The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

040 George V and the final family gathering

George V

George V

British King alienates from his cousins

It is Sunday 28 March 1915. It is the 40th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French stop German counterattacks at Les Éparges, southeast of Verdun.

A German offensive is repulsed at Bagatelle in the Argonne.

A German submarine sinks British steamer Falaba in the Irish Sea, causing the death of 104 men, among whom one American, to the great indignation of Washington.

The Russian Black Sea fleet bombs fortresses along the Bosphorus.

A German Taube drops a bomb on Rheims cathedral.

The Russians increase pressure in Poland and the Carpathians.

Bulgarians attack Serbian troops at the Macedonian town of Valandovo.

In German South West Africa the town of Hasuur falls into the hands of South African troops.

There are all sorts of festivities to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Otto von  Bismarck in Germany.

The French pilot Roland Garros makes his first victim over Diksmuide: a German Albatros.

British minister David Lloyd George declares alcohol the enemy, after which the use of it is also prohibited in royal circles for the rest of the war by His Majesty, George V.

A family squabble that got out of hand. It is a tempting but obviously too simple explanation of the cause of the First World War. France, for example, stood out by the number of war losses, but before the war the republic was not invited to a single royal event. The emperor of Austria also lacked close affinity with the other three monarchs.

Nicky, Willy and Georgie. We are talking about the three cousins. Mind, however, that only the English King George is a first cousin of both Nicholas II and Wilhelm II. For the tzar and the kaiser we would have to go back as far as the eighteenth century to find a mutual ancestor in Paul I of Russia. It is true, however, that Nicholas was married to a cousin of the other two. This cousin, Alexandra, had the famous Queen Victoria as grandmother, just like George and Wilhelm. In any case the three monarchs were very close. They shared the same childhood, though time would have a different fate in store for each of them.

King, kaiser, tzar. To which degree should they be held responsible for the immense tragedy of 1914-1918? To which extent can the causes of the Great War be traced back to their personalities? A writer like Catrine Clay dares venture into dangerous territory. In her book ‘King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War’, Willy feels excluded by Georgie and Nicky from an early age. He is going to show them something. And before Wilhelm knew what was happening, he had invoked a world war. An over-simplification indeed.

What bound them together was the institute, the monarchy. In days of advancing liberalism and socialism, dominated at the same time by a free press, they made a firm stand for their divine rights. Not all three had the same amount of leeway. Nicholas and Wilhelm can be counted to the category of autocratic monarchs, the tzar even more so than the kaiser. The king was imprisoned in a constitutional framework. English parliament called the shots.

George accepted this more sympathetically than his father Edward VII and his grandmother Victoria had done before him. This also allowed George V sufficient time for his hobby, philately. There are those who were scornful of this. The man who headed a British empire from the United Kingdom and who could even call himself emperor of India, was not to be disturbed when he was busy with his stamps. But among philatelists the George’s Royal Collection still distinguishes itself.

Another pastime of George was the weather. He kept a meticulous record of this in his diaries. On the day that England declared war to Germany George V looked  outside and recorded: ‘Warm, showers and windy’, but also: ‘I held a Council at 10.45 to declare War on Germany, it is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault.’

He was not born in 1865 as successor to the throne. That would be his brother Albert Victor who is one year his senior. Their parents are Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. The brothers are educated together, but when Albert goes to Cambridge, George continues to sail the oceans with the Navy. When in Japan the Sailor Prince has a tattoo inked on his right arm at the age of sixteen: a red-and-blue dragon.

He falls in love with cousin Mary of Edinburgh, but both mothers prevent a marriage. Mary then marries Ferdinand, who will be king of Romania shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. George’s wife will be Mary of Teck, May to close friends. Her family tree is German. It will be a harmonious marriage, though the reason behind it is a sad one. Mary was destined to sit on the throne next to George’s brother, but Albert Victor dies of pneumonia in 1892 when he is only 28. Urged by his parents George takes over both the prospect of the throne and his brother’s sweetheart. He has to say goodbye to the Navy. The kingship is now beckoning. In 1910 the throne becomes vacant when his father, Edward VII, suddenly dies.

George leads the funeral cortège of course. Nine ruling monarchs, forty imperial and royal princes and seven queens have assembled under the tower of Westminster Abbey. Never before did so much royal blood flow through one vein. To the right of George the most prominent foreign pallbearer rides his white horse. The man who, according to The Times, ‘has never lost his popularity amongst us’, even during the most strained relations of both countries. This man is Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany. He is wearing the scarlet uniform of the British fieldmarshals for the occasion.

It is all pomp and circumstance, for Wilhelm profoundly disliked Edward, the man who according to the kaiser had cast a shadow over Germany. Only three years earlier Wilhelm had called his English uncle ‘satan’ in the midst of a hysterical rant during a dinner for three hundred guests. The kaiser was friendlier to the son, George. ‘A very nice boy’, he said a few days before the funeral to former president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. And Wilhelm added: ‘He is a thorough English man and hates all foreigners but I do not mind as long as he does not hate Germans more than other foreigners.’

George V will go down in history as a weak and sickly monarch. It is true he is dutiful, but for the rest a bit pale. During one of his visits to the western front, he ends up under his horse. He breaks his pelvis and is left with pain for the rest of his life. At the end of his days the respiratory system of the heavy smoker also manifests itself. After a reign of 26 years he finally dies of pneumonia in 1936.

British historian Robert Lacey portrays George V as follows: ‘He was distinguished by no exercise of social gifts, by no personal magnetism, by no intellectual powers. He was neither a wit nor a brilliant raconteur, neither well-read nor well-educated, and he made no great contribution to enlightened social converse. He lacked intellectual curiosity and only late in life acquired some measure of artistic taste’.

That may be so, but unlike his two cousins George did survive the war as monarch. And later there are achievements that also make him a charming man. He shows for example a majestic disgust about the hard line his government takes in Ireland. And when in 1926 strikers are described as revolutionaries, the king makes the following remark: ‘Try living on their wages before you judge them.’ At an early stage he is also  clearly worried about the rise of nazism in Germany. What also speaks in favour of him is the love for his little granddaughter, which was mutual. The present Queen  Elisabeth lovingly called him ‘grandpa England’.

Did grandpa play a major role in the Great War? If you compare him with his two cousins in the index of leading books on the First World War, you will conclude that he was of little importance. Everywhere you will find references to Nicholas and especially Wlhelm, but George can only sporadically be found in the historiography of the Great War. In ‘The First World War’ by Hew Strachan for example, only one significant fragment about George can be found. The king must have used his influence in replacing Sir John French by Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief on the western front.

In line with British tradition George V occupied himself mainly with gesture politics, representation and charity in the war. In March he forbids the royal household to consume alcohol as long as the war lasts. In  August 1916 he goes to the Somme front to speak to the troops. He says: ‘Do not think that I and your fellow-countrymen forget the heavy sacrifices which the Armies have made and the bravery and endurance they have displayed during the past two years of bitter conflict. These sacrifices have not been in vain; the arms of the Allies will never be laid down until our cause has triumphed. I return home more than ever proud of you.’ When the German submarines leave behind trails of suffering for the families of British sailors, George personally makes efforts to create a fund to finance the most acute needs.

The most drastic decision, at least for the royal family itself, is the one taken on 17 July 1917. Under the pressure of public opinion George decides to adopt a new name for his family. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded far too German to the British people. Besides, Gotha is the name of the airplanes that dropped their deadly bombs on English civilians a month earlier. From 1917 the royal family carries the genuinely English name of Windsor. In Germany kaiser Wilhelm II turns this into a joke. He teasingly changes Shakespeare’s play ‘The merry wives of Windsor’ into ‘The merry wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’.

Both the mother of Tzar Nicholas and of King George were daughters of Christian IX, the Danish king who had seen Bismarck’s Prussia roll across his country. So Nicholas and George had been brought up with German aggression. Their distant attitude towards Wilhelm should partly be explained by this.

Nicholas and George were so much alike that the cousins could have passed for twins. But in March 1917 the English king slams the door in the face of of his cousin, the tzar of Russia, who had just been deposed. Prime Minister Lloyd George was willing to grant the Romanovs access, but on thinking it over, this did not seem a good idea to the king. The risk that the Romanovs would take the seeds of the revolution with them to England was too big for him. A year later the tzar and his entire family are assassinated by the bolsheviks. Many have blamed George for this.

In May 1913, more than a year before the war, the three were together for the last time. Nicholas and George had made the journey to Berlin to attend the wedding of Wilhelm’s youngest child and only daughter, Victoria Louise. ‘If you are there, I will be there’, Nicholas had cabled to George. Both were there. In accordance with custom, George wore the uniform of German Field Marshal.

Years later the English king must have said that he could not be alone with his cousin the tzar without being watched anxiously by his cousin the kaiser. Thus was the atmosphere of the very last family gathering. Suspicion and gossip. Well, it happens in the best of families.

Next week: Pancho Villa

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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