The Hero King : A Character Sketch

BEFORE attempting to tell the inspiring tale of Belgian heroism, it is obviously our first task to describe the chief character of the tragedy without whom that tragedy would probably never have been acted, who, in the hour appointed by Destiny, incarnated the national conscience and carried out the national purpose, and to whom his subjects, anticipating the judgment of the future, have already given the name by which he will be known to posterity—” The Hero-King.”

I

AT the beginning of the war an ordinary observer and student of events might have prophesied that this struggle of the nations would inevitably produce a mighty leader of men, whose moral and intellectual stature would be commensurate to the Titanic task assigned to him. And even as an American captain of industry is able to work wonders in proportion to the number of millions confided to his enter-prise, even so the Captain-General of the European hosts would find unlimited scope for his genius through the very immensity of the stage and of the resources at his disposal. We know now that such a forecast and such an analogy would have been entirely misleading, and that there is an inverse ratio between the genius of a general and the numbers and resources at his command.

It is precisely the immensity of the stage and the unwieldy size of the European armies which have reduced creative genius to impotence, which have crushed military leadership. In 1814 in the very same theatre of war, between the Aisne and the Marne, Napoleon was able to accomplish miracles and to hold in check the foreign invader with a mere handful of raw levies. In 1914 even Napoleon could have achieved very little. Even he could not have escaped from the grip of a ruthless machine and his impetuous strategy would have been entirely inapplicable to modern conditions. Quick movements have become impossible. Pitched battles have been replaced by siege battles. This war is pre-eminently an anonymous enterprise, a combination of collective movements from which the personal equation of the commander has been almost entirely eliminated. The personality of genius may still be present, but there is no scope left for its initiative.

II

AND yet out of the grey autumn mists hiding from our view the Flemish and French battle-fields, one luminous personality has emerged. The unerring instinct of the people all over the world has singled out King Albert of Belgium from amongst a hundred leaders. Never was ruler called upon more unexpectedly to play a more difficult and a more formidable part. When a single hour of hesitation and delay might have involved both Belgium and Europe in one common ruin, he took the fateful decision without wavering. When the Belgian issue largely depended on the whole-hearted support of all Belgian parties, the King electrified his subjects with his own spirit and united every party in one national purpose. When the tide of German invasion drove back the Belgian armies from one strategic position to another and gradually wiped out the whole Belgian territory, the King continued to fight in the bogs and marshes of Western Flanders, still undaunted, still defiant, still calm and serene. Even as in times of peace he had effaced himself and had scrupulously played his part as a constitutional sovereign, now in the hour of national agony he claimed for himself responsibility and danger as the unalienable birthright of kingship.

III

CONSIDERING that the Belgian people are themselves a happy blend of French and Teutonic elements, it was in the fitness of things that the Belgian monarch should mix in his composition the blood of the most brilliant dynasty of France (the Orleans) and of the ablest dynasty of Germany (the Saxe-Coburgs). The members of the Orleans branch descended from Madame de Montespan, have always been noted for their wit and their tact, for their intelligence and their daring. We find those qualities equally in the Regent immortalized in the pages of Saint Simon, in the ” Citizen-King,” Louis Philip, and in Leopold II. On the other hand, the Saxe-Coburgs have always been characterized by their prudence and worldly wisdom. We find those qualities in the Prince Consort, in Edward VII, and in the Tsar of Bulgaria. We also find them pre-eminently in King Leopold I of Belgium, the trusted adviser of Queen Victoria. In many ways King Albert of Belgium resembles his Royal grandfather. He seems to have inherited in ample measure the intellectual as well as the moral qualities of the founder of the Belgian dynasty.

IV

WHEN on the death of his uncle, King Albert ascended the throne of Belgium, he was still to the general public a somewhat enigmatic figure. The dominant and domineering figure of the old King had filled the stage for forty years and the heir presumptive had remained in the back-ground. He was known to be intelligent and animated with the best intentions. His imposing stature commanded respect. His frank and open countenance, his cordiality and transparent sincerity inspired confidence. His very shyness and the simplicity of his manner attracted sympathy. He had fully taken advantage of his ” Lehrjahre” and ” Wanderjahre.” He had travelled far and wide, from the prairies of the Far West to the tropical forests of the Congo. He had received an excellent education under the guidance of General Jungbluth, and under the inspiration of his admirable parents. His affinities for liberal England, his keen interest in social questions, his healthy constitution, his athletic habits, and above all his happy union with the daughter of the famous Bavarian Doctor-Prince, raised the highest expectations. Prince Albert had touched life at many points. He was possessed of an unbounded curiosity. One day the Press would tell of the Prince going down a coal-mine, another day of his driving a railway engine, again another day of his mountaineering exploits in the Tyrol.

V

ON his coming to the throne many grave difficulties demanded an urgent solution and taxed to the utmost the statesmanship of the young ruler. Religious and racial quarrels were dividing the nation. Immediately before the war the differences between Flemings and Walloons had gone so far that some political Hotspurs were demanding the administrative separation of the Northern and Southern provinces. The King acted as umpire and peace-maker and indiscriminately gave his confidence to, and called in the advice of both Flemings and Walloons, Liberals and Clericals. The Congo Free State was burdened with a heavy debt and with a dire legacy of internal troubles. King Albert liquidated the legacy and inaugurated a new era of enlightened and humane administration. The army was in process of reconstruction, but the baneful effects of an iniquitous and obsolete system of mercenary conscription still survived. The King threw himself whole-heartedly into the work of Army Reform. Through all those political difficulties he strictly kept within his rights as a constitutional sovereign, and achieved by tact and impartiality, what he could never have obtained by direct pressure.

VI

BRITISH journalists, like Mr. A. G. Gardiner, have repeatedly emphasized the fact that the advent of King Albert marked a complete breach with the policy and methods of Leopold II. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am convinced that King Albert would be the first to resent any attempt to minimize the achievements of his predecessor. So far from breaking with the Leopoldian tradition, King Albert continued it. Like King Leopold, he was keenly interested in colonial expansion, and he visited the African Colony from north to south and from east to west. Like King Leopold, he was determined to equip Belgian trade and industry with a mercantile navy, and even before the war he was resolved to shake off the economic dependence on Germany.

VII

BUT there the analogy between King Leopold and King Albert entirely ends. All well-informed students of Belgian politics admired King Leopold, undoubtedly the clearest and most creative political brain amongst the rulers of his generation, but few respected him and none loved him. All Belgians equally admire, respect, and love his successor. It was the fatal weakness of King Leopold that he did not understand, and there-fore systematically undervalued the moral forces which influence humanity. He had no use for ideas. He had no appreciation for Art and Literature, and it is very significant that although he was always engaged in building schemes, he did not leave one architectural monument behind him.

In every one of those respects King Albert presents a striking contrast to his uncle. He has the keenest appreciation for Art and Literature. He likes to surround himself with Men of Letters, with Scientists and Artists. He has repeatedly honoured Maeterlinck and Verhaeren, who although living in France, have retained their allegiance to their native country. King Albert is an omnivorous reader. An early riser, and of regular and methodical habits, he reserves for his reading the silent hours of the morning, and he has finished his day’s studies when the British man of business is just sitting down to his breakfast.

There is another fundamental difference between King Albert and his uncle. Behind his courteous, amiable and unassuming exterior he has no doubt the same imperial will, but he has none of King Leopold’s despotic temper. To Leopold men were only serviceable tools to be thrown away when they had served their purpose. He would have said like the Kaiser, ” I shall crush all who do not obey me.” And he certainly acted on that principle. He crushed one big man after another, with the result that in the end he was surrounded only with mediocrities. King Albert has always realized like his ancestor, King Louis XI V. that one of the most important and certainly one of the most difficult parts of kingship is the discriminate selection of competent advisers. He has always realized that advisers are of no value unless their advice be independent and unless it be acted upon. King Albert prefers persuasive methods to the violent methods of Leopold. He prefers to secure by sympathy and diplomacy what he would fail to secure by force.

VIII

KING ALBERT finds himself to-day the most popular sovereign of Europe. Universal respect and admiration have gone out spontaneously to a ruler who in a democratic age has upheld the highest ideals of his office, and who in a war characterized by brutality, has maintained the noblest traditions of chivalry. In the tremendous ordeal through which Belgium is passing, it is of untold advantage to the people to be governed by a sovereign who commands the confidence of the whole civilized world. In the future Congress of Liége which will decide the destinies of Europe for generations to come, no influence will make itself more deeply felt, no voice will speak with more authority than the voice of King Albert. He risked his throne in obedience to the call of duty and honour, and the royal sacrifice will not have been made in vain. In the final settlement of accounts the Belgian people will have in their King a most convincing and a most powerful champion. And in the restoration of the ruins accumulated by the German Vandals, the Belgian people may be equally certain that the King will prove him-self the master-builder of a nobler and greater nation.