On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo. The event has gone down in history as the kickstarter of the Great War. However, at the time, not all of Europe’s royals were that concerned. Emperor Wilhelm II continued to sail around Norway, and Queen Wilhelmina continued to pose for a portrait with Henry and Juliana for Thérèse Schwartze in the scorching heat.
On 28 July 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia and Russia began a general mobilisation two days later. The Netherlands began mobilisation on 31 July. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, followed by France and Belgium a few days later. Belgium had declared their neutrality, which was violated, bringing England in the mix – which then declared war on Germany on 4 August. However, the Dutch government was informed by Germany on 3 August that it would respect the neutrality of the Netherlands. Yet, the fighting in Belgium brought the war awfully close and both German and Belgian wounded soldiers were being treated in the Netherlands. The war violence also brought around 340,000 Belgian refugees to the Netherlands.
Of the neutrality, Wilhelmina wrote in her memoirs, “Neutrality in the sense in which it is used in international law does not simply mean that one stands aloof. It is a defined legal status which the neutral country has adopted, and the parties at war are obliged to respect its rights. The duties of neutrality are absolute and leave no room for human feelings. The situation can easily lead to tensions and struggles in the individual. At heart, man is never neutral, he always has a preference, sometimes without knowing it; and in a world-wide conflict, more than ever, his feelings are constantly involved, and his preference is reinforced.”1
With the continued threat of the neutrality being violated, life for Wilhelmina changed dramatically. Festivities and ceremonies were cancelled, and shortages of things like coal became the norm. If Wilhelmina travelled at all, it was to places where disasters had taken place. In 1916, she visited areas that had been flooded. In May 1917, she visited the province of Drenthe after a peat fire which killed 16 people. She also made military inspections and was heavily involved in a committee that was meant to help with economic needs. She made several personal donations to the committee as well.
Wilhelmina later wrote in her memoirs, “The war suddenly imposed upon me the obligation to try and provide such leadership, or rather to let it proceed from me. I was fully aware that this could only be done once a new confidence in me had been created. A war makes special demands in this respect; the confidence that was sufficient in peacetime is no longer enough. Confidence was the word that echoed in me constantly; my thinking and acting were long dominated by the thought that I had to earn it. From morning till night, this idea never left me. At such moments one becomes conscious of the smallness of one’s powers, and one realises acutely one’s dependence on God’s help.”2
Wilhelmina also wrote, “My first duty was to be ready at all times. Everything was governed by it. This thought occupied me constantly and often worried me unnecessarily. I had to keep up this state of readiness till the end of the war, for on no account could I afford to be surprised by a major crisis at a moment when I was not in a state to take (make?) important decisions.[…] My love for the fatherland was like a consuming fire, and not only in me; it expressed itself in fierceness around me. It was only restricted by reflection and reason when the highest interests of people and the country demanded it. Anyone who threatened to damage these interests was my personal enemy. My thinking and my whole life was dominated by vigilance on their behalf.”3
The personal German connections during the war were a bit more difficult. Both Queen Emma and Prince Henry were German and had extended family living in Germany. Queen Emma’s half-brother Prince Wolrad was killed during the war in October 1914. On the other hand, Emma’s sister Helena had married into the British Royal Family. Wilhelmina wrote in her memoirs, “Mother, who had taken up her residence at the Voorhout, spent the whole of the war in town so as to be immediately informed of the news and have daily contacts with us. She shared fully in my anxiety for the nation. She also had private worries concerning her relatives. One of her sisters lived in England, the widow of the Duke of Albany. Mother’s thoughts often went out to her. Her other relatives lived in Germany. From a distance, she continued to give them her warm and loving sympathy.”4
At the end of the war, the German monarchies came to an end. Queen Wilhelmina was most surprised to find the German Emperor looking for her help. On 10 November 1918, Wilhelm and his entourage appeared at a border post at Eijsden where he was denied entry. As Wilhelm paced around the train station of Eijsden, Wilhelmina was informed of the situation. She later wrote, “I shall never forget the November morning at the Ruygenshoek when I was called very early with the news that the Kaiser had crossed our frontier in the province of Limburg. This communication from the government was soon followed by a telegram from the Kaiser himself, who tried to explain his action to me. I was utterly astonished; it was the very last thing I should have thought possible.[…] The Netherlands government assigned him a place of residence and demanded a promise that he would not leave it and would abstain from political activity. His abdication followed soon after.5
She added, “The flight and abdication of the Kaiser were followed by the abdication of the other German princes. Everything happened with incredible rapidity. Revolutionary elements and excited crowds demanded the abdication of their princes. The weaker ones gave in at once and left their lands precipitately; some other complied with greater dignity. Of course, they carried all the members of their families with them in their fall; none of them would be allowed to hold any public office. Even those who devoted the whole of their lives to the service of their peoples and who were held in the highest esteem were committed to the bitter fate of the outcast. In the meantime, the Allied victory had been gained and a cease-fire agreed upon. The armistice was then signed, and subsequently, the peace was dictated to Germany.6