On a beautiful sunny August bank holiday weekend in England 1914, England declared war on Germany and the world fell apart. Only one week before, King George was telling his wife that he’d have to cancel his annual trip to Goodwood Races and was regretting the loss of his weekend sailing at Cowes while Sir Edward Grey was telling Parliament that the minute the conflict spread beyond Austria and Serbia, it would become the greatest catastrophe that had ever befallen Europe. The starting gun that started the horrible events was fired at the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June that same year and with it, the countdown to the ‘Great War’ began.
Only four years before, a glittering procession clattered down the streets for the funeral of King Edward VII. It was a dull, grey morning but the streets below Windsor Castle were crowded with people waiting to catch sight of the silk covered coffin drawn by black horses as it completed its journey to St George’s Chapel. Every window, every rooftop, every available space was taken up by pale pinched faces. The crowd was eerily silent as they stood shoulder to shoulder, some waiting twelve hours in torrential rain along the processional route, but none pushed or shoved. Many had not eaten or slept since the day before and 1,600 required medical attention. An iron wall of soldiers lined the processional route, many of them mounted on horses, so the crowd would have seen very little of the procession. Still they stood respectfully quiet, listening to the sound of rolling drums and brass playing Beethoven's Funeral March.
His son George led the procession, now King George V, and following behind his glittering plumed head rode his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II on his white horse. Behind him was King Edward’s son-in-law King Haakon VII of Norway, his brothers-in-law George I of Greece and Frederick VIII of Denmark, his nephew-in-law King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Albert I of Belgium, King Manual II of Portugal and Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Following them were 30 more of Europe’s princes, including Edward’s nephew Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, Tsar Nicholas II's brother Misha and their mother Dagma. Also among them was the doomed heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death played such an important role in the near future. Representing the United States was Theodore Roosevelt who had recently and reluctantly stepped down from the presidency. Conspicuous in his absence, was King Edward’s nephew Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who did not attend.
It was a glittering procession and it wound its way up the hill into the courtyard and slowly filled the chapel. None of the mourners could know as they took their seats that history was in the making. This was the high tide of royal power and it was about to ebb dramatically.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the lives of many of the dignitaries lined up in the carved wooden pews were poised on the threshold of an earth-shattering change. No one had any idea that the words ringing across the chapel were just a terrible premonition that all would eventually “come to dust”. Within a few short years, most would be divided by war and revolution, four empires would be destroyed and several royal houses would be uprooted from their kingdoms. Manual II of Portugal would be exiled from his country very soon, as well as Alfonso XIII of Spain in another decade. Even Emperor Wilhelm II was oblivious to the fact that in the near future he would be forced to abdicate his throne and his cousin Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alix (Queen Victoria's granddaughter) their tiny frail son and four beautiful daughters would be roused from their sleep and brutally butchered in the early hours of a cold grey morning.
Each of the three cousins had duties on 4th August 1914. King George and Queen Mary went for a short drive down the Mall to Trafalgar Square where huge crowds greeted them uproariously. To quieten the crowds, they had to show themselves three times on their balcony.
At the same time, Tsar Nicholas II appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace and the vast crowd fell to their knees. The barricades had disappeared and the revolutionaries had melted away. The country had not been so vibrantly alive and united since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.
In Germany, the crowds cheered Kaiser Wilhelm II at the Brandenburg Gate. In a rush of enthusiasm, the Reichstag voted to give its power to the council of German princes, effectively allowing Wilhelm and the army free reign.
While London united and was filled to the bursting point with soldiers, the extended royal family of Europe was anything but united. In Russia, Alix was cut off from her sisters and her brother. George and Nicholas’ cousin, Ernest of Cumberland who had married Wilhelm’s daughter Victoria, took the German side with his father-in-law. So did Charles Edward, the British cousin who had inherited the dukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after Prince Alfred’s death, by taking a commission in the German army. The German-born Prince Louis of Battenberg, a British citizen for many decades, was forced to resign his position as Admiral in the British navy due to xenophobia from the tabloid press, the clubs and the public. There had been accusations that he was sending secret signals to German ships and other allegations of allegiance to the Germans and he was being blamed for every ship sunk and every man drowned. No one had forgotten that his wife was the daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and no one had forgotten that his wife’s sister had once caught the eye of her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm who had asked her to marry him. Both were Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. It was Louis Battenberg, along with all of George’s German relations, who would lose his peerage and title, and it was Louis who would be forced to change his name to the more English name of Mountbatten and retire to the Isle of Wight. It was also Louis whose eldest daughter Alice would marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and who would have five children, the youngest being a son by the name of Phillip who would meet, fall in love and marry King George VI’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, in the future.
Of the 120 of Queen Victoria’s descendants alive in 1914, 42 of her grandchildren were living in enemy countries and 11 would fight against Britain, including Queen Alexandra’s own brother.
By the end of the war four years later, more than 10 million people would die and Queen Victoria’s extended family would be ripped apart. Most would vow that there would never be another war like that one in Europe ever again.
Sadly, they would be wrong.