a King in Cornered Belgium
The town of Furnes, in Belgium, into which I came when dusk crept into its streets and squares, was the headquarters of King Albert and his staff and its people could hear all day long the roll of guns a few kilometres away, where the remnant of their army held the line of the Yser canal and the trenches which barred the roads to Dixmude, Pervyse and other little towns and villages on the last free patch of Belgian soil.
I drove into the Grande Place and saw the beauty of this old Flemish square, typical of a hundred others not less quaint and with not less dignity, which had been smashed to pieces by German guns. Three great buildings dominated its architecture-the Town Hall, with a fine stately façade and two ancient churches with massive brick towers, over-shadowing the narrow old houses and timber-front shops with stepped gables and wrought-iron signs. For three centuries or more time had slept here and no change of modern life had altered the character of this place, where merchant princes had dwelt around the market. If there had been peace here in that velvety twilight which filled the square when I first passed through it, I should have expected to see grave burghers in furred hoods pacing across the cobble stones to the Hôtel de Ville, and the florid-faced knights, whom Franz Hals loved to paint, quaffing wine inside the Hotel de la Couronne, and perhaps a young king in exile known as the Merry Monarch smiling with a roguish eye at some fair-haired Flemish wench as he leaned on the arm of my lord of Rochester on his way to his lodging on the other side of the way. But here was no peace. It was a backyard of war, and there was the rumble of guns over the stones, and a litter of war's munitions under the church wall. Armoured cars were parked in the centre of the square, a corps of military cyclists had propped their machines against gun wagons and forage carts, out of the black shadows under high walls poked the snouts of guns, wafts of scented hay came from carts with their shafts down in the gutters, sentries with bayonets which caught the light of old lanterns paced up and down below the Town Hall steps, Belgian soldiers caked in the mud of the trenches slouched wearily in the side streets, and staff officers in motor-cars with glaring headlights and shrieking horns threaded their way between the wagons and the guns. From beyond the town dull shocks of noise grumbled, like distant thunder-claps, and through the tremulous dusk of the sky there came an irregular repetition of faint flashes.
As the twilight deepened and the shadows merged into a black darkness I could see candles being lit through the bull's-eye windows of small shops, and the rank smell of paraffin lamps came from vaulted cellars into which one descended by steps from the roadway where soldiers were drinking cups of coffee or cheap wine in a flickering light which etched Rembrandt pictures upon one's vision.
A number of staff officers came down the steps of the Town Hall and stood at the foot of the steps as though waiting for someone. They had not long to wait, for presently a very tall soldier came out to join them. For a moment he stood under the portico lighting a cigarette, and the flare of his match put a glamour upon his face. It was the King of the Belgians, distinguished only by his height from the simple soldiers who stood around him, and as he came down the steps he had the dignity of his own manhood but no outward sign of royalty. I could hardly see his face then but afterwards in the daylight I saw him pass down the lines of some of his heroic regiments and saw his gravity and the sadness of his eyes, and his extreme simplicity.
The first time I had seen him was in a hall in Brussels, when he opened the Great Exhibition in royal state, in the presence of many princes and ministers and all his Court. Even then it seemed to me he had a look of sadness - it may have been no more than shyness - as though the shadow of some approaching tragedy touched his spirit. I spoke of it at the time to a friend of mine and he smiled at the foolishness of the remark.
Here in Furnes his personality was touched with a kind of sanctity because his kingship of the last piece of Belgian soil symbolized all the ruin and desolation of his poor country and all the heroism of its resistance against an overpowering enemy and all the sorrows of those scattered, people who still gave him loyalty. Men of Republican instincts paid a homage in their hearts to this young king, sanctified by sorrow and crowned with martyrdom. Living plainly as a simple soldier, sharing the rations, the hardships and the dangers of his men, visiting them in their trenches and in their field-hospitals, steeling his nerves to the sight of bloody things and his heart to the grim task of fighting to the last ditch of Belgian ground, he seemed to be the type of early kingship, as it was idealized by poets and minstrels, when those who were anointed by the Church dedicated their souls to the service of the people and their swords to justice. He stood in this modern world and in this modern war as the supreme type of the Hero, and mythical stories are already making a legend of his chivalrous acts and virtue, showing that in spite of all our incredulities and disillusions hero-worship is still a natural instinct in the minds of men.
a postcard showing the king reviewing Belgian troops at Furnes in late 1914
Belgian soldiers enter the outskirts of Furnes
an armored car in the Grand-Place of Furnes
a cavalry detachment rides into the Grand-Place
supply-wagons and horses in the Grand-Place
Belgian soldiers in the streets of Furnes
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