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Royal Pictures from History: George VI and War

By Bertram Park - Public Domain, Wiki Commons

”There may be dark days ahead…but we can only do the right as we see the right

The words of King George VI, spoken on this day in 1939, still hold a resonance. They were part of his historic broadcast made as Britain went to war with Nazi Germany. His calm and measured speech was beamed around the world by radio. But one image was released of the king preparing to face the uncertain future that confronted millions. It has become iconic.

In this occasional series, Royal Central looks at some of the most well known images in regal history. And today, eighty years on from the start of World War Two, we remember the striking picture of a king whose country was going to war.

The Image: King George VI, September 3rd 1939

Embed from Getty Images

On September 3rd 1939, Great Britain went to war with Hitler’s Germany. The declaration of conflict was made by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. At 6pm that evening, King George VI addressed the people of Britain and the Commonwealth as they lived through the first few hours of war.

The Speech

”In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilised order in the world.

It is the principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges; which sanctions the use of force, or threat of force, against the sovereignty and independence of other states.

Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right; and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of Nations would be in danger. But far more than this – the peoples of the world would be kept in the bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security of justice and liberty among nations would be ended.

This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.

It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.

If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.
May He bless and keep us all.”

The Legacy

For a man who hated speaking in public, it was a moment of personal bravery. For a king called to serve against the odds and his own ambitions, it was a moment of history. George VI’s speech to the British people as they faced the start of World War Two was as moving as it was dignified. It is rightly recognised as one of the greatest royal speeches in history, a moment of leadership that inspired and strengthened. It is a lesson plenty would do well to learn, eighty years on.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.