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
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“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 Gift Box 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.
Listen: Heather Jones discusses the role of the British royal family during the First World War on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
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.
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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.
The most remarkable royal visit to the front occurred shortly after the start of the Ludendorff offensives in late March 1918, a massive German onslaught that aimed to force the Allies to sue for peace. With British forces in headlong retreat, the king travelled to France for a three-day visit that saw him visiting casualty clearing stations, and witnessing “very sad and dreadful sights” among the wounded.
With the British in retreat, the king rushed to the front, where he witnessed 'very sad and dreadful sights'
While one soldier, Raynor Taylor, recalled war-weary troops refusing to cheer the king during this 1918 trip, this was unusual. Soldiers, for the most part, appreciated the monarch’s efforts. When, in the 1930s, schoolchildren were asked to explain the king’s popularity, many cited his visits to the frontline almost 20 years earlier.
Although he was only symbolically commander-in-chief, with no command role, the king liaised constantly with the generals and was quick to inform them of his opinions. He was crucial in Douglas Haig retaining his position as commander in the field after Haig had lost the confidence of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The king witnessed the start of the battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 and on that same day, during an artillery inspection, he ordered a heavy artillery gun to fire on Douai station, scoring a direct hit on a German troop train.
On the home front, the king and queen constantly visited war factories, shipyards and, most importantly, the war wounded in hospital. A wounded officer, Lieutenant DC Burn, recalled that he “had a long talk” with the king in his ward and “found his guttural voice and laugh very engaging”.
The king personally conferred 50,000 awards for gallantry during the war, in many cases to badly disabled men or to distressed next-of-kin. Sometimes war widows brought their small children up to receive their dead father’s medal. “If it wasn’t for you I should break down,” the king wrote to Queen Mary.
Honouring the wounded
The introduction of conscription in 1916 was accompanied by an emphasis on the burdens of the war being shared equitably. This new spirit of egalitarianism even extended to Buckingham Palace, which hosted a series of tea parties at which hundreds of war wounded of all ranks were treated as honoured guests, served by the royals themselves. (One newspaper noted that Prince Albert carried the teapot.) Ordinary people were encountering the monarchy in newly personal ways – and that only served to enhance the wartime popularity of the crown.
The royals constantly witnessed wartime death. Frederick Ponsonby, the keeper of the Privy Purse, described the king visiting a hospital near the front in 1915. “Some of the men there had been gassed and it was painful to watch them, blue in the face and gasping for breath. I found one was a German and regretted the pity I had wasted on him; but the king rebuked me and said that after all he was only a poor dying human being, in no way responsible for the German horrors.”
When working-class districts of east London were subjected to a major Gotha bombing raid on 13 June 1917, killing 162 people, George visited the bombed-out areas within hours. Queen Alexandra, the king’s mother, also visited in the evening to condole with the mothers of 18 children who died when their school at Poplar suffered a direct hit.
Pulses of unrest
While the British royal family handed out medals, visited the front and consoled the widows of fallen soldiers, their counterparts on the continent were facing a series of existential threats. From 1917, Europe was convulsed by a wave of revolutions, often virulently anti-monarchist in their aims.
While George V handed out medals, Europe was convulsed by a wave of virulently anti-royalist revolutions
The British royals weren’t entirely insulated from these pulses of unrest. The second half of the war saw a limited increase in anti-monarchism here, too – and, when the February Revolution toppled Russian tsar Nicholas II, elements in the leftwing press were quick to wonder aloud if this was a fate that awaited all European monarchies. Left-leaning politicians also voiced their concerns that, overwhelmed by the demands of a long war, the cabinet was increasingly passing legislation via the Privy Council rather than parliament, using the royal prerogative.
It was around this time that sustained press criticism of the British royal family’s continental connections first appeared, shining an unsympathetic light on the fact that George V was a cousin of Russia’s Nicholas II, the German kaiser Wilhelm II and unpopular pro-German Greek king, Constantine I. George V’s response to this new threat was ingenious – and ruthless. In 1917, he changed the name of his dynasty from the Germanic “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to “Windsor”, and he pressurised the government into rescinding its offer of asylum to the tsar, who was later murdered with his family by revolutionaries in July 1918.
This dual response may have been radical, but it worked. As 1917 progressed, press coverage become more favourable. Journalists increasingly noted the king’s support of the extension of suffrage in the UK, and his willingness to engage with ordinary workers. They hailed the British royal family’s exceptionalism from other European monarchies; it was different, they argued, because it was “democratic”. The widely popular name change to Windsor was cited as an example of this exceptionalism.
So, despite the rocky ride of 1917, anti-monarchism in Britain ultimately remained fragmented and marginalised. Even the leftwing Daily Herald was forced to concede that republicanism was not “of any importance comparable with the economic issue between capital and labour”.
In a bid to cement their popularity across the political spectrum, George and Mary reached out personally to wartime Labour figures. Returning from a visit to revolutionary Russia, radical Labour MP Will Thorne was immediately invited to visit the king. He was won over: “I had expected to meet a haughty, stand-offish man with a highly polished university twang; but I found him a very different person.”
In 1917, faced with widespread strikes in the north of England and Glasgow, the cabinet sent the king and queen to the striking areas to calm the situation. This does not suggest a monarchy in danger of being swept away by revolution.
Defeated and toppled
Victory in the war mattered. Defeated nations were far more likely to see their monarchies toppled. But how these monarchies handled the war was also significant. Aloofness to the suffering of the people often triggered anti-monarchism, which in turn drove revolution. It was no accident that the British, Belgian and Italian monarchies – who displayed compassion for the sufferings of troops and workers, and made a point of tightening their purse strings in the face of wartime austerity – all survived.
Kaiser Wilhelm, by contrast, rarely visited munitions factories or Germany’s wounded during the conflict – a fact that contributed to his overthrow in November 1918.
By the end of the war, the royal family had found a new role: that of key symbolic conduit for national grief
Just after the Armistice, the British monarchy was described in parliament as existing “by consent” of the people. This was an institution, it was claimed, whose raison d’etre was to serve its subjects – unlike those autocratic dynasties collapsing on the continent. This may have been a generous interpretation of the reality. Yet there was little doubt that King George V and Queen Mary’s wartime efforts to support ordinary people meant that this rhetoric of “service” was no idle phrase. Their determination to stay connected to the people had given Britain’s crown a fresh purpose as a new era dawned of mass democracy and of greater socio-economic and political freedoms.
So, instead of hastening the British monarchy to extinction, the First World War gave the royal family greater relevance and new roles – one of which was to become the key symbolic conduit for national and imperial war grief. The king sent letters of condolence to families of the fallen throughout the conflict, and was chief mourner at the burial of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. By honouring the war dead in this way, the monarchy enhanced its own image and purpose.
- Read more: First World War: beyond the western front
But successfully overcoming the challenges of the First World War had taken a huge emotional toll on the royals. When, in the 1930s, international tensions rose once more, George V raged at David Lloyd George: “I will not have another war. I will not. The last war was none of my doing, & if there is another one & we are threatened with being brought in to it, I will go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself sooner than allow this country to be brought in.”
George V was haunted for the rest of his life by the horrors he had witnessed during the First World War. The royal family, he believed, must always serve the people devotedly to honour their terrible sacrifices. This ethos would inform the rest of his reign – and remains the conflict’s primary legacy to the modern monarchy.
Heather Jones is professor in modern and contemporary European history at University College London. Her book For King and Country: The British Monarchy and the First World War is published by Cambridge. She presented The Frontline Prince, a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the future Edward VIII’s experiences in the First World War
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine