Albert was not the only member of the Belgian royal family to lay his life on the line. Although he was just 14 years old, Albert’s son Leopold III was allowed to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private. He may not have served for long; the following year Leopold was sent to Britain to receive a traditional, aristocratic education at Eton. But especially given Albert’s introduction of conscription before the war, his enlistment sent a powerful and motivating message to both sides: showing the lengths to which Albert and his family were prepared to go to defend their country.
Albert’s wife Queen Elisabeth also took on an active and impressive role throughout the First World War. Following in her Bavarian mother’s footsteps, sponsored a nursing unit, served as a nurse, and made frequent trips to the frontline to administer aid. The royal couple didn’t spend their whole time on the frontline however. After the Germans broke the Belgian lines at Antwerp, the king and queen retreated to the town of De Panne on the North Sea coast, using it as a base from which to visit the frontlines for medical or military purposes.
We know unfortunately little about Albert’s specific conduct on the frontline: only that he offered much-needed morale boosts to his soldiers and was officious in inspecting Belgian defences. We do know that he led the final offensive against the Germans in the Spring of 1918. Commanding the several divisions of Belgian, French, and British troops that made up “Army Group Flanders”, Albert personally led the push that saw Germany’s withdrawal from the war and his country’s liberation. Such was the eminence of this effort that he and his family received a hero’s welcome when they made their way through the newly liberated streets of Brussels on November 22.
Albert’s impressive record didn’t with the conclusion of the war. As well as being instrumental in pushing through universal male suffrage, he played a vital part in international post-war politics. Following Germany’s signing of the armistice on November 11 1918, Albert spoke out against punishing them with extreme, financially crippling terms. Given that the passing of such punitive measures created the breeding grounds for Nazism and led to the outbreak of the Second World War (or continuation of the First, depending on how you look at it), his allies would have done well to listen.
Though Albert’s death in 1934 can hardly be described as peaceful, he at least died doing what he loved. A passionate mountaineer throughout his life, the 58-year-old monarch suffered a fatal accident while climbing alone in the Ardennes, falling to his death from a height of around 60 feet. Because he was such a proficient climber, some questioned the accidental nature of his death, suggesting that he had been assassinated. Such rumours were soon put to bed however, and unable to attribute blame for his passing the world was instead left shocked and saddened by the loss of both a remarkable man and a magnificent monarch.