The Intimate Life Story of King George V
Army, fleet, munitions plants, hospitals and a rationed palace : of such was royalty's daily round during the strenuous days of the War
IT WOULD not be fitting here to describe at length the record of the most terrible war which the world has ever seen. I can only speak of it in so far as it concerns the character of the man whose story I am writing. Because he was the King of Great Britain and Ireland and the Dominions beyond the Seas, every aspect of the war was naturally of great concern to King George. Generals and leaders had their own particular sphere of action, and in action they found relief. Ministers of State were so busy conducting the war that they had little time to think. But the King, standing aside from politics and military leadership, had to watch day by day and hour by hour the agony of his people, and that was a more difficult rôle to play than being engrossed in active service.
The King hated the war with all the hatred of a peace-maker. Those who were in close touch with affairs of State will never forget those last days of July, 1914? On July 23, the Austrian note to Serbia was presented, allowing Serbia forty-eight hours’ grace.
Within the next few days Austrian troops were marching into Belgrade, and at the very end of July came the momentous interview between King George and Prince Henry of Prussia. During this interview Prince Henry, who had been on a brief visit to London, declared that the Kaiser was desirous of peace, although he was being forced into war by the military activities of France and Russia. The Prince begged King George to use his utmost influence on these latter countries, and allow Austria to carry out its punitive expedition against the Balkan States. This interview caused much controversy afterward, for the Kaiser, writing a few' days later to the President of the United States claimed that King George had promised British neutrality. This was, of course, absolutely false, and was denied authoritatively.
By this time Great Britain and her Dominions had awakened to the fact that war was imminent. Each day brought the awful catastrophe nearer and nearer. On July 31, Germany declared war against Russia and sent a twelve hours’ ultimatum to France. No man ever worked harder for peace than King George during those last days of July. He was at his desk all day, and took no rest except to walk round the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
On August 1, King George sent his famous message to the Tsar of Russia. No more sincere words than this plea to avert war have ever been uttered. “I cannot help thinking,” he wrote, “that some misunderstanding has produced this deadlock. I am most anxious not to miss any possibility of avoiding the terrible calamity which at present threatens the whole world. I therefore make a personal appeal to you to remove the misapprehension, which I feel must have occurred, and to leave still open grounds for negotiation and possible peace. If you think I can in any way contribute to that allimportant purpose, I will do everything in my power to assist in reopening the interrupted conversations between the Powers concerned. I feel confident that you are as anxious as I am to secure the peace of the world.”
But the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” had already begun to gallop, and the news came that Germany had declared war on Russia. The solemn words of the Tsar’s reply came to those waiting at Buckingham Palace, but each word made clearer the certainty of war: “In this solemn hour, I wish to assure you once more that I have done all in my power to avert war. I trust your country will not fail to support France and Russia. God bless and protect you !”
The Storm Breaks
ZUFTER this, it was merely a matter of hours. On
^ August 2, the German troops invaded Luxemburg; on August 3, the Belgian Government refused the demand of German occupation and “assisted passage” to German troops. On the same day German soldiers crossed the Belgian frontier, and on August 4, fighting began, and Great Britain declared war on Germany.
On August 9, the British Expeditionary Force landed at Boulogne. The King inspected the men before they left for France. After the inspection His Majesty shook hands with the commanding officers, wished them luck, and started back for London and his almost overwhelming duties again.
The young Prince of Wales was filled with eager desire to take his place on active service immediately. Having been gazetted 2nd Lieutenant Grenadier Guards, he bombarded everyone, from his father downward, with questions as to how soon he could get “out there.” He joined his battalion at Warley Barracks, and about five weeks later the battalion was ordered to France. Lord Kitchener thought it best that the Prince should not go. The Prince appealed to his father, but the-King was adamant. He said that he must be governed by Lord Kitchener’s decision.
The Prince went straight from the Palace to the War Office, and saw Lord Kitchener once more. “What would it matter if I were killed?” he demanded. “I have four brothers, and any of them is just as fit to fill my place.” To which Lord Kitchener replied: “If that were the only consideration, I might not think that I had the right to oppose you. But you might be taken prisoner, and we’ve
got enough to fight about without that.” However, by continually sticking to his purpose, the Prince got out to France within two months.
It is impossible to enumerate all the things that the King did during those first anxious days. He was one of the first to send an ambulance and a pair of his own horses. He contributed personally £200 to the Belgian Relief Fund, and £5,000 to the Prince of Wales’s Fund. To give some idea of the tasks, mostly monotonous, that the King accomplished between the outbreak and the finish of the War, it may be mentioned that he presented, personally, 50,649 war decorations. Mr. Lloyd George’s tribute was absolutely true, when he said: “There isone man who is working as hard as the hardestworked man in the country, and he is the Sovereign of the realm.”
The Palace in War Time
BUCKINGHAM PALACE during war time set an example to every household. After breakfasting with the Queen and any of his children who were at the Palace, the King settled down to work —work which did not end until far into the night. China tea, toast, marmalade and fish or eggs constituted the war time breakfast of their Majesties. The morning was taken up with various duties at the palace, every quarter of an hour being mapped out in order to attain the maximum amount of work. First of all, the King received members of his household; then, about eleven o’clock, all the London newspapers were brought to the King in his study. In peace time he saw as many as thirty newspapers every day, but during the War this number had to be limited. Various articles were marked for the King to read, but most of the newspapers reached him untouched, and nothing was ever hidden from his Majesty.
His heavy morning mail was gone through with his secretaries before lunch. Before the War it had been very large, for people wrote to His Majesty from all parts of the world on all kinds of subjects, making impossible requests.
Luncheon was at half-past one, and the Royal Family was rationed by the King’s wish like ordinary people. It was the simplest of meals, and the King often took it alone with the Queen. It was also always a short affair, for the King and Queen had to start off immediately afterward to visit munition factories, flying grounds and hospitals. These visits were carried out regularly, day after day, and there is no doubt that the constant appearance of the King and Queen among their subjects did a great deal for the morale of both civilians and soldiers.
It is difficult to believe how their Majesties managed to go on without a breakdown of health, for the strain was sometimes overwhelming. And, let it be remembered, that all the time the King was aware of anxieties in the minds of politicians, admirals and generals, that were not known to the general public. Tea was served at five o’clock if their Majesties were at home, but they very often dispensed with this meal, and the King, returning home from an inspection or a visit, would go straight to his study and remain hard' at work there until dinner.
At the evening meal there was a little relaxation. It was then that the King heard what his children were doing, and home matters and public engagements were also discussed.
First Visit to the Front
ON NOVEMBER 29, 1914, the King made his first visit to the Front. It was a historic, soul-stirring time. For 171 years no British King had been among his soldiers in the field. King George did not lead his men to battle, as in olden days he would have led them, but his presence meant much more than that. It was a great, yet poignantly sad, moment for the King when he was greeted in France by men from all over the' Empire. The King, during his few days’ visit, did not waste a moment. He went to the headquarters of all the Army corps and divisional commanders, inspected the different departments of general headquarters, and visited base, receiving and field hospitals.
At General Headquarters he was visited by the French President and General Joffre. He also received Marshal Foch, and paid a flying visit to the King and Queen of the Belgians, who were with the Belgian Army, conferring the Order of the Garter on King Albert. The last part of his visit was spent with the Indian Expeditionary Force. An officer in the I.E.F. wrote thus vividly of the visit: “A red-letter day indeed, for the King turned up here at 10.45 this morning and stayed quite a long time, inspecting detachments of the Indian Army Corps . quite the most informal show I have ever seen. He strolled up and down the ranks chatting with all and sundry .
The Leicesters were in front of us; they had only come up out of the trenches and were in a lovely state of mud and unshavedness. The King simply revelled in them. He stopped and chatted to quite every one man in three, and wanted to know all about trench fighting . . One
man was wearing a pair of German boots which interestedthe King very much. He spent quite twenty minutes with the Leicesters; after that, he gave two V.C.’s to gunners and then, when he ought to have been moving on, he began strolling up and down the line again asking all sorts of questions and noticing everything. At last they got him into his car . . It was altogether a wonderful visit, so quiet and informal and businesslike. No apparent
precautions or rehearsal, the King tramping about in the mud as though he were partridge-shooting.” This was a very sincere appreciation by a quite unknown officer.
Before his departure for British G.H.Q., the King sent a special order of the Day, only an extract of which can be quoted here: “I wish I could have spoken to you all to express my admiration of the splendid manner in which you have fought and are still fighting against the powerful and relentless enemy. By your discipline, pluck and endurance, inspired by the indomitable regimental spirit, you have not only upheld the tradition of the British Army, but added fresh lustre to its history I cannot share in your trials, dangers and successes but I can assure you of the proud confidence and fortitude of myself and of your fellow countrymen.
Christmas was spent very quietly at Sandringham. There were no festivities, although every tenant and workman on the Norfolk estate received a good Christmas dinner, special provision being made for a family where the man was at the front.
At the beginning of 1915, when the situation in France was very grave, the King decided to cut down his expenditure even more. Consequently, several more rooms in Buckingham Palace were closed, and the lighting was restricted even more.
In April, the King made an announcement that "he had decided that no alcohol should be consumed by him or by any member of the Royal Household until the end of the War, and this voluntary pledge was fully kept. It made a deep impression on the country, and the Royal example was followed widely.
The tragedy of the Lusitania in May upset the King most terribly. Soon afterward, the enemy kings and princes were struck off the Roll of the Knights of the Garter.
It was in October, 1915, on his second visit to France, that an unfortunate accident happened. His Majesty was reviewing some troops, and was mounted on a strange horse which, frightened by the cheering that greeted the King, reared up and fell over, its hind legs slipping from under it on the greasy road. The King was pinned underneath, and he was found to be suffering from severe injury and shock, although no bones were broken. The trouble was made worse by the fact that a long motor ride had to be taken in the pouring rain before the patient could be made comfortable.
The news, when it reached England, caused great anxiety for a few hours, but the bulletins that were issued at once allayed a great deal of this anxiety by saying that, although the King was confined to bed, he was only bruised severely.
The King made light of all the pain he had to endure, but it was noticeable how weak he was. He determined—and nothing would shake him from this determination—that he would present the Victoria Cross to Lance-Sergeant Oliver Brooks, of the Coldstream Guards. The man was taken to the hospital-train where the King lay, and, kneeling by the bedside, had the coveted Victoria Cross pinned upon his breast. His Majesty’s hands trembled as he tried to fix the pin, and he finally had to own that his fingers were too weak to place it without assistance.
The King crossed the Channel in the hospital ship Anglia, which was torpedoed a few months later, and the ambulance which conveyed him from Victoria to Buckingham Palace was a new one which had been presented by the ladies of Burma. The King was bruised so terribly that the ambulance started off at eight miles an hour, and then dropped down to a speed of about three miles an hour. It was some time before the King was able to mingle again with the public.
It was not until December 1 that he was able to drive out again, and on this occasion he and Queen Mary dined at Marlborough House for the celebration of Queen Alexandra’s birthday.
There was not much to comfort the nation in the New Year. The rebellion in Ireland in May upset the King more than he would own. He talked cheerfully about the good news that had just been received from the front, and tried to dismiss the new anxiety from his mind. Just about this time the Battle of Jutland was fought. The Royal F’amily had personal interest in it, for Prince Albert was serving with the Fleet, and for some time they could not get news as to whether all was well with him. Disasters did not come singly in 1916, for on June 5, Buckingham Palace received the tragic tidings that Lord Kitchener had been drowned with his staff in the Hampshire, off the Orkneys, on his voyage to Russia. This was a terrible blow to King George, who had admired Lord Kitchener greatly.
On June 18, the King inspected privately the whole of the Grand Fleet. He visited the wounded in the Royal Naval Hospital, and in his address expressed sympathy with the Navy for having had to wait two years before engaging the enemy fleet, afterwards thanking them for their work. Only a very few people knew of his Majesty’s visit to the Fleet, and thegeneral public was not told until a day or two after his return.
In August, he went again to the front, although the fact was not announced in England until after his return. He filled up every minute of his time, cheering and encouraging his soldiers, and trying to visit as many places as possible in order that his troops might see him. He travelled from end to end of the British Front by motor car, saying quietly: “I
don’t want any preparations made. I want you to forget I am a King. God knows, I can do little enough, but I can do more if my time is not wasted by ceremonial.”
A Palace is Rationed
r'THE King and his subjects all over the world faced 1917 quietly, and yet with a deepened sense of anxiety that was only natural.
In March came the compulsory rationing of meat and butter. For the most part, this new restriction was received by the public with the same acquiescence that they had shown through all the trials and troubles of the war.
In connection with this strict economy, a story is told of how the King was shown apparatus for heating both the building and the water when he was visiting a hospital. “How lucky you are,” the King remarked to one officer; “we live in one corner of the room to keep warm, and only have one hot bath once a week. The hot
water business is a problem: you can’t shave with lukewarm water, can you?”
Bad News and Good
' I 'HE month of March stands out as °ne of the most terrible months of the whole war for the Royal Family, for it brought the Rùssian Revolution, the abdication of the Tsar, and very gloomy news from the Front. The King followed Russian affairs as closely as possible, and often spoke of the Tsar’s children, especially of the little Tsarevitch. “What will happen to them all?” he said once: “God knows, for Russia has gone mad!”
But the debacle on the Eastern Front was, fortunately, counteracted by the intervention of the United States at the beginning of April. A great breath of relief surged all over the land when the news that “America had come in” was made public. The King at once sent a message to President Wilson, congratulating him, on behalf of the Empire, on the United States entering the war, and thanking him for the “great ideals so nobly set forth in your speech in Congress. The moral, not less than the material, results of this national declaration are incalculable, and civilization itself will owe much to the decision at which, in the greatest crisis of the world’s history, the people of the great Republic have arrived.”
About this time Mr. Page, United States Ambassador, saw a good deal of King George; and the King and he would “chat like two human beings.” On one occasion the King told Mr. Page a story.
“I’ve a good story on you,” said he. “You Americans have a queer use of the word ‘some’, to express mere bigness or emphasis . . . Well, an American and an Englishman were riding in the same railway compartment. The American read his paper diligently—all the details of a big battle. When he got through, he put the paper down and said: ‘Some fight!’ ‘And some don’t,’ said the Englishman.”
And the King roared. “A good one on you.”
“The trouble with that joke, sir,” said Mr. Page, “is that it’s out of date.”
The First Daylight Air Raid
^\N JUNE 13, a never-to-be forgotten day for Londoners, a daylight raid on London occurred. An Investiture was being held at Buckingham Palace, and, after this was over, the King and some of his staff went to the devastated regions by car. The East End folks with the sturdy courage that no bombing could destroy, greeted his Majesty with cheers, and the ! King, after seeing what had been done, went to St. Bartholomew’s and the London Hospitals to see the injured.
“The King was absolutely splendid,” was the opinion of all the sisters and doctors. At the London Hospital, his Majesty, when going through a ward, came to a bed with a screen round it, and looking round saw that an operation was being performed on the leg of a man. The surgeon apologized to the King, saying that he dared not stop his work. The King asked if he could come and watch, and he stood by the bed for several minutes watching the operation. His Majesty spoke to practically everyone who had been injured, although there were many too ill to recognize him. He did everything he could to cheer the victims up. “Cheer up, I am sure you are all out of danger,” he said in one ward.
After this barbaric raid, the King decided that German names and titles borne by the princes and princesses who were his subjects should be relinquished, and he himself did a thing unparalleled in history when he proclaimed on July 25 that. “We . . . having taken into consideration the name and title of our Royal House and Family have determined that henceforth our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.”