The King of Spain has marked the centenary of the end of the First World War by commemorating the humanitarian work done by his country’s government and his own great-grandfather during the conflict. Felipe VI viewed some of the letters sent to and written by his ancestor, Alfonso XIII, during the Great War as Spain attempted to help thousands of families across Europe who were affected by the conflict.
Between 1914 and 1918, over 200,000 people across the continent wrote to Alfonso, asking the monarch of neutral Spain to help them track down soldiers who had disappeared or who had been taken prisoner. The King responded personally to many of them, and some of his poignant letters were put on show for the first time yesterday in an exhibition at the Royal Palace in Madrid which was officially opened by King Felipe to mark the centenary of the end of World War One.
Among the correspondence now on show is a letter written by an eight-year-old girl from France. Sylviane Sartor told Alfonso in her letter that ”mama is always crying because her brother is a prisoner” while the King replied, ”I will try, as best I can, to stop your Mama from crying, but please send more precise details so I can help your uncle”. It is one of thousands of very human interactions between the man who had been king from the moment of his birth in 1886 and families of all classes from across Europe.
The new exhibition, called ”Letters to the King”, documents publicly, for the first time, Alfonso’s work to reunite families pulled apart by war. It charts how the King’s behind the scenes work first came to light in 1915 when a French newspaper, La Petite Gironde, published the story of a laundress who had appealed to Alfonso for help when her husband went missing after one of the first battles of the war, at Charleroi, in August 1914. The Spanish monarch helped track the man down and once news of his intervention came to light, thousands began writing to him for help.
The exhibition also charts how Alfonso and his office went about managing the huge number of letters they received. Originally, just six people working in the King’s Private Secretariat dealt with the correspondence, but they soon needed more help and the Office of War was set up. Eventually, it employed 46 people, such was the demand. Among the team were seven women, the first to work in an administrative capacity at Spain’s Royal Palace.
The organisers of the exhibition said that Alfonso XIII felt particularly sensitive about the war as he was closely linked to the royal families on both sides of the conflict. His wife, Victoria Eugenie, was part of the British Royal Family and lost a brother, Maurice, in the conflict while his mother, Maria Cristina, was related to the Austro-Hungarian imperial house which fought against the Allies. And his concerns for other ruling families is seen in more of his letters including one offering a home in Spain to the Russian Imperial Family following the Revolution.
King Felipe officially unveiled a plaque marking the exhibition and Alfonso’s work and toured the displays, reading many of the letters written by his great grandfather as well as some of his diaries. The event runs at the Royal Palace in Madrid until March 2019, and it is hoped that in the following months it will go on tour around Europe to give others a chance to see, first hand, the details of this previously forgotten royal chapter in the history of the First World War.