The Greatest Story About Belgium Never Told
Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
The fun thing about Europe is that with a playground this crowded and a timeframe this long, virtually everyone’s had their 15 minutes at the big boys’ table. Not just your Frances or United Kingdoms, but also places like Austria, Portugal, the Netherlands. Hell, there’s even something called “the Swedish imperial period” — if you ever happen to fall down a manhole and pop out in the 17th century, the ABBA people will fuck you up. Everyone in our cozy little crypt has had their golden age.
Well, except for Belgium.
It’s a punchline all too obvious, but in this case - mostly true. I imagine most people Stateside, including Jon Stewart, would be hard pressed to come up with a single fact about Belgium (fries and waffles are carbs, not facts). And it’s not much better over here - if you’re lucky, you might get hits on “pedophile scandals” or “heartless EU bureaucracy,” but that’s about it. Not exactly the stuff imperial glory is made of.
Here’s the thing though: Belgium might actually have something even better — a story of absolutely iconic bravery, which made it a living symbol during the War of Wars.
It is the end of the 19th century. Costume drama times, but costume-with-factory-smoke, not costume-with-toothless-barwench. Somewhere out there, Lady Deadlock (Gillian Anderson) is dead. Belgium is a young country, the result of the first successful European national uprising of the new age, owing said success to its strategic position vis-à-vis Great Britain, and the fact that Russia — Europe’s gendarme du jour — was momentarily distracted by skullfucking into submission the concurrently rebellious Poland. (Inspired by Belgium’s example, Poles will henceforth attempt to rebrand their invitingly troddable homeland from “the tsar’s front lawn” to “strategic Western ally,” with decidedly mixed results).
The country is ruled by King Albert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Queen Elizabeth (Rachel McAdams), an almost cartoonishly unlikely royal pair. Albert is big and somewhat ungainly. He’s a quiet, kind, unimposing man in thick glasses, who gets easily flustered when addressing big gatherings and frankly doesn’t handle 1-on-1 meetings that great either. He likes biking, and hiking, and not having to choose a side in impending worldwide conflagrations. His wife is a polar opposite — tiny and bursting with energy, she comes from the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach (fun family trait: schizophrenia!) which gave us, among other things, the Disney logo (kind of). However, their marriage is a happy one, and they are well-liked, if low-key. They have three kids, and you could say they run a mom-and-pop monarchy, just being their cute, unobtrusive, Belgian selves.
Unfortunately, the world around them was coalescing into two opposing blocs, headed by France, Great Britain and Russia on one side, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. That Belgian neutrality would be respected was highly unlikely, since the entire German strategy consisted of bypassing the fortifications on the French-German border (Dame Judi Dench) and entering France through Belgium. Still, until the very end, Belgium desperately tried to keep out of it. When, on 2nd August 1914, the German ultimatum arrived in Brussels, King Albert personally drafted the response, with his wife - a German princess, after all - translating it on the spot. It was calm but firm: Belgium would allow neither French nor German forces to pass through her territory, as it would constitute a violation of her neutrality.
Two days later, the German war machine came knocking.
And that’s when things got weird. First of all, not only did the Belgians not lay down arms, but their tiny army (roughly 10 times smaller than the German forces) actually repelled the initial strike. And secondly, the amiable, bumbling academic was suddenly abducted by body-snatchers, and replaced by an unshakable, majestic leader with a surprising tactical and political acumen. King Albert personally headed the Belgian army in defending their homeland - one of the very few monarchs who actually did. He led a cohesively defensive campaign, stopping the officers, roused by their initial success, from mounting an unwise counter-attack, and only falling back when it was absolutely necessary to save the army from complete annihilation.
After weathering the onslaught for 2 weeks, the Belgians made the difficult decision of retreating to heavily-fortified Antwerp, leaving the heartland of their country - including the capital - defenseless. It was… painful. You see, the point of the whole Belgian maneuver was that it would allow Germany to quickly incapacitate France, and move the bulk of their forces east, before the “Russian steamroller” got going. The Belgians’ resistance threw a wrench into the works, and the Germans were livid. Helpless, the King and Queen watched as their country was systematically burnt to the ground. Furthermore, not only was Belgium left to fend for itself (Britain sent her reinforcements into France instead), but once it became clear that France would not be Blitzkrieged and both sides dug into their trenches, Germany diverted some of its forces north, to squash the bothersome kingdom out once and for all.
All was lost. Following heavy bombardment, the desperate Belgian army abandoned Antwerp and fell back even farther south, rapidly running out of country to retreat to. It had been 2 months since the initial assault, and all the effort and sacrifice seemed to be for naught. Finally, with the French border almost in sight, the King decided they would not move another inch. Come what may, this would be their final stand. They dug in on a tiny sliver of land, wedged into France and protected by the river Yser and the Ypres channel, the last 12 square miles of unoccupied Belgium.
And they held it for 4 years - until the end of the war.
In a stroke of genius, Albert gave the order to open the sluices of Nieuwpoort, flooding the Yser valley, making the position infinitely more defensible, and thus prevented the Germans from capturing French ports on the English Channel. This was possible mostly due to the nature of early 20th century, “positional” warfare - there were no unmanned drones, no smart missiles, and everyone kindly agreed to not drop bombs from balloons (which sounds like a joke, but is actually an international document). Still, the next four years were a series of almost daily battles and skirmishes. The King visited the front line daily, a hero to his soldiers and an universally beloved icon to the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, the Queen made her way towards sainthood, working at the field hospitals, and — when the basic supplies were running out — phoning London’s Harrods to arrange a delivery.
The saddest part is they really only wanted to be left alone. When the US finally joined the war in 1917, Albert did not sign the joint allied declaration of objectives presented to Woodrow Wilson (basically a list of “who wants what once the war is over”). The Belgians would not seek any territorial gains or compensation. They would just like their country back, please.
One day, as the King was surveying the trenches and asking the soldiers whether were in need of anything, one of the Privates mustered up the courage to ask “And what do you need, Your Highness?” The King fell silent for a moment, and then, with typical hesitation replied quietly:
“I’d like to go back to Brussels…”
“Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. Sometimes he likes to think he does other things as well.”
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