The Royals of Europe & the First World War

by | Sep 1, 2023 | France, Germany, Italy, Kings, Noble Titles, Queens, Royal Titles

The royals of Europe are connected in a number of expected and sometimes unexpected ways. 

For example, it has long been the practice of Europe’s great royal houses to unite in the marriage of a young prince of one nation to a young princess of another nation. These marriages between royal houses were very often strategic, and were intended to create a beneficial alliance for both parties. In many cases, these intentions played out successfully and many royal marriages blossomed into vast and successful empires. 

With this level of interconnectedness between the great royal houses of Europe, it would be natural to assume that family ties and fondness for close relatives would help to smooth any political troubles that might cause nations to fall out, or worse, to go to war against each other. 

In reality, this has not always been the case. A classic example of the failure of family bonds to prevent conflict was the relationships and leadership of three royal cousins during the period of the First World War. 

The First World War & Three Royal Cousins

Three of the great nations that would enter into conflict and bring about the European war that was believed to end all wars were the countries of England, Germany, and Russia. 

Historically, the nations of Europe have experienced shifting alliances and frequent conflicts throughout the ages. Yet there were many who believed that war would be prevented at the beginning of the 20th century because of the nature of the relationships between the great world leaders – the King of England, the Russian Tsar and the German Kaiser. 

These three men were cousins, which is not uncommon in many of the great royal houses of Europe. Yet in this instance, the three men were close relatives, sharing royal childhoods, significant family events and even a strong sense of kinship and affinity. 

The English king and the Russian tsar in particular were known to be extremely fond of one another. The German Kaiser was also an integral part of the British Royal Family during his early years, being one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren – such was the strength of his connection that he was even present at the deathbed of his grandmother the queen. 

Despite these family bonds and emotional ties, these three powerful rulers found themselves unable to prevent the outbreak of the Great War. It’s even been suggested that some lingering family resentments may even have fuelled the animosity between the royal leaders, in spite of their shared connections and history. 

Even though England and Russia were allies during the First World War, this royal connection would not be enough to prevent the fall of the Russian Empire, or even to protect its Tsar and his family from the Bolshevik Revolutionaries. 

A Soldier & A Future King

Beyond the leaders and statesmen who negotiated the decisions of war, some of the children of kings and queens experienced first-hand the resulting conflict, despite their regal connections and even their importance within the royal family and the line of succession. 

The royal families of Europe have long had a great history of military roles and connections with the various armed forces, such as the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Royal Army. 

As the First World War broke out across Europe, this tradition of a regal presence within the military was upheld by a number of royal combatants. 

Perhaps the most famous member of royalty to fight was the English Prince of Wales, the man who would become King of England, Edward VIII. 

Edward VIII (then Price of Wales) in August 1915, during the First World War

Edward VIII (then Price of Wales) in August 1915, during the First World War – H. D. Girdwood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During World War I, Edward served his king and country as a member of the British Army, including some overseas tours. It’s believed the experience of the brutality of the Great War left a lasting impression on the young prince, one that would shape his character for the rest of his life. 

The Prince of Wales’ experiences in World War I were not his only experience of military action – he went on to serve in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, ultimately becoming Admiral of the Fleet when he ascended to the throne in 1936, before abdicating a few months later. 

Royal Name Changes

The threat of war and its lasting legacy would also have repercussions on the very names of royal houses. 

For example, the links between Britain, the German royal family and its Grand Dukes were deeply entrenched for many generations before the outbreak of the First World War. Yet the conflict between the two nations reached such a peak of enmity that it was decided that the British Royal Family would change their family names, in order to avoid animosity to German lineages. 

The most famous example is the House of Windsor, which was created by King George V in 1917. This new name was in reference to the historic royal connection with Windsor, in particular its ancient royal castle. The new name of Windsor was used to replace the previous royal family name of House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which was causing considerable anti-German hostility within the UK in the years before the outbreak of World War I. 

Another royal German name to be anglicised as a result of the war was that of the House of Battenberg. The members of the British Royal Family who bore this esteemed royal German lineage included one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine who had married Prince Louis of Battenberg, a German prince and close family member of England’s royalty. 

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, the House of Battenberg was changed to the more English-sounding Mountbatten – a royal name and lineage that is still in use today and has been a recognisable name in royal circles for generations. 

Over the ages, the great royal houses of Europe have played a key role in many of the conflicts and political disputes that have scarred the continent. It’s clear that royalty is no protection from the ways of the world, and even the greatest leaders can be impacted or even brought down by the ravages of war.

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