Albert 1er

1875 - 1934
King Albert I. Source: l'album de la guerre (the war album) 1914-1919. © L'illustration

The son of Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders (the brother of King Léopold II) and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Albert I was Prince of Belgium, Duke of Saxony and Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. On the 2nd October 1900, he married Elisabeth, the Duchess of Bayern, with whom he would have three children: Léopold, who would become Léopold III, Charles-Théodore, Regent of the kingdom from 1944 to 1951 and Marie-José who would become Queen of Italy for just three months from the 9th May to the 13th June 1946. Albert I was sworn in on the 23rd December 1909, becoming the third King of the Belgians after Léopold I and Léopold II, sovereigns not of a kingdom, but of a nation (in the same way as Louis-Philippe I was "King of the French people" in 1830). Succeeding his uncle, King Léopold II, he discovered an opulent country with two communities, the Flemish and the Walloons, with the latter predominating, and endowed with a rich colony, the Congo. In 1914, Albert I rejected the ultimatum issued by Emperor Wilhelm II to secure the free passage of his troops across Belgian soil. On the 4th August, the Germans invaded Belgium, whose army, following fierce fighting at Liege and Anvers, took up position behind the Yser river on the 15th October.

Calm, modest and almost self-effacing, King Albert was to demonstrate his power by insisting on exercising his constitutional prerogative to take command of the army. He refused to follow the Belgian government in exile in Sainte-Adresse, on the outskirts of Le Havre, setting up his general headquarters in La Panne in Western Flanders and living alongside his soldiers for the duration of the war. He was admirably supported by his wife, Queen Elisabeth (1876-1965). Bavarian by birth (née Von Wittelsbach) and the niece of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Josef, she devoted herself to caring for the wounded and refugees, founding a hospital in La Panne, where she worked as a nurse. Their son, Prince Léopold, Duke of Brabant, enlisted in 1915 as a simple soldier in the 12th regiment in Ligne, at the age of 13. In September 1918, Albert I actively took part in the decisive offensive launched by Foch to conquer the Flanders ridge (29th September) and the battle of Torhout-Tielt (14th - 18th October), which resulted in the reconquering of Bruges. On the 22nd November 1918, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth and his children, Albert I finally returned triumphantly to Brussels. The nobleness of his demeanour at the head of his army earned him the nickname of the "Knight King". In the period after the war, he represented Belgium at the peace negotiations at Versailles, defending his country's interests whilst also trying, in vain, to oppose the policy of excessive humiliation of Germany. An ardent climber, he died climbing one of the Marche-les-Dames rocks near Namur in the Meuse valley on the 17th February 1934.