COMMENTARY surrounding the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War has brought this bloody conflict back into public consciousness.
Tales from the battlefield and the impact on family life in Britain have dominated but among the personal tragedies are those of three cousins and their families who happened to rule Britain, Germany and Russia.
War between these first cousins and descendants of the ‘Grandmama of Europe’ Queen Victoria was considered impossible but by July 1918 not only were they enemies, ‘cousin ‘Nicky’ Tsar Nicolas II and his family would be shot dead by Bolsheviks, their entry into Britain blocked.
In his new book The Emperors — How Europe’s Rulers Were Destroyed By The First World War, Gareth Russell delves into the family tragedy and the royal rivalries that tore Europe apart.
This is the first non-fiction book for the young Saintfield author, who is well known for his Popular series focusing on the well-heeled badly behaved teenagers of a fictional Belfast grammar school. It’s a series he plans to continue but his latest book brings him back to his history roots, a subject the former Down High School student studied at Oxford and Queen’s universities.
In it he tells the story of the Austrian, German and Russian Imperial families during the four years of the First World War and the political and personal struggles that brought about their ruin.
Chapter 11, ‘Our souls are at peace’, focuses on the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, their five children and four remaining servants in a cellar in the Communist-dominated town of Yekaterinburg.
Gareth looks at their final few months alive, their brutal murder and the debate as to whether or not the order came directly from Lenin and the Moscow Executive of the Bolshevik Party.
“The family were awoken in the middle night and taken down into the cellar, and one of the most moving quotes I came across during my research was from an eyewitness who said that the family walked together into the basement with “no tears, no sobs and no questions”,” said Gareth.
During his research, part of which was at the Linenhall Library in Belfast, Gareth was also pleased to uncover the memoirs of a minor Royal who gives insight into the reaction of George V following the executions.
Marie-Louise of Schleswig-Holstein was a cousin of the king and in My Memories of Six Reigns she recalls happening upon George V as he received the news — “so grave and distressed”.
“Her book is almost a love letter to a world that had disappeared,” said Gareth. “In the middle of this book she has an eye witness account of how the king and queen discovered the Tsar and children had been killed. It was so sad, I never really knew how King George found out.
“We also learn he was trying to hold back the news from the press until the late Tsarina’s sister [Victoria, the Marchioness of Milford Haven] had been informed.”
Marie-Louise also documents how she was tasked with informing her cousin Victoria of the deaths.
“Nobody knew what to say about ‘a subject too poignant and too sacred’, and instead the two cousins spent a few days in each other’s company gardening, reading and sewing shirts, scarves, hats and gloves for the troops,” Gareth noted.
History buffs, those with a passing interest in the subject, or those simply still fascinated by the ‘who started the war’ question should appreciate this story of great political drama and personal tragedy, according to Gareth.
“Although I specialised in medieval history I was always very, very interested in that period,” he added. “It must have been such a frightening time to live through.
“In many ways the Royals were in a very unenviable situation. Several years of royal marriages had crossed over multiple borders.
“Many had to put loyalty to their adopted country before brothers and sisters. It must have been very difficult.
“There are also still lessons to be learned from World War I, such as how sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The Emperors — How Europe’s Rulers Were Destroyed By The First World War is now available to order on Amazon, via Amberley, Play, the Guardian bookstore, Waterstones and the Book Depository.