“You can’t conceive what I suffered going round those hospitals in the war,” George V confided in a friend after the First World War. The great global conflict that erupted in 1914 is often described as one that was waged “for king and country”. Yet, today there is little public awareness of the crucial role the monarchy played during the conflagration. Even The Crown – Netflix’s wildly popular series about the royals’ trials and tribulations over the past century – described George V spending the conflict collecting stamps.
The reality is very different. The First World War represented a monumental test for both the monarch and the nation. It was fought on an unprecedented scale, requiring the full mobilisation of society. The royal family was integral to this process.
In 1914, the king embodied the British state and empire. He was the most important symbol of British identity. This is why, at the outbreak of the war, he was front and centre in a surge of patriotic recruitment material. Posters and speeches played on the nation’s romantic attachment to their king, encouraging men to do their duty to him and fight. In 1915, George personally backed an army recruitment drive via a direct Royal Appeal.
Duty also applied to the royal family itself. From the king down to the most minor of royals, the monarchy felt an immense obligation to support the war effort. At the outbreak of the conflict, George’s wife, Queen Mary, took charge of mobilising women in the UK to knit clothing for the troops; her Needlework Guild had 60,000 members in London alone. The Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund was set up to provide aid to those suffering penury due to the conflict. By the end of 1914, Edward, Prince of Wales, was serving as a staff officer at the front, while Prince Albert, the king’s second son (and future George VI), was in the navy and would serve in the battle of Jutland.
For Christmas 1914, Princess Mary, the monarch’s only daughter, set up a fund to send a Princess Mary GiftBox to all serving soldiers and sailors. This was the first time that the war’s working-class troops, many of whom did not yet have the vote, had received any form of national recognition.
In the early stages of the war, the king ceased all royal entertaining and cut luxurious foods from royal menus, telling his chef that visitors “should be grateful for anything”. He then donated £100,000 of the money he’d saved to the Treasury. He famously gave up alcohol during the war, something the writer and soldier CE Montague noted made him popular with troops who saw it as an unexpected “act of willing comradeship with the dry throat on the march”. The women of the royal family – in particular Queen Mary – regularly served refreshments to soldiers in railway stations and to war workers in deprived districts.
A king in the crossfire
George believed he should inspect all troops heading overseas to fight in his name – so much so that soldiers soon realised that a royal review meant they were about to leave for the front. He felt an overwhelming duty of care for the troops and visited the front six times during the war, hoping to boost morale, check on soldiers’ well-being and show royal empathy for what they were enduring.
These visits were not without risk. Sir Charles Cust, the king’s equerry, noted that, on 26 October 1915, while the royal party was in the communication trenches, “the German batteries fired three shells over their heads”. On the same trip, the king suffered a life-threatening accident when his charger reared and fell upon him. He had to be transported home in a hospital train. On other occasions the Germans shelled locations just after he had left.
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