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Involvement of the British Royal Family

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2.3Involvement of the British Royal Family

Just like his father, George V wanted to be involved in the events and problems concerning his country. Nicolson (1952, p.254) acknowledges the fact that during the whole war George V wanted to be fully informed of the affairs and problems at home and on the battle fronts. Hourly he would receive official and semi-official papers and a flood of private correspondence, letters from responsible and irresponsible quarters. He points out that his subjects considered him to be the arbiter of justice as well as the source of clever ideas and stresses the fact that soldiers were constantly supported by the awareness of his encouragement. Due to safety measures his whereabouts could not be announced.

But the soldiers in training, the soldiers at the front, the sailors at Scapa Flow, Rosyth, Invergordon, Harwich and Dover, above all perhaps the workers in the munition factories, were aware of his constant presence among them, and came to welcome his animating confidence and the cheerful vigour of his discourse… No previous Monarch had entered into such close personal relations with so many of his subjects. (Nicolson, 1984, p.252).

2.3.1The King´s Public Engagement and Political Affairs

Despite the Cabinet and its Ministers being directly responsible for decision making, the role of the King was meaningful. As Nicolson (1952, p.248-9) points out:

The position of a Constitutional Monarch, in times of national strain and indignation, may become invidious. Although possessing no executive powers, he is credited by his people with supreme responsibility. Being the sole representative of the Nation as a whole, he may be expected, and even tempted, to voice, not merely the will and virtue of his subjects, but also their momentary moods and passions.
George V played an active role in appointing the army and navy officers. He expressed his opinion and views about army and navy officers on a regular basis, which was the cause of friction between him and the Prime Minister such as in October 1914 and their dispute over the successor of Louis of Battenberg at the Admiralty. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith supported Winston Churchill, who suggested appointing Lord Fisher as First Sea Lord. The King did not agree but decided he would not overrule his ministers, complied and signed the appointment. He also expressed his reluctance in a private letter to the Prime Minister. “... I readily acknowledge his great ability and administrative powers, but at the same time I cannot help feeling that his presence at the Admiralty will not inspire the Navy with that confidence which ought to exist, especially when we are engaged in so momentous a war.“ (Rose, 1983, p.186-7).

The King felt the events that followed had proved him right. Churchill and Fisher got into a dispute over the position of the navy. As Churchill demanded a naval passage through the Dardanelles to relieve the pressure of Russia by capturing Constantinople, Fisher insisted that the navy was needed much more in the North Sea. After the Gallipoli campaign proved disastrous and Churchill demanded more forces, Fisher resigned on May 15, 1915 and left the Admiralty. A brisk reply from Churchill followed: “In the King´s name I order you to remain at your post” (Rose, 1983, p.188), but without the intended result. Asquith had to admit that the King´s doubts concerning Fisher had been justified. The King maintained his dislike towards Fisher and the feelings proved to be mutual. Correspondingly, Fisher seemed to lack respect for his sovereign when writing to The Manchester Guardian:

I hear amongst the proletariat is a deep feeling that both Buckingham Palace and Sandringham should long ago have been given up for our wounded and sick heroes when every other crowned head has done so, and all our dukes and others have given up their homes for the purpose. Kings will be cheap soon! (Rose, 1983, p.189)
Fisher wrote two books of his memoirs where he mentioned King Edward VII several times but the name of George V is not stated at all. It is important to add that the King did not like Winston Churchill either. He put an entry in his diary: “I hope Balfour [British Prime Minister in 1902-1905] will be 1st Lord of Admiralty in place of Churchill, who has become impossible.” (Rose, 1983, p.189). Churchill left office only one week after Fisher.

On one hand, the King held a close friendship with Douglas Haig who became the Field Marshal of the British Expeditionary Force, but it was Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was strongly disliked by the sovereign. The King complained every time he was not informed of affairs, for example when the minutes of the Cabinet meeting arrived late. When Lloyd George became the Prime Minister in December 1916, the minutes sometimes did not come at all. As the King openly expressed his aversion towards him, Lloyd George retaliated by ignoring or not answering the King’s letters without a relevant apology. They also had a different point of view on war conduct. Lloyd George believed the fighting on the Western Front should be terminated and the King believed that decisions should be left to professionals. “Like his father and grandmother before him, the King did not doubt that he was the Head of the Armed Forces in more than name: the guardian of military sentiment and tradition, the protector of senior officers from and too meddlesome ministerial control. Lloyd George would have none of it.” (Rose, 1983, p.201). For instance, when the King expressed his discontent through Lord Stamfordham about the replacement of General Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of Air Staff, and of Lord Bertie, the British Ambassador in Paris, which he discovered through the press or on the phone, he received an explanation from the Downing Street secretary claiming that the Prime Minister had a twenty-one-hour working day. (Rose, 1983, p.207). This clearly shows that Prime Minister Lloyd George did not intend to involve the King in matters more than it was necessary. George V was determined to keep a certain level of control over the armed services, but like his predecessor Edward VII, he was restricted by the Government and the Cabinet that despite acting in his name had the final say in all decisions.

When Britain entered the war, the King issued A Proclamation for Calling Out the Army Reserve and Embodying the Territorial Force stating:
Whereas by the Reserve Forces Act, 1882, it is amongst Other things enacted that in case of imminent national danger or of great emergency it shall be lawful for Us by Proclamation, the occasion having first been communicated to Parliament, to order that the Army Reserve shall be called out on permanent service” (Baker, n.d.).
When the first British troops, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by Sir John French, were leaving for the war in Flanders and France soon after the WWI broke out, King George V sent his personal message:

My message to the troops of the Expeditionary Force.  Aug. 12th 1914. You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire. Belgium, whose country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe. I have implicit confidence in you my soldiers.  Duty is your watchword, and I know your duty will be nobly done. I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction your daily progress, indeed your welfare will never be absent from my thoughts. I pray God to bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious. (Duffy, 2009e).

This message clearly shows his deep concern for his soldiers. In order to demonstrate his solidarity with the British war effort, George V made sure the soldiers were aware of his support through his frequent visits. During the war he made 450 inspections; he went to see the soldiers in training and at the front, the sailors on the vessels, the wounded in more than 300 hospitals, the workers in many different locations, such as ammunition factories and store houses. He demonstrated his deep appreciation by donating 50,000 decorations and after the bombing raid he visited the damaged areas and talked to the wounded and affected. (Nicolson, 1952, p.252)

During one inspection in Hesdigneul, France on October 28, 1915 an accident occurred, that influenced the King’s life and health forever. He arrived at the site by motor car. General Haig made sure that the horse was specially trained for the role of carrying the sovereign. One witness later recorded that this mare would rest all day long next to a big drum of the army band but unfortunately was not ready for the excessive noise of twenty flying men cheering. “The wretched animal reared up like a rocket and came over backwards.” (Rose, 1983, p.181). After the King fell off the horse, he was picked up, carried and driven away. Despite the danger of German bombing, he stayed at one chateau refusing to move to a safer location. He was in agony and although General Haig lightened the situation by even claiming the King was all right, this was far from the truth. The King suffered from several injuries, a fractured pelvis included He was in immense pain and shock. His recovery was slow and worrying but as he pointed out to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught, he felt lucky to be alive.

I was extremely lucky that I was not killed or otherwise seriously damaged, as it was I cracked three ribs & was terribly bruised about the back and legs and all my muscles were torn & wrenched. I am glad to say I am making an excellent recovery & can walk in my room with the aid of stick, but now nearly 5 weeks since it occured I am still very stiff & have a good many aches which are getting less every day. (Rose, 1983, p.181)
Twenty years later Lord Dawson of Penn, the royal doctor, observed that the King formed some irregular nodules that were causing him stiffness and limited movement.

The death toll mounted and among the fallen were also the people that the King knew personally, for instance Raymond Asquith, the oldest son of the Prime Minister, and John Bigge, the only son of the King´s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham. The King was also stunned by the death of Lord Kitchener. His cruiser HMS Hampshire was hit by a German mine and sunk on June 5, 1916 close to the Orkney Islands. British public viewed his death as a disaster for the war effort. (Hickman, n.d.). On this occasion the King went against protocol by attending the memorial service of his subject. Kitchener was also mourned by his Cabinet colleague Lloyd George, whose plan had been to be on the same ship but had remained in Britain to solve problems in Ireland. (Rose, 1983, p.195).

In February 1917, the nation´s mood was very low due to the long continuation of the war. The King delivered a speech at the State Opening of the Parliament occasion:

Gentlemen of the House of Commons, You will be asked to make the necessary provision for the effective prosecution of the war. My Lords, and Gentlemen, The accomplishment of the task to which I have set My hand will entail unsparing demands on the energies and resources of all My subjects. I am assured, however, that My people will respond to every call necessary for the success of our cause with the same indomitable ardour and devotion that have filled Me with pride and gratitude since the war began. (The King’s Speech, 1917, 2012 ).

Through his public speeches the King intended to prove his interminable participation. His tried to reassure his people as much as he was able to and to actively contribute towards to their general determination to win the war, to stay strong and see the end of the conflict. He did not hesitate to be present when needed and represented a respectful and supportive sovereign that Britain needed throughout those troublesome times.

2.3.2Other Members of the British Royal Family

Just as any other parents, George V and Queen Mary shared a worry over their sons. Prince Edward registered into the Grenadier Guards. As the Prince of Wales, he could not take part in active fighting on the front lines and every time the conflict came too close, he was moved to a safer place. Lord Kitchener expressed that it would not matter that much if the Prince of Wales would be killed but it would be extremely embarrassing if he was taken prisoner. (Nicolson, 1984, p.253). Prince Edward felt uneasy about this as is shown in his letter to his father King George V: “I shall have to remember the war by the various towns and places far back which were headquarters of generals I was attached to, of meals, etc.!!”. (Rose, 1983, p.218). In September 1915 the Prince went on an inspection of the battlefront at Vermelles escorted by Lord Cavan, the Guard Division commander. After leaving their vehicle, the Germans plastered the area with shrapnel. When they returned, they found their driver dead. When the Prince of Wales was sent to Egypt, he was even more discontented and commented: “I feel such a swine having a soft comfortable time out here while the Guards Division is up at Ypres”. The King liked his son’s attitude but insisted on his staying safe. . (Rose, 1983, p.219)

Prince Albert, the second son of George V and Queen Mary, later known as King George VI, was serving on HMS Collingwood, which was part of the Home Fleet. He partook in the active fighting in the Battle of Jutland. Princes Henry and George were too young and still attending their schools and the youngest John, due to his epileptic seizures was residing in Sandringham. (Rose, 1983, p.221).

Queen Mary and Princess Mary (see Fig.9) were a great support to the wounded and dying soldiers and regularly visited the hospital and hospices. When the King returned to the Western Front in 1916, after his recovery from a horse fall, the Queen insisted on a letter being sent to her every night reporting on each day. In 1917 she insisted on traveling with him and visited the field of Agincourt and Crécy. Douglas Haig pointed out that “This is the first lady to have a meal at my headquarters since War began!” (Rose, 1983, p.182).

Also the other members of the royal family were hit by the sense of responsibility. Apart from the Prince of Wales all other royal family members were notably active during the conflict. Despite the King´s eldest son expressing his regrets over the impossibility to fight actively as the men in his age did, the story from Vermelles proves that similar to his father´s accident with the horse, he was close to the danger of being hurt and in his own way closer to ordinary people.

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