In 1936, the United Kingdom was stunned by the abdication of its king, Edward VIII, who said he was unable to continue “without the help and support of the woman I love”. He had fallen for a divorced American, Wallis Simpson, considered unacceptable as queen. Yet love was not the only issue at stake in this crisis for the interwar British public. Just as significant was duty, a concept deeply linked to the experience of the First World War.
For the many war-bereaved of the 1930s, their loved ones had made the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country. Edward, representative of the monarchy they died for, failed to live up to their example of putting national duty before love. His mother, Queen Mary, castigated him for not being able to give up a love affair for his country when so many others had given so much more: “It seemed inconceivable to those who had made such sacrifices during the war that you, as their king, refused a lesser sacrifice.” War veterans across the UK and empire would echo similar sentiments.
The sense of betrayal of duty was all the greater because Edward was a war veteran himself, something today long forgotten. His role in the war was integral to his popularity and the lenience with which his interwar partying was treated by the British public.
When war broke out, 20-year-old Edward had already been in army training and quickly took a commission in the Grenadier Guards. He was desperate to be sent to the front with his unit. Lord Kitchener, secretary of state for war, prohibited this. He told Edward that it mattered less if he was killed – the concern was that the Germans might capture him, which would create a wartime crisis. Despondent, Edward lobbied hard and in November 1914 was allowed a junior staff officer role in France with Sir John French, located safely far behind the lines.
Edward pushed the boundaries, using every opportunity to visit the front lines and, ultimately, was able to get moved to a position nearer the front. Assigned to staff work on logistics, Edward now had an excuse to be in dangerous locations and believed it important that he shared in what ordinary soldiers were going through; he visited advanced positions and found himself under shell fire in front-area dug-outs many times.
A British officer, Alan Maciver, serving at a dangerous front position, recalled how they had “not seen anyone from divisional headquarters for six weeks… The only really senior commander, senior officer, I ever saw, top officer, during this period, was the Prince of Wales who had insisted on being taken up to the front line.” During the battle of Passchendaele, Edward recalled: “I got the most vivid close-ups of the horrible existence that had become the lot of the British soldier.”
Edward saw battlefield dead, lying unburied in no-man’s land, describing it as a “pathetic and gruesome sight”. He saw dead civilians, victims of shelling. In a 1915 visit to inspect trenches in the second line, his driver was killed. He wrote of “columns of men trudging back, their vitality gone, their eyes dead. I remember the bloodstained shreds of khaki and tartan; the ground grey with corpses; mired horses struggling as they drowned in shell-holes.”
Edward eschewed special treatment, working long hours and living in basic billets. He wrote to his father while “on watch or night-duty as they call it and it’s very cold and damp and still pouring in sheets, the rain making a depressing pattering noise on the tin roof of the hut! The telephone is ringing fairly often so I don’t suppose I shall get much sleep tonight.”
In that age of less royal press intrusion, Edward in uniform, assessing munitions dump locations or investigating the aftermath of an air raid, was a relatively anonymous figure, which he revelled in.
All of this was leaked to the press, often by troops who encountered the prince at the front, making Edward extremely popular with the British Army.
In a 1915 letter to his parents, which they sent on to the Newcastle Journal, Private Butler of the Coldstream Guards described how he saw the Prince of Wales: “Only last night he passed me when the German shells were coming over. […] I hope please God he will come home safe and sound and without a scratch.”
Edward had chosen France when he could have stayed in London, and deliberately put himself in danger. This may explain why the public was so tolerant of his partying and embrace of the London social scene following the war; Edward’s fellow Britons were all too aware that many young, disillusioned, war veterans were acting just like him.
Edward was indeed disillusioned. As the war went on, his war-weariness became intense. Before leaving for France in 1914, he had been extremely sheltered, and shared the romantic view of war common at the time. At war, he encountered new officer friends, who introduced him to carousing and to women; Edward’s first sexual experiences were with a French prostitute in a town behind the lines. Unable to fight to prove his masculinity, in a war culture where fit men who did not take on combat roles were accused of cowardice, Edward may have felt emasculated. He sought out dangerous parts of the front, and unsuitable women as conquests to prove his manliness. His relationship with his family became more distant. His respect for much of his parents’ Victorian world view collapsed.
Edward was surrounded by young officers with huge burdens of responsibility for men’s lives, who lived for the moment, all too aware that there may be a shell or a bullet with their name on it. He would visit the Guards’ officers’ mess when they were out of the line for rest and he shared in their parties, their attempts to forget the war.
Bitter at not being allowed to fight, Edward developed a deep resentment with his role as Prince of Wales for being the cause of this prohibition. His younger brother Albert, the later King George VI, was not subject to any such restriction, serving in the navy and taking part in the battle of Jutland.
The war also had a fundamental impact on Edward’s political views. It left him with an abhorrence for communism and anger that the Bolsheviks had killed his Russian cousins – the tsar and his family. He fervently believed future European war had to be avoided, supporting the British Legion in interwar efforts at reconciliation with German ex-servicemen, even after Hitler came to power. Edward unveiled the key war memorials at Vimy Ridge and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval.
He embraced interwar modernity – fast cars, aeroplanes, Americanised clothes. The war had swept away the old world and he believed a modern king must be different, a strong leader who embraced a cult of personality. He came to admire elements of fascist leadership on these grounds, as well as the personal style of monarchy of his grandfather Edward VII.
All this was anathema to his parents who had steered the British monarchy through war upon the idea of it being apolitical, religious, modest, not flashy, and above all espousing a sense of service.
As Asquith declared in the House of Commons, in a 1918 victory tribute to King George and Queen Mary: “Monarchies in these days are held, if they continue to be held, not by the shadowy claim of any so-called Divine Right […] not by pedigree and not by tradition: they are held, and can only be held, by the highest form of public service, by understanding, by sympathy with the common lot, by devotion to the common weal.”
For George V, individual personality should be subordinated completely to the dignity of the office of king. In contrast, for Edward the war had created a brave new world of individualism, self-fulfilment and leisure time. Edward saw the First World War as a “relentless slugging match, contested with savagery and in animal-like congestion” and he believed appeasement with fascism offered European peace. He admired how Hitler’s National Socialism appeared to be improving the lives of Germany’s poor. He became a fascist fellow-traveller: fascism seemed, to Edward, a modern answer to the communist threat that older traditional politics could not offer.
The First World War scarred the future Edward VIII both personally and politically. His extreme right-wing interwar views were his answer to the revolutions and communism that it unleashed; his rejection of duty was a response to its disillusionment and sense of living for the moment. A weak personality, he was particularly vulnerable to the myths it propagated – of anti-Semitism, of an uncaring older generation who sent the young men to die, of a need for a new radical politics of the right and a strongman leader.
Edward’s First World War experiences played a key role in his abhorrent interwar political attitudes. Above all, the war left him deeply insecure about his own masculinity, which, ironically, by abandoning everything in passion for the woman he loved, he could finally publicly prove.
Dr Heather Jones is associate professor in the Department of International History at LSE and a specialist in First World War studies.