The Great War might be (in)famous for many things, but instances of admirable leadership isn’t one of them. One of the deadliest conflicts in human history, the war’s enormous loss of life can largely be explained in terms of obsolete military tactics coming up against newly mechanised forms of warfare. Adding fuel to the fire was the failure of many of the war’s generals to adapt, giving rise to the phrase “lions led by donkeys.” But things weren’t quite so black and white. The First World War also had its lions that led, and few were more remarkable than the King of Belgium, Albert I.
What makes Albert’s biography all the more impressive is that he was never destined to be king. Originally the third in line to the throne, his accession as the third king of Belgium came about only after a rapid succession of royal deaths: first of his older brother, then his father, then his uncle, Leopold II. Crowned on December 23 1909, Albert immediately struck a good note with his Belgian subjects, not least because his and his queen Elisabeth’s humble, modest lifestyle stood in stark contrast to his autocratic predecessor’s.
Albert dedicated much of his early reign to passing a series of reforms intended to benefit the native population of the Belgian Congo—Belgium’s only colonial possession which he had visited before his coronation. But as Europe’s unworkable web of alliances became ever more tangled, and the continent’s appetite for war became ever more palpable, Albert was forced to turn his attention inwards towards affairs at home.
It may be a small country, but Belgium was very much the fulcrum of the First World War. Sandwiched between an aggressive Germany and an increasingly fearful France, Belgium’s only hope of surviving any potential war was to remain neutral. Fortunately for Belgium, her neutrality was protected by a treaty signed in 1839. The British, amongst others, were obliged to come to her defence if her neutrality were violated. But what was fortunate for Belgium was unfortunate for European history: as, for the Germans, Belgian neutrality simply wasn’t an option.
For the Germans to successfully carry out their famed Schlieffen Plan (which they believed would win them the war before the Russians could mobilise to the East), it was crucial that they passed unopposed through Belgium and Luxembourg, circumventing French forts on the eastern border and quickly capturing Paris from the northeast. As storm clouds gathered over Europe in the summer of 1914, the Germans repeatedly requested safe passage through Belgium for their approaching invasion of France, eventually issuing an ultimatum on August 2. Yet despite being related to Kaiser Wilhelm II on his mother’s side, Albert had no intention of rolling over.
When the Germans invaded Belgium two days later on August 4, they set about waging a brutal campaign against the Belgian population as a whole. Belgian resistance proved far more effective than anyone had previously imagined. As commander of the Belgian Army, Albert initiated extreme measures to hold back the German advance: stationing snipers around towns and villages, mobilising troops by bicycle, and even mustering dog-drawn artillery. Frustrated by their lack of progress, and increasingly concerned at the speed with which the Russians were mobilising in the East, the Germans resorted to extreme measures, committing a series of atrocities and waging a war of terror on Belgium’s population.