Childhood & Early Life
Albert I was born Prince Albert Léopold Clément Marie Meinrad of Belgium on April 8, 1875, at the Palais de la Régence, Brussels, to Prince Philippe, the Count of Flanders, and his wife, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. He was the second surviving son and the fifth child of his parents.
The first king of the Belgians, Leopold I, was his grandfather. King Leopold II was Albert’s uncle (father’s elder brother). King Leopold II’s only son had died early, so after Albert’s father, and Albert’s older brother, Prince Baudouin, he was third in succession.
Albert was reticent and enjoyed reading. He was interested in outdoor activities, especially horse-riding and rock-climbing. He received training at the ‘Belgian Royal Military Academy,’ and worked with the Belgian army.
After the early death of his brother, Baudouin, Albert became second in the line of succession. From 1893, he attended the Belgian Senate, which was expected of the children of the sovereign. He traveled through Europe and other countries as the representative of King Leopold II.
Albert toured around Belgium (sometimes disguised) to see the actual living condition of the common people. After his father’s death in 1905, he became ‘Count of Flanders’ (next in line of succession). He was well-liked by the subjects for his democratic ways. In 1906, he established an institution, ‘Ibis,’ as home and school for the orphans of fishermen.
In the beginning of 1909, he toured around Belgian Congo, the only overseas Belgian colony, which was earlier a private property of King Leopold II. In 1908, it became a part of Belgium. Albert found the living condition of the locals dreadful and lowly. Upon his return, Albert proposed reforms for the betterment of the natives. He also put forward plans to help the technological progress of the colony.
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Reign as the King
King Leopold II died on December 17, 1909. Albert succeeded to the throne as King Albert I of the Belgians.
Belgium was facing the issue of universal manhood suffrage. Earlier in 1893, the law was adapted to give the right of plural votes based on wealth, occupation, education, and marital status. But in 1913, ‘The Belgian Labor Party’ called for a general strike and demonstrations called for the withdrawal of this law, and implementation of ‘one man, one vote’ reform. However, the subsequent invasion and occupation by Germany delayed the process.
Before the onset of WWI, Albert made an effort to build the country’s army. In August 1913, he introduced the military conscription bill, through which all the sons of a family had to serve the Belgian military. By the ‘Treaty of London’ (1839), Belgium was assured neutrality. In the summer of 1914, Albert confirmed Belgian’s neutrality to France and Germany.
On August 2, 1914, German Emperor William II sent Albert an ultimatum, asking free passage of German troops across Belgium to France. Albert refused, saying ‘Belgium is a nation, not a road.’ The Germans attacked Belgium and WWI began in August 1914. Britain got involved in the War because by the Treaty of 1839, it was one of the guarantors of Belgian neutrality.
According to the Article 68 of the Belgian Constitution, Albert took charge and became Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian army. He fought off the German forces, giving time for France and Britain to prepare. The Allied forces fought and won the first ‘Battle of Marne.’
Antwerp was taken by the Germans in October, 1914. After the ‘Battle of the Yser,’ Albert and his troops had to retreat beyond the River Yser. Subsequently, the Germans took over the entire country except Flanders district. Albert had his command center on the Belgian coast at De Panne. For the next four years, he continued fighting (in collaboration with the Triple Entente armies) from the trenches behind the River Yser.
King Albert fought with his forces on the frontline. His eldest son, the 14-year-old Leopold enlisted in the army, fighting on the front. Albert’s wife, Queen Elisabeth, too, was at the battle front, helping out as a nurse.
The country suffered due to the German occupation during the 4 years of war. King Albert, who wished to avoid the casualties and destruction, tried to negotiate peace between Germany and Allied forces, through secret political networks, but unfortunately both the warring factions were not for it.
From late September to October 1918, a succession of several battles took place around Northern France and Southern Belgium. Albert was made the chief of the ‘Flanders Army Group’ (French, British, and Belgian). He commanded the final allied attack. They first took over Ostend and Brugge, recaptured the Belgian coast, and finally reclaimed the German-occupied Belgium.
King Albert, his Queen, and children returned victorious to Brussels on November 22, 1918. After the war, he made appeal to allies to eliminate Belgian neutrality. After the Armistice, Albert focused on the reconstruction of his country, which was devastated by war and German occupation. On November 22, he announced several reforms.
From 1919, the universal manhood suffrage was implemented with ‘one man, one vote’ statute. He formed the ‘Government of National Union,’ comprising of 3 main Belgian parties - ‘The Catholics,’ ‘The Liberals,’ and ‘The Socialists.’ He also announced equality of two national languages, a Flemish university at Ghent, and recognised trade union freedom.
He attended the ‘Paris Peace Conference’ in April, 1919. He, along with his wife and eldest son, visited the USA in 1919. He continued his work for the progress of Belgian Congo, and established ‘Albert National Park’ (now ‘Virunga National Park’), Africa’s first national park, in 1925. To encourage industrial development, he took initiatives to form the ‘National Scientific Research Fund’ in 1928. The global depression had a major impact on Belgium. For the next 5 years Albert made efforts to keep the unemployment under control.
Family & Personal Life
While attending a funeral in Paris (1897), Prince Albert met Elisabeth Gabrielle Valérie Marie, daughter of Karl-Theodor, Duke of Bavaria. The two got married on October 2, 1900, in Munich, and went to Italy for honeymoon. He and his wife were dedicated to Belgium. The couple had three children: Leopold, Charles, and Marie-José.
An avid rock-climber, King Albert died in a mountaineering accident on Roche de Vieux Bon Dieu, at Marche-les-Dames, near Namur in Belgium, on February 17, 1934. He was interred in the Royal Crypt at the ‘Church of Our Lady of Laeken.’