Prince George and his wife Mary (‘May’ to the family), pictured below at the Coronation in 1911, had six children when George was ‘elevated’ from Duke of York to King in 1910. Edward (or David) was born in 1894, and Albert George (Bertie) on 14th December 1895, at York Cottage, on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. George, the second son of Edward VII, owed his position as monarch to the sudden death in 1892 of his dissolute elder brother Eddy from influenza that turned into pneumonia less than a week after his twenty-eighth birthday. So, many considered the birth of a second son born to George and Mary as providing a ‘spare to the heir’, a good insurance policy.
York Cottage, where the future George VI was born, was given to George and Mary upon their marriage by the future Edward VII in 1893. It was a far more modest affair than the main house at Sandringham, situated a few hundred yards away on a grassy knoll. It had been built by Edward, when Duke of York, as overflow accommodation for shooting parties. ‘The first thing that strikes a visitor about the house is its smallness and ugliness,’ wrote Sarah Bradford, the royal biographer. It was also highly cramped, given that it was home not just to the couple and eventually six children but also to equerries and ladies-in-waiting, private secretaries, four adult pages, a chef, a valet, ten footmen, three wine butlers, nurses, nursemaids, housemaids and various handymen.
The two boys and Princess Mary arrived in 1897, followed by Prince Henry, born in 1900, Prince George in 1902 and Prince John in 1905. They spent most of their time in one or two rooms upstairs: the day nursery and the slightly larger night nursery, which looked out over a pond to a park beyond where deer roamed.
John Buchan’s ‘Non-Biography’:
Thirty years later, in April 1935, ahead of King George V’s Silver Jubilee ceremonies and celebrations, the writer John Buchan (1875-1940) published what he described as:
… not a biography of the King, … but an attempt to provide a picture … of his reign, with the Throne as the continuing thing through an epoch of unprecedented change… as the abiding background.John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35 (Preface & Prologue). London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Buchan was a Scottish historian and writer, born in Perth, who studied at Glasgow and Oxford and then followed a long career in politics, diplomacy and publishing. He wrote more than sixty books, including history, biography, essays, stories and novels. His best-known works are a series of secret-service thrillers published between 1915 and 1936, with the character Richard Hannay as the hero of the stories. Between 1901 and 1903, he worked for the British Government in South Africa as a member of the group known as Milner’s Kindergarten. A British Government official and later minister, Viscount Milner, gathered together a group of gifted young Oxford men who were organising reconstruction work after the South African War of 1899-1901. It was probably during this time in South Africa that Buchan began to shape the character of his fictional character, Richard Hannay.
Buchan later became director of information for the British Government and then assistant director of the Reuters news agency. He was elected Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities in June 1927. The following month, he made a brilliant maiden speech in Parliament, acclaimed by his fellow politician as the best heard since 1906. In 1935, he was created 1st Baron (Lord) Tweedsmuir and appointed Governor-General of Canada, a post he held until his death. He is best known today for his spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915 and first filmed in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock. The story begins on the eve of war in Europe in 1914. Hannay is back in London from South Africa after making money in the gold mines. One evening, he returns to his flat to find a man on the floor with a knife through his chest. Alone in the world with the knowledge that German spies are gaining vital information on British warships, Hannay flees to the hills of Galloway until he finds a way of telling the British Government what he knows.
Meanwhile, the spies divide their time between chasing Hannay and planning their escape from Britain via the Thirty-Nine Steps. Hannay’s task is to reach the steps in time, but first, he has to find out where they are while avoiding both the spies and the police, who are also chasing him. The truth may be stranger than fiction, and Buchan’s tale was undoubtedly a reflection of the mood of Britain at the time with the crisis on the Continent that was threatening to engulf it in war.
The Succession of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha:
On 6th May 1910, King Edward VII, the late Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, died. He was the first and last monarch to die as a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. His body, at first, lay in State in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, from where it was conveyed in solemn procession to Westminster Hall. There, for three days, in a similar fashion to that we have witnessed following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, it rested on a great bier, guarded day and night by his soldiers, while all classes of his people filed silently past. On Friday 20th May came the State Funeral, when the deceased king was carried through the thronged London streets on his way to Windsor Castle, where he was laid to rest in the vaults of St George’s Chapel with the stately rites which attend a monarch’s burial. On the day of their grandfather’s funeral, David and Bertie marched behind his coffin in Windsor, from the station to St George’s Chapel.
At Windsor, at the end of the funerary rites of Edward VII, the Garter King-at-Arms announced that it had pleased God to call a great prince out of this transitory world unto His Mercy and that his son King George V now reigned in his stead. To the spectators who watched the cortége pass along the Mall in the bright May weather, it seemed that all the splendour of all the earth had come to pay its tribute. For the grandsons, the elevation of their father meant that David was now first in line to the throne and Bertie second.
It seemed, too, that the British monarchy was entrenched in the world beyond fear of attack or decay. Besides the new King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, eight other kings followed the coffin – the German Emperor, the King of the Belgians, the sovereigns of Norway, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Portugal and Denmark. The outgoing President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was also present, and there were thirty other foreign royal princes. At that moment, it was not possible to even guess that many of these figures would, in four short years, be protagonists in a cataclysmic drama which would bring havoc to their thrones. In the procession was the Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, his future allies King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the latter’s death in Sarajevo proving to be the catalyst that set the conflagration of the First World War alight.
King Edward had reigned only nine years, but he had long been familiar to his people at home and in the Empire as Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne for almost sixty years. His influence had been spread over many decades, and it is significant that the entire period up to the war became known as Edwardian to historians. As Buchan put it, the long reign of his mother, Queen Victoria, had prevented him from assuming responsibility in the plenitude of his powers. Still, his difficult apprenticeship had enabled him to acquire a wide experience in public affairs. It had also helped him to develop his social gifts of laying his mind alongside others of every rank and race, in addition to a quick sympathy and warm humanity.
Edward VII had few personal or national prejudices and could therefore see into the hearts of people of diverse classes and nations. As a constitutional monarch, he was beyond reproach, for he showed no favouritism towards his ministers and never interfered in matters of policy. However, he exercised his right to counsel moderation over the question of Home Rule for Ireland, the Budget crisis and the constitutional struggle between the Lords and Commons when he created new peers in order to end the struggle. He died in 1910 in the midst of the crisis that was resolved the following year by the Parliament Act of 1911, restricting the power of the unelected House of Lords. He had dignity but continued to enjoy life and was keen for his subjects to be able to do the same. He was widely popular, making the Crown a modern, democratic institution.
Most significantly for the future, Edward VII presided over the diplomatic realignments of 1904-07, having strong foreign policy views, and he prided himself on being well informed on these matters. Therefore, he exercised considerable influence over the formulation of policy. His attitudes were imperialistic and jingoistic, however. As Prince of Wales, he had been infuriated by Liberal opposition to the Afghan War of 1878-9 and overjoyed at the news of the Jameson Raid on Transvaal in 1895, supporting Cecil Rhodes’ involvement in it and irritated by the Kaiser’s telegram to President Kruger offering support. Throughout his adult life, as well as after becoming king in 1901, Edward maintained a determined hostility towards Germany. The roots of this antipathy appear partly to have lain partly in his opposition to his mother, Queen Victoria, whom he regarded as being excessively friendly to Prussia, and his antipathy to the strict Prussian pedagogue appointed by his parents to instruct him. Edward’s sympathies in the Prussian-Danish War of 1864 rested firmly with the Danish relatives of his wife, Alexandra. After his accession to the throne, he became an important sponsor of the anti-German group of policy-makers around Sir Francis Bertie.
At the same time, Edward VII was credited with helping bring about a rapprochement with France, inspiring a personal liking among the French people and breaking down old suspicions. He did not attempt to start alliances, however, but only made them possible, his purpose always being one of conciliation and peace. The king’s influence reached its height in 1903 when an official visit to Paris was called the most important visit in royal history. It paved the way for the Entente between the two rivals. Relations between the two empires were still soured by their scramble for territories in Africa, the Fashoda Incident and the Boer War. The visit, which had been organised on Edward’s own initiative, was a public relations triumph. After the Entente had been signed, Edward continued to work towards an agreement with Russia, even though, like many of his countrymen, he detested the tsarist political system and remained suspicious of Russian designs on Persia, Afghanistan and northern India.
In 1906, when he heard that the Russian foreign minister Izvolsky was in Paris, he rushed south from Balmoral, hoping to set up a meeting with him. Izvolsky responded positively, making the journey to London to meet the king. According to Charles Hardinge, a contemporary Conservative politician and diplomat, these talks helped materially to smooth the path of negotiations then in progress for an agreement with Russia. In both these instances, in Paris and in London, however, the king was not deploying executive powers as such but acting as a kind of supernumerary ambassador. Nevertheless, he could do this because his priorities accorded closely with those of the Liberal Imperialist faction in Whitehall, whose foreign policy dominance he had helped reinforce.
His nephew, Wilhelm, was one of the few people he was not altogether tolerant of, but he did not allow this to prejudice him against the German people. He was also credited with the aim of encircling Germany, but this has no basis in contemporary, primary-source evidence. His last visit to Vienna, which in Berlin was believed to be an attempt to win Austria away from the Triple Alliance, was, in fact, devoted to seeking Austria’s help to bring about a closer relationship between Germany and Britain. Lord Vantissart, writing in 1958, told of how he had once been appointed as a temporary extra private secretary to accompany King Edward to Biarritz and conduct his correspondence in French. He also noted the personal nature of the King’s francophile attitude:
… he was a francophil who liked talking about France or people in France, and he knew a lot about them. They liked talking about him too, respected him as a hedonist without overrating his performances. I heard too that he was witty, but much is attributed to those who stand high. I had never seen anyone so flattered and, like most people who have everything their own way, he was not a good advertisement of his kind. … One could easily understand how he popularised the Monarchy which before him had been only revered.
In 1910, the new King, her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, George V, was about to become forty-five. Though not yet a familiar figure, wherever he went, he attracted the affection of his people, for he radiated friendliness and courtesy. George V’s Coronation in June 1911 was the first seen in Britain for sixty-five years. Though it was not novel, unlike his father’s, it did not take place under the shadow of war; in that case, the South African war. It was a year of peace and prosperity, and crowds gathered such as London had never known. The Coronation was, in the King’s words, a gathering up of the treasures of the past and a preparation for the future’s path. For many monarchs, that future path was to be pre-ordained. Certainly, there were great expectations placed upon kings, princes and even princesses from an early age, especially on heirs to the throne, but also on their siblings.
Like their father before them, the two boys – David and Bertie, were ‘destined’ for the Royal Navy. For David, this would be a brief spell before he assumed his duties of Prince Of Wales, but for Bertie, it was intended as a career. On 15th September 1911, at the age of seventeen, Prince Albert George was commissioned as a junior midshipman on the battleship HMS Collingwood, in the first stage of a naval career, which, like that of his father, he expected to be his life for the next few years at least. There was a major difference between father and son, however. While the future George V loved both the navy and the sea, his son worshipped the navy as an institution but did not much like the sea itself, suffering very badly with seasickness. He also continued to be plagued with shyness and stuttering, as recorded by many of his fellow officers. Proposing a toast to ‘the King’ in a Royal Navy wardroom became a torment because of his fear of making the ‘k’ sound.
The European Monarchies & The July Crisis of 1914:
At the core of the monarchical club that reigned over Europe was the trio of imperial cousins: Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V. The latter two were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mother of George V and Nicholas II were sisters of the House of Denmark. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II were both great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser’s great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.
But it is difficult assessing how much influence these monarchs wielded over or within their respective executives. Britain, Germany and Russia represented three very different forms of monarchy. Russia was an autocracy in which the parliamentary and constitutional restraints on the monarch’s authority were weak. Nicholas II could order the mobilisation of the Imperial Armed Forces without reference to his ministers or the Duma, the National Assembly. This, of course, he did, one of the key decisions leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. Like Edward VII before him, George V was a constitutional monarch, ruling through and with Parliament, with no direct access to the levers of power. He was, however, the ceremonial Head of the Armed Forces and therefore had to assent to any declaration of war or military action by his Prime Minister.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was somewhere in between these two ‘models’. In the united Germany of 1870 and after, a constitutional and parliamentary system was grafted onto elements of the old Prussian military monarchy that had survived unification. But the formal instruments of governance were not necessarily the most significant determinants of monarchical influence. Other important factors were the determination, competence and intellectual grasp of the monarch himself in conjunction with his ministers.
George V was very different from his father in matters of State, especially regarding foreign affairs. Until his accession in 1910, he had acquired only the sketchiest sense of Britain’s relations with other powers. The Austrian ambassador Count Mensdorff was delighted with the new king, who seemed, by contrast with his father, to be innocent of strong biases for or against any foreign state. If Mensdorff hoped the changing of the guard would attenuate the anti-German theme he detected in British policy, he would soon be disappointed. In foreign policy, the new monarch’s seeming neutrality merely meant that policy remained firmly in the hands of the liberal imperialists around Grey.
George never acquired a political network to rival his father’s, refrained from backstairs intrigue and avoided expounding policy without the explicit permission of his ministers. He was in more or less constant communication with Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, granting him frequent audiences whenever he was in London. He was scrupulous about seeking Grey’s approval for the content of political conversations with foreign representatives, especially his German relatives. George’s accession, therefore, resulted in the Crown’s influence on the general orientation of foreign policy, even though the two monarchs wielded identical constitutional powers.
Therefore, unlike the Russian foreign ministers, Stolypin and Kokovtsov, and the German ministers, Bülow and Bethmann-Hollweg, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had no reason to fear unwarranted interventions by his Sovereign. Both George V and his Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, were perfectly happy to be led by their foreign secretary in international matters. Hence, Grey was undoubtedly the most powerful foreign minister of pre-war Europe.
In his War Memoirs (1933-38), David Lloyd George wrote of how the reticence and secrecy in the Liberal governments of 1906-15, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, practically ruled out three-quarters of the cabinet from…
“… the chance of making any genuine contribution to the momentous questions then fermenting on the continent of Europe, which ultimately ended in an explosion that almost shattered the civilisation of the world. …
“… nothing was said about our military commitments. There was an atmosphere of “hush-hush” about every allusion to our relations with France, Russia and Germany. Direct questions were not encouraged. Discussions, if they could be called discussions, on foreign affairs were confined to the elder statesmen… Apart from the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary only two or three men were expected to make any contribution on the infrequent occasions when the continental situation was brought to our awed attention. …
“… we were hardly qualified to express any opinion on so important a matter, for we were not privileged to know any more of the essential facts than those which the ordinary newspaper reader could gather. … the editor of a great London journal was better informed about what was happening in the capitals of the world than any cabinet minister. … all the information we got was carefully filtered … much of the information essential for forming a sound opinion was deliberately withheld.”From The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George (Nicholson & Watson, 1933-38)
In the spring of 1913, there was irritation in Paris at the current ‘flirtation’ between the courts of St James and Berlin, King George being suspected of seeking warmer relations with Germany. For Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador in St Petersburg, the slightest evidence of a thaw in relations between Vienna and St Petersburg was enough to conjure up the horrifying prospect that Russia might abandon the Entente and join forces with Germany and Austria, as it had done during the Three Emperors’ Leagues of the 1870s and 1880s.
As early as 1911, Grey had warned Count Beckendorff, the Russian ambassador in London, that he might soon be forced to issue public ‘disavowals’ of Russian activity in Persia and that Russia was placing the future of the Convention at risk. This was an issue that attracted interest not just in the Foreign Office but in the cabinet, Parliament and the press. When Sazanov and Grey met at Balmoral in September 1912 for talks focused mainly on the Persian question, there were public demonstrations against the Russian minister. Fear for Britain’s imperial future combined with the traditional Russophobia of the liberal imperialists and the British press, as demonstrated in the cartoon and articles from 1912-1913 below.
These concerns remained throughout 1913 and into early 1914. During the last days of July 1914, the German Kaiser’s attention was focused on Britain. This was partly because, like many Germans, he saw the avoidance of a general war as dependent on Britain as the power at the fulcrum of the continental system. In so doing, Wilhelm shared in a broader tendency to overestimate Britain’s weight in continental diplomacy and to underestimate the degree to which its key policy-makers (Grey in particular) had already committed themselves to a specific course.
There was also a psychological element: Great Britain was the country in which Wilhelm had desperately sought but rarely found affection, recognition and approval. It represented much that he admired – a well-equipped modern navy, wealth, sophistication and worldliness. Besides, the members of the aristocratic circles in which he mixed had poised comportments that he admired but found difficult to emulate. Moreover, it was the home of his late grandmother, whom he later remarked would never have allowed Nicky and George to gang up on him. It was, latterly, the realm of his envied and detested uncle, Edward VII, who had succeeded – where he had failed with his empire – in improving its international standing. A tangle of emotions and associations was always in play when Wilhelm attempted to interpret the vicissitudes of British policy.
The last steps to war began on 28th July, when, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Against this background, the Kaiser was hugely encouraged by a message from his brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, received on the same day, suggesting that George V intended to keep Britain out of the war. Early on the morning of the 26th, Henry, who had been yachting at Cowes, rushed to Buckingham Palace to take his leave of the British king before returning to Germany. A conversation had taken place between the two men, in which Henry claimed that George had said:
“We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral. “
These words were cabled to the Kaiser as soon as the prince reached Kiel harbour on 28th July. Wilhelm viewed this statement as a tacit assurance of British neutrality, and when Tirpitz challenged him on his reading of it, he replied, with a characteristic blend of pomposity and nativity, “I have the word of a king, and that is enough for me!” Whether the British king had, in fact, uttered the words Prince Henry attributed to him is unclear. His diary is predictably uninformative on the subject. It simply states: Henry of Prussia came to see me early; he returns at once to Germany. But another account of the meeting, probably composed by the monarch at the request of Sir Edward Grey, provides more detail. According to this source, when Henry of Prussia asked George V what England would do in the event of a European war, he replied:
“I don’t know what we shall do, we have no quarrel with anyone, and I hope we shall remain neutral. But if Germany declared war on Russia, then I am afraid we shall be dragged into it. But you can be sure that I and my Government will do all we can to prevent a European War!
There was, therefore, more than a measure of wishful thinking in Prince Henry’s report of his exchange with the king, but we cannot rule out the possibility that George V adjusted his own account of the meeting to the expectations of the foreign secretary, in which the truth may lie somewhere between the two accounts. In any case, Henry’s telegram was enough to replenish the Kaiser’s confidence that Britain would stay out, and his optimism seemed to be borne out by the reluctance of the British Government, and specifically of Grey, to make known their intentions. Wilhelm was therefore shocked to learn, on the 30th, of a conversation between Grey and Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London, in which the former had warned that whereas Britain would stand aside if the conflict remained confined to Austria, Serbia and Russia, it would intervene on the side of the Entente if Germany and France became directly involved. Wilhelm scribbled furiously that the British were ‘scoundrels … mean shopkeepers’ who wanted to force Germany to leave Austria ‘in the lurch’ and who dared to threaten it with dire consequences while refusing to pull their continental allies back from the brink of war.
Last Days – The Countdown to War:
On 31st July, after further wavering over military measures, news arrived in Berlin from Moscow that the Russians had ordered the total mobilisation from midnight on the previous night. The Kaiser then ordered that the State of Imminent Danger of War (SIDW) be declared immediately, and the order was issued to the armed forces by Falkenhayn at 1.00 p.m. the same day.
The responsibility for being first to mobilise lay squarely with the Russians, at least as far as the German leadership was concerned, a point which enabled them to claim that there could be no doubt about the defensive character of Germany’s entry into the war. The leadership of the Social Democrats (SPD) did not oppose a government obliged to defend itself against a Russian attack since Russophobia was just as strong within the SPD as it was in the ruling British Liberal Party. Late in the night of the 31st, the German embassy in London informed the Foreign Office that in response to the Tsar’s mobilisation order, Berlin had declared the SIDW and announced an ultimatum that unless Russia rescinded the order immediately, Germany would be obliged to mobilise its own forces, which would ‘mean war.’ This sounded alarm bells in London, and at 1.30 a.m., PM Herbert Asquith went with Edward Grey and Grey’s private secretary to wake the king so that he could send a telegram to the Tsar, appealing for the mobilisation to be halted. Asquith later described the scene:
The poor king was hauled from his bed and one of my strangest experiences (& as you know I have had a good lot) was sitting with him – he in a brown dressing gown over his night shirt & with copious signs of having been wakened from his ‘beauty sleep’ – while I read the message & the proposed answer. All he did was suggest that it should be made more personal and direct – by the insertion of the words ‘My dear Nicky’ – and the addition at the end of the signature ‘Georgie’!Asquith to Venetia Stanley, London, 1 August 1914, in Brock and Brock, (eds.), Letters to Venetia Stanley p. 140.
When the Russian Government refused to rescind its mobilisation order, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August 1914. Wilhelm’s thinking then turned once more to Britain. Seen in combination with Grey’s warnings, the Russian mobilisation had ‘proved’ to him that Britain now planned to exploit the situation for its own ends, turning all the European nations, including Austria, against Germany. Then, shortly after 5 p. m. on 1st August, came sensational news that Grey was offering not just that Britain would stay out of the war if Germany refrained from attacking France but was also willing to vouch for French neutrality as well. The Kaiser’s return telegram to George V warmly accepting his Government’s proposal of French neutrality and guaranteeing that his troops would continue to be held on the French border had caused consternation in London. It became apparent that no one at the Foreign Office but Grey himself had been privy to these telegraphic negotiations, let alone the King, and the foreign secretary was summoned urgently to Buckingham Palace to provide an explanation and a draft reply. Later that evening, Grey pencilled the text that became George V’s answer to the Kaiser’s telegram:
‘There must be some misunderstanding as to a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey this afternoon when they were discussing how actual fighting between German and French armies might be avoided while there is still a chance of some agreement between Austria and Russia. Sir Edward Grey will arrange to see Prince Lichnowsky early tomorrow to ascertain whether there is a misunderstanding on his part.’
Any remaining ambiguity was dispelled by a further telegram from Lichnowsky, who had received Berlin’s acceptance of the British ‘proposal’ at the same time as King George had received his cousin’s exuberant telegram. The German ambassador wrote home: Since there is no British proposal at all, your telegram (is) inoperative. Therefore (I) have taken no further steps. Moltke, the chief of staff, who had been told to suspend the Schlieffen Plan while these dispatches between London and Berlin were being exchanged, was summoned to the palace by the Kaiser. Wilhelm showed Moltke the telegram he had received outlining the corrected British position and told him: “Now you can do what you want.” With those words, diplomacy was duly ended, and Europe stood on the brink of a cataclysm that every major power supposedly wanted to avoid. On the 3rd, Germany duly declared war on France.
Grey, meanwhile, ultimately remained true to the Ententiste line he had pursued since 1912, but his moments of circumspection remind us of a complicating feature of the July Crisis, namely that the bitter choices between opposed options divided not only parties and cabinets but also the minds of kings, ministers and decision-makers. Writing in his war memoirs, Lloyd George described the outbreak of war as a tragic accident. No power had wanted conflict, wrote the man who had been Prime Minister from 1916 to 1918, but governments had ended up ‘backing… over the precipice’ into war.
This apparently authoritative view contradicted the so-called war guilt clause of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which stated that the aggression of Germany and her allies was responsible for the war.
The Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Family goes to war with Germany:
On 4th August, German forces invaded neutral Belgium as part of Moltke’s military strategy, based on the Schlieffen Plan. Citing its long-held commitments to Belgian neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany, beginning the pan-European war.
Britain entered the war because it, too, could not afford to see Germany triumphant. For centuries, British foreign policy had been underpinned by the desire to uphold the balance of power, to prevent one State from becoming too powerful, and by the need to keep the coast of Flanders out of hostile hands that might use it to mount a threat to British naval security. Recently, the historian Gary Sheffield has argued that although some historians have maintained that it was in Britain’s interests to stay aloof from the conflict, Britain entered the war for the same reasons it had fought Napoleon. Sheffield has also asserted that, at best, Germany and Austria-Hungary launched a reckless gamble that went badly wrong and, at worst, a war of aggression and conquest that proved to be far removed from the swift and decisive venture that they had thought it would be.
On 29th July, Prince Albert George’s ship, the Collingwood, together with other members of the Battle Squadrons, had left Portland for Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, off the extreme northern tip of Scotland, with the task of guarding the northern entrance to the North Sea from the Germans. On the 6th, the First British casualties occurred as HMS Amphion was sunk in the North Sea. On the 28th, the Battle of Heligoland Bight took place, the first naval engagement of the war. But after just three weeks, Bertie went down with the first of several medical conditions that were to cast a shadow over his naval career. Suffering violent pains in his stomach with difficulty breathing, he was diagnosed with appendicitis, and on 9th September, his appendix was removed in an Aberdeen hospital. Yet he remained semi-invalid at eighteen, and just a year after receiving his commission, while his contemporaries were fighting and dying for their country, ruled over by his father, Bertie joined the War Staff at the Admiralty.
In his 1941 book, Great Contemporaries, Winston Churchill wrote of how the King and Queen threw themselves into every kind of war work and set an example to all. The King inspected and reviewed the growing armies, which for many months were without weapons. On a daily basis, he encouraged and assisted his ministers in their various tasks. As soon as the Prince of Wales reached the minimum age, he was allowed to go to the Front, where he was repeatedly under shell and rifle fire in the trenches as a junior officer of the Guards. “My father has four sons,” he said, “so why should I be fettered?”
The battles to halt the German advance all but destroyed Britain’s small professional army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). A huge recruiting campaign was needed to replace them.
Meanwhile, the first major battles took place on the Western Front at the Marne and Aisne, and British aircraft carried out the first air raid on Germany. In October, the Battle of Ypres saw the Germans attempt to break through to Channel ports.
In mid-December, 137 civilians were killed when Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby were shelled by German ships, as shown on the map above. The New Year of 1915 saw the first Zeppelin raid on Britain at the Norfolk ports of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn on 19-20 January. Meanwhile, at Christmas, Princess Mary tried to raise the spirits of the British troops at the Front:
As yet, however, as can be seen in the statistics above, British losses were far lower than those of the French and Russians on the Entente side, not to mention those among the Triple Alliance. Then, on 19th February, the Gallipoli Campaign began with French and the Royal Navy’s ships bombarding Turkish positions.
By contrast, Bertie was finding the work at the Admiralty dull and pressed his superior officers to be allowed to return to the Collingwood. He did so in February 1915 but was on board for only a few months before he began to suffer stomach pains again. He was suffering, as it turned out, from an ulcer, but doctors had failed to diagnose it. Bertie spent the rest of the year ashore, initially at Abergeldie but then at Sandringham, along with his father, where the two of them became close. During this time, Bertie learnt a lot about what it was like to be a king during wartime, an experience that he was able to draw on when he found himself in the same position two decades later.
The Liberal Government, which had been in power since 1905, was replaced by the Asquith coalition ministry under the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith from May 1915 to December 1916. It was formed as a multi-party wartime coalition nine months after the beginning of the First World War but collapsed when the Conservative Party withdrew. Asquith and most of the Liberals then moved into opposition, while the Conservatives formed a new coalition with a minority of Liberals under the leadership of Liberal David Lloyd George as PM.
The King had, since his accession, enjoyed remarkably good health; since an attack of typhoid fever in 1898, he had never had a serious illness. He frequently visited the war zone, and the photographs of him in his steel helmet attest to the numerous occasions when he came under or within the enemy’s fire. But on his visit to the front in October 1915, he met with a serious accident. These visits were strenuous affairs for, apart from the long journeys, the King worked assiduously every morning at the papers forwarded from London. At Aire, he reviewed the troops with Sir Douglas Haig and met President Poincaré at Doullens. At Amiens, he was met by General Joffre on parade; at Cassel, he reviewed the British Second Army and at Bailleul, the Canadian Corps.
At Labuissiére, Haig again received the King, reviewing the troops of Rawlinson and Gough. He was proceeding to inspect a squadron of the Royal Flying Corps when an unexpected outbreak of cheering made his horse rear and fall back on him, slipping on the muddy ground, crushing and mangling the King in a most grievous manner. The King lay very still for a moment, and the onlookers feared the worst. The Queen was warned, and for two days, the King rested before returning home, carried on a stretcher aboard a train and a hospital ship, and reaching Buckingham Palace in a motor ambulance in the evening. Within two days, he had fully recovered, but it had been a narrow escape for both him and his country in what had turned out to be a melancholy first full year of the war. Some months later, Churchill went to see him at the Palace when he resigned from the Cabinet, and he later wrote that he was…
…shocked at his shattered and evident physical weakness, which had of course been hidden from the world.
Despite his serious accident, the King visited the trenches on several more occasions, right up to the end of the war and even afterwards. In his retrospective book, written in the early thirties, Frank Richards recalled one such visit and its effect on the ordinary soldiers at the Front:
A really good rumour next morning – that the Battalion was to be inspected by the King – which showed the length the rumour-mongers could go. But it was true. Two companies were in trenches, the rest were smartened up, given new glengarries and at midday were marched to a village about three miles back. Some of us were still sceptical, but something considerable was certainly on foot. … Two planes were circling overhead. The stage was set. Two closed cars appeared and came slowly along a rough track into the field where we were assembled. Brass hats stiffened to attention. Presentations. It was the King all right, khakhi-clad and wearing a British warm. Amazing experience – the King inspecting a Glasgow territorial battalion in a muddy Flanders field. Each of the officers was presented by name and shook hands. … So he passed on, followed by the Prince of Wales. A thrilling experience.Frank Richards (1933), Old Soldiers Never Die pp. 58-60, 269.
In early January 1916, Allied troops completed their evacuation from Gallipoli. The Navy obviously played a major part in this, but Bertie could not be involved. It was not until mid-May that he made it back to his ship, just in time to take part in the Battle of Jutland on the 31st. This was the only large-scale naval engagement of the war. Although again in the sick bay on the evening the ship set bay, Bertie was well enough to take his place in the ‘A turret’ the following day. The Collingwood‘s part in the action was not significant, but Bertie was glad to have been tested by the ordeal of coming under fire.
The Battle of the Somme began at the beginning of July. Expecting to overwhelm an enemy already defeated by a huge artillery barrage, British troops were slaughtered in their thousands on the first day of the Somme Offensive. The ‘New Armies’, including many conscripts, were tragically unprepared for the attritional war they faced. Fighting continued until the end of the Battle of Verdun on 18th December. As 1916 wore to its close, with significant British losses on land and at sea, the temper of the country was becoming almost tangibly different both from the excitement of the first few months of the year and the exasperation and confusion of 1915. Britain was beginning to learn the meaning of a war of attrition. However, the nature of that war began to change after tanks were used for the first time at Flers-Courcelette in mid-September, allowing a measure of mobility to be restored to warfare on the Western Front.
Bread & Peace! – The Home Front in Britain & Revolution in Russia, 1917:
On the Home Front, the old civilian sense of fury against the enemy had gone; the mood of the people had become more like that of the men in the fields of war, in its ironical resignation and the sense that the business was too grave to permit of any “vileinye of hate.” The war was no longer something that was reported, with a delay of a day or more, in the newspapers; enemy aircraft had struck down men and women on their own streets and life in the trenches could be envisaged by the dullest, for even staged photographs and newsreels, like the still shown above, from the contemporary documentary film The Battle of the Somme, could not help but portray the realism, if not the horrors of the trenches. Death, which, in 1914-15, had left most families unbereaved (see table above), was by now uniting them in mourning. Meanwhile, much to his relief, Bertie’s stomach problems appeared to be receding. But then, that August, they struck again, this time with a vengeance. Transferred ashore, he was examined by a relay of doctors who finally diagnosed his ulcer.
At the end of January 1917, Germany restarted unrestricted U-boat warfare. On the land, however, by 9th February, German troops had begun withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. Two other specific events served to unnerve the British monarchy in the first half of 1917. On 15th March, Russian Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in the face of civil unrest. The Tsar was a cousin of George V and was also related to him through his mother, Queen Alexandra. For a time, it looked as though the Romanovs would seek refuge with their royal cousins, with whom they had enjoyed holidays before the war.
But this became unlikely after the Bolsheviks seized power in October, especially since their daughters could not travel after they caught measles. Moreover, many in the Labour movement were reluctant for a deposed ‘autocratic’ emperor to find a home in Britain. More widely, the effect of the February Revolution on the Eastern Front alarmed Britain and France, but then the German U-boat threat to US merchant ships united Congress behind President Wilson, and on 6th April, the USA declared war on Germany. Nevertheless, it took a year for the American troops to be deployed on the Western Front. In May 1917, Prince Albert was back at Scapa Flow, this time as an acting lieutenant on the Malaya, a larger, faster and more modern battleship than the Collingwood.
The second disturbing event came on the 13th of June. The Germans had sustained mounting Zeppelin losses in 1916, as proper British anti-aircraft defences appeared and British fighter pilots developed strategies to shoot down the airships. This forced the German High Command to look for alternatives. The answer came in the form of the Gotha G.IV aircraft, which was more reliable, more manoeuvrable and could carry a greater bomb load than the Zeppelins. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population of Britain than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery.
Operation Türkenkreuz (‘Turk’s Cross’) was launched on 25th May, when twenty-three Gothas were Gothas were sent to London. Heavy clouds caused them to divert and strike the area around Folkestone, where ninety-five people were killed. A second raid was similarly diverted to Sheerness, but on 13th June, a third did reach London, where the twenty-six Gotha bombers killed 162 people, including eighteen children, who died when a bomb crashed through their classrooms in a Poplar primary school. In addition, over four hundred were injured in the worst raid of the war. There was outrage and accusations that the Germans were resorting to cowardly measures. But until effective counter-measures were developed, little could be done. The first Gotha to be shot down was during a raid on 7th July. After that, anti-aircraft barrages and the improved skills of British pilots caused the Germans to resort to night-time raids from 6th September.
After the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in May 1915, anti-German sentiment erupted into riots in Liverpool, where two hundred businesses were destroyed. In London, of the twenty-one Metropolitan police districts, only two were free from riots. In 1917, it was against this recent backcloth as well as that of the ongoing air raids that a royal proclamation was issued on 17th July:
‘We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.’
The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had arisen from the marriage of Queen Victoria, herself a member of the House of Hanover that had ruled Britain since the death of Queen Anne in 1714, to Prince Albert in 1840. It was passed to their children and was the title used in Britain by Edward VII on his accession to the throne and then by George V. But by July 1917, it was felt insensitive for the royal dynasty to have German names amidst a major war with Germany and with Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson and nephew to George, joked that he wanted to change the title of the Shakespeare play to The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
By the end of July, Bertie was ill once more and transferred ashore to a hospital in South Queensferry, near Edinburgh. After eight years of either training or serving in the navy, Bertie realised reluctantly that his career in the service was over. He told his father:
“Personally, I feel that I am not fit for service at sea, even after I recover from this little attack.”
That November, after much hesitation, he finally underwent the operation for the ulcer, which went well; however, this sustained period of ill health would continue to affect him both physically and psychologically in the years and decades to come.
On 7th November, the Bolshevik Revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, was complete. An Armistice soon followed, and at Brest-Litovsk, the new Russian leaders had accepted a humiliating peace. Historians have tended to regard the last Romanov emperor’s gentle, ineffectual, tragic figure with some compassion. He was born into a too difficult destiny in which his virtues – loyalty and mercy – contributed to his undoing. The old autocracy collapsed from its own inherent rottenness and the ‘old order’ crumbled at the first challenge.
The Gotha raids continued, and by the end of the war, they had carried out fifty-two attacks and dropped 111 tons of bombs, killing over eight hundred people. The attack documented on the map was one of the least successful. Nicknamed the ‘cock-crow raid’ because of the early hour of the raid, just after midnight on 6th December 1917 (shown on the maps above), five thousand pounds of bombs were dropped, causing a hundred thousand pounds worth of damage and eighteen deaths, but good preparation by the Fire Brigade meant that the resulting fires were easily contained. Two Gothas were forced down by the anti-aircraft fire; one German crew downed near Canterbury surrendered to the local vicar; another was allowed to land unhindered at Rochford, after giving, by chance, the correct identification signal. Four more Gothas were either shot down or crashed, making German losses six out of sixteen.
The effects of the war were so catastrophic by this stage that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer made at the end of 1917 was impossible for the Entente Allies to accept. The reply of the allies on 30th December exposed it as a thinly veiled cover for new and anarchic methods of naval warfare, and to justify herself, she had to appear as an angel of peace who had been rudely repulsed. As a consequence of the rejection of their insecure overtures, the German Chancellor assented to the policy of ‘all out’ submarine warfare, which nearly brought Britain to its knees. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria-Hungary since the new emperor, Charles, made two proposals for a separate peace. We don’t know how his cousin, King George, received these proposals, but the reply Italy and France contained another allusion to Shakespeare, being redolent of Lucio’s comrade in Measure for Measure: “Heaven grant us peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”
This third year of attritional warfare had been a wholly depressing one in Britain and for its Allies, now only France, with the United States Army on its way. The discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were dimmed and rations were reduced, and there was also a neverending tale of losses to rend many home hearts. The Russian revolution let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant disputes with Labour, war-weary, puzzled, suspicious and poisoned by propaganda. Civilians at home and soldiers in the field felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.
This was a dangerous mood, for, according to Buchan, it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.
That this was not the consequence was largely due to the King, who visited every industrial area in Britain to keep weary minds focused on the national war aims and the unity of his people: Wherever he went, he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. He visited Clydeside, Tyneside, and most of the chief munition works, and to the alarm of government ministers, he also went to Lancashire during a strike and was warmly welcomed.
Nevertheless, to the workers, he seemed to come not only as King but also as a ‘comrade’. By the spring of 1918 in Britain, industrial strikes had receded, and the workers even gave up their Easter holidays to make up for lost guns and stores by increasing output. On 10th April, the House of Commons passed by a large majority a Bill raising the age limit of military service to fifty and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. Within a month from 21st March, 355,000 men were sent across the Channel. But when the King visited his armies in the last days of that month, the strategic situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone to them for a week during the flood tide of Somme battles; he had visited them again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them again in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units that, in a week or two, were to be engaged in the desperate stand on the Lys. The battlefield was solemn, for the British Army had already lost more men than in the thirty-four weeks of the Dardanelles campaign. The King’s visit was an appeal to his troops to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts.”
His Prime Minister, Lloyd George, paid tribute to the King for his efforts:
“The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of of the Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.”
But it was not the King who was voted Man of the Year for 1918, but David Lloyd George himself, who was also popularly known as the Man Who Won the War. At the Head of a Wartime Co-Lib-Lab Coalition Government, he was returned at the General Election of December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons.
The last Gotha Raid took place on 19th May, when thirty-eight Gotha aircraft and three of the even larger ‘R-type’ Giants buzzed over London and killed forty-nine Londoners in a final night of agony. The Sopwith Camels of the London air defence squadrons and anti-aircraft crews shot down six Gothas. With losses becoming unacceptably high for the rest of the war, the German airforce kept the Gothas back from further raids, while the centralisation of Britain’s previously separate air units into the newly-inaugurated Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918 further increased the British capacity to defend their airspace for the next twenty-two years, until the Blitz of the autumn and winter of 1940-41. At the beginning of the first world war, civilians had a relatively low chance of being killed in enemy raids. Only 1,300 civilians were killed by Zeppelin bombs in London in 1915, and even when the Gotha Giant bombers followed in 1917, a similar number of deaths from all their raids resulted from a single raid in the Second World War. What the German raids did was create and instil a sense of terror and defencelessness among British civilians.
The temper of Britain throughout the spring and summer of 1918 was heavy and apathetic, but now and then, it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living on the outer edge of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution that had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt that the war would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour comes just before dawn. Despite some naval successes, as the months passed and the news from the battlefield was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular view was still one of depression. Even the news of the turn of the tide did not lift the public mood because it could not comprehend the meaning of this. Everybody was tired and underfed; the influenza epidemic was also claiming hundreds of victims each week.
All over the country, there were strikes among munitions workers, followed by troubles in the transport services, with the miners, and in August among the London police. These difficulties were temporarily solved by the easy method of increasing wages, but ‘sober’ minds began to wonder where this facile business of ‘doles’ would end. Those in authority, aware that the last stage of the war was approaching, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning whether a rot might set in that would nullify all the sacrifice on the Western Front. Then, in the autumn, the country suddenly woke up to the meaning of the news from France. At last, the western allies were winning. Slowly minds began to turn from preoccupation with the Western Front to other theatres of war throughout the world where the allies were also winning, demonstrating the sheer vastness of the war.
On resigning his commission, Bertie was determined not to return to civilian life while the war was going on and, in February 1918, he was transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service. He became a Squadron leader of the Boys’ Wing at Cranwell, Lincolnshire, where he remained until that autumn. During the last weeks of the war, he served on the staff of the Independent Air Force at its headquarters in Nancy and then remained on the Continent as a staff officer in the newly-formed Royal Air Force.
The Hundred Days & The Armistice:
The Hundred Days Offensive was a series of Allied engagements that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at the Battle of Amiens on 8th August and ended on 11th November with the Armistice. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory, they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties.
On the eleventh, great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely, if ever, greeted sovereigns of Britain’s reputedly unemotional people. The next days were full of ceremonials. On the 12th, they went in solemn procession to St Paul’s to give thanks for the victory. In the following week, they drove through the eastern, southern and northern districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. A week later, on the 19th, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, the King replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. There, in the presence of political leaders and the great officers of State, and representatives of India and the Dominions, he expounded in simple words on the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible:
“… How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. It is on the sense of brotherhood and mutual good will, on a common devotion to the common interests of the nation as a whole, that its future prosperity and strength must be built up.The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, …”
He concluded with an expansion on the imperial themes he had spoken about eight years earlier in the month before his Coronation, in a homily on Milton’s proud saying: “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching the nations how to live”. Buchan reflects that he was entitled to exhort his people in this manner, for his House of Windsor had played their part in the struggle, unostentatiously performing hard and monotonous duties and sharing gladly in every national burden. The British people knew this and turned to the King as their ‘best friend’ with something more than respect and more profound than loyalty. Royalism was the willing creed of all, wrote John Buchan. For him,
… its most impressive manifestation was not the crowds around Buckingham Palace, or the splendid occasion in the Royal Gallery, but what happened on the afternoon of Armistice Day. In the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove a simple open carriage through the City of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly-lighted streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted better than any formula the meaning of a People’s King.
The Peace of the People’s King:
Throughout the following winter and the spring of 1919, the people of Britain continued to enjoy the King’s Peace:
On 27th November 1918, the King visited France and the troops awaiting demobilisation. He had been on the battlefield just three months before during the great advance of 8th August, and now he could examine at peace the ground where victory had been won and greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier. In Paris, at banquets at the Elysée Palace and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. A year before, there had been an attempt in Germany to drum up monarchical sentiment through films, lectures and articles showing the simplicity and devotion of the Imperial Household. Now, with political unrest in Germany, the suggestion in Berlin was that the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. In the final days of the war, Army officers had proposed that he should go to the front and die a glorious death in battle. The spirit in Germany remained one of defeat, hunger, despair, strikes and a revolution, which had begun at the end of October 1918…
In November 1918, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate and flee to the west. He had gone to war in 1914 in support of Austria-Hungary, a fellow empire which had collapsed at the beginning of the month. In the end, he lived out his life in exile in the Netherlands.
The menace of militarism had been defeated and a great arrogance overthrown. But what then? Buchan wrote that there was an old assumption that some spiritual profit is assured by material loss and bodily suffering. Still, he added, the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain in these immediate post-war months and years. Throughout Europe, in the fifteen years that followed, the old régimes based on old principles which had been assumed to be elemental truths were swept aside, except in Britain and France. The war had been fought by people rather than by leaders; now, new leaders emerged, and the people had put their fate into their hands.
The terms of the Armistice imposed on Germany by the Allies were severe and left it prostrate. According to the Manchester Guardian of 12th November 1918, Clause (4) called for the surrender or disarming of the German fleet giving the Allies the right to occupy Heligoland, if necessary, to enforce the naval clauses owing to the mutinous State of the fleet. It also had to surrender its guns and withdraw its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted these terms because the Allies, at the same time, made a promise to uphold the principles that US President Wilson had set forth as the basis of the settlement, the Fourteen Points. One of these was that all nations must reduce armaments, but the treaty that followed, signed with Germany at Versailles in June 1919, disarmed the defeated powers while the victors maintained their military strength.
Incensed by these clauses, the Admirals in the German grand fleet, which had been anchored at Scapa Flow since the armistice, decided to take direct action in response to them, as described in the caption to the picture below:
The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out their Admiral’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain as to what was going on, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.
Celebrating the Peace & Commemorating the War, 1919-21:
The Victory Procession in July 1919 (pictured above and below) was an event in which troops representing fourteen victorious nations (including China and Portugal) marched through London: Roses were thrown in the paths of Sir Douglas Haig and Marchal Foch. The Cenotaph (meaning ’empty tomb’) at that time was temporary, made of plaster, to a design of Sir Edward Lutyens.
It was replaced in 1920 and unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day, pictured below. Lutyens deliberately omitted any religious symbols because the men commemorated were of all faiths and none. Britain had emerged from the war with the monarchy stronger than ever. Four kings in Germany (of Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurtemberg) had been deposed; the empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had collapsed; Greece, Turkey and Spain were later to become republics. But though Britain’s monarchy remained strong under George V until 1936, the interwar years brought strikes, economic crises, mass unemployment and, in Ireland, civil war. But the King remained detached from ideology and class-based politics, respected and liked by all.
Elsewhere, new monarchies and autocracies arose on the ruins of the old, more arbitrary and absolute than ever, and names like Führer, Duce, and Ghazi carried a weightier spell than those of emperor and king. Democracy, which the war seemed to have glorified, was largely in ruins. This flight from democracy had been accelerated by the war, but it had been long in the making. The reaction which might have been looked for after ‘the peace’ was nullified by the continuing international political and economic instability which resulted from it, which in turn resulted in the rise of new, more dangerous nationalisms and militarisms. As Buchan saw it:
Men were unwilling or unable to stand alone; they huddled together into hordes for safety and warmth, and were glad to surrender their wills to whoever or whatever promised security. The ordinary citizen had lost that confidence in himself that is the only basis for democracy.Buchan, op.cit., p. 268.
The idea of creating a tomb in Westminster Abbey for The Unknown Warrior was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express, in the issue of 16th September 1919. He wrote:
‘Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?’
The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men – killed in action – were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The unknown warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with eyes closed, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin that came to London. Marshal Foch, the greatest French soldier, saluted the Unknown Warrior at Boulogne as the coffin was conveyed on board the British destroyer, Verdun. Just before midday on 10th November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six RN destroyers, left Boulogne.
The destroyer, Vendetta, met them halfway with its White Ensign astern at half-mast. On the deck of the Verdun, four sailors stood guard over the coffin as the Union Jack draped over it was covered with wreaths, with an anchor of flowers on top. The field marshal’s salute of nineteen guns was fired from Dover Castle as the ship arrived at the dock, coming alongside Admiralty Pier in Dover Harbour. Six officers representing the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Air Force bore the coffin along the quayside from the dock to the train, with troops lining the route from Dover garrison.
The grave of the unknown soldier was then filled in with the contents of the hundred sandbags sent over for the grave. They were filled with earth from France and sent by train to Victoria Station. Flowers and wreaths again bedecked the coffin during the ceremony at the Abbey.
The first British Empire ended with the loss of the American colonies and the second with the first shots of the Great War. The third was slowly coming into being under the House of Windsor. King George V was King of Britain but also still Emperor of India, which he had visited in 1911 when he spoke at Delhi. Many Indian soldiers, especially from Sikh areas, had fought for the Imperial forces in the trenches. In 1917, the Secretary of State for India, E. S. Montagu, made the momentous declaration in the House of Commons that The policy of His Majesty’s Government was the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible Government in India as an integral part of the British Empire. This was followed in 1919 by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, which divided the functions of the Government of the Provinces into two classes, some reserved for the Governor and some entrusted to ministers responsible to the new local legislatures. A Central Legislature was also established. The Duke of Connaught formally inaugurated the plan in Delhi in February 1921 on behalf of the King-Emperor, and it was to be revised in 1931.
George V was also Sovereign of all the overseas dominions and territories of the empire. In addition, there were new mandates it needed to manage in the Middle East, including Iraq and Palestine, under the terms of the Paris Peace Settlement. During the controversies that followed, the monarchy remained, in the reign of George V, the cherished centre of unity around which union could grow. As such, its value was priceless, for it provided a solid and steadfast foundation on which new working mechanisms could be constructed and a new theory of Empire developed. David Edward, the Prince of Wales, was already conducting tours of the Empire with great success, increasingly basking in the adulation of the press and public both at home and abroad.
But those around the King began to feel that the Prince was enjoying the limelight rather too much for his own – or the country’s – good. The King himself was becoming concerned about his eldest son’s almost obsessive love of the modern – which George despised – his dislike of royal protocol and tradition, and, above all, his predilection for married women, which he seemed to have inherited from his grandfather, Edward VII. Father and son began to clash frequently, often over the most minor things such as dress codes, in which the King took an almost obsessive interest. As the Prince later recorded, whenever his father spoke to him of duty, the word itself created a barrier between them. Bertie, by contrast, was gradually becoming his father’s favourite. When peace came, Bertie, like many returning officers, went to university. In October 1919, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history, economics and civics for a year. It was not immediately clear why he, as the second son, would need such knowledge, but it was to prove more than useful a decade later. On 4th June 1920, at the age of twenty-four, he was created Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney. King George wrote to him:
‘I know that you have behaved very well, in a difficult situation for a young man & that you have done what I asked you to do. I hope that you will always look on me as yr. best friend & always tell me everything & you will always find me as ready to help you and give you good advice.’
In August 1920, minus David, the Royal Family put on a sporting team display of a return to normalcy on board his yacht in the waters around the Isle of Wight:
In his capacity as president of the Industrial Welfare Society, the Duke began to visit coal mines, factories and rail yards, developing an interest in working conditions and acquiring the nickname the ‘industrial prince.’ Starting in July 1921, he also instituted an interesting social experiment: a series of annual summer camps held initially on a disused aerodrome at New Romney on the Kent coast and later at Southwold Common in Suffolk, which was designed to bring together boys from a wide range of social backgrounds. The last took place on the eve of war in 1939.
The ‘King’s writ’ in Ireland – The Anglo-Irish War, 1920-21:
The position of Ireland, after 120 years as an integrated part of the United Kingdom, changed dramatically in 1921, when the island was partitioned, and the two parts received different degrees of autonomy. The six northeastern counties remained part of the United Kingdom but were given devolved Government, while in the south, the Irish Free State was established as a dominion within the British empire. These changes were a result of the events that took place between 1912 and 1921, which followed a long period of constitutional impasse. Until 1914, the Irish Party, which called for Irish Home Rule, had the loyalty of most nationalists. The Easter Rising of 1916, the repression that followed it, and the threat of conscription in Ireland swung the electorate towards the more radical, republican Sinn Féin. With de facto independence as a British dominion achieved and Partition an established fact, the tide of radicalism began to recede.
Peace had come to most of the empire in 1918 but not to Ireland. In the election of November, the old Nationalist leaders and their party were roundly defeated and disappeared. Sinn Féin ‘ourselves alone,’ the republican nationalists, won most of the Irish seats, and in January 1919, they refused to take up their seats in London but set up a parliament and proclaimed the Irish Republic, as they had first attempted to do during the Easter Rising of 1916. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English gaol, was President, its supporters were armed, and the King’s writ had ceased to run in Ireland.
The conflict raged on, becoming known as the Anglo-Irish War followed, putting the King’s ministers and their security forces in an intolerable position. In 1920 a new version of the Home Rule Bill was passed at Westminster, becoming the Government of Ireland Act, allowing for the setting up of parliaments in Dublin and Belfast. Largely Protestant and unionist Ulster accepted the scheme, but the republicans in the South rejected it. The Lord Mayor of Cork, who was an active Sinn Feiner, was among those arrested. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment. In Brixton Gaol, he declared he would starve himself to death in support of the republican cause. He died on 26th October after a seventy-four-day fast, and his body was taken back to Ireland for burial. Mourners followed his coffin through the streets.
By mid-1921, the growing severity of the conflict and the mounting casualties, particularly among the Crown forces, resulted in a desire on both sides to explore the possibility of a constitutional compromise. The British Government knew that it must either use its military strength to stamp out a full-scale rebellion at Britain’s door or it would have to agree on a treaty with the rebel government, resulting in a huge loss of face for Great Britain. The impasse was ended by the King’s intervention. He accepted that it was his duty as monarch to help unravel the tangled constitutional crisis into which the two countries had drifted.
On 22nd June 1921, in the newly-instituted Parliament of Northern Ireland in Belfast, the King made one of the most significant speeches of his life:
“… The eyes of the whole Empire are on Ireland today – that Empire in which so many nations and races have come together in spite of ancient feuds and in which new nations have come to birth within the lifetime of the youngest in this hall. I am emboldened by that thought to look beyond the sorrow and anxiety which have clouded my late vision of Irish affairs. I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland today may prove to be the first step towards the end of strife amongst the people, whatever their race or creed.
“In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill. It is my earnest desire that in Southern Ireland, too, there may ere long take place a parallel to what is now passing in this hall, that there… a similar ceremony be performed.
“… The future lies in the hands of the Irish people themselves. May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two… shall work together… upon the sure foundation of mutual justice and respect.”
He then invited both ‘governments’ to talks leading to the conclusion of an Anglo-Irish Treaty. To allow for the talks, a truce was called in the war on 11th July 1921. The British Government, which had been gradually moving towards some scheme of Dominion Home Rule since before the World War, opened negotiations in London with the Irish leaders led by realists like Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins (right), rather than hard-line republicans like de Valera.
Griffith and Collins wanted the substance of independence and did not want to quibble about constitutional forms. For de Valera, however, ever the idealist, the symbols of independence were precious and potent, and the oath of allegiance and headship of the King were badges of servitude. It was a tragic irony that the stumbling block should be the Sovereign who was the most earnest advocate of peace. After five months of hard and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations, the British Government finally lost patience and forced a settlement on the Irish delegation by threatening immediate and all-out warfare.
The Conference in London eventually led to a treaty, signed on 6th December, under which the whole of Ireland became the Irish Free State came into being with the status of a self-governing Dominion, but with the possibility of the North (the six counties of Ulster) being able to secede and become an autonomous region within the United Kingdom.
(to be continued…)
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