By 1914 only four of Queen Victoria’s nine children – Helena, Louise, Arthur and Beatrice – were still alive and all four were settled in Britain, or, in Arthur’s case, Canada. With the exception of Helena’s son, their children were also either in Allied or neutral countries. In the extended family, however, the war brought devastating divisions between cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings and even parents. They had attended the same family gatherings, weddings, funerals and christenings, but now they found themselves on opposing sides in a war that was not of their marking.
How War Divided Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren
1. Vicky’s Prussian Family
Kaiser Wilhelm was Supreme Commander of the German Army and Navy, and his brother, Henry, was Commander-in-Chief of the German Baltic Fleet. Three of his sisters were married to German princes but his sister, the Anglophile Sophie, as Queen of Greece was in a particularly difficult position. In the summer of 1914 she was holidaying in Eastbourne with her sister-in-law and cousin, Irene, and, on the outbreak of war, she left her sons in the care of her cousin, George V, while she returned to neutral Greece. Naturally, the Kaiser urged her to press her husband, ‘Tino’ to ally Greece to Germany and the Central Powers, while her English cousins urged the same for the Entente.
Both Tino and Sophie, however, unwilling to inflict further suffering on their country after the recent Balkan Wars, wished to maintain Greece’s neutrality. This stand brought them into conflict with the powerful and persuasive Prime Minister, Venizelos, who firmly advocated forming an alliance with the Entente. In spite of growing pressure from both sides, Tino stood his ground until autumn 1915 when the British fleet, with Venizelos’ encouragement, landed at Salonika. The outraged king dismissed his Prime Minister who responded by establishing a rival government that divided the country into those who remained loyal to Tino and those who backed Venizelos’ demands to enter the war. In an effort to force Tino to take a stand, Allied propaganda attempted to discredit Queen Sophie by circulating increasingly bizarre stories of her pro-German sympathies. Like her cousin, the Tsarina, she was accused of sending information to her brother, the Kaiser, via a secret telephone line linking her Tatoi home with Berlin. In the summer of 1916, an arsonist set fire to the palace while the Queen and her children were in residence and though the family escape unharmed several members of the household were killed.
Two of Sophie’s nephews, meanwhile – the sons of her sister, Margarete – were killed in action, fighting for the Central Powers. Prince Maximilian of Hesse-Kassel died in Belgium shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914; and his elder brother, Prince Frederick Wilhelm, was killed in Roumania in 1916.
2. King Edward VII’s British Family
King George V was fortunate in that none of his sisters found themselves on opposing sides. George, however, felt it imperative to strip his German cousins of the Garter, awarded to them by Queen Victoria and, in 1917, was so anxious not to show any affiliation to Germany that he ordered the anglicising of all German names in his family. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Windsor; Battenberg became Mountbatten; the Prince of Teck became Earl of Athlone, and Schleswig-Holstein was simply dropped altogether. Throughout the war, George repeatedly assured his cousin, the Russian Tsar, of his friendship and devotion but following the Russian Revolution when the Tsar and his family were seeking refuge in England, George personally withdrew the offer of a safe haven, claiming that the British public would oppose such an offer.
3. Alice’s Hessian Family
Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, was naturally bound to the Central Powers, as was his sister, Irene who had married her cousin, Henry, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm. His other three sisters, however, were allied to the Entente. Although Victoria had married the German-born Prince Louis of Battenberg, he had served in the British Navy throughout his life and was consequently seen as British – although he was still compelled to resign from his position at the Admiralty simply because of his German origin. Ella and Alix – now Tsarina – were totally devoted to Russia and, despite the agony of being separated from their brother and sister in Germany, had no allegiance to the Central Powers. “This miserable war, when will it ever end?” asked the Tsarina after only six weeks of fighting, “William [the Kaiser], I feel sure must at times pass through hideous moments of despair when he grasps that he and especially his anti-Russian set, which began the war and is dragging his country into ruin. All those little states,” she sighed remembering Darmstadt, “for years they will continue to suffer its after-effects.” They both threw themselves wholeheartedly into nursing the wounded: “Looking after the wounded in my consolation…” wrote the Tsarina. “To lessen their suffering even in a small way helps the aching heart.” All the same, they were both treated with mistrust by the Russian people who accused them of being ‘Hessian witches’ and German spies. When the Revolution erupted In 1917 and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, the Kaiser offered the Imperial Family safe haven in Germany but they refused his offer as it would seem like a betrayal of their people in wartime. It was believed that they would eventually find refuge in England…until ‘Cousin George’ withdrew the invitation. Ella, Alix and her entire family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
4. Alfred’s Edinburgh/Coburg Family
Few royalties could have had such an apparent conflict of interests in the war than Alfred’s widow, Marie. Born born Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, a daughter of the Tsar, by marrying Alfred she had then become Duchess of Edinburgh – a double connection the Entente. She had also, however, become Duchess of Coburg and, taking that role seriously, was affronted that her daughter, Marie – Crown Princess and later Queen of Roumania – was unsympathetic to the German cause. In fact, of her four daughters, only Alexandra, who had married a German prince, remained on the German ‘side’. Victoria Melita, though once Grand Duchess of Hesse, had re-married a Russian Grand Duke and was therefore committed to the Entente. The proudly ‘English’ Crown Princess Marie favoured an alliance with the Entente but her German-born husband, Ferdinand, and his uncle, King Carol, could not renounce their Hohenzollern blood and were torn between the overwhelming Roumanian support for Britain and Russia, and their own familial connections to the Central Powers. The strain proved too much for King Carol of Roumania and within three months of the outbreak of war, he was dead. Missy rose with her usual aplomb to the rank of Queen but it would be two years before she could persuade her husband to abandon his neutral stance and join the Allies. Once Roumania finally entered the war, Marie, with all the ebullience of her charismatic personality, threw herself into the Allied campaign, inspiring her soldiers with a conviction of the righteousness of their cause. Her efforts were not without great personal cost. Less than two months after her country pledged its allegiance to the Entente, her youngest son, Mircea died of typhoid. Though devastated by grief, Missy refused to allow personal considerations to impede her efforts on behalf of the troops. Within days of the little boy’s death, she was touring hospitals, offering her ungloved hand to the wounded and doling out cigarettes and signed photographs of herself to the adoring soldiers. “Our troops want to have me in their midst,” she wrote in her typically narcissistic style, “…as I moved amongst them…I knew that I represented the star of hope.” Marie not only concerned herself with the immediate needs of the soldiers, but also made use of her family connections to urge both George V and the Tsar (prior to his abdication) to support her husband’s ill-equipped army. But help was slow in coming and the disorderly Russian troops, thrown into disarray by events in Petrograd, became increasingly reluctant to sacrifice their lives in defence of a monarchist regime. As German planes bombed Bucharest, enemy armies steadily marched across the country forcing Ferdinand, Marie and their children to escape from the capital to Jassy on the Russian border. On 6thDecember 1916, the Kaiser’s soldiers took possession of Bucharest and in the early months of 1917, the Tsar’s enforced abdication meant a powerful ally was lost. The Roumanians and their allies clung to the hope that the new Russian regime would honour the Tsar’s promise to fight on until victory. For seven months after the Tsar’s abdication, the increasingly disheartened troops continued to fight, but in November 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks seized power with a promise of taking Russia out of the conflict. Officers who refused to abandon their positions were ignored or even murdered by their mutinous men whose sole desire was to return home and reap the rewards of revolution. In January 1918, Roumania itself was in danger of falling prey to revolutionaries when the Bolsheviks declared war on the country, ransacked the royal palaces and removed the Crown Jewels to Russia. It was, in part, the Queen’s personal popularity that prevented the Roumanian throne from toppling alongside that of ‘Cousin Nicky’. The departure of their Russian allies left the Roumanians massively outnumbered and by March 1918 King Ferdinand was bound to admit defeat. Helpless and frustrated, Missy could only gape in horror at her husband’s willingness to surrender: ‘Rather would I have died with our army to the last man,” she wrote to Cousin George, “than confess myself beaten, for have I not English blood in my veins?” In response, King George offered her asylum in England, but like her Russian cousins, she was too devoted to her people to abandon them in their hour of need. Besides, even when the outcome seemed inevitable, she was determined to persuade Ferdinand to reject the Kaiser’s terms, advising him to abdicate rather than accept such humiliation. For all her pleading and cajoling, King Ferdinand agreed to the German demands in their entirety. On hearing what he had done, Marie exploded with rage: “Oh God, if only I were a man with a man’s rights and the spirit I have in a woman’s body, I would fire them to desperate glorious resistance!” This time, even the headstrong Queen was powerless. Ferdinand had signed and there was nothing she could do about it. Nevertheless, heroic and theatrical to the end, Marie insisted that she had not accepted the treaty and refused to acknowledge defeat. “I do not in the least consider myself a beaten Queen…but the leader of a glorious army which has not been vanquished, but had to submit to a fearful and preposterous peace because it was betrayed by its Ally, Russia.” For now she was forced to live under the yoke but she never doubted that, in spite of present hardships, the Entente would eventually win the war and she waited optimistically for future glory.
5. The Schleswig-Holstein Family of Helena
In the middle of the war, Helena and her husband, Christian, celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary and, despite the hostilities, the Kaiser found a means to send them his warmest wishes. In 1917, however, Christian died and his only surviving son, Albert – who served in the Prussian army (but not on active service) was unable to attend his funeral. His sisters, Marie Louise and Helena Victoria (‘Thora’) were in England and played their part in the war effort. Marie Louise converted a Girls’ Club that she had founded into a ‘perfect hospital with 100 beds.’ “I ran this completely self sufficient unit myself from 1914 to 1920. It was directly under the War Office, with no well-meaning interference from the Red Cross or other bodies. I suppose I have the strange distinction of being one of the few women who never donned a uniform – not even an overall – during [the] war…I took especial care when visiting my wounded friends to put on my smartest dress and hat, and the men thoroughly appreciated the compliment paid them.” Thora founded the Women’s Auxiliary Service and made several trips to France to visit base camps and hospitals.
6. The Connaught Family of Arthur
In neutral Sweden, the Crown Princess Margaret (‘Daisy’) became the focal point through which siblings and cousins on opposing sides could keep in contact. Through her, it was possible for Thora and Marie Louise to follow the exploits of their brother, Albert, and through her too, Margarete of Prussia (Hesse-Kassel) would eventually be able to regain the mementos that the British had found on the body of her dying son. “[Daisy] had her own office in the palace,” wrote her cousin, Marie Louise, “where…she founded and organized the important work of tracing the British wounded, missing and prisoners of war. The work she did was in no way concerned with any official organisation.” Even so, it was difficult for an English princess to remain entirely impartial in a Court which, though officially unbiased, tended to favour the Central Powers. In Canada, her sister, Patsy, who as patron of her own Light Infantry regiment had personally embroidered the regimental banner, sold signed photographs of herself to raise money for the allies. Their brother, Arthur, had already known active service in the Boer War and by 1914 had been promoted to the rank of Major in the Royal Scots Greys. He served as aide-de-camp to General Sir John French and was therefore involved in the first action of the British Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium. When French was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig, Arthur continued as aide-de-camp.
To Battenberg Family of Beatrice
As Spain remained neutral throughout the war, Victoria Eugenie was free of the terrible sense of divided loyalty that afflicted many of her cousins. It was not long, however, before she suffered the tragendy of war, when her brother, Maurice, fighting with the British army was killed in October 1914. Twenty-three-year-old Maurice was the commanding officer of his Rifle regiment during the Battle of Ypres when he was mortally wounded on the battlefield and died before he could be taken to a place of refuge. Lord Kitchener offered to have his body brought home but his mother refused saying he would want to remain with his men and he was consequently buried at the British cemetery in Ypres. His brother, Leopold, continued to serve in a non-active role (due to his haemophila) untll the end of the war. His sister, ‘Ena’ was later able to travel to Belgium to visit his grave.
For more information about these and other Royal Houses please go to: Monarchies in the First World War