The Path to War


George VI and Queen Elizabeth en route to Canada, 1939

While Myrtle was making her triumphal progress through Australia, Europe was moving inexorably towards war. For several years, as part of his pursuit of Lebensraum, Hitler had been turning his attention to the area along the German border occupied largely by German-speaking people. In 1935, following a plebiscite, the Saar region was united with Germany. Then in early 1938 came Anschluss with Austria. This left Czechoslovakia, a tempting target with its substantial ethnic German population, who formed a majority in some districts in the Sudetenland. The landlocked country was also hemmed in on three sides. When, in the spring and summer of 1938, some Sudeten Germans began to agitate for autonomy or even union with Germany, Hitler took it as the excuse he needed to act.

Czechoslovakia had a well-trained army, but its government knew that it would prove no match for the might of the Nazi war machine. The Czechs needed the support of Britain and France, but London and Paris were about to hang them out to dry. That September, Chamberlain met Hitler at his lair at Berchtesgaden, where it was agreed that Germany could annexe the Sudetenland, provided a majority of its inhabitants voted in favour in a plebiscite. Czechoslovakia’s remaining rump would then receive international guarantees of its independence. But when Chamberlain flew back to see the Nazi leader in Bad Godesberg, near Bonn, on 22 September, Hitler brushed aside the previous agreement.

Chamberlain was still in Germany when Logue met the King the next day. The reason for their meeting was a speech the King had to make for the launch of the Queen Elizabeth, on 27 September. He was understandably preoccupied by the worsening international situation and wanted to know from Logue what ordinary people thought about the prospect of war. The King, like so many of his generation, had been so appalled by the slaughter of the First World War that he seemed to consider anything – even appeasement of the Nazi leader – preferable to another all-out conflict. ‘You would be astonished, Logue, at the number of people who wish to plunge this country into war, without counting the cost,’ he told him.

Even if the King had thought otherwise, there was little he could have done about it: the influence of the monarch had declined considerably over the previous thirty years. In the first decade of the century, his grandfather Edward VII had been actively involved in foreign policy, helping pave the way for the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904. George VI, by contrast, would have little scope for changing the policies being pursued by Chamberlain and his ministers.

And so, in the early hours of 30 September, Chamberlain and his French counterpart Edouard Daladier, together with Hitler and Mussolini, signed what became known as the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annexe the Sudetenland. On his return to London, Chamberlain waved a copy of the agreement to jubilant crowds at Heston airport in west London, stating his conviction that it meant ‘peace for our time’. Many believed him.

Munich did not prevent war, however; it merely postponed it. In the months that followed Logue continued to meet the King, becoming a frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace; there could be no more question of him visiting Logue in Harley Street as he had done when he was Duke of York.

The first immediate challenge for the King was the speech he was due to make for the State Opening of Parliament, set for 8 November 1938. He was also preparing for an important journey – a trip of more than a month to Canada, starting in early May 1939. This was the first by a reigning British monarch and was, if anything, even more important than his voyage to Australia and New Zealand more than a decade earlier that had prompted the beginning of his association with Logue. In the speech he was to confirm that while in Canada he would be accepting an invitation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make a short private visit across the border to the United States. The visits were not just about strengthening Britain’s bonds with the two North American powers. It was also a deliberate attempt to shore up sympathy there ahead of the conflict with Nazi Germany that now seemed inevitable.

Logue had been asked to go to the Palace at 6 p.m. on 3 November to run through the speech with the King. He arrived fifteen minutes early and dropped in on Alexander Hardinge, who showed him the text. As he read it, Logue was pleased to see the King would be accepting Roosevelt’s invitation. ‘I consider it the greatest gesture for world peace that has ever been made,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Of course a lot of US citizens will argue and say it is a political dodge but they read either politics or money into everything.’

While he was there reading, the King’s assistant private secretary Eric Mieville came in, and he and Hardinge started to discuss at length the wisdom or otherwise of the King taking representatives of the Court with him to Canada. Unable to decide, they turned to Logue for his opinion ‘as a colonial’. Logue had fond memories from his childhood of the visit to Adelaide paid by King George V, when he was still Duke of York. ‘The more pageantry the better,’ he told them. ‘This they accepted and the Lord Chamberlain will probably never know that it was the opinion of colonial Lionel Logue that got him included in the Canadian Tour.’

The King looked tired, understandably perhaps, since he had got up at four o’clock that morning to go duck shooting at Sandringham. To Logue’s eyes, he seemed in fairly good form, though. They went through the speech twice: the first time it took them thirteen minutes; by the second, they had got it down to eleven. It was written in the usual difficult language, though, and they fixed two other appointments for further preparation. Before he left, a few minutes before seven o’clock, Princess Margaret, who was then almost eight, came in to say goodnight to her father. ‘It is very beautiful to see these two playing together,’ thought Logue. ‘He never takes his eyes off her when she is in the room.’

Logue met the King again on the morning of the State Opening for a final run-through: ‘A good effort, despite the fact that the redundancy of words is dreadful,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘It took 11 minutes exactly and it will be interesting to know how long he takes to deliver it.’ Logue couldn’t go to parliament himself, but Captain Charles Lambe, one of the King’s officials who was going to be present in the chamber, promised to time the speech and call him immediately afterwards. Lambe reported later that it had taken thirteen minutes and there had been four hesitations.

To the relief of Logue – and even more so of the King himself – it was decided that there would be no Christmas message that year; the previous one had been a one-off, delivered only because it had been coronation year. Any such relief was short lived, however: during his visit to North America, the King would have to make a number of speeches, the most important of which was in Winnipeg on 24 May, Empire Day. First marked in 1902 on the birthday of Queen Victoria, who had died the previous year, the day was intended to remind children what it meant to be ‘sons and daughters of a glorious Empire’. At a time of great international tension such as this, it provided an opportunity for a display of solidarity on the part of the members of the Empire towards the mother country.

All these speeches necessarily meant a number of sessions for the King with Logue. A letter sent from the Palace on 10 March, for example, confirmed appointments at the Palace for the 16th, 17th and 20th. Such frequent visits meant Logue was also beginning to see more of the King’s family. During the first of those three appointments, Princess Margaret Rose again interrupted them – captivating Logue with her charm, just as her mother always did. ‘What a dear mature little woman she is with her bright eyes that do not miss a thing,’ he noted in his diary. ‘She had just come from a dancing lesson and showed us how in doing the last steps of the Highland fling her little shoes scraped her legs and after demonstrating it she [asked that] “something be done about it”.’

The following month, Logue encountered the formidable figure of Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, who was by then in her early seventies. As he was walking down the curved corridor on his way to the King, he saw around the corner that one of the footmen was standing stiffly to attention. A few steps later, he noticed two women coming towards him, one of whom was walking with the aid of a stick. Logue’s heart leapt into his mouth as he suddenly realized who she was.

‘I backed into the wall, and bowed, they got opposite me, and then stopped – and I was afraid my heart was going to do the same,’ Logue recorded in his diary, in the rather breathless tone he reserved for his encounters with royal women. ‘The Queen approached me slowly – and as she put her hand out said, “I know you – you came to Sandringham. Of course, you are Logue, I am very glad to see you again.”’

Later, when he told the King how impressed he had been that his mother had recognized him, the King replied, ‘Yes she is very wonderful.’

The King and Queen were due to leave on 5 May 1939, taking the Canadian Pacific liner RMS Empress of Australia on what would be a twelve-day voyage across the north Atlantic. The afternoon before, Logue was summoned to the Palace. He gave Tommy Lascelles, who was to accompany them, advice on how to help the King get ready to broadcast. One of the important tips was that, contrary to the impression given by all the photographs of him sitting in front of the microphone, he actually preferred to stand. On this occasion (just as had been the case with the Australian trip) there was no question of Logue being included in the Royal party – nor did he want to be. ‘My wonderful patient goes on wonderfully well, and should have a marvellous time in Canada,’ he wrote to his brother-in-law Rupert. ‘Don’t think there is any need for me to go.’

Then, a few minutes later, the message came down: ‘Mr Logue wanted’, and he was shown into the King’s presence. As Logue recalled, he was too tired to stand up and go through his speeches, but he was smiling and seemed quite happy. They were working together on the text of a Quebec speech when a hidden door in the wall opened and in came the Queen, looking striking in brown, accompanied by the two princesses.

Elizabeth and Margaret begged that, as it was their last night with their parents, they should be allowed to stay up and go to the swimming pool. The Queen added her voice and, after many pleas of ‘do, Daddy it’s our last night’, the King gave in, provided they were finished by 6.30.

He then turned to Logue and said, ‘Tell them the time you dived on the shark.’ So Logue told the story of how when he was a boy of five or so living in Brighton, on the coast of South Australia, he and the other children used to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and run to the jetty, shedding their pyjamas as they went, in the race to be first into the water.

On this particular morning, the young Logue was first and he dived off the end of the little jetty with a joyous shout – into the sparkling, crystal clear water. ‘As I turned over in the air, there below me in about ten feet of water, fast asleep, was a small shark,’ he went on. ‘I couldn’t go back, and I struck the water with a frightful slap and then struck out for the landing stage, expecting every instant to lose a leg. The unfortunate shark, probably more scared than I was, I have no doubt was by this time, five miles down the Gulf.’ As Logue told the story, the princesses, their eyes open wide and their hands clasped, gazed at him enthralled.

Once the two girls had gone off to the pool, Logue shook hands with the Queen and wished her a good trip and safe return. ‘Well, I hope we don’t work too hard anyhow,’ she replied. ‘We are looking forward to coming home already.’

Alone with the King again, Logue had him go through the speeches one more time. ‘The King did them splendidly,’ he noted in his diary. ‘If he does not get too tired I am certain he will do wonderfully well. As I was going, I wished him all sorts of good luck and he thanked me and said, many thanks Logue, for all your trouble, I am very lucky to have a man who understands voices and speeches so well.’

The journey to Canada was not without its dramas: the ice field had come much further south than usual during the winter and there was thick fog, and the ship only narrowly avoided an iceberg. As someone on board pointed out to the unfortunate captain, it had been near this point during a similar season in 1912 that the Titanic had come to grief.

The King and Queen landed in Quebec on 17 May, a few days later than planned, and embarked on a packed schedule that took them across the country. At almost every point they received an enthusiastic welcome. As one Provincial premier told Lascelles: ‘You can go home and tell the Old Country that any talk they may hear about Canada being isolationist after to-day is just nonsense.’75 A week later came the Empire Day speech, which was broadcast back in Britain at 8 p.m. Logue listened to it and afterwards sent a telegram to Lascelles, who was by then aboard the royal train in Winnipeg.

‘Empire Broadcast tremendous success, voice beautiful, resonant speed, eighty minimum atmospheres. Please convey congratulations loyal wishes to His Majesty. Regards Logue’

The American leg of their journey, which began on the evening of 9 June, was if anything of even greater importance for the King: members of the royal family had visited the United States before, but this was the first time a reigning British sovereign had set foot on the country’s soil. A royal red carpet was spread on the station platform at Niagara Falls, in New York State, as the blue and silver royal train crossed the border and the King and Queen were met by Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, and his wife.

President Roosevelt was keenly aware of symbolism when he issued the invitation. If the Canadian leg of the King and Queen’s trip had been intended to underline Commonwealth solidarity, the King’s presence south of the 49th parallel would offer powerful proof of the strength of Britain’s friendship with the United States.

The reaction to the royal couple on the streets of Washington was extraordinary. An estimated 600,000 people walked the royal route from Union Station, past the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, despite temperatures that hit 94°F. ‘In the course of a long life I have seen many important events in Washington, but never have I seen a crowd such as lined the whole route between the Union Station and the White House,’ Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, wrote in her diary, adding, of the royal couple, ‘They have a way of making friends, these young people’.76

For the King, the highpoint of the visit was the twenty-four hours that he and the Queen spent at Hyde Park, Roosevelt’s country house on the bank of the Hudson River in Dutchess County, New York. Although the Royal Standard flew from the portico, the men put all formality aside and spoke frankly about the worsening international situation and its impact on their respective countries.

Both couples also hit it off on a personal level, drinking cocktails and enjoying a picnic lunch at which the King took off his tie, drank beer and sampled that great American delicacy, the hot dog. The Roosevelts, noted Time magazine, had ‘developed a father-&-motherly feeling towards this nice young couple’. The King and Queen seemed rather to enjoy it. ‘They are such a charming & united family, and living so like English people when they come to their country house,’ the Queen wrote to her mother-in-law.77 Wheeler-Bennett, the King’s official biographer, speculated that Roosevelt, who was confined to a wheelchair by polio, and the King, with his difficulties in speaking, had been brought closer to one another by ‘that unspoken bond which unites those who have triumphed over physical disability’.

The King and Queen set off for home on 15 June from Halifax, aboard the liner Empress of Britain. There was no doubting the importance of the contribution the visit had made not just to Britain’s relationship with the New World, but also to the King’s own self-esteem – a point noted by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘The trip nowhere had more influence than on George VI himself,’ noted Time four days later. ‘Two years ago he took on his job at a few hours’ notice, having expected to play a quiet younger brother role to brother Edward all his life. Pressmen who followed him around the long loop from Quebec to Halifax were struck by the added poise and self-confidence that George drew from the ordeal.’

The theme was picked up later by the King’s official biographer. The trip ‘had taken him out of himself, had opened up for him wider horizons and introduced him to new ideas’, he noted. ‘It marked the end of his apprenticeship as a monarch, and gave him self-confidence and assurance.’78

This self-confidence had been reflected in the speeches that the King had made during the visit. ‘I have never heard the King – or indeed few other people – speak so effectively, or so movingly,’ Lascelles wrote to Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister. ‘One or two passages obviously stirred him so deeply that I feared he might break down. This spontaneous feeling heightened the force of the speech considerably . . . The last few weeks, culminating in his final effort today, have definitely established him as a first-class public speaker.’79

The King’s British subjects had a chance to appreciate his newfound confidence at a lunch at the Guildhall on Friday 23 June, the day after he and the Queen returned to London to a tumultuous welcome. The King had cabled Logue from the ship to be at the Palace at 11.15. He arrived early enough to have a brief word with Hardinge, who told him the King was tired but in great form.

As always, the King seemed a little nervous to Logue, but he soon relaxed and broke into his characteristic grin as they spent a couple of minutes talking about the trip. ‘He was most interested in Roosevelt – a most delightful man he called him,’ Logue wrote. They ran through the speech, which Logue thought too long; as ever straying beyond the mere words to the content itself, he also made clear his belief that it should contain more references to the American part of the trip. The King noted his advice, but with the speech due to be delivered only a few hours later, it was a bit late for either of them to do anything about it.

Some seven hundred of the great and good were invited to the Guildhall, where they were treated to an eight-course lunch, washed down with two brands of 1928 champagne and vintage port. ‘It is a great pity that a colour film was not made of the scene,’ commented the Daily Express. ‘It would have preserved for posterity a close-up of the entire executive power of Britain, tightly packed on a few square yards of blue carpet.’

Speaking with great emotion, the King described how the visit had underlined the strength of links between Britain and Canada. ‘I saw everywhere not only the mere symbol of the British Crown; I saw also, flourishing strongly as they do here, the institutions which have developed, century after century, beneath the aegis of that Crown,’ he told his audience, who interrupted him several times with loud cheers.

Logue, who listened to the speech on the radio, was impressed. Lascelles called him at 4.15 ‘to say how pleased everyone was with the speech, particularly the King’.

The verdict of the press was also positive. The Daily Express’s William Hickey column described it as ‘an admirable, shapely speech’ with personal touches that gave the impression the King had composed it himself. It was well delivered, too. ‘The King has improved so enormously in this respect since the early days of his reign that one is not now conscious of any impediment,’ the newspaper noted, adding that he had developed the orator’s art of leaving just enough time for the loud cheers that punctuated his speech.

The following month the King expressed his own reaction to the growing praise for his skills as an orator in his reply to a letter of congratulation from his old friend Sir Louis Greig. ‘It was a change from the old days when speaking, I felt, was “hell”,’ he wrote.80

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