Above the Battle/Chapter 6

Above the Battle by Romain Rolland, translated by Charles Kay Ogden
VI. To the People That is Suffering for Justice



(For King Albert's Book.)[1]

Belgium has just written an Epic, whose echoes will resound throughout the ages. Like the three hundred Spartans, the little Belgian army confronts for three months the German Colossus; Leman-Leonides; the Thermopylæ of Liége; Louvain, like Troy, burnt; the deeds of King Albert surrounded by his valiant men: with what legendary grandeur are these figures already invested, and history has not yet completed their story! The heroism of this people, who, without a murmur, sacrificed everything for honour, has burst like a thunderclap upon us at a time when the spirit of victorious Germany was enthroning in the world a conception of political realism, resting stolidly on force and self-interest. It was a liberation of the pressed idealism of the West. And that the signal should have been given by this little nation seemed a miracle.

Men call the sudden appearance of a hidden reality a miracle. It is the shock of danger which makes us best understand the character of individuals and of nations. What discoveries this war has caused us to make in those around us, even among those nearest and dearest to us! What heroic hearts and savage beasts! The inner soul, not a new soul, reveals itself.

In this fearful hour Belgium has seen the hidden genius of her race emerge. The sterling qualities that she has displayed during the last three months evoke admiration; it should not surprise any one who, in the pages of history, has felt, coursing through the ages, the vigorous sap of her people. Small in numbers and in territory, but one of the greatest in Europe in virtue of her overflowing vitality. The Belgians of to-day are the sons of the Flemings of Courtrai. The men of this land never feared to oppose their powerful neighbours, the kings of France or Spain—now heroes, now victims, Artevelde and Egmont. Their soil, watered by the blood of millions of warriors, is the most fertile in Europe in the harvests of the spirit. From it arose the art of modern painting, spread throughout the world by the school of the van Eycks at the time of the Renaissance. From it arose the art of modern music, of that polyphony which thrilled through France, Germany, and Italy for nearly two centuries. From it, too, came the superb poetic efflorescence of our times; and the two writers who most brilliantly represent French literature in the world, Maeterlinck and Verhaeren, are Belgian. They are the people who have suffered most and have borne their sufferings most bravely and cheerfully; the martyr-people of Philip II and of Kaiser Wilhelm; and they are the people of Rubens, the people of Kermesses and of Till Ulenspiegel.

He who knows the amazing epic re-told by Charles de Coster: The heroic, joyous, and glorious adventures of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedjak, those two Flemish worthies who might take their places side by side with the immortal Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza—he who has seen that dauntless spirit at work, rough and facetious, rebellious by nature, always offending the established powers, running the gauntlet of all trials and hardships, and emerging from them always gay and smiling—realises also the destinies of the nation that gave birth to Ulenspiegel, and even in the darkest hour fearlessly looks towards the approaching dawn of rich and happy days. Belgium may be invaded. The Belgian people will never be conquered nor crushed. The Belgian people cannot die.

At the end of the story of Till Ulenspiegel, when they think he is dead, and are going to bury him, he wakes up:

"Are they," he asks "going to bury Ulenspiegel the soul, Nele the heart of mother Flanders? Sleep, perhaps, but die, no! Come Nele."

And he departed, singing his sixth song. But no one knows where he sang his last.

  1. Published by the Daily Telegraph, London, 1914.