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Monarchies and the Great War

Reviewed by Mario Draper.

The First World War has frequently been described as a watershed moment. Arthur Marwick, for instance, famously put forward the notion that the resultant social, economic, and political change qualified it as the first total war. The impact on the institution of monarchy was no less dramatic, with the abrupt demise of the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Habsburgs, as well as the resultant fall of the Ottoman dynasty a few years later. Nevertheless, a systematic study of monarchy’s role and influence during the First World War has received relatively little attention. This is all the more evident in terms of comparative history, where even The Cambridge History of the First World War only tackles the question of monarchy within the framework of civil-military relations (the autocracy vs democracy debate), which naturally extends its scope to include a study of the participating republics. To this end, Matthew Glencross and Judith Rowbotham’s conference and ensuing published proceedings, Monarchies and the Great War, provides a useful addition to the plethora of publications that have accompanied the Centenary of the First World War.

The aim of this edited volume is to examine how monarchies acted (or were perceived to act) under the stresses of war and the degree to which this can inform our understanding about the survival or collapse of the various dynasties directly affected by the First World War. In a mammoth forty-page introduction, the two editors – along with input from Christopher Brennan – put forward strong revisionist arguments against the notions that monarchy, if not already a superfluous institution by 1914, certainly became so by war’s end. Instead, they call upon scholars to build on the preliminary work carried out by the contributors in this volume to ‘challenge and problematize both the idea of irrelevance of monarchy as an institution and thereby promote a more nuanced consideration of the ways in which dynasties seized the opportunities and expectations of their subjects’ (p. 23). In drawing together aspects of the British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Italian, Belgian, and Japanese monarchies, Glencross and Rowbotham confidently demonstrate that the individuals involved, and the institution as a collective, were not ‘merely’ passive and symbolic but rather active and literal embodiments of national identities with the power to influence events that many have disregarded as beyond their control (p. 11).

As Heads-of-State – and in some cases Commanders-in-Chief of their respective armed forces – it is clear that monarchs and members of their families played key roles in decision-making and as vehicles for effective propaganda. After all, as Christopher Brennan rightly notes in his assessment of Karl I/IV of Austria-Hungary, the fact that he nominally directed foreign policy, appointed or dismissed his government, and presided over an army that wore the Emperor’s uniform, ensured that he was ‘no nonentity, and never a mere figurehead’ (p. 97). Despite differences in character between himself and his predecessor, Franz-Joseph, the vertical bonds of loyalty to the Habsburg dynasty were, as Alex Watson has noted elsewhere, a more powerful tool of mobilisation than the horizontal bonds transecting the idea of the greater nation. Indeed, a similar point is made by Mustafa Serdar Palabiyik concerning the Ottoman dynasty and the specific role the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) carved out for Mehmed V as Caliph. The extension of the war beyond the national and into the religious sphere centred on the person of the Sultan who, despite being a willing constitutional monarch, influenced the conduct of the war by legitimising the CUP’s policies.

Constitutional monarchy naturally had its stifling limitations as well. As the contributions of Erick Goldstein, Matthew Glencross, Judith Rowbotham, and Antony Best demonstrate, the British royal family was forced to accept the often overlooked, but no less important, ‘soft’ or cultural diplomatic relations roles assigned to them. Despite George V idealising the image of the ‘Soldier-King’, his frequent visits to the frontlines were bound-up in official protocol. Duty to his government and his country, therefore, precluded him from undertaking many of the more active engagements, which were subsequently left to other members of his family. Whether this was in the shape of the future Edward VIII’s posting on the Western Front, or Queen Mary’s leadership in a number of Home Front initiatives, the British royals rose to the occasion within the limits of their constitutional position.

More active, of course, were the constitutional monarchies of Italy and Belgium. The former, as Valentina Villa aptly expresses, saw Victor Emmanuel III play an important role in not only Italy’s decision to enter the war on the side of the Entente but equally as a source of inspiration to his troops with whom he spent the best part of three years. His ‘energetic involvement in the daily conduct of the war was very visible’, combining frequent visits to the frontlines with intense political and diplomatic activity. This did not mean that Victor Emmanuel III was entirely distanced from the conduct of operations: indeed, perhaps his most influential moment came in the wake of the defeat at Caporetto in November 1917, when he took action to discredit General Luigi Cadorna’s denigration of the army’s performance before relieving him of command. Such an act not only drew army and monarch closer together but demonstrated once more how the person of the king could still exert influence over proceedings.

Whereas the title of ‘Soldier-King’ might be somewhat anachronistic when applied to Victor Emmanuel III, given his lack of active participation in the conduct of war, the likes of King Albert I of Belgium and Crown-Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria certainly lived up to the billing. Despite the editors’ misrepresentation of Albert as a passive monarch in the introduction (p. 25), William Philpott accurately traces the King of Belgians’ role as Head-of-State and active Commander-in-Chief of the Army for the duration of the war. His insistence on remaining an independent sovereign who was committed to the neutrality which bound his country, made Albert both a national (and to a degree international) hero, while simultaneously a difficult man to work with from the perspective of the Entente(p. 271). With many diplomatic and potentially civil-military issues emerging on the horizon as the war drew to a close, Albert abandoned his scruples and belatedly agreed to work under Foch’s Supreme Command. Whereas Albert maintained his autonomy in the exercise of his military duties, Jonathan Boff demonstrates, in his contribution, how Crown-Prince Rupprecht was constrained by a flawed system of command. Friction, poor intelligence, competing personalities, a Bavarian inferiority complex, the influence of dynastic policy on military decision-making, as well as the opaque Immediatsystem(the right of direct access to the Kaiser) all conspired to undermine Rupprecht as Commander of Sixth Army. This was partly a result of the German command and control system as a whole, but had its roots firmly set in the inability of Kaiser Wilhelm II to intervene (as monarch) effectively (pp. 67-86).

In a sense, then, this edited volume sheds some new light on the role of various monarchies at war. However, it does so in a somewhat disjointed manner, which is not entirely satisfactorily brought together by the introduction or the epilogue. This is often the case when dealing with published conference proceedings. Moreover, there are some glaring omissions in terms of the Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian monarchies, whose own experiences of the First World War undoubtedly merit some serious attention alongside those already discussed. Despite the editors’ insistence that more marginal monarchies be included alongside those of the Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary in order to add fresh and more nuanced perspectives, it is a shame that the introduction barely mentions the Belgian and Japanese cases in any great detail. The fact that three-and-a-half of the nine discursive chapters are concentrated on the British monarchy, unfortunately, demonstrates the very Anglo-centric focus which the editors tried so hard to avoid. Yet, what this does – as Glencross, Rowbotham, and Brennan state as an objective – is encourage further and more detailed analysis into an area of study, which certainly merits the focus of the First World War scholarly community. Despite these few flaws in its composition, this collection of essays will undoubtedly feature on many a First World War module reading list at undergraduate level and will prove to be an invaluable introductory read for those wishing to explore national histories of the Great War and the myriad roles played by monarchy therein.

Monarchies and the Great War, edited by Matthew Glencross & Judith Rowbotham (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; 332pp.; £89.99)

Mario Draper is Lecturer in Modern British and European Military History at the University of Kent. His first book, The Belgian Army and Society from Independence to the Great War, was published in 2018. Image Credit: CC by Anders/Flickr. @mario_draper

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