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047 Victor Emmanuel III and the five-foot tall kingship

Victor Emmanuel III

Victor Emmanuel III

Turbulent Italy rushes into war

It is Sunday 16 May 1915. It is the 47th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

The Battle of Festubert gets bogged down in skirmishes, which eventually result for the allied forces in a gain in ground of one kilometre, at the cost of 16,000 lives.

The Russians occupy the town of Van in the east of Anatolia while the Turks withdraw to the Kurdish town of Bitlis.

Based on a telegram from war correspondent Charles à Court Repington an article in The Times  is published, which attributes the Aubers Ridge catastrophe that happened a week earlier to a shortage of grenades. 

In the House of Lords the ‘Shell Crisis’ is then met with Lord Kitchener’s plea to increase the production of ammunition.

Under the command of August von Mackensen the Germans unleash their artillery on Przemyśl in Galicia. The Russians try to evacuate the town by a counter attack.

On the Gallipoli peninsula the Anzacs manage to hold their own against the dominance of the Turks, but Lord Kitchener already speculates on a retreat.

In the wake of this Gallipoli fiasco British prime minister H.H. Asquith chooses to discharge Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and form a coalition government.

And the Italian government decides to mobilize, after having been entrusted with far-reaching powers. Thus the war party has won the battle for king Victor Emmanuel III.

When in May 2004 the Spanish crown prince gets married, the Italian pretender to the throne is also invited as a high ranking guest. If only this invitation had not been sent. After dinner this Victor Emmanuel IV will start bashing one of his cousins, who also claims to have a right to the Italian throne. Oh well, they must have thought in Italy. Perhaps our republic is not everything, but return to the monarchy? We had better not do that.

The longest ruling monarch of Italy was the grandfather of the present number four, Victor Emmanuel III. He wore the crown in both world wars, but the second one led to his downfall. The prince had adopted a too favourable stance regarding Mussolini’s fascists to serve his time after the war. He had already had to give up questionable titles of ‘Emperor of Ethiopia’ and ‘King of Albania’ halfway through the Second World War. When peace had come, his son Umberto II could try to save the monarchy for another month, but that turned out to be a hopeless challenge.

Victor Emmanuel III had already come to the throne in 1900, as a direct result of what in those days was called the ‘anarchism of the deed’. In the first year of the new century Victor Emmanuel’s father, King Umberto I, lost his life in the same way Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand would experience in Sarajevo fourteen years later. In the case of the Italian king there were four bullets.

Umberto’s assassin was called Gaetano Bresci. He was Italian by birth and had moved to America in order to build a life as a silk weaver. In 1900, however, he returned to his native country for a special mission, to kill the king, thus unleashing the revolution. A few moments before his arrest he would formulate this more exactly: ‘I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king. I have killed a principle.’

The killing of Umberto fits in a series of anarchist assassinations of dignitaries. In June 1894 president Sadi Carnot of France is the first. In August 1897 prime minister Canovas of Spain is next. September 1898 Empress Elisabeth, Sissi, of Austria-Hungary. September 1901 president McKinley of the United States. November 1912 prime minister Canalejas of Spain. May 1913 king George I of Greece. They were all killed by radical individuals, who were driven by social despair and were possessed by the ideal to create a society of equals. It would only take one spark, they thought.

Four of the six ‘tyrant murders’ were committed by Italians. French socialist Jean Jaurès commented: ‘For many years all anarchist hooligans have been Italians. And that is no coincidence. It is because the misery and the reaction there are very intense and the violent passion and the destructive instinct lead to murder’.

The Italian Errico Malatesta is a prominent teacher of anarchism. In June 1914 he thinks he can put his violent theory into practice. Italy is in the thrall of The Red Week. Turmoil in the streets. Workers who go on strike. But The Red Week will not only expose the division of Italian society as a whole, but also the fragmentation within the political left. When socialists and republicans decide to end the general strike, Malatesta has to go into exile again.

On the eve of the Great War Italy is a young nation, filled with assertiveness, just like Germany. But even less than Germany it is a colonial world power. As early as 1896 Italy suffered a humiliating defeat against Ethiopia, that was supported primarily by Russia, France and Great-Britain.

It should be noted that the Italian nation is very much subject to the opposite forces of left and right, republican and monarchist, agricultural and industrial, and also north and south. All these antagonisms were already visible at the time of the Risorgimento, the multicoloured movement that had indeed successfully sought to achieve Italian unification after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Before that the peninsula had been a collection of kingdoms and duchies, and on top of that the pope in the holy middle.

The annexation of the Papal States in 1870 seemed to be the completion of the Italian resurrection, but there remained a crown on the work: the territories that fell under the rule of the Austrian emperor. This desire of the irredentists would be the main motive to declare war to Austria-Hungary in May 1915, despite all German diplomacy.

The Italians were also familiar with opportunism. Prime minister Antonio Salandra called the principle of his foreign policy ‘Sacro egoismo’ (i.e. sacred egoism). Before the war Italy had chosen the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dreibund, but this triple friendship proved to be of little or no value when it came to mobilizing in 1914.

Initially Italy emphatically declares itself neutral, but in the first months of 1915 Rome begins to estimate that the allied have the best papers. Germany is stopped at the Marne and the British attack on the Dardanelles looks promising. It encourages the Italians to sign the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. The Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) grants Italy a lot more territories as spoils of war than pre-war partner Austria-Hungary had wanted to give up.

‘We want war’, a prominent socialist shouts at the king of Italy over the heads of a crowd in Milan. ‘When you, as our monarch who has the power to send our soldiers to the front, renounce your right, you will lose the crown.’ This socialist is called Benito Mussolini. He has been a self-confessed opponent of the Libyan war that Italy had fought with the Ottomans, but now the same Mussolini joins the war effort as a true patriot.

Newspapers that want to remain neutral are swamped with popular anger. And on 18 May Giovanni Giolitti therefore leaves the capital. Giolitti was the elder statesman in Italy. As prime minister he had prevented an escalation of the class struggle with social reforms and liberal politics. In these years the king had also been willing to grant his people greater freedoms.

In May 1915 Giolitti, the ‘godfather of Italy’, expects more benefit from neutrality than from war. According to him Italy is not ready for war yet. In the years to come this will prove to be an accurate observation. With his point of view Giolitti falls out with his former protégé, prime minister Salandra, but it also results in fierce demonstrations here and there in favour of war. Under this public pressure Victor Emmanuel chooses the side of Salandra.

Did ‘the people’ want war? Doubtful. ‘The street’ was not the voice of the majority as such. But this voice as so often remained silent while war was endorsed by parliament, the senate and the king.

Perhaps Victor Emmanuel III did not play a leading role in the ‘glorious days of May’, but he was a willing puppet in the hands of the warmongers. He is often described as shy and hesitant. His appearance was certainly not imposing. ‘Little Victor Emmanuel’ was only five foot tall. Kaiser Wilhelm II simply called him ‘the dwarf’. There is a photograph showing the Italian king walking next to the Belgian king Albert, as if a father is taking his little son for a stroll.

During the great War Victor Emmanuel will not leave the side of his troops. He likes the business of war. But strong man on the front is general Luigi Cadorna, a ruthless character who does not mind a few more dead bodies. The Italians therefore pay a high price for their participation in the war: 650,000 of their soldiers lost their lives. The biggest defeat is the Battle of Caporetto in 1917.

Victor Emmanuel was of the House of Savoy, which had first ruled the kingdom of Sardinia and from 1861 presided over all Italy. His father gave his only child the following poor advice: ‘Remember: to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’ But for Italy he really needed to do more than that. Between 1900 and 1922 the king had to intervene ten times in a parliamentary crisis. But after that Mussolini took control to the satisfaction of the king, who just hated squabbling politicians.

The popularity of the monarchy also remains considerable during the fascist years. The beauty of the queen, born as princess Elena of Montenegro, gives a substantial impulse to this. She bears Victor Emmanuel five children.

In 1938 the monarch commits the biggest sin of his political life. He tacitly agrees with the racial laws that are mainly aimed at jews, thus breaching the oath he had sworn at his coronation.

As the Second World War progresses Italy’s little monrach tries to get rid of Mussolini, but the latter keeps the support of Adolf Hitler. When in 1943 Victor Emmanuel reaches a ceasefire with the allies, his daughter has to pay the price. Princess Mafalda is married to a German. Although this prince is a loyal nazi, Mafalda is imprisoned by the nazis, apparently in an attempt to put pressure on her father. Eventually Mafalda ends up in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. There the princess is mortally wounded during an allied bombardment in August 1944.

After his abdication in 1946 Victor Emmanuel III moves to Egypt in exile, where he dies in 1947 at the age of 78. During a referendum a year earlier the Italian people voted for the republic as a form of state. After a reign of almost a millennium the House of Savoy has no more subjects.

The royal residence in Turin has been put on the list of world heritage, but the members of the family were not allowed to enter Italy until the year 2002. That was painful. In 2007 Victor Emmanuel IV, the heir-apparent with the dark image, filed a claim for damages with the Italian government. He wanted 260 million euros for the injustice done to his family during all those years of exile. This is just one of the unpaid bills of the history of Italy.

Next week: John Condon

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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)

015 Carol I and a crowned night’s rest

Carol I

Carol I

Romanians pass by Hohenzollern

It is Sunday 4 October 1914. It is the 15th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Both warring parties in the west try to manoeuvre around each other as if they are involved in a Race to the Sea.

The allies in Cameroon take the initiative.

The German cruiser Emden is mooring on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its inhabitants are not even aware there is a war going on.

Antwerp has to surrender to the Germans and British marines commanded by Winston Churchill hurriedly leave the town.

A new flood of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees starts to move towards France and the Netherlands.

The Austrian offensive in Galicia comes to a standstill.

The Boer general Manie Maritz sides with Germany, but other South African leaders such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts remain loyal to the British.

The French general Ferdinand Foch takes on the defence of Flanders.

In the Pacific Ocean Japanese forces conquer the Marshall Islands, part of German New Guinea.

During the cabinet crisis in Italy war minister Grandi resigns.

And in Romania a native German breathes his last, king Carol I.

In the opening phase of the First World War it becomes painfully clear to the king of Romania that he and his people are not on the same line.

Carol I is of German descent, as betrayed by the architectural style of Peleș Castle, the summer residence which he had ordered to be built in the high mountains. Carol I even has Hohenzollern behind his name, just like the emperor of Germany. It is obvious then that Carol’s sympathy goes to the Central Powers, whereas the still young Romanian nation is to a large extent culturally influenced by France. Besides Romania has a disagreement with the German ally Austria-Hungary. This disagreement is called Transylvania. It is part of Hungary, but ethnically to a great degree Romanian. So a border readjustment would be quite welcome to Bucharest.

Without any publicity Carol has strengthened the bonds with Austria-Hungary in the preceding years. A treaty, secretly concluded in 1883, was prolonged in 1913 without ratification by parliament. In any case Vienna and Berlin count on Bucharest. But just like Italy Romania will not suit the action to the German word. We can only guess if this has initiated Carol’s death on 10 October 1914. There is no doubt, however, that this has spoilt his final days considerably. It is rumoured that he even thought of abdicating when he was 75, but his death came sooner anyway.

In August 1916 Romania will take part in the First World War after all, be it on the allied side. By then Carol I has been wrapped in eternal sleep within the monastery walls for a long time. The plunge into the global bloodbath receives the blessing of Ferdinand, Carol’s far less wayward successor. Just as Bulgaria chooses for the Central Powers because it wants Macedonia, Romania reports to the allied countries hoping to get Transylvania. It is land grab of a dubious nature. Leaders of government of second-class countries do not consider the European carnage as a reason to maintain neutrality. Romania will pay a high price when it is trampled underfoot by German boots, but in the end it will haul in the loot it has been after. In Versailles in 1919 Transylvania is transferred from Hungary to Romania.


Let us proceed now to the House of Hohenzollern, the one of the German emperor and the Romanian king. The name Hohenzollern reminds one of Prussia, but the cradle of the family can be found in the south of Germany. The castle of Hohenzollern is located high up near the town of Hechingen. After various illustrious kings of Prussia, Frederick the Great being the most prominent one, eventually in 1871 a Hohenzollern becomes emperor of the finally united Germany. It is Wilhelm I, grandfather of Wilhelm II. The Second Reich is born.

The first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, had existed for almost a millenium when Napoleon put an end to it in 1806. ‘Holy’ referred to the papal assent, which had not always been taken for granted. ‘Roman’ referred to the Romans. But the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not the powerhouse that had once been built in Rome. It was definitely not an empire, but a patchwork of small and slightly bigger states. An emperor was at the head. For the past few centuries it had always been someone  from the Austrian house of Habsburg. But the central power of this emperor, who was always elected by prince-electors, was limited.

The Holy Roman Empire had no uniform legislation. Each emperor imposed his own taxes. And there was no question at all of a united holy-roman army. The French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire is the spiritual father of the apt characterization that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy and not Roman and certainly no Empire.

After the Holy Roman Empire was shut down, the German discord remained intact for a considerable part of the nineteenth century. The call for German unification came, strange as it may sound, from left-liberal circles. Conservative forces held on to their  princedoms, which were often governed autocratically.

In this colourful German family the Prussian nephew got the upper hand in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in 1871 was the climax of this success story. Also the branch of the family that had remained closer to the South German cradle, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen region, had passed on its sovereignty to the distant relative in Prussia.

Then the throne in Spain had become available. Leopold, a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was to be pushed forward by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1870 as the new Spanish king. That will never happen, a German in Madrid, said the French emperor Napoleon III. All the fuss appeared to be enough for Leopold to give up Spain. But Bismarck was not interested in the vacancy in Madrid. The diplomatic conflict was to him a reason to start a war against France and to get all Germans under one banner after the Prussian victory, that of the Hohenzollerns.

Leopold had a brother who did become king four years earlier. That particular brother was Carol I. A cheering crowd of people greeted him in Bucharest in 1866. A nation in the making deserved a fresh monarch and Berlin had one on offer. It had been quite a job for Carol to reach Romania. In 1866 the war between Austria and Prussia was raging. Bismarck needed this war for his big plan, just as he had needed the war with the Danish two years earlier. In this Danish conflict Carol had taken an active part on the side of the Prussians and the Austrians. Then, in 1866, the two German tribes had fallen out with each other.

Therefore the German Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had to make the train journey across Austrian territory incognito in order to settle at the head of Romania. The country had only four years earlier been formed from Wallachia and Moldova. Alexander John Cuza had centralistically carried through a series of liberal reforms in the style of Napoleon III. To the dissatisfaction of the middle classes and the large landowners his new Romania, however, gradually got into financial problems. Cuza was forced to sign his abdication as monarch, after which he disappeared into captivity.

In 1866, the year when Karl was welcomed as Domnitor and changed his name into Carol, Romania was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. The primacy of foreign policy was in Constantinople. This would be ended at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Bismarck convened this congress to reshuffle some cards in Europe after a war between the Russians and the Turks. Romania, which had secretly been rubbing against the Russians in the preceding years, presented itself afterwards as a fully fledged player on the world stage.

Carol I, whose Romanian troops had joined the Russian army, was recorded in history as the founding father of modern Romania. Now his popularity could use a shot in the arm. In the Franco-Prussian war he had submitted to Bismarck’s party. And even then this German predilection was not favourably received by all Romanians. Their language was not related to German but to French.

Meanwhile internally corruption was rampant. Despite an abundance of oil the country had not succeeded in building an infrastructure according to western standards. Without a doubt Bucharest had its charm, but there were slums everywhere along streets that had no pavements. There was an atmosphere of oriental lawlessness. Both men and women were dedicated users of cosmetics. The orthodox church allowed three divorces, as long as both parties were in agreement.

Carol, the German, must have felt a stranger in his own kingdom. What kind of man was he? Severe, conscientious and dutiful. According to his wife he slept with his crown on his head, but this must have been poetic freedom from her part. Elisabeth zu Wied, who was also of German descent, had a career as a poetess, whose pen name was Carmen Sylva. She easily wrote in German, Romanian, French and English. Elisabeth was an excentric character, who confided to her diary that a republic was to be preferred to a monarchy. She had been offered Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as marriage partner, but the British heir to the throne had pushed her aside on the basis of photos shown to him.

The marriage to Carol which she then contracted was far from  happy, though towards the end of it they must have come to some sort of understanding. But they were complete opposites. Her only child Maria, lovingly called Mariechen, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three. Elisabeth had the admonition of Jesus from Luke’s gospel put on Mariechens grave: ‘Stop crying, for she is not dead, but asleep’. Romania’s throne was not to be granted to Maria anyway. The constitution from 1866 was generally speaking quite liberal, but only permitted succession by paternal descent.

It was Carol’s firm intention to anchor his dynasty tightly in Romanian soil. His brother Leopold’s son Ferdinand came on the screen for this purpose. At some stage Elisabeth decided to pair him off with Elena Vacarescu, one of her ladies-in-waiting. It turned into an affair, for the law required a monarch to find a wife outside Romania. For punishment Elisabeth was sent into exile in Germany. Ferdinand was to marry Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria.


A native German Carol I had led his Romanian subjects for no fewer than 48 years, sometimes with the utmost severity. The liberal reforms of his predecessor and the sympathy for social-democracy which his wife had felt were unknown to him. He had crushed a peasant revolt in Moldova in 1907 at the expense of thousands of lives.

In 1914 he could not get his people on his side on the road to Germany. Whatever way you look at it, this was finally a good moment to give in.

Next week: Sir Robert Borden

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


006 Albert I and the ties of friendship and kinship

Albert I

Albert I

Transgressed Belgium determines its own course

It is Sunday 2 August 1914. It is the sixth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans try to make Belgium believe that France is about to invade the country.

The Belgians do not fall for this and say ‘no’ to the free passage demanded by the Germans, who in their turn transgress the borders with both Luxemburg and Belgium.

British parliament cheers its foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey who makes a firm stand for Belgium’s neutrality.

It is raining declarations of war.

American president Woodrow Wilson offers to mediate in the European conflict.

Battle also commences at sea here and there, while the British Expeditionary Force lands in France.

Supreme command of the Russian forces is put into the hands of grand duke Nicholas Nicolaevich. 

The Germans have to defend their colonial territories in Africa against French and English troops.

And the Belgian defenders of Liège decide to hold their position to the last man, encouraged by their king Albert I.

Wilhelm II, the German emperor with the huge ego, sends a message to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on the night of 2 August 1914. It is not a reassuring note but an ominous ulthimatum. Within twelve hours Belgium should open its borders to the Germans on their way to France. If the country fails to comply, Germany will consider this a hostile act with all the entailing consequences. The Belgians should know that France is the true aggressor. And it goes without saying that Germany has the right to be ahead of the French on Belgian soil.

Albert, third king of the Belgians, now knows that it has been of no avail. The night before he made one final attempt – among princes- to ward off the disaster for his people. His wife, queen Elisabeth, helped him compose a letter to kaiser Wilhelm. Elisabeth is the daughter of a Bavarian duke from the house of Wittelsbach. She translated the words which Albert most carefully chose verbatim into German.

He can see that Germany is not in a position to comply openly with the pressing demand of the British to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality. At the same time he trusts the kaiser to promise him personally to leave Belgium in peace. After all there are ‘ties of friendship and kinship’, aren’t there? In the letter Wilhelm is addressed with ‘Du’. Albert ends wih ‘Your faithful and devoted cousin’, though the two are not full cousins. Albert’s mother is a Hohenzollern just like Wilhelm, but from the Sigmaringen side.

Though timid by nature, Albert is certainly not naive. For a long time he has feared the Teutonic fury, a characteristic ‘true’ Germans are so proud of. A year earlier Albert was in Berlin. There the kaiser took him aside. Albert saw him rant and rave. The French should stop their provocations! It would lead to war! No doubt about it! German chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke had also been fishing during a talk with the Belgian military attaché and wondered how Belgium would act if a certain country invaded one day.

Back in Brussels Albert had immediately looked into the mobilization plans. Things did not look good for the Belgian army. All attention in previous years had been focused on domestic problems. Catholics and liberals had not recognized the importance of the defence of the country for decades. After all the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed, according to the Treaty of London of 1839, by the powers behind the Concert of Europe: the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, France and Prussia. In the centuries before the Belgian provinces had regularly been transgressed by troups of Burgundy, France, Spain, Austria and finally Holland.  But during the past three quarters of a century the young country had only known peace. The French-Prussian war of 1870 had passed the Belgians by nicely. However, Albert knew better. Like his uncle Leopold II before him, he had had to fight with the political elite in order to straighten out the defence system. It had been the heart of his ‘active kingship’.

After the assassination at Sarajevo Albert, too, had been on holiday, climbing mountains in Switzerland. When the situation became critical at the end of July, the Belgian government still had no idea how to put up a defence against an invading enemy. Should they defend the borders behind the river Meuse, or should it be a central defence on more suitable terrain, behind small rivers and streams such as the Gete, the Nete or the Velpe. Albert tried to make a case for a defence of the borders and the maintenance of the fortresses near Liège and Namur. Forced by circumstances he now had to accept a compromise.

On the night of 2 August 1914 the king summons his cabinet to study the German ultimatum. He cannot withstand the temptation to throw the inadequate military preparation in the face of his ministers. For the rest the king and his office holders are in complete agreement. They loudly and clearly say ‘no’ to the German ultimatum and the suggestion that French troops would already have crossed the borders. Belgium is a free country, not a marching route. Let the king’s generals cross swords again about the strategic plan.

When German troops cross the border at Gemmenich on 4 August, poor little Belgium’s martyrdom is a fact and Albert is ready to face history as a cavalier king. Enthusiastically cheered in the Brussels streets, he hurries to parliament in his boots with spurs. He asks for a ‘résistance opiniâtre’, a persistent resistance. The members of parliament repeatedly interrupt his speech with ‘vive le roi’ and ‘vive la Belgique’. After a standing ovation the king leaves parliament and heads for the front. At Louvain headquarters the following day he addresses the ‘army of the Nation’: ‘Caesar said of your ancestors: of all the people of Gaul the Belgians are the bravest. (..) Remember, Flemings, the Battle of the Golden Spurs and you, Wallons of Liège, who are at this moment at the place of honour, remember the 600 Franchimontois.’

But the dominance of the enemy will prove too big. The king has to withdraw with his army to the Antwerp stronghold. The situation there becomes untenable and it becomes clear that the king has got himself in an awkward position. Prime minister Charles de Broqueville urges Albert to make the best of a bad job and to join the allied forces. The king, however, refuses to let the people of Antwerp down. Eventually Albert has to take refuge behind the river Yser.

Although he most certainly was no trueborn soldier and openly and frankly admitted his lack of strategic qualities, he commanded the Belgian army in person for four years, taking ministerial responsibility for granted. For Albert it was not simply  a matter of responsibility, being obedient to the royal oath ‘to maintain the independence of the country and to keep its soil intact’. Moreover Albert was distrustful of his general staff. Even autocratic colleagues such as Wilhelm II and Nicholas II left warfare to their generals. Albert did not and he also refused to hand over supreme command to the allied forces. He wished to remain in control in his own country, however little of it was left in freedom.

Certainly, it was not easy for his allied friends. Already on 6 August 1914 the French general Joseph Joffre has to accept with gnashing teeth that the Belgians stubbornly refuse to make the counter-attack which he had planned. Albert is horrified by the ease with which English and French alike sacrifices tens of thousands of their soldiers for a little territorial gain. According to his war diary he carefully keeps the statistics of the fallen. The Belgian king expresses his horror about the jusqu’au boutisme of the allied generals with ‘They will have to justify themselves before the Almighty’. Together with his confidant commanding captain Emile Galet he supports the doctrine of a realistic balance of power.

Although the Germans had violated the integrity of the country, Albert holds on to the principle of neutrality during the whole war. Negotiated peace is his aim. Without informing his ministers, he has his envoy Emile Waxweiler hold exploratory talks with the German envoy Hans Veit Graf zu Törring-Jettenbach, who is married to the sister of Albert’s wife. Albert’s plan will not be successful, however. The Belgian monarch cannot bring the superpowers that are trampling his country to their senses.

When gradually his Belgian ministers start daydreaming about a peace that will make Belgium bigger, with large tracts of land from the neutral Netherlands and Luxembourg, which was also transgressed, Albert calls them to order.The king of the Belgians keeps his head rather cool in a war where emotions come before common sense. He will lose four foreign secretaries in the process.

His cabinet is in France, near Le Havre, but Albert remains right behind the front during the entire war. Until 1917 the royal family lives in a villa near the seaside town of De Panne, without running water, electricity  or central heating. When in 1917 De Panne is designated to the English zone, the king moves towards Veurne.

He regularly visits his soldiers in their trenches. On his way to Houtem headquarters on horseback he frequently chats with a farm worker. And now and then he gets on an airplane to scout the front line. This is how the king and the Belgians are on guard at the Yser front, behind the water plain that had come into being after one Karel Cogge had opened an old sluice called Kattesas near Nieuwpoort.

Eleven days after the armistice of 11 November 1918 Albert makes his joyful comeback in the capital, Brussels. It is an unprecedented celebration. Leaning on gates and swinging from branches the Belgians cheer their grave monarch. His people, divided by language, are impressed by Albert. He uses the opportunity to regulate the universal right to vote. Conservative powers grumble. But Albert does not want to accept that the front line soldiers who defended the country from the mud have no vote in peacetime. Already before the war he has a reputation as a monarch who recognises the social issue. When he became king in 1909 he had also made a name by addressing his people both in French and Dutch, which was something new. His biographer, Jan Velaers, calls Albert I ‘an inspiring force in Belgian society’.

During the decades after the armistice he continued to be kindly disposed towards the cause of the Flemish emancipation. As a constitutional monarch, however, he slowly vanished from the centre of power, where vehement crises of a financial, political and linguistic nature raged.


Albert must have felt happiest when high in the mountains, lonely and alone. He was an experienced mountaineer, a fact which makes it hard to believe that an accident had ended the life of the 59-year-old monarch. On a wooded slope near the rocks of Marche-les-Dames, not far from Namur, the royal body was found. His spectacles were discovered a bit further in a crack. The king was familiar with the area. Could it have been murder? Or suicide? Apparently unfounded speculations.

His son Leopold III has to take the helm. He lacks his father’s character. When the Germans invade Belgium again in 1940, Leopold takes command of the Belgian army, just as his father had done. But this time there is no cure against the German Blitzkrieg. Leopold is forced to capitulate and decides to make the most of it. He accepts an invitation for coffee by Hitler and by doing so makes himself impossible after the war. Not every king is an Albert.

Next week: Bertha Krupp

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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