Albert Leopold Marie was the second son and fifth child of Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders and brother of King Leopold II, and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. He was born on 8 April 1875 at the Regency Palace in Brussels. Albert was not meant to become King – he was more the “spare heir.” After the death of his cousin, Prince Leopold, his older brother Baudouin was trained to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. The young Baudouin was very popular, so when he died unexpectedly, Prince Albert suddenly had very big footsteps to fill at the early age of 16.
Albert was a studious young man, and rather quiet by nature. He was very concerned with the well-being of his people. He is known to have travelled incognito to the poor, working-class neighbourhoods in Belgium, to see with his own eyes the conditions in which his people had to live. He also travelled through the Belgian Congo – a country Leopold II never visited – and upon his return he formulated many recommendations to improve living conditions there.
In 1900, Prince Albert married Elisabeth, Duchess in Bavaria, niece to the famous Empress Sissi of Austria. The couple met at a family funeral, and it was said to be love at first sight. They had a happy marriage, blessed with three children: Leopold (1901-1983), later Leopold III, Charles (1903-1983), later Regent of Belgium, and Marie-José (1906-2001), the last Queen of Italy.
In 1909, upon the death of King Leopold II, Albert became the new King of the Belgians. He was the first to take the oath in Dutch and French, which he both spoke fluently. At the time of his accession to the throne, many had their doubts about Albert’s capabilities as King. King Albert’s early reign was remarkable for the many institutional reforms he had implemented in the Belgian Congo – a poisenous legacy from his uncle Leopold II.
At the beginning of World War I, the Germans asked for passage through Belgium to attack France. The answer of King Albert was brave as well as audacious: “I rule a nation, not a road.” With this, the King knew he had entered the war which would signal the end of an era. When the German troops prepared to invade Belgium, the King went to Parliament and asked permission to take over command over the army, which was granted.
The nation was pleased to see King Albert was a real leader. He stayed with his troops, fought with them, inspired them to continue to fight, no matter how hopeless it all looked. He made his first son, Crown Prince Leopold, fight along with him, which was a morale boost to no end for the Belgian army. He did not send his wife, Queen Elisabeth, to the safety of England either, but encouraged her to roam the army hospitals and help the injured soldiers. And thanks to the bravery and perseverance of the Belgian troops, France and Britain, the actual targets of the First World War, had time to organize their armies for the Battle of the Marne. Throughout the Great War, King Albert would visit the trenches almost daily, what made him the only head of state to see the war from this close.
Albert, however, soon realized his people were suffering terribly under the German occupation, at the other side of the Yser. He tried very hard to work out a diplomatic solution to the international conflict, based on the principle of “no victors, no vanquished,” but neither the Entente nor the Germans were favourable to the idea. Later, Albert tried to work out a treaty with the Germans, which should restore Belgium’s independence, but of course the Germans were not very willing to release the territory they had gained. It is ironic that a man remembered mostly for being a military leader was, in reality, much more inclined to find diplomatic solutions.
At the end of the war, Albert himself led the offensive which liberated Belgium from the Germans. He was welcomed in Brussels as a national hero. A legend was born. In his speech on 22 November 1918, King Albert announced major reforms: the introduction of universal suffrage, effective equality of the two national languages, the switch to Flemish at the University of Ghent, recognition of trade union freedoms and the extension of social legislation.
His death, almost fifteen years later, came as a shock. The King, who was an expert mountaineer, fell down a rocky ravine while he was climbing alone at Marches-Les-Dames. When they found him, he had already died. Soon after his accident, whispers arose suggesting his death might not have been an accident, but these rumours were firmly contradicted by the Court. Albert I was succeeded by his son, Leopold III.
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