King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II pose together in 1912. However, the Kaiser had mixed feelings towards Britain and the First World War broke out two years later.
Two of Queen Victoria’s many grandchildren, King George V (front, third from right) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (at his right), pose in 1912 outside the mess of the Prussian Foot Guards in Berlin, surrounded by officers of the regiment. The king is on a visit to his cousin in Germany and, as was the custom, each monarch wears the uniform of one of the other’s regiments: George is in that of the Foot Guards; the kaiser in that of the British 1st Royal Dragoons. His grandmother had made Wilhelm colonel-in-chief of the regiment in 1894. He had really wanted to be made a field marshal but she felt that was a promotion too far, especially since he had already been made an admiral in the Royal Navy. Besides there was the fear, if too much favouritism was shown towards him, that it would be seen as a riposte to the recent Franco-Russian alliance and also stoke the already strong anti-British sentiment among the German public.
As usual the kaiser rests his withered left arm on his sword hilt, disguising it behind his right hand. Pickelhaube helmets are much in evidence. First introduced in Prussia in 1842 and made out of hardened boiled leather, they had become standard issue throughout the German infantry but were to be replaced by steel helmets in 1916, reducing fatalities from head wounds by 70 per cent. The regiment’s previous styles of headgear can be seen in the sculpted roundels on the balcony behind.
The picture encapsulates the kaiser’s love-hate feelings toward Britain. It was Wilhelm who measured his grandmother’s corpse for her coffin in 1901, yet he was determined to create a German navy to rival Britain’s globally dominant fleet. In 1908 he had given an interview to the Daily Telegraph in an attempt to bolster Anglo-German friendship, but his intemperate outbursts in it merely offended the British – as well as the French, the Russians and the Japanese – while his anglophilia undermined his position so much at home that he was reduced to no more than a constitutional monarch, just like his cousin George. As Bismarck had said: ‘The kaiser is like a balloon: if you don’t keep fast hold of the string, you never know where he will be off to.’
In 1912 Lord Haldane, the secretary for war, came to Berlin to promote arms control, but got nowhere. So in August 1914 the kaiser signed the papers sanctioning mobilisation of the German armed forces at a desk made out of oak from Nelson’s Victory and lamenting: ‘To think George and Nicky (the tsar) should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive, she would never have allowed it.’
At some later date a German has added in English on the original postcard, ‘Never again … the Bosche’.