Research Notes – The Great War (22) Royal Cousins

The royal houses of Europe have always been a bit of an incestuous bunch —at least until recently when standards have been relaxed. For those of royal blood, their selection of future mates was largely arranged so as to form or strengthen political alliances. As a result, the pool of choices was very limited and the families of Europe (including Russia up through the 19th century) became a confusingly intermarried bunch.

Three of the principal combatants during the First World War –Britain, Germany and Russia– were ruled by men whose close family ties were unable to prevent that dreadful conflict. King George V of Great Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins. Here’s how they were related:

King George V was the son of King Edward VII and his wife Alexandra of Denmark.

Tsar Nicholas II was the son of Tsar Alexander III and his wife Dagmar of Denmark (Alexandra’s sister).

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the son of Kaiser Friedrich III and his wife Victoria of Great Britain (Edward’s sister).

Additionally, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II were related further back in the family tree through the marriages of the tsar’s distant cousin (the granddaughter of Nicholas’ great grandfather —I’m not sure what that relationship works out to be…) to Wilhelm I, King of Prussia (Wilhelm II’s grandfather).

AND, Tsar Nicholas II married Alexandra of Hess-Darmstadt —daughter of Alice of Great Britain, sister of Edward VII, making him cousin by marriage as well.

Despite these close familial relationships, in 1914 the monarchs found themselves at war in the worst conflict the world had ever seen up to that time. By the end of The Great War, two of those monarchies had been brought to their end —the Russian through revolution and the German through defeat. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on July 17, 1918 by the revolutionary Bolsheviks who had been holding the Romanovs captive after Nicholas’ abdication of the throne. The kaiser was forced to abdicate the Imperial German Crown and the Prussian Kingship on November 9, 1918 as the German army was near collapse and revolution loomed on the home front. Wilhelm fled by train to the neutral Netherlands where he lived out his life in exile.

Above: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm. Three Royal Cousins.

Research Notes – The Great War (5) The Suicide Pact That Changed History

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

Nearly 120 years after his death, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, son of Franz Josef and Elisabeth (of Bavaria), heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a mere asterisk in the history of the Great War. Nevertheless, his short but eventful life changed the face of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty and altered the path which led to the dreadful conflict 15 years after his tragic demise.

Rudolf Franz Karl Josef was born on August 21, 1858 and with his early education, began his grooming to lead the empire. Unlike his conservative father, Rudolf developed more liberal views and was intensely interested in the natural sciences, especially mineralogy. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was initially a happy match, but the royal couple grew distant after the birth of their only child, Elisabeth. Rudolf, a passionate man, began drinking and embarking on a number of love affairs. At one point, he considered trying to have his marriage to Stéphanie annulled, but was prevented by his father, the emperor.

In 1888, the 30 year old Crown Prince met the 17 year old Baroness Marie Vetsera and began a doomed affair. Although, by all accounts, Marie was devoted to her married lover, Rudolf carried on liaisons with other women during the 3 months he and Marie were involved. At Rudolf’s hunting lodge in Mayerling, on January 30, 1889, the lovers committed murder suicide –the act confirmed by letters of Marie’s which recorded that she was preparing to take her own life for the sake of ‘love’. Prior to the events at Mayerling, however, the ‘unbalanced’ Crown Prince had proposed a similar suicide pact to another of his mistresses, the actress, Mizzi Kaspar, who regarded the suggestion as a joke. Alas, in Vetsera he found a gullible and willing partner.

Rudolf’s death left Emperor Franz Josef without a direct heir. Franz Josef’s younger brother, Karl Ludwig became first in line to the throne, until his death of typhus in 1896. Karl Ludwig’s son Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, now became the heir presumptive. That is until he was assassinated in June 1914 in Sarajevo –the spark that lit the fire of The Great War.

Header image credit: Fototeca Storica Nazionale; Crown Prince Rudolf image and Mary Vetsera image credits: WikiCommons.

Research Notes – The Great War (4) Total War

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

“Wisdom is an arrow seldom used in the quiver of government.” -Historian Barbara Tuchman

The First World War was a ‘total’ war in the sense that the civilian populations and the entire economies of the warring nations were fully mobilized to support the effort. No longer was the conflict limited to fighting between professional armies. Rather, an entire generation of young men was conscripted to join the decimated troops on the frontline. It was a war of attrition, slow and deadly. The armies dug in and slaughtered each other with little ground gained, or goals achieved. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 is an example.

The battle, an offensive staged by a combined British and French force, began in July and lasted five months.  On the first day alone, the British lost 57,000 men. When all was said and done, the British and French had advanced about 6 miles (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 miles (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 British and 202,567 French casualties, against 465,181 German casualties. Lloyd George called it, “the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fights ever waged in the history of the war.”

And so it was, until it was supplanted by an even more horrific battle the following year. In July of 1917, the assault began on the village of Passchendale, in the Ypres Salient. General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was confident he could take the village in a matter of hours by simultaneously attacking German positions. But the reality of the situation was that rains had turned Flanders into a muddy mire and thousands of men were quickly bogged down. They became sitting ducks for the German guns and died from a combination of wounds and the diseases that festered in the muck they were forced to fight and live in. At the end, Canadian forces eventually prevailed, but at the cost of a quarter million British soldiers. And for what? No German communication lines had been cut and the army’s morale was in tatters.


Featured images via wiki commons.