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Tsar Nicolas II (left) and George V (right) were first cousins

The Kaiser, the Tsar and King George V - cousins at war in WWI

Queen Victoria had 42 grandchildren who were spread across Europe and embedded in many of the continent's monarchies. This meant that WWI ended up being quite the family affair.

George V (right) and his cousin Nicholas II of Russia in German uniforms before the war | Wikipedia

As many people who’ve researched their family tree will know, the more you map out your family tree, the more surprises you’re likely to uncover. You might see startling links between far-flung branches of your tree, and learn the unexpected ways that individuals – perhaps from different backgrounds and living in different countries – shared the same bloodline.

For a dramatic example of the kind of surprising story a family tree can tell, just look at the Royal Family, and the curious constellation of connections behind World War One. Britain may have been swept up in jingoistic fervour against Germany, with Rudyard Kipling warning that ‘The Hun is at the gate’, but what’s often forgotten is that the British monarch at the time, George V, was the first cousin of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, both being grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

George V’s father, Edward VII, was Victoria’s eldest son. He had become king upon his mother’s death in 1901, only ruling for a scant nine years until he himself died in 1910 when George V took over. George’s mother, by the way, was Alexandra of Denmark – a significant fact which we’ll get back to in a moment.

The German Kaiser, meanwhile, was Queen Victoria’s grandson through Victoria’s daughter, also named Victoria, who had married Germany’s Frederick III. In fact, Wilhelm’s ties with the British Royal Family were far more than a mere matter of genetics. As an infant, he’d been dressed up in full Highland garb for the wedding of his Uncle Bertie (aka, Edward VII) to Alexandra of Denmark. As a teenager, he’d been awarded the Order of the Garter by Queen Victoria, and he would even be present at her deathbed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting German soldiers in the field during World War 1
Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting German soldiers in the field during World War 1 | Image: Everett Collection /

Many chroniclers of this period have been fascinated by Wilhelm’s rocky relationship with his British relations, particularly noting his fierce animosity towards his Uncle Bertie – dubbed ‘the old peacock’ and even ‘a Satan’ by Wilhelm. In the words of historian David Fromkin, ‘the half-German side of him was at war with the half-English side’. Indeed, the Kaiser’s militaristic ambitions and strutting on the European stage may well have been partly fuelled by what Miranda Carter, author of The Three Emperors: Three cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One, calls ‘his adolescent touchiness and almost oedipal desire to outdo the British’.

The third major royal player in World War One, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, also had a very personal stake in things. He was another first cousin of George V, whose mother, Alexandra of Denmark, was the sister of the Tsar’s mother, Dagmar of Denmark. As well as being closely related, George V and Nicholas II looked uncannily alike and had developed a firm friendship in their younger years. The Tsar’s ties with the British royals were further cemented when he married Queen Victoria’s favourite granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse (who would perish alongside him and their children when the Tsar’s family was massacred by Communist revolutionaries in 1918).

As for Wilhelm and Nicholas – well, they were also related, being distant cousins through the Russian and Prussian royal houses. They communicated by telegram and letter in the lead up to World War One, calling each other ‘Willy’ and ‘Nicky’, and sounding increasingly concerned about the likelihood of conflict between their nations. ‘To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war,’ the Tsar wrote to the Kaiser in 1914, ‘I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.’

Tsar Nicholas II and family in 1904
Tsar Nicholas II and family in 1904

Of course, conflict did break out. Just over a year after the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia – a glittering society occasion which saw George, Nicholas and Wilhelm together in person for the last time – the cousins were at war, with Britain and Russia allied against Germany.

The unprecedented slaughter of the Great War – mechanised, brutal and shorn of chivalry – was a savage rebuke to the idea that close familial links between royal families would somehow prevent nations from descending into bloodshed. Queen Victoria had been regarded as the grandmother of Europe, and, as royal historian, Theo Aronson writes, ‘there was hardly a Continental court that did not boast at least one of her relations.’ But all of this would count for nothing in the face of the political alliances that tied different European nations to each other, and would ultimately condemn them all to war.

King George V Biography

  • George V was born on 3rd June 1865 during the reign of his grandmother Queen Victoria. His father, Edward VII, was the eldest of Victoria’s children and ascended to the throne upon his mother’s death in 1901.
  • After his father’s ascendance, George was second in line to the throne behind his older brother, Prince Albert Victor. However, that all changed after Albert Victor’s untimely death due to pneumonia in 1892.

  • The following year, George married his brother’s fiancée, Princess Mary of Teck, and the pair went on to have six children together – Edward, Albert, Mary, Henry, George and John.
  • George’s reign began on 6th May 1910 when his father died.
  • An avid hunter and stamp collector, George was an imposing figure. In the wake of WWI, he took the unprecedented decision to change the royal family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the more English-sounding Windsor.

  • After the Russian Revolution of 1917, George made the fateful decision to not allow his first cousin, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and his family to seek shelter in England, fearing their presence might spark a similar revolution on home soil. The Tsar and his family were murdered the following year.
  • A life of heaving smoking eventually led to health problems for George in his later years. On his deathbed, his doctors administered him with a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine to hasten his passing. George died on 20th January 1936, aged 70.

Kaiser Wilhelm II Biography

  • Born on 27th January 1859 in Berlin, Wilhelm was the eldest of Queen Victoria’s 42 grandchildren. His mother was Victoria, Princess Royal who was Victoria’s eldest child.
  • In 1881, Wilhelm married Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein. The pair remained married for 40 years and had seven children together – six boys and one girl. Upon Augusta’s death in 1921, Wilhelm remarried a year later to Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz.

  • On 15th June 1888, Wilhelm ascended to the German throne and became Kaiser Wilhelm II.
  • Once in power, Wilhelm took direct control over his country’s policies and began strengthening Germany’s military, especially its navy.
  • His often-aggressive rhetoric alienated Germany from the other great powers of Europe and subsequently distanced Wilhelm from his cousins and fellow rulers.
  • After Germany lost the First World War in 1918, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate the throne, becoming the last German Emperor in history. He lived out the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands.
  • Wilhelm passed away on 4th June 1941, aged 82.

Tsar Nicholas II Biography

  • Born on 18th May 1868 at Alexander Palace in Russia, Nicholas was related to several monarchs in Europe, including being cousins with King George V of Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Nicholas and George looked uncannily similar.
  • In 1894, Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse, one of Queen Victoria’s favourite grandchildren. Alix was a known carrier of the rare blood disorder known as haemophilia.

  • Nicholas and Alix had five children together - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei. Alexei was their only son and he inherited haemophilia from his mother. In desperation to find a cure, Alix turned to a spiritual mystic and healer called Rasputin. His presence and increasing power over the Romanovs caused much upset amongst the Russian people and the ruling elite, ultimately leading to Rasputin’s assassination in 1916.
  • The same year he was wed, Nicholas also inherited the throne after the death of his father, Alexander III, from kidney disease at the age of 49.
  • An autocratic ruler, Nicholas believed his position on the throne was ordained by God. Subsequently, his unwillingness to concede power to Parliament meant he alienated himself from his subjects.
  • Heavy defeats on the battlefield during WWI soon turned to mass discontent at home, leading to the Russian Revolution of 1917. On 15th March 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne, becoming the last Emperor of Russia and ending a 304-year Romanov dynasty.
  • After King George V declined them asylum in Britain, Nicholas and his family’s fate was sealed. On 17th July 1918, the entire family were shot and stabbed to death by soldiers in a basement located in the city of Yekaterinburg.