Monarchies in the First World War


Austria & the Habsburgs

By the outbreak of war, Emperor Franz Josef had ruled Austria-Hungary for sixty-six years. In spite of the stability of his kingship, his empire was fragmenting and comprised many different ethnic groups, several of which wanted independence. Even his armies (he had three separate armies) were made of up men who spoke different languages and often could not understand their officers’ orders. Franz Josef had known many personal tragedies – the murder of his wife, the execution of his brother and the alleged suicide (???) of his only son – and, having known many battles throughout his life, he had no desire for war. His ministers, however, we desperate to crush Serbia and, during the July Crisis, following the murder of his nephew, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, kept a great deal of information from the Emperor while, at the same time, fabricating events so that war seemed inevitable to him. He died in Vienna in 1916 and was succeeded by his great-nephew, Karl.

Karl had played no part in the war preparations and had been deliberately kept out of the way in the events leading up to the war. He played an active role in the Austrian army and was disgusted by the pointless slaughter, the killing of civilians, the use of poisoned-gas and the indiscriminate U-Boat attacks. He believed, too, that Austria was basically being ruled by the German generals and on his accession, he made several attempts to bring the war to an end, seeking separate treaties and the support of America. All his attempts failed and his own generals viewed him as a traitor. A peaceful, devout and courageous man, he was eventually exiled but never formally abdicated. He died prematurely at the age of 34, still in exile in Madeira and was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2004.

Belgium & The Saxe-Coburgs

King Albert I succeeded his uncle to the throne in 1909 at the age of 34. Since his country’s neutrality had been guaranteed he could not permit the advancing German army to pass through Belgium on the way to war with France, not had he any desire to do so: “I rule a kingdom not a road,” he said. The Germans believed that their superior forces would soon crush the small Belgian army but King Albert himself commanded his troops and put up a solid defence against overwhelming odds. As the occupation of his country continued, the King and his German wife, Elizabeth in Bavaria, were forced back towards the coast from where but he continued to lead his troops and even allowed his fourteen-year-old son to enlist as a private in the army. His wife, Elizabeth, worked as a nurse.  A devout Roman Catholic, King Albert certainly had no wish to be involved in the European war but, when his country was dragged into it, he proved himself to be a capable and courageous solider. He was killed in a climbing accident in 1934.

Lots of wonderful information about King Albert and his family   

Britain & the Saxe-Coburgs/Windsors

As shown on previous pages, the British Royal Family had strong ties of kinship to the royalties of Germany but the war severed many of these connections. As a constitutional monarch, George V, had little direct input into the war preparations but as soon as hostilities began he removed the Garter from his German cousins. His elder sons served in the army and navy, although the Prince of Wales was kept well away from any real danger, and his daughter, Mary, trained and worked as a Red Cross nurse. In spite of his close relationship with his cousin, Tsar Nicholas, George personally instructed his government to refuse the Russian Imperial Family a safe haven in England following the revolution. At the same time, fearing that Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded ‘too German’, he changed his family name to Windsor. Other members of the family were also ordered to Anglicise their names or adopt different titles: Battenberg became Mountbatten, the Prince of Teck became the Earl of Athlone etc. etc. George died in 1936 and it is widely known that his death was hastened by the administration of a morphine injection so that the announcement would be made in the morning papers rather than the evening journals, which would have been ‘infra dig’!

Bulgaria & the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Kohary family

Born and raised in Vienna, King Ferdinand was chosen as Prince of Bulgaria in 1887 and, following the country’s declaration of independence in 1908, he became king and self-styled Tsar. A pompous and prickly man, he earned the epithet ‘Foxy Ferdinand’ for his intrigues and subterfuges. Throughout the Balkan Wars he had made many serious mistakes leading to Bulgaria’s complete defeat in 1913 and, at the outbreak of the First World War, Ferdinand waited to see what territorial gains might be made before agreeing to join with the Central Powers in October 1915. By 1918, however, Bulgaria had suffered a series of defeats and, fearing that his throne might be lost, Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his son, Boris, who agreed to the terms of the Armistice. After the war, Ferdinand returned to Coburg and lived sumptuously but the mysterious and sudden death of Boris, (who, rumour has it, might have been poisoned immediately after returning from a meeting with Hitler) and the execution of his younger son, Kyril, in 1945 left Ferdinand bereft. He died in 1948, lonely and disillusioned.

Germany & the Hohenzollern Family

In spite of his great love of uniforms and the trappings of militarism, Kaiser Wilhelm II did not really want war and firmly believed he had been duped both by his Austrian allies and by his own cousins in Britain and Russia, who forced his hand. Contrary to popular belief, too, Wilhelm originally opposed the invasion of Belgium and despite his occasional bellicose ranting he had very little direct say in how events unfolded. His generals and ministers, considering his behaviour erratic, often arranged for him to inspect manoeuvres far from where the real fighting was taking place or decisions were being made, and ministers were replaced without his consent. All his sons all served in various branches of his army and navy; and the eldest, Crown Prince Wilhelm, has often been blamed for the events at the siege of Verdun, whereas, in fact, he did not take the decision that led to such widespread slaughter. During the Russian Revolution, Wilhelm offered sanctuary to the Russian Imperial Family but, out of loyalty to their countrymen, they refused to accept his offer. In 1918, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate and he fled to Holland where he remained until his death in  1941.

Greece & the Family of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg

At the outbreak of war, Greece remained neutral though King Constantine favoured the Central Powers and his wife, Sophie, somewhat ironically since she was the Kaiser’s sister, favoured the Entente. Both were keen to keep Greece out of the war but came increasingly under pressure from both sides, particularly when the Prime Minister, Venizelos constantly urged the king to commit to the Entente. Venizelos was eventually dismissed but support for him grew and in 1916 an arson attack on the king’s palace which killed sixteen people, and could easily have killed the royal family, heralded a revolt in which Venizelos established a rival, revolutionary government. Under increasing pressure from the Allies – including the totally unfounded story that Sophie was sending secret information to her brother in Berlin, and the threat of invasion – and having refused to obtain German support during the civil unrest,  Constantine was eventually forced to abdicate in 1917 and went into exile in Switzerland. The Allies refused to accept his firstborn son, George, as king so he was succeeded by his second son, Alexander, who was compelled to allow of strongly pro-Entente government. When Alexander died – after being bitten by a monkey and developing septicaemia – in 1920, Constantine regained his throne but two years later he was ousted again and died the following year in exile in Sicily.

Italy & the Savoy Family

Like Constantine of Greece, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy came to the throne following his father’s assassination. Small in stature but broad in his thinking, Victor Emmanuel and his government did not believe that the murder of Franz Ferdinand merited the invasion of Serbia and consequently, despite an alliance with the Central Powers, Italy initially remained neutral. In 1915, however, following meetings with British ministers, who promised to restore Italian lands which had been under the control of Austria-Hungary, the king himself overruled his government and agreed to honour join the Entente. He and his wife, Elena of Montenegro, immediately left for the Front where they both tended the wounded and the King proved to be a decisive and capable military leader.  After the war, however, his leadership came under threat from the emerging fascism of Mussolini with whom the king felt obliged to co-operate. Mussolini, however, gradually reduced the king’s power until he was nothing but figurehead with no authority. Even after Mussolini’s decline, Victor Emmanuel was unable to regain his authority and he abdicated in favour of his son in 1946. Within a month, the monarchy was discontinued and the former king died a year later in exile in Egypt.

Montenegro & the Family of Petrovic-Njegos

In 1910, after reigning as Sovereign Prince for fifty years, Nicholas finally proclaimed himself as King of Montenegro. A poet and patriot, he was a cultured man whose deep devotion to his country and his allies made him a popular king. After amazing successes in the Balkan Wars, he hurried to the aid of Serbia during the Austrian invasion of 1914. The following year, the Austrians succeeded in occupying his country and Nicholas was forced to flee into exile in France. In spite of the British assurances that his kingdom would be restored, and the Serb promises of support, the formation of Yugoslavia at the end of the war removed any possibility of Nicholas regaining his throne. Until his death in  Italy in 1923, the king continued to press – to no avail! – for the restoration of the Montenegrin monarchy.

Roumania & the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen Family

When war broke out, King Carol of Roumania found himself in a terrible position. German by birth (he was elected King of Roumania in 1881) and having agreed a secret treaty with the Kaiser some years earlier, his instinct was to align with the Central Powers. His people, however, were culturally and spiritually far closer to Russia and, for the most part, favoured joining the Entente or remaining neutral.  While war raged around them, the Roumanians remained neutral and continued to leave peacefully but the pressure was so great on King Carol that his health gave way and he died in October 1914. His successor and nephew, Ferdinand was also in favour of a German alliance but his flamboyant wife, Marie, was more in tune with the mood of the people and strongly urged him to join the Entente, which he agreed to do in August 1916. After some successes, the Russian Revolution left Roumania bereft of support and, as the country was occupied and surrounded, Ferdinand was ordered to sign the Treaty of Bucharest taking his country out of the war. To Marie’s relief, he refused to sign and, as the Central Powers’ fortunes declined, Ferdinand re-rallied his troops. After the war, Ferdinand was one of the few kings of central Europe who was able to hold onto his throne. He died in 1927.


Russia & the Romanovs

Contrary to many reports, Tsar Nicholas II was neither weak nor indecisive. During the July Crisis, the only reason he ordered a mobilisation and then halted it and then re-ordered it was because he was going out of his way to avoid war. When Prince Alexander of Serbia asked for his help in view of the Austrian ultimatum, Nicholas advised him to comply with as many demands as possible. It was Nicholas, too, who suggested taking the dispute to an International Tribunal in the Hague. When no other options were available to him, he felt duty-bound to defend the Serbs and order a full mobilisation. Once war began, his own ministers were in a panic and it was Nicholas himself who calmed them and, when he first took personal command of his troops, he had some remarkable successes. His wife and elder daughters, meanwhile, trained as nurses and assisted in some of the most horrific surgical operations. One of the reasons for the discord within his army and in the country at large was the lack of supplies but this was due to a deliberate cutting off of supplies by foreign governments, not to Nicholas’ own lack of foresight. I personally believe that the Russian Revolution was engineered by foreign bankers with the intention of overthrowing the Romanovs who had refused to accept their system of banking…In 1917, Nicholas, faced with Civil War, abdicated rather than turn his troops on his own people, and so that Russia would not abandon her allies. Unfortunately his allies did not reciprocate this courtesy and Nicholas and his entire family were ruthlessly murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918.


In June 1914, King Peter of Serbia, handed over his authority to his son, Alexander who became the Prince Regent.  A soldier, who had taken part in the Balkan Wars, Alexander had no desire for armed conflict with Austria and immediately after the murder of Franz Ferdinand, ordered public mourning and sent messages of condolence to Emperor Franz Josef. When he received the Austrian ultimatum, he sought the advice of the Tsar of Russia and promptly ordered a humble response to Austria, agreeing to virtually all of the demands. Once the Austrian invasion began, however, Alexander saw some unexpected successes with his army, but eventually – attacked on all sides – he was forced to withdraw. By 1918, the Serbs had managed to re-group and regain some of their lost territory, and when the war finally ended, Alexander became regent of the newly formed Yugoslavia. After his father’s death, he was crowned king. In October 1934, while making a state visit to France, Alexander was shot dead in remarkably similar circumstances to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

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