Monarchs at War: symbolic figureheads of a nation in peril, or something more?

The traditional picture of a king or queen at war is of an impressive figure in splendid armour, roaring an inspirational speech along the lines of Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” monologue from ‘Henry V’, before rearing up on a milk white horse and plunging into battle at the head of their men. The reality these days is somewhat more prosaic; any member of the Royal Family found at the Front, whether it be Prince Andrew flying helicopters over the Falklands Islands or Prince Harry on the ground in Afghanistan, they will be surrounded by an invisible shield that keeps danger far away from them. Yet still, the monarchy does have a very important part to play in times of war, and never in modern times has that role been more clearly defined than during the two World Wars. This was a period when the King of the British Isles stood as a symbol of hope and power for not only the British citizens, but those of the Empire and Commonwealth too.

The first challenge facing George V in the Great War was the need to project a strong public image at a time when the people were worried by the prospect of conflict, while at the same time using restraint and diplomacy to exert personal influence behind the scenes and try to avoid war in Europe. As ‘The Great War Part 161, Sept 15 1917’ attests, he tried to negotiate a compromise with his cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia, to dissuade Henry’s brother Kaiser Wilhelm from snatching more land for Germany by saying he’d do his best to persuade France and Russia to keep the peace if Austria contented itself with Belgrade and the neighbouring territory, which had already been invaded, and refrained from invading Belgium. When the Kaiser ignored the appeal, the king received a personal plea from King Albert of that nation, calling upon him to remember the friendship between the two countries and come to Belgium’s aid. This Britain did, on August 4 1914. Although the king was in theory unable to make political promises, he was empowered to do so with the blessing of the Prime Minister, who acknowledged that nobody could understand a regent as well as another regent.

Despite the king having failed to negotiate peace, on the day war was declared the public flocked to Buckingham Palace. The Royal Family appeared on the balcony again and again to gratify the people, including just after the chime of 11, which was the deadline set for Germany to retreat from Belgium. Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’ quotes The Times report of the day as saying “At the eleventh stroke of the clock the crowd, swarming in Downing Street, Parliament Street and Parliament Square burst with one accord into ‘God Save the King’.” As Chamberlain found out in World War Two, a politician who failed to protect the country was not so easily forgiven. The regent, however, was above politics. He or she was the one whose head appeared on coins, the one who was sung to each time the national anthem was played, and the one who appeared on state occasions. All citizens of Britain and the Empire had grown up with this figurehead before them as a seal of identity and unity. If King George V was ready to wage war, they knew that they must be too. This point was reiterated in the message issued to every departing soldier, which said, “You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire… I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers.” ‘King’ and ‘country’ were irrevocably linked in all minds.

Since the monarch is, symbolically at least, head of the Armed Forces and the Commander-in-Chief, it is important that they be seen as supporting the troops and their cause in wartime. This George V went out of his way to do, keeping in close touch with all the politicians and prominent forces personnel, visiting the Front whenever he could. The fact that he was able to do this proves that he was completely trusted. The monarch is traditionally privy to state secrets, and is one of the few people that a worried leader can go to safely. Being a decision maker at a time of great stress is a heavy burden to carry alone. The Prime Minister and generals went to him partly to pick George V’s brains on what should be done, and to ask his opinion on how the world leaders would react to the news. They also found in him a highly visible ally when there was a need to break war news, trusted by the people; support from the monarch lent gravitas to government decisions.

Both overseas and at home, nothing acted as a greater reward and morale boost than a word or a visit from a royal. ‘The Western Front Companion’ notes that when the Canadians took Vimy ridge in April 1917, a note was dispatched from King George saying, “Canada will be proud that the taking of the coveted Vimy Ridge has fallen to her troops.” In 1918, after the success of his troops at the Battle of Amiens, Australian Lieutenant General Sir John Monash was knighted in front of his men in the field. When flight Sub-lieutenant R.A.J. Warneford, RNAS, single-handedly shot down a Zeppelin headed for England, he too received a personal congratulation from the king, not to mention the Victoria Cross. Of course, notes are just words written on paper, medals simply bits of iron. What gave these tokens meaning was the royal ‘seal of approval’, which meant the same whether the recipient was a Private or a Commander in Chief. It was recognised as the ultimate honour, a pinnacle to aim for.

King George V wasn’t the only member of the Royal Family determined to do his bit. When concern was expressed at the effect alcohol was having on those at the Front line, and back in Britain pubs were nationalised, the family vowed to set an example of complete sobriety in their household. Princess Mary did her bit by ensuring that gift boxes were sent to all Forces members on the Front or at sea at Christmas-time, while Queen Mary took a personal interest in the welfare of the troops, visiting hospitals and opening Buckingham Palace up to give tea parties for wounded soldiers, and Prince Edward went to fight for a time in the trenches. Meanwhile, as Philip Warner explains in his ‘World War One’, the whole family submitted gracefully to having their name changed from the extremely German ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the quintessentially British ‘Windsor’. The change was not just symbolic but heralded a fundamental shift in the family, as many close family connections were severed in an effort to maintain the confidence of the British people, to reassure them that the family loyalties lay firmly at home.

It was drummed into young ‘Bertie’ in his childhood how important it was for a monarch to set an example and lead from the front. Having taken over the throne when King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, not to mention adopting the name ‘George’ in honour of his late father, it has been well documented how much effort shy King George VI took to rid himself of his stutter so that he could be the strong, dignified and inspirational public speaker that Britain and the Commonwealth needed for a figurehead as they stepped, with great trepidation, into another World War. While leading did not come naturally to him, he is remembered with great fondness as a regent determined to be at one with his people, to feel what they felt, experience what they experienced and share their joys and sorrows.

Tonie and Valmai Holt’s ‘I’ll be seeing you: Picture Postcards of World War II’ describes how each member of the family again did their bits. Like his father had before him, the king received a range of dignitaries and politicians keen to hear his views at the outbreak of war, and like his father he made a moving speech to the country and Commonwealth, saying, according to the Reader’s Digest’s ‘World at Arms’, “For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet this challenge… To this high purpose I now call my people at home and my people across the seas. I ask them to stand firm and united at this time of trial.” He too travelled to visit the British Expeditionary Force in France, in December 1939.

Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) made sure that the royal kitchens used only the basic rations in their cooking (excepting the family’s own game birds on occasion), and refrained from changing her state wardrobe throughout the conflict; apparently she only wore clothes designed for a pre-war tour of Canada instead. She refused to be parted from the king, and since he resolutely remained in London for the duration of the war, so did she (despite Buckingham palace being bombed 9 times). Queen Elizabeth has been widely quoted as saying after the first bomb, “Now at least I can look the East End in the face”, but the worry must have heightened with each fresh attack. Meanwhile, Princess Elizabeth, who spent the war at Windsor Castle, became ‘bos’n to a crew of Sea Rangers that she had recruited amongst her friends and made her first ever radio address to children of the Commonwealth in 1940, at the tender age of 13, with Princess Margaret chipping in at the end. She also registered at the labour exchange at 16, and persuaded her father to let her join the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service at 19. She took on an honorary appointment as Colonel in Chief of the Grenadier Guards.

Like so many families in those days, the Royal Family suffered a tragic loss. Having previously served for eight years in the navy, the king’s brother, His Royal Highness Prince George, the Duke of Kent, could have taken up a position as Governor General of Australia, but when war broke out he opted instead to take up an intelligence position with the Admiralty, then serve in the R.A.F. Apparently he refused a ceremonial title he could have had, that of Air Vice-Marshal, arguing that the honour should be given instead to someone more highly qualified, and took a Group Captain position instead. Still, by July 1941 he had apparently risen to the position of Air Commodore on his own merit. He was not actually on Forces business when he died, although reputedly he was heading to boost the morale of R.A.F. troops. On August 25, 1942, he was en-route to Iceland with 14 others when the plane the party was travelling in crashed. All passengers were killed, including the prince. He was 39, and just six weeks earlier his wife, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, had given birth to the couple’s third child. Just as families all over the world were doing, the Royal Family grieved privately, but publicly put on a brave face and carried on with their war duties.

One of King George VI’s lasting contributions was the introduction of the George Cross and the George Medal on 23rd September 1940. Being on the ground in London, the king had numerous chances to see the devastating effects of the advances in aerial technology and weaponry on the people of London and many other cities in Britain; never before had civilians at home found themselves so close to the fires of a war being fought primarily overseas. Ranking with the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest award for bravery available to civilians. Karen Farrington quotes King George as saying, “Many and glorious are the deeds of gallantry being done during these perilous but famous days… I have decided to create at once a mark of honour for men and women in all walks of life.” Now the firemen, ambulance drivers, air wardens, nurses and members of the Home Guard knew that their work would not be overlooked. The people of Malta especially, all of whom shared the award for their courage in standing firm and loyal despite practically unceasing air raids in April 1942, and received a personal visit on 20th June 1943, loved the king for his recognition of their efforts. Once again, when the war ended, the citizens raced to the palace to sing and celebrate alongside their ruler and his family.

The final duty of monarchs in wartime is not always an easy one, but is perhaps one of the most important; that is, to remember and properly honour the dead. It was, attests Gary Sheffield in his ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’, George V who was first approached with the idea of creating the now famous lasting memorial to the unknown dead of the Great War. Since then numerous monuments have been unveiled by members of the Royal Family, and the Windsors turn out in force each year on Remembrance Day, to reassure the British people that they too recognise the importance of keeping Britain’s history and the deeds of its soldiers alive.

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