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The Belgian Royal Family Tragedy

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History will keep a sad yet gallant page for Leopold III., King of the Belgians. As prince and ruler, as husband and as son, he has countered intense suffering and disaster with fine qualities of manhood and inherent instincts of kingship. A nation's grief in the dark hours it has shared with him has been mitigated by its admiration of his courage.

All the world mourned when his father, King Albert, perished in such disastrous circumstances, almost on the eve of his Silver Jubilee, and before he was sixty years of age. Albert was a world-figure and a name dominant in history. He had become a legend in his own lifetime. It was he who on that fateful day of August and, 1914, presiding over the Council of his Ministers, rejected the German ultimatum demanding the free passage of its troops through Belgium. "They shall not pass," he said. "Belgium will defend its rights." It was this faith in the Treaty guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality, his willingness and determination to risk all for justice that, more than anything else, brought Britain into the war in defence of that notorious "scrap of paper." Neither his own German ancestry nor his friendship with the Kaiser could sway his resolve. Threats were as futile. He took to the field with his troops. He risked death in the forts and in the trenches of the front line. When he retreated it was with glory. In November, 1918, he came into his own again. The invaders marched, beaten and humiliated, from his land. Albert rode back again in triumph into Brussels, his capital, and at his side rode Prince Albert of England, now King George VI.

Physically a giant among kings - he was a tall, commanding figure of six feet three inches - -Albert was a stirring personality. No monarch could praise with such charm, rebuke with such withering scorn. He was intolerant of cruelty, cowardice and insincerity. And he was very brave. Perhaps that is why climbing was one of the enduring passions of his life. No peak daunted him. Intrepid, loving danger, he revelled in the challenge of the mountains. Their height, their beauty, their problems, all this was ecstasy to him. The monarch became a man amid their majesty.

It was his custom every year to visit Italy, spending two or three delightful weeks of autumn at Cortina d'Ampezzo, or some other favourite spot in the Dolomites, where he could climb to his heart's content. Here he stayed incognito - invariably as Dr. Redy of Brussels - at the ordinary hotels. Often he lodged in the mountain refuges, eating and sleeping with his guides. In 1930, for instance, he spent his vacation at Madonna di Campiglio, climbing one of the superb groups of the Dolomites, whose peaks rise from 8000 to 10,000 feet, and carrying out many daring and dangerous feats. Once, by virtue of his strength and courage, he saved the lives of his companions.

In 1932 he attained to the peak of the Crozzon di Brenta (10,286 ft.), an achievement which was at one time considered to be an impossible one, and was still hazardous. Earlier in the same year, while visiting the Belgian Congo, he essayed Mount McKeno (14,300 ft.), but was beaten back by a gale after climbing 13,700 feet. Another of his achievements was during a visit to Goma, when he tackled the active volcano Nyamlagira and reached the crater ten thousand feet up.

Yet he was to die scaling a rock only a few hundred feet high.

On Saturday, February 17th, 1934, King Albert found that he had a few hours of leisure before a public engagement in the evening at a Brussels cycle gala. The weather was fine. His thoughts turned instinctively towards climbing and the open air. Thus it was that after an early lunch, dressed in his favourite plus-fours, he left his palace intent upon packing the maximum of exercise and adventure into a single afternoon of freedom. Driving his own two-seater car, accompanied only by Van Dyck, a devoted valet, he was soon on the open road, speeding towards the lovely little village of Marche-les-dames, which nestles at the foot of the rocky, tree-clad hills of the Andennes, five miles from Namur.

The Alpine Club of Belgium had recently been advocating rock-climbing at home, finding no more enthusiastic or practical a supporter than King Albert. On this occasion he selected for his climb the Corneille, one of the rocky pinnacles just outside Marche-les-dames, and on the banks of the Meuse. Rising to a sheer height of about 250 feet, the Corneille is a formidable crag, lacking in handholds and otherwise dangerous because of the slippery and brittle nature of the sandstone. To such an experienced and resourceful climber as the King, however, it presented no exceptional perils - was just a good afternoon's sport, to be taken in his stride.

At about 3 p.m. he stopped the car at the most convenient point on the open road, fixed on his rough hob-nailed climbing boots, and collected his rope and rucksack. To his valet he remarked cheerfully, "Meet me at the foot of the Corneille in about a couple of hours." Then Albert, King of the Belgians, disappeared behind the screen of trees and undergrowth that hides the rock. He was never seen alive again.

Obeying the King's orders to the letter, Van Dyck was at the base of the Gorneille at the appointed hour. But neither by sight nor sound could he detect the whereabouts of his Royal master. Dusk began to fall. He grew more than a little apprehensive. Reluctant to leave his post, yet increasingly anxious, he began to move in all directions, shouting as he went. There was no responding cry. The rock loomed overhead - silent, sinister, frightening.

Certain now that something was terribly wrong, he rushed back to the road, where he begged the assistance of a passing gamekeeper. With hearts uneasy, together in the gathering darkness they searched among the trees and undergrowth, clambered a little way up the rock, stumbling in their growing panic, crying out louder and more entreatingly with the passing of the tragic minutes. But all their efforts were in vain. Everything was darkness and silence.

Van Dyck at last dashed to the village to raise the alarm. Gendarmes and villagers at once left for the scene of the King's disappearance. Baron Carton di Wiart, a former private secretary of the King, who lived nearby on the banks of the Meuse, was informed and at once took charge of the search-party. Brussels, too, was warned discreetly, and General Baron Jaques de Dixmude, the King's orderly officer, and Count Xavier de Crunne, President of the Alpine Club of Belgium, were among those who sped out from the capital. No news of the alarm was permitted to leak out to the public.

Back in the Royal Palace the Queen waited, wondering at the King's lateness. At the Palais de Sports a vast crowd was assembled to greet the sovereign at 9 p.m. Little did they realise that their cheers would soon turn to tears, for at that hour the search was still going on. Torches and flash-lamps flickered and flared among the trees and through the dense jungle of the undergrowth. Noblemen, soldiers, gendarmes, peasants, foresters and passing motorists from the road pooled their vigilance, moving hour after hour in hopeless, heart-breaking circles, calling in voices that sometimes raised in desperation, sometimes hushed in fear. Every shout came back a mocking echo. And always above them was the rock - enigmatical. As the night grew towards morning few, if any, had hope of ever finding the King alive.

At a few minutes after 2 a.m. they found him - dead. The darkness and silence were stabbed by a terrible cry. It was the voice of Baron Jaques de Dixmude, hoarse and trembling: "God have mercy! I have found him!" The baron's foot had caught in a rope's end. Shining his torch into the deep undergrowth at the foot of the Corneille - round which the searchers had passed time and time again - he had seen the still, huddled form of the King. Of that terrible discovery an eye-witness said: "His poor head was lying downwards, crushed against a stone. A huge hole was in the side of his head. Round his shoulders and middle his rope was still slung. Its end was frayed. Probably a piece of stone had crumbled as the King climbed the rock. He must have slipped and fallen."

His Majesty had been dead for some hours. His skull was fractured. It was obvious that he had fallen from a considerable height, and that death had been mercifully instantaneous. His rucksack and gloves were found scattered near him. Later - pathetic relic - they found his familiar gold pince-nez in the branches of a tree. The manner of his death was reconstructed in an official report issued subsequently: "His Majesty, having climbed a rocky crag, reached the summit, where there are very clear traces of his passage. He held on to a large block of stone. The block crumbled away, carrying the King with it in falling. The King struck against the side of the rock. It was at this spot, where bloodstains were found this morning, that His Majesty received the injury that caused his death. Rebounding after the blow, the body slid down the slope, and came to rest lower down."

By the dim and austere light of the torches the searchers grouped themselves around the dead monarch. Some were weeping. Others dropped on their knees in prayer. His valet was distracted with grief. It seemed incredible that he who had been so strong and brave, so alive and vital, now lay silent in death, his wounded head pillowed on the precious soil he had fought in battle to defend.

Then began the pilgrimage of sorrow to Laeken, which was reached at 3 a.m., while all Belgium slept, unaware of the disaster that had overtaken their beloved king. The body they placed reverently on the bed on which Leopold II. had lain in death. There, for the time being, rested all that was mortal of one of the great sovereigns of all time. They had dressed him in the khaki field-service uniform of a Belgian general, the only decorations that adorned it being the vivid sash and cross of the Order of St. Leopold. His wounded head was bandaged with fine linen, and from the waist downwards the body was covered with a crimson pall. His folded hands clasped an ivory Crucifix. At the bed's end tapered two lighted candles in tall, copper candlesticks. Two Sisters of Mercy knelt in prayer. And in death the face of this noble king was tranquil.

It was not until 6 a.m. next morning that the news of the disaster was broken to Queen Elizabeth, a dreaded task that was eventually undertaken by Baron di Wiart. The heir to the throne (now King Leopold III.) was on holiday with his wife and children at Adelboden in Switzerland. He was informed by telephone, and immediately hurried back to Brussels. His brother, the Count of Flanders, hastened from Ostend. To the King of Italy fell the task of breaking the news to the Princess of Piedmont, King Albert's daughter, who was married to the Italian Crown Prince. A poignant feature of this circulation of the ill tidings was that both the new queen and the Princess of Piedmont were expectant mothers at the time.

Belgium itself was stunned by the news on the Sunday morning. It was the greatest shock since the war. Among every class of the people there was the sense of a terrible, intimate loss. Political hostilities were forgotten in the common grief. With wide eyes they read the following proclamation posted by the famous Burgomaster Max of Brussels: "Dear Fellow-citizens, it is my cruel duty to announce awful news to the population. The King died yesterday, the victim of a terrible accident. The nation will feel with sorrow the immense loss which it sustains. Robbed of a Sovereign who personified the destinies of the nation with such greatness and prestige, our country will unite in this trial around the Royal Family whose deep grief it shares."

An emergency meeting of the Cabinet was called, since, under Belgian law, the Cabinet becomes a Council of Regency with absolute authority in the land during the interval between the death of one king and the installation of another. Later in the day the Government issued this dramatic message to the people: "The King is dead. At the dawn of the 25th year of his Accession, when the country which he saved held him in higher affection and respect than ever, and counted more than ever upon his calm and serene wisdom amid the perils of the hour, a fearful accident has deprived Belgium of the leader of whom it was so proud. The sorrow of the nation will be profound. Its first thought will be one of infinite gratitude for the King who... devoted all the strength of his high intelligence, and all the resources of his great heart, to the service of Belgium. The country has lost a guide, a support and an incomparable servant who, in peace and war, had thought, acted and lived for it alone. The gratitude of the people surrounds his remains and prepares a cloud of glory for his name." The tributes of the outer world were equally glowing and sincere. There was no doubt of the world's admiration, or of the world's grief.

Thousands of the Belgian people made a sad pilgrimage to the spot where he had met his death. Some carried away with them grim souvenirs of crumbled stone taken from the fatal rock, before which they knelt in prayer. Carved on the face of the Corneille, above the spot where he had fallen, they saw the image of a Crucifix. It was as though this rock had been the pre-destined memorial of a great king whose work was done.

On the Monday night they brought King Albert from Laeken to the Royal Palace in Brussels. It was a simple procession by torchlight, just a gun-carriage drawn by six black horses and escorted by cloaked cavalry and gendarmes. Behind the coffin walked a solitary, grief-stricken figure - the new Sovereign. During the days that followed Albert lay in State in an upstairs room of the palace, an apartment draped with sombre black hanging relieved by splashes of gold and massed banks of flowers against the walls. At the King's head rested a great wreath of lilies and lilac from his Queen. Above him was the Royal Coat of Arms blazoned on a base of black velvet. At his side stood the pennant that went before him in the field during the war. Generals and private soldiers who had fought with him shoulder to shoulder on the Yser stood on guard. The open coffin was elevated so that the hundreds of thousands who passed before the bier could look upon him for the last time.

In the early hours of Thursday morning the coffin, now closed for ever, was brought from the palace to a position near the main entrance, and there laid in a catafalque draped with the national flag. For fifty yards on either side the courtyard was a carpet of flowers. All night long the crowds had been assembling in the silent streets to watch the last cavalcade of Albert's reign. It was a vivid if a mournful spectacle, in which Britain was represented by the Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VIII.), and by naval, military and Air Force contingents. Following an impressive service at the Collegiate Church of Ste. Gudule the procession re-formed for the last journey to Laeken. And here, in the royal crypt, and in the presence of members of the Royal Family only, the body was laid in a sepulchre near the tomb of King Leopold I. Albert, King of the Belgians, warrior, statesman and sportsman, now belonged to history.

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