Sunday, 4 August 2013

The wartime queen

There will be quite a few people in the UK today scratching their heads and wondering who it is they were meant to send a card to.  They know it's someone's birthday but they can't quite put their finger on it.  That's because for years, come rain, wind or sun at the end of the news on the 4th August we'd see Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother smiling and waving as children handed her cards and soldiers played her songs to mark her birthday.  For almost half a century we celebrated the ageing of our Queen Dowager as a kind of mini summer festival that culminated in 2000 when she finally got her telegram from the Queen.  August 4th will always be in the subconscious of a generations of Britons thanks to the Queen Mum.  It is Queen Elizabeth's Day.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in a portrait from 1986 by Richard Stone.  By then her birthday was a mini national event.
In many ways, August 4th became a day of destiny for the United Kingdom.  It is forever linked to this queen consort and to war.  Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was our wartime queen.  Her actions during World War Two shaped her career as consort.  Her birthday was forever linked to World War One.  The two events that utterly altered Britain in the 20th century are utterly entwined with the life of the little girl born this day in 1900.
On the 50th anniversary of VE Day, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother once more took centre stage on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.  On the last day of World War Two in Europe she had greeted crowds with her husband, George VI, and Winston Churchill but of that trio, only she remained to mark the anniversary all those years later.
When Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon arrived, August 4th was just another day in midsummer when the weather might be a bit hotter than normal but the nights were already getting longer and the first signs of autumn were just around the corner.  The little girl born that day was the ninth child of a Scottish earl and his wife of 19 years.  They had her christened in the parish church close to their English estate in Hertfordshire and the first fourteen years of her life were uneventful in a kind of genteel, aristocratic way.
The little girl who grew up to be a queen and an empress - Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as a child
But Lady Elizabeth's fourteenth birthday was a day that changed Britain, Europe and the world forever.  On August 4th 1914 Britain declared war on Germany and entered the conflict that became known as The Great War and, later, World War One.  And the fact that her birthday became the start date of this terrible conflict which killed hundreds of thousands of people had a profound effect on the teenage girl.  Her home, Glamis Castle, became a hospital for wounded soldiers and as she grew through the war, she spent more time helping and tending those who came there for care.  But Elizabeth knew personal loss in this war - her brother, Fergus, was killed in 1915 and another brother, Michael, was taken prisoner in 1917 and remained in captivity until the end of the war in 1918.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1919 with her parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore.  They are pictured at Glamis Castle, the home to which Elizabeth's brother, Fergus, would never return.
The impact of those long years of fighting and the loss of a loved one helped shape the personality of the future consort.  Her marriage to the Duke of York in 1923 ultimately led her to the throne in 1936 when his older brother abdicated.  And within three years, the country was at war again and Elizabeth and George faced their greatest test. 
King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth, during world War Two
Hitler called her 'the most dangerous women in Europe' because she was so popular and so devoted to her country.  Famously urged by the Cabinet to take the heir to the throne and the spare to Canada, the queen refused.  Instead, the consort organized fundraising and went to bomb hit parts of the country to offer sympathy and support.  Her role in helping the king in the war was touched on in the Oscar winning film, The King's Speech.  And when Buckingham Palace was hit in an air raid she said she was pleased because she could 'finally look the East End in the eye'. 
George VI and Queen Elizabeth inspect bomb damage in London in World War Two.  Their presence in the capital throughout the war made them hugely popular.

Elizabeth was an earl's daughter for 23 years and a Queen Dowager for 50 years.  And yet her 16 years as queen consort cemented her in the nation's heart.  Her state visits before the war and her charity work afterwards were vital components of that.  But her dedication to her king and country during the conflict made her one of the most loved queens in history.  Elizabeth was determined to see both wars through next to those hit hard by it - from injured soldiers to people who had lost their homes, their health, their everything.  The young girl who saw her rural idyll of a childhood changed forever on her birthday went on to be a wartime heroine.  Which is why August 4th is Queen Elizabeth's Day.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1976
(photo Allan Warren)

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