Updated: May 15, 2022
"So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration." And so historian Barbara Tuchman begins her classic work, The Guns of August.
King Edward VII of England was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Born Albert Edward, he was affectionately known as "Bertie". During his mother's long reign, Edward kept out of political affairs content to be something of a playboy (much to Queen Victoria's consternation). He exemplified the fashionable elite, and he was admired and loved by the public. When he became king in 1901, he modernized the British navy and reorganized the army. He played an important diplomatic role in maintaining peace between the various nations of continental Europe. Part of his success in doing so stemmed from the fact he was related to most of the royal houses of Europe. He came to be regarded as the "Uncle of Europe". His nephews included Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. His nieces were Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, Crown Princess Marie of Romania, Crown Princess Sophia of Greece, and Empress Alexandra of Russia. King Haakon VII of Norway was both a nephew and a brother-in-law. The kings of Denmark and Greece were also brothers-in-law, and the kings of Belgium, Bulgaria, and Portugal were second cousins.
Edward VII lent his name to the Edwardian era which came into usage during the 1920s. This period and the late Victorian period correspond with the Belle Epoch in France and the Gilded Age in the United States. This time period marked the pinnacle of Western European civilization. It was an age of contrasts. It was a time of scientific advancement and exploration: the structure of the atom, radioactivity, pasteurization, the interior of the African continent. There was technological innovation: automobiles, airplanes, electric light, moving pictures, wireless radio. The blossoming of artistic endeavors from Monet to Tchaikovsky. There was an optimism, a fervent belief in the progress of mankind. The sun truly never set on the British Empire and there was the decadence of Fin de Siecle France. It was the culmination of nearly seventy years of unheard-of uninterrupted peace on the European continent.
Beneath this veneer of extravagance, there was great wealth but also extreme poverty. There was imperialism with its colonial exploitation and eradication of indigenous cultures. There were the violent struggles of labor, Jim Crow laws of the United States south, and the fight for women's suffrage. There were proxy conflicts between the nations of Europe, and across the Atlantic was the rising specter of the United States gaining power and influence to challenge European hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
Edward VII was on good terms with all his family relations except for his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm II became emperor of Germany when both his grandfather and father died in 1888. In 1890, Wilhelm removed his grandfather's chancellor, Otto Von Bismark. Bismark was the architect of Prussia's rise to power and subsequent unification of the German states into one nation. Wilhelm II then set upon a more aggressive national policy called the "New Course". He wanted to ensure Germany's status as a well-respected world power. The kaiser always compared himself to his English cousins. He built up the German navy in order to challenge Great Britain's dominance of the high seas. He strengthened the army, invested in industry and science, and gained colonial territories in Africa and the Far East. But Wilhelm II had the habit of antagonizing potential allies and supports. He alienated England, and France still held a grudge over the Franco-Prussian war. Wilhelm was forced to seek the support of the aging Austrian Hapsburg empire and the Ottoman Turks to balance out the power of England and France.
Edward VII died on May 6, 1910. Attending his funeral were nine kings of Europe. They represented not only family kinship but the great dynastic families that had been in power for centuries. In the photograph, standing at the rear, from left to right: King Haakon VII of Norway, Tsar Ferdinand of the Bulgarians, King Manuel II of Portugal and the Algarve, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Prussia, King George I of the Hellenes and King Albert I of the Belgians. Sitting in the front left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George V of the United Kingdom, and King Frederick VIII of Denmark. Barbara Tuchman noted that it was "the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last."
Any hope of maintaining the tenuous balance of power on the European continent probably died with Edward VII. A network of alliances was already beginning to split Europe down along a central axis. Wilhelm II's continued belligerence with the goal of making Germany a world power and the nascent nationalism simmering in the fossilized Hapsburg empire collided on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. On August 1, the First World War officially began.
The Guns of August is about the first month of World War I, but Barbara Tuchman chooses to start her narrative with the funeral of Edward VII. It is an eloquent set piece. That great assemblage of royalty gathered together not realizing that within four years the whole world would change. If one wishes to speak metaphorically, the First World War would be a funeral not just for a generation of men who died upon the fields of France, but for an entire society and worldview.
By 1918, many of those who attended Edward VII's funeral would no longer be in power nor their dynastic families. The communist Bolsheviks would overthrow the tsarist government of Nicholas II in Russia. Kaiser Wilhelm II would flee to live in exile in the Netherlands for the rest of his life. The Austrian Hapsburg empire would splinter into a myriad of ethnoreligious states. England and France would be considerably weaker which would alter their relationship with their colonial territories. This would pave the way for the long, sometimes violent, struggle for colonial independence. The cruel, spiteful, and sometimes arbitrary Treaty of Versailles set about redrawing maps and carving up the old Ottoman Turk empire. The victors often did this without considering the indigenous populations, ignoring traditional animosities, and making secret deals behind each other's back. This laid the groundwork for many of the conflicts around the world that have been going on for generations such as in the Middle East. The war left a physiological collective scar as well on society. There was no longer the haughty self-confidence of the Edwardian era. In art, this was expressed through post-modernism, the birth of abstraction, and the breaking away from classical forms and traditions. European prestige was gone, and Western European hegemony was shattered. The old, aristocratic, and imperialistic regimes and feudalism of the past would finally be gone. The Old World died and a new one was waiting to be formed.
November 11 was originally celebrated as Armistice Day to honor the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ending World War I. After World War II, it was changed to Veteran's Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth nations.
I recommend reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and then reading Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. They serve as excellent bookends to that cataclysmic conflict that continues to have long-lasting ramifications. Both works are a testament to human folly.
The Guns of August: Barbara Tuchman
The Proud Tower: Barbara Tuchman
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World: Margaret Macmillan