How George V won the war
BBC History Magazine|October 2021
The First World War ushered many European monarchies to extinction. But not in Britain. Heather Jones reveals how – through canny PR and genuine compassion for the troops – the royal family emerged from the conflict stronger than ever.
Heather Jones

“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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC HISTORY MAGAZINEView All

The (Surprisingly) Modern Middle Ages

From devastating climate change to deadly pandemics, the challenges that kept our medieval ancestors awake at night weren’t so different from those preoccupying us today, says Dan Jones

10+ mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

The Kings And Queens Of Hearts

Sarah Gristwood reveals how the Tudor monarchs exploited the medieval obsession with courtly love – a romantic creed inspired by the idea of valiant knights risking their lives to woo fair ladies – to further their own agendas

10 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

The end of empires

RICHARD J EVANS lauds an innovative work that re-examines the Second World War in the context of global imperial ambitions

5 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

Let's cherish this shining light of the great Bronze Age civilisations

THE TAMILS’ GLITTERING CULTURAL UNIVERSE

3 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

War between friends

CORMAC O GRADA commends an ambitious attempt to objectively examine the conflict that pitted Irish people against each other in the wake of the bloody War of Independence

6 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

Prejudice on the pitch

The racist abuse experienced by some of England’s black footballers after the team’s defeat in the Euro 2020 championship final in July thrust the issue of racism in the sport back into the spotlight. MATTHEW TAYLOR charts the causes and consequences of more than a century of discrimination

6 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

HIDDEN HISTORIES

EMMA DABIRI explores lesser-known stories from our past

3 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

INTERVIEW: HELEN CARR & SUZANNAH LIPSCOMB

A new book edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb marks the 60th anniversary of EH Carr's What Is History? by asking that question a new for the 21st century

10 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

How George V won the war

The First World War ushered many European monarchies to extinction. But not in Britain. Heather Jones reveals how – through canny PR and genuine compassion for the troops – the royal family emerged from the conflict stronger than ever.

9 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021

Golden girls

SIAN EVANS recommends an entertaining introduction to the adventures of independently wealthy women in Britain over the past four centuries

3 mins read
BBC History Magazine
October 2021
RELATED STORIES

Paul McCartney: Secrets of THE BEATLES!

AS A NEW DOCUMENTARY HOPES TO REWRITE THE BAND’S BITTER END, PAUL MCCARTNEY DISHES ON SOME OF ITS BIGGEST MYSTERIES (NOPE, IT WASN’T YOKO!).

3 mins read
Star
November 01, 2021

HENPECKED CLOONEY'S SHEEPISH MARRIAGE DEAL!

Shrinks career to please Amal

1 min read
National Enquirer
November 01, 2021

Sharon D Clarke

IMAGINE YOU'RE ABOUT TO MAKE YOUR BROADWAY DEBUT IN A HIGHLY anticipated, groundbreaking musical, only to have it all put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2 mins read
Newsweek
October 29, 2021

MAINSTREAMING MILITIAS

In Virginia, right-wingers who face down anti-racist demonstrators with AR-15s have earned an official stamp of approval.

5 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

George & Amal: HOW THEY SAVED THEIR MARRIAGE

WITH HOMES AROUND THE WORLD AND GLOBAL CAREERS, GEORGE AND AMAL CLOONEY HAD TO RECOMMIT TO TOGETHERNESS.

2 mins read
Star
October 25, 2021

THE ROBINSONS' AFFAIR

Rich and Chris Robinson put aside their ongoing feud for a Black Crowes tour, only to be sidelined by the pandemic. At long last, they’re shaking their money maker once again.

10+ mins read
Guitar Player
October 2021

Disney World Opened 50 Years Ago; These Workers Never Left

Applying to be one of the first workers at Walt Disney World, high school graduate George Kalogridis made a split-second decision that set the course for his life: he picked a room where prospective hotel workers were being hired.

4 mins read
AppleMagazine
October 01, 2021

GSA announces new staffas school resumes

A total of seven new members have been added to the staff of George Stevens Academy, according to a press release issued by the private nonprofit high school. The new staff include faculty and administrative personnel.

3 mins read
The Weekly Packet
September 16, 2021

What Have We Learned?

We will never forget 9/11. But a more interesting question at the 20th anniversary is, what should we remember—or more...

10+ mins read
Newsweek
September 17, 2021

GEORGE'S NEW SPREAD

CELEBRITY TALKS

1 min read
Star
September 20, 2021