George V (Captain General 1910-1936) is a much under-rated King. At this year of the Centenary of the WW 1 Armistice it is appropriate to examine his legacy.
As Duke of York he was serving as a Commander aged 27 in the Royal Navy when his elder brother Albert died unexpectedly. He was thus required to abandon his naval career as he became the heir to his father King Edward VII. The next year he married, somewhat unusually , his dead brother’s fiancée, Mary of Teck.
There could hardly be more of a contrast between the characters of father and son. Edward, as Prince of Wales, had scandalised the country by his high life of philandering and gambling; George’s life has been described as epitomising “Upper Middle Class respectability”. He was devoted to Queen Mary, to whom he was faithful, and brought up 5 sons and a daughter. Having no intellectual pretensions, his prime personal interests were shooting and stamp collecting.
It would seem that he was ill prepared to cope with the many challenges that he would face following his Accession in 1910.
Storm clouds were gathering over Europe ; there were new political under-currents at home and throughout the Empire. He toured his Empire extensively in the wake of the Boer War, thanking those countries which had sent troops in that conflict, and held a Durbar in India in 1911 where there were early rumblings of Independence.
However nothing could have prepared him for the outbreak of the Great War when Britain was obliged to declare war when an expansionist Germany, led by his first cousin the Kaiser, invaded Belgium in August 1914.
The King shared the hope (and the belief) of many that the war would be of short duration. This optimism proved to be ill-founded as trench warfare brought stagnation and slaughter in equal measure.
Haig had been appointed as an ADC to the King in February 1914 and this was the prelude to frequent meetings throughout the war. Haig lunched with the King and Kitchener in London in 1915, and the King regularly visited the Front.
Contact continued either directly or indirectly, often through the medium of Haig’s wife who had important contacts at Court.
Haig had expressed “ grave doubts” about Sir John French in August 1914, and eventually replaced him as Commander in Chief, BEF in December 1915. Unsurprisingly there was intermittent criticism of his own conduct of the War as it dragged on, but his influence at the Palace probably protected him from political pressure from Lloyd George and others.
It was significant that in promoting him to Field Marshal on New Year’s Day 1917, the King sent him a personal message “ A New Year’s gift from myself and the country”. Later he insisted that Haig be created an Earl in contrast to French’s Viscountcy.
In the aftermath of the War the King was anxious to visit the Military Cemeteries in Belgium and France as soon as it were possible. Nothing better illustrated his sensitivity and common sense in that he insisted on taking a very modest entourage.
Thus he was able quietly to pay his respects in a dignified manner in the face of such huge sacrifice, and to talk to bereaved families and local people.
Frank Fox, an Imperialist who had worked with Fabian Ware on The Morning Post, had been selected to record the Pilgrimage. Fox was later knighted by the King in 1926 for his work organising the British Empire Exhibition.
Fox, as a War Correspondent, had recorded the German Invasion of Belgium, and having been seriously wounded on the Somme, joined Haig’s GHQ at Montreuil-sur-Mer in the planning of the final offensive.
The resulting book “ The King’s Pilgrimage “ ( see below) records a visit, devoid of pomp, in words, evocative photographs, and verse by Rudyard Kipling. Once again the King had demonstrated his instinctive decency and sense of duty. Embarrassed by praise at his Silver Jubilee, he declared “ I’m a very ordinary sort of fellow”
After the War the King played a critical role in developing cordial relations with leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC. This served the Monarchy- renamed as the House of Windsor to replace the Germanic Saxe-Coburg- Gotha -and the country well when Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924.
During the General Strike of 1926 the King, true to his role as a Constitutional Monarch, advised understanding of the issues, and urged moderation dealing with the strikers. The introduction of the annual Christmas Broadcast further enhanced his popularity.
This admirable King ( called “Grandpa England” by Princess Elizabeth) had on his death left the Monarchy more secure- in stark contrast to the fate of his German and Russian first cousins, both of whom had lost their thrones.
Thus it was appropriate that his life ” moved peacefully to a close”
NOTE. “ The King’s Pilgrimage” has been republished by Fox’s Great Grandson, Dr Charles Goodson- Wickes (Representative Deputy Lieutenant for Islington and a Member of the HAC)
It is available via [email protected]
In the words of John Terraine:-
“Few people, unless the subject is brought particularly to their attention can realise to what an extent GHQ itself marked a revolution in the art of waging war……. the whole machine became a remarkable fusion of the best available talent, civilian and military, in the country.”