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Chapter V. A Talk with the King of the Belgians

The letter announcing that I was to have an audience with the King of the Belgians reached me at Dunkirk, France, on the evening of the day before the date set. It was brief and to the effect that the King would receive me the next afternoon at two o'clock at the Belgian Army headquarters.

The object of my visit was well known; and, because I wished an authoritative statement to give to America, I had requested that the notes of my conversation with His Majesty should be officially approved. This request was granted. The manuscript of the interview that follows was submitted to His Majesty for approval. It is published as it occurred, and nothing has been added to the record.

A general from the Ministry of War came to the Hotel des Arcades, in Dunkirk, and I was taken in a motor car to the Belgian Army headquarters some miles away. As the general who conducted me had influenza, and I was trying to keep my nerves in good order, it was rather a silent drive. The car, as are all military cars--and there are no others--was driven by a soldier-chauffeur by whose side sat the general's orderly. Through the narrow gate, with its drawbridge guarded by many sentries, we went out into the open country.

The road, considering the constant traffic of heavy transports and guns, was very fair. It is under constant repair. At first, during this severe winter, on account of rain and snow, accidents were frequent. The road, on both sides, was deep in mud and prolific of catastrophe; and even now, with conditions much better, there are numerous accidents. Cars all travel at frightful speed. There are no restrictions, and it is nothing to see machines upset and abandoned in the low-lying fields that border the road.

Conditions, however, are better than they were. Part of the conservation system has been the building of narrow ditches at right angles to the line of the road, to lead off the water. Every ten feet or so there is a gutter filled with fagots.

I had been in the general's car before. The red-haired Fleming with the fierce moustache who drove it was a speed maniac, and passing the frequent sentries was only a matter of the password. A signal to slow down, given by the watchful sentry, a hoarse whisper of the password as the car went by, and on again at full speed. There was no bothering with papers.

On each side of the road were trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, earthen barriers, canals filled with barges. And on the road were lines of transports and a file of Spahis on horseback, picturesque in their flowing burnouses, bearded and dark-skinned, riding their unclipped horses through the roads under the single rows of trees. We rode on through a village where a pig had escaped from a slaughterhouse and was being pursued by soldiers--and then, at last, army headquarters and the King of the Belgians.

There was little formality. I was taken in charge by the King's equerry, who tapped at a closed door. I drew a long breath.

"Madame Rinehart!" said the equerry, and stood aside.

There was a small screen in front of the door. I went round it. Standing alone before the fire was Albert I, King of the Belgians. I bowed; then we shook hands and he asked me to sit down.

It was to be a conversation rather than an interview; but as it was to be given as accurately as possible to the American people, I was permitted to make careful notes of both questions and answers. It was to be, in effect, a statement of the situation in Belgium as the King of the Belgians sees it.

I spoke first of a message to America.

"I have already sent a message to America," he informed me; "quite a long message. We are, of course, intensely appreciative of what Americans have done for Belgium."

"They are anxious to do what they can. The general feeling is one of great sympathy."

"Americans are both just and humane," the King replied; "and their system of distribution is excellent. I do not know what we should have done without the American Relief Committees."

"Is there anything further Your Majesty can suggest?"

"They seem to have thought of everything," the King said simply. "The food is invaluable--particularly the flour. It has saved many from starvation."

"But there is still need?"

"Oh, yes--great need."

It was clear that the subject was a tragic one. The King of the Belgians loves his people, as they love him, with a devotion that is completely unselfish. That he is helpless to relieve so much that they are compelled to endure is his great grief.

His face clouded. Probably he was seeing, as he must always see, the dejected figures of the peasants in the fields; the long files of his soldiers as they made their way through wet and cold to the trenches; the destroyed towns; the upheaval of a people.

"What is possible to know of the general condition of affairs in that part of Belgium occupied by the Germans?" I asked. "I do not mean in regard to food only, but the general condition of the Belgian people."

"It is impossible to say," was the answer. "During the invasion it was very bad. It is a little better now, of course; but here we are on the wrong side of the line to form any ordered judgment. To gain a real conception of the situation it would be necessary to go through the occupied portions from town to town, almost from house to house. Have you been in the other part of Belgium?"

"Not yet; I may go."

"You should do that--see Louvain, Aerschot, Antwerp--see the destroyed towns for yourself. No one can tell you. You must see them."

I was not certain that I should be permitted to make such a journey, but the King waved my doubts aside with a gesture.

"You are an American," he said. "It would be quite possible and you would see just what has happened. You would see open towns that were bombarded; other towns that were destroyed after occupation! You would see a country ruthlessly devastated; our wonderful monuments destroyed; our architectural and artistic treasures sacrificed without reason--without any justification."

"But as a necessity of war?" I asked.

"Not at all. The Germans have saved buildings when it suited their convenience to do so. No military necessity dictated the destruction of Louvain. It was not bombarded. It was deliberately destroyed. But, of course, you know that."

"The matter of the violation of Belgium's neutrality still remains an open question," I said. "I have seen in American facsimile copies of documents referring to conversations between staff officers of the British and Belgian armies--documents that were found in the ministerial offices at Brussels when the Germans occupied that city last August. Of course I think most Americans realise that, had they been of any real importance, they would have been taken away. There was time enough. But there are some, I know, who think them significant."

The King of the Belgians shrugged his shoulders.

"They were of an unofficial character and entirely without importance. The German Staff probably knew all about them long before the declaration of war. They themselves had, without doubt, discussed and recorded similar probabilities in case of war with other countries. It is a common practice in all army organisations to prepare against different contingencies. It is a question of military routine only."

"There was no justification, then, for the violation of Belgian neutrality?" I inquired.

"None whatever! The German violation of Belgian neutrality was wrong," he said emphatically. "On the fourth of August their own chancellor admitted it. Belgium had no thought of war. The Belgians are a peace-loving people, who had every reason to believe in the friendship of Germany."

The next question was a difficult one. I inquired as to the behaviour of the Germans in the conquered territory; but the King made no sweeping condemnation of the German Army.

"Fearful things have been done, particularly during the invasion," he said, weighing his words carefully; "but it would be unfair to condemn the whole German Army. Some regiments have been most humane; but others behaved very badly. Have you seen the government report?"

I said I had not seen it, though I had heard that a careful investigation had been made.

"The government was very cautious," His Majesty said. "The investigation was absolutely impartial and as accurate as it could be made. Doubts were cast on all statements--even those of the most dependable witnesses--until they could be verified."

"They were verified?"

"Yes; again and again."

"By the victims themselves?"

"Not always. The victims of extreme cruelty do not live to tell of it; but German soldiers themselves have told the story. We have had here many hundreds of journals, taken from dead or imprisoned Germans, furnishing elaborate details of most atrocious acts. The government is keeping these journals. They furnish powerful and incontrovertible testimony of what happened in Belgium when it was swept over by a brutal army. That was, of course, during the invasion--such things are not happening now so far as we know."

He had spoken quietly, but there was a new note of strain in his voice. The burden of the King of the Belgians is a double one. To the horror of war has been added the unnecessary violation and death of noncombatants.

The King then referred to the German advance through Belgian territory.

"Thousands of civilians have been killed without reason. The execution of noncombatants is not war, and no excuse can be made for it. Such deeds cannot be called war."

"But if the townspeople fired on the Germans?" I asked.

"All weapons had been deposited in the hands of the town authorities. It is unlikely that any organised attack by civilians could have been made. However, if in individual cases shots were fired at the German soldiers, this may always be condoned in a country suffering invasion. During an occupation it would be different, naturally. No excuse can be offered for such an action in occupied territory."

"Various Belgian officers have told me of seeing crowds of men, women and children driven ahead of the German Army to protect the troops. This is so incredible that I must ask whether it has any foundation of truth."

"It is quite true. It is a barbarous and inhuman system of protecting the German advance. When the Belgian soldiers fired on the enemy they killed their own people. Again and again innocent civilians of both sexes were sacrificed to protect the invading army during attacks. A terrible slaughter!"

His Majesty made no effort to conceal his great grief and indignation. And again, as before, there seemed to be nothing to say.

"Even now," I said, "when the Belgians return the Grerman artillery fire they are bombarding their own towns."

"That is true, of course; but what can we do? And the civilian population is very brave. They fear invasion, but they no longer pay any attention to bombs. They work in the fields quite calmly, with shells dropping about. They must work or starve."

He then spoke of the morale of the troops, which is excellent, and of his sympathy for their situation.

"Their families are in Belgium," he said. "Many of them have heard nothing for months. But they are wonderful. They are fighting for life and to regain their families, their homes and their country. Christmas was very sad for them."

"In the event of the German Army's retiring from Belgium, do you believe, as many do, that there will be more destruction of cities? Brussels, for instance?"

"I think not."

I referred to my last visit to Belgium, when Brussels was the capital; and to the contrast now, when La Panne a small seaside resort hardly more than a village, contains the court, the residence of the King and Queen, and of the various members of his household. It seemed to me unlikely that La Panne would be attacked, as the Queen of the Belgians is a Bavarian.

"Do you think La Panne will be bombarded?" I asked.

"Why not?"

"I thought that possibly, on account of Your Majesty and the Queen being there, it would be spared.

"They are bombarding Furnes, where I go every day," he replied. "And there are German aeroplanes overhead all the time."

The mention of Furnes brought to my mind the flooded district near that village, which extends from Nieuport to Dixmude.

"Belgium has made a great sacrifice in flooding her lowlands," I said. "Will that land be as fertile as before?"

"Not for several years. The flooding of the productive land in the Yser district was only carried out as a military necessity. The water is sea water, of course, and will have a bad effect on the soil. Have you seen the flooded district?"

I told His Majesty that I had been to the Belgian trenches, and then across the inundated country to one of the outposts; a remarkable experience--one I should never forget.

The conversation shifted to America and her point of view; to American women who have married abroad. His Majesty mentioned especially Lady Curzon. Two children of the King were with Lord Curzon, in England, at the time. The Crown Prince, a boy of fourteen, tall and straight like his father, was with the King and Queen.

The King had risen and was standing in his favourite attitude, his elbow on the mantelpiece. I rose also.

"I was given some instructions as to the ceremonial of this audience," I said. "I am afraid I have not followed them!"

"What were you told to do?" said His Majesty, evidently amused. Then, without waiting for a reply;

"We are very democratic--we Belgians," he said. "More democratic than the Americans. The President of the United States has great power--very great power. He is a czar."

He referred to President Wilson in terms of great esteem--not only as the President but as a man. He spoke, also, with evident admiration of Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. McKinley, both of whom he had met.

I looked at the clock. It was after three and the interview had begun at two. I knew it was time for me to go, but I had been given no indication that the interview was at an end. Fragments of the coaching I had received came to my mind, but nothing useful; so I stated my difficulty frankly, and again the King's serious face lighted up with a smile.

"There is no formality here; but if you are going we must find the general for you."

So we shook hands and I went out; but the beautiful courtesy of the soldier King of the Belgians brought him out to the doorstep with me.

That is the final picture I have of Albert I, King of the Belgians--a tall young man, very fair and blue-eyed, in the dark blue uniform of a lieutenant-general of his army, wearing no orders or decorations, standing bareheaded in the wind and pointing out to me the direction in which I should go to find the general who had brought me.

He is a very courteous gentleman, with the eyes of one who loves the sea, for the King of the Belgians is a sailor in his heart; a tragic and heroic figure but thinking himself neither--thinking of himself not at all, indeed; only of his people, whose griefs are his to share but not to lighten; living day and night under the rumble of German artillery at Nieuport and Dixmude in that small corner of Belgium which remains to him.

He is a King who, without suspicion of guilt, has lost his country; who has seen since August of 1914 two-thirds of his army lost, his beautiful and ancient towns destroyed, his fertile lands thrown open to the sea.

I went on. The guns were still at work. At Nieuport, Dixmude, Furnes, Pervyse--all along that flat, flooded region--the work of destruction was going on. Overhead, flying high, were two German aeroplanes--the eyes of the war.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not politically, but humanely, it was time to make to America an authoritative statement as to conditions in Belgium.

The principle of non-interference in European politics is one of national policy and not to be questioned. But there can be no justification for the destruction of property and loss of innocent lives in Belgium. Germany had plead to the neutral nations her necessity, and had plead eloquently. On the other hand, the English and French authorities during the first year of the war had preserved a dignified silence, confident of the justice of their cause.

And official Belgium had made no complaint. She had bowed to the judgment of her allies, knowing that a time would come, at the end of the war, to speak of her situation and to demand justifiable redress.

But a million homeless Belgians in England and Holland proclaimed and still proclaim their wretchedness broadcast. The future may bring redress, but the present story of Belgium belongs to the world. America, the greatest of the neutral countries, has a right to know now the suffering and misery of this patient, hard-working people.

This war may last a long time; the western armies are at a deadlock. Since November of 1914 the line has varied only slightly here and there; has been pushed out or back only to straighten again.

Advances may be counted by feet. From Nieuport to Ypres attacks are waged round solitary farms which, by reason of the floods, have become tiny islands protected by a few men, mitrailleuses, and entanglements of barbed wire. Small attacking bodies capture such an outpost, wading breast-deep--drowning when wounded--in the stagnant water. There are no glorious charges here, no contagion of courage; simply a dogged and desperate struggle--a gain which the next day may see forfeited. The only thing that goes on steadily is the devastating work of the heavy guns on each side.

Meantime, both in England and in France, there has been a growing sentiment that the government's policy of silence has been a mistake. The cudgel of public opinion is a heavy one. The German propaganda in America has gone on steadily. There is no argument where one side only is presented. That splendid and solid part of the American people, the German population, essentially and naturally patriotic, keeping their faith in the Fatherland, is constantly presenting its case; and against that nothing official has been offered.

England is fighting heroically, stoically; but her stoicism is a vital mistake. This silence has nothing whatever to do with military movements, their success or their failure. It is more fundamental, an inherent characteristic of the English character, founded on reserve--perhaps tinged with that often misunderstood conviction of the Britisher that other persons cannot be really interested in what is strictly another's affairs.

The Allies are beginning to realise, however, that this war is not their own affair alone. It affects the world too profoundly. Mentally, morally, spiritually and commercially, it is an upheaval in which all must suffer.

And the English people, who have sent and are sending the very flower of their country's manhood to the front, are beginning to regret the error in judgment that has left the rest of the English-speaking world in comparative ignorance of the true situation.

They are sending the best they have--men of high ideals, who, as volunteers, go out to fight for what they consider a just cause. The old families, in which love of country and self-sacrifice are traditions, have suffered heavily.

The crux of the situation is Belgium--the violation of her neutrality; the conduct of the invading army; her unnecessary and unjustifiable suffering. And Belgium has felt that the time to speak has come.

Mary Roberts Rinehart