King Albert in World War I

David Woodward describes how, throughout the First World War, the King remained on the narrow strip of Belgium between Ypres and the sea which remained in Allied hands.

On February 22nd, 1934, Sir Maurice Hankey, then Secretary to the Cabinet, called on King George V at Buckingham Palace. King Albert of the Belgians, who had been killed in a climbing accident on February 17th, was being buried that day in Brussels, and the two men spoke of the dead monarch. Hankey wrote afterwards:

King George recalled very graphically the events of August, 1914. He first received a letter from President Poincare asking him to come to the aid of France. Asquith and Grey said that this was impossible. The Cabinet would not agree. Lloyd George was opposed and many of their colleagues would stand with him. Then came a letter from the King of the Belgians, saying that the Germans had demanded a free passage through Belgium, that he would refuse it, had refused it, and was asking for help.

The King sent for Asquith, who said: “I believe, Sir, that that will do the trick” - and it did.

‘“Suppose King Albert had faltered,” said the King, “and had decided to bow to superior force? The Germans would have been in Paris in three weeks. If we had come in, we should have been too late. There would have been nowhere where we could have acted. That shows the kind of man King Albert was.” The King was rather moved and told the story with great simplicity.’

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