: the Belgian 12.5 euro Albert I commemorative coin, minted in 2008. The obverse shows a portrait of the King.
Styles, arms, and honours
8 April 1875 - 23 December 1909:His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Belgium, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony
23 December 1909 - 17 February 1934:His Majesty The King of the Belgians
Honours and awards
He was Grand Master of the following chivalric orders:
Galet, Emile Joseph. Albert King of the Belgians in the Great War (1931), detailed memoir by the military advisor to the King; covers 1912 to the end of October 1914
Woodward, David. "King Albert in World War I" History Today (1975) 25#9 pp. 638-43
D'Ydewalle, Charles. "Albert King of the Belgians"(1935) Translated by Phyllis Megroz D'Ydewalle a journalist describes his book in the foreword.."This book is not a history, it is a sheaf of memories" The final chapter contains interviews with the people who discovered the king's body after his climbing accident
Catherine Barjansky. Portraits with Backgrounds.
Mary Elizabeth Thomas, "Anglo-Belgian Military Relations and the Congo Question, 1911-1913", Journal of Modern History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (June 1953), pp. 157-165.