The 20th of January, 1936, was a day of mourning for millions, and for one family in Britain in particular. As news of his father’s death broke, the Prince of Wales faced the prospect of taking the responsibilities of the King of England upon his shoulders; ultimately they proved to be too burdensome for him, and Edward VIII passed the mantle to his younger brother, Albert. “Bertie” was to face some terrible times as the country’s leader during the Second World War, but ultimately found himself to be equal to the task – probably because he had spent his life up until that point learning from the example of a thoughtful, conscientious and inspiring leader, King George V. The fact that Albert chose to adopt his father’s name, thereafter to be known as King George VI, says it all.
Few kings would choose to rule over a nation at war, and history proves that George V was no exception; in fact, he went out of his way to avert the worldwide crises that came to be known as the Great War. ‘The Great War Part 161, Sept 15 1917’ in our Historic Documents Archive explains that, when war seemed imminent and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sent his brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, to appeal for George V’s help in convincing Russia and France not to challenge any Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, the king did his best to play the peacemaker. He offered a compromise, stating that, provided Austria would be prepared to confine its activities to occupying Belgrade and the neighbouring Serbian territory, he would do his utmost to pacify Russia and France.
In the event, he was double-crossed by the Kaiser, who, after Austria moved into Serbia, first complained that Russia was arming against Germany and asked George V to mediate, then declared war on Russia without pausing to await the results of said mediation. The king’s efforts failed because Germany and Austria had already made up their minds to invade Serbia, then Belgium, with or without British co-operation.
Reluctant as he might have been – in his last appeal to Tsar Nicholas II he had written, “I am most anxious not to miss any possibility of avoiding the terrible calamity which at present threatens the whole world” - when there was no avoiding leading Britain into war, King George V rose to the challenge with gusto. In fact, later in the war the famously diligent Prime Minister David Lloyd George referred to him as “the hardest-worked man in the land”. Certainly, he kept himself busy right from the second that war was declared, when the Royal Family appeared on the balcony to comfort a nation in turmoil.
When the British Expeditionary Force amassed for war, the king travelled to inspect and talk to the soldiers before they left. He took his job as Supreme Commander in Chief of the Army and Admiral of the Fleet extremely serious, and spent hours reading reports of activities at the Front, attending meetings with ministers, chatting to senior officers, and generally making sure he was completely up to date of every aspect of the Armed Forces’ activities. He made official appearances, liaised with foreign diplomats, and spoke to every man about to leave Britain on an important mission. He signed every officer’s commission, and presented the highest honours to the servicemen whenever he could. He supported fundraising activities for the National Relief Fund, donated an ambulance and a pair of horses to the Red Cross and money to the Belgian Relief Fund, and paid visit after visit to sick and wounded servicemen. Moreover, he became the first monarch in 171 years to travel to the Front, which he visited on several occasions. His speeches brought hope to all who heard them, and the message he sent to Parliament on 26th September 1914, saying, “we are fighting for a worthy purpose, and we shall not lay down our arms until that purpose has been achieved,” so moved the MPs that they broke into a spontaneous chorus of ‘God Save the King’.
However, there was more to King George V than vigour, patriotism and industry; he also demonstrated wonderful sensitivity when it came to dealing with the needy or the sick, as this story from ‘The Great War Part 161, Sept 15 1917’ demonstrates:
“On one occasion the same hospital was visited within 24 hours by the king and queen and by a famous military leader. The military chief – it would scarcely be kind to give his name – came in great state. Everybody felt uncomfortable and on his best behaviour while he was present, and relieved when he was gone. One bold young Subaltern had a bet with his ward that when the military chief came he would put one question to him. The subaltern was so awed when the great man was in the room that he never dared open his mouth. Now for the contrast. A telephone message was received at noon that the King and Queen had an hour to spare and would like to come along and look over the hospital. As it happened, a number of fresh cases were just about to arrive from Victoria, cases straight from the Front. The matron, knowing this, urged the King’s secretary that they would be very much upset during the next hour. If the King would only come an hour later, all would be ready for him.
“That is exactly how the King wants to see you, when you are busy,” came the reply over the telephone. “He does not want you to make specially ready for him.” And so, a few minutes later, just as the ambulances were beginning to discharge their loads, a quiet carriage drew up and their Majesties stepped out. They stood around, watched the men being carried in, talked to some of them, and then questioned the attendants. There were no trappings or trimmings of state about them. They were simply an Englishman and Englishwoman, anxious to do a kindly act to some of their fellow countrymen who had suffered for England. They went in, and moved from room to room, chatting unconcernedly with everyone. The young wounded officers forgot to be awed. The King left smiles on every ward. The Queen, as a practical housewife, took a glance around the store-rooms and examined in a few minutes the organisation of the place, declaring her appreciation of all she saw.
“This was typical of many of the King’s calls. There were thousands of soldiers and sailors recovered from their wounds who loved to tell long afterwards of how the King had stood by their beds and asked their experiences; how he had used their slang to them, and how his quiet remarks showed he knew some of the tricks and ways of the British sailor and soldier just as well as they did.”
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, and this he strived to do 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.Read more about King George and his war work in our Historic Documents Archive.