Monday evening, as the sun sets over the British Isles, Queen Elizabeth will be laid to rest at Windsor Castle alongside her husband, Prince Philip, and among dozen-and-a-half other British monarchs. With her passing, one of those proverbial gears has quietly shifted in the universe.
Elizabeth was born in the Spring of 1926, a grim time in Britain. The Kingdom was about to descend into the worst labor dispute and work stoppage in its history. Fear of violence was in the air. The public mood was dark. Less than a decade had passed since the carnage of World War One, in which nearly a million young British servicemen perished. Six hundred miles away, in Germany, an ex-con and former Bavarian army corporal was made supreme leader (Fuhrer) of the rapidly growing Nazi Party, and, a dozen years later, another great war would take the lives of 400,000 more young British conscripts.
Everyone in Britain in those years knew servicemen, some many, lost to the carnage of one war or the other, and many to both wars. Loss had touched just about every family. Barely a decade before Elizabeth was born, on the first day of the Battle of Somme in northern France, a soldier fell every four-and-a-half seconds, with nearly 20,000 dead in the first hour.
Most people with any historical memory or well-studied knowledge of the twentieth century’s great wars remember those conflicts in tints of grey or black and white, or however they recall or visualize grim.
During the Second World War, Elizabeth, then a teenager, but not many years before she would wear the Crown, insisted on serving in her country’s armed forces. She served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the only behind-the-lines service in which women could serve in England, but serve she did. In 1944, as soon as she turned 18, and against King George’s wishes, Elizabeth insisted on enlisting. She was trained and served as both a truck driver and a mechanic. The teenage Elizabeth was roundly teased in the press as Princess Auto Mechanic. Still, she was determined to serve and took her responsibilities seriously because she believed it was simply the right thing to do.
Germany had brutally and unremittingly attacked her country, and an entire young generation had been called up to defend England against Hitler and the Nazis. Elizabeth was unwilling to be, or appear to be, aloof from the hardship and grief the war imposed on her countrymen. If being trained to be a truck driver and a mechanic was all she could do, then that was what she would do. And so she did.
It is worth remembering that the war dominated Elizabeth’s teen years. She was fourteen during the Battle of Britain and the so-called Blitz, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and destroyed over one million British homes. Correspondent Mollie Panter-Downes, writing in The New Yorker in 1940, described life as it existed for Elizabeth’s countrymen thus, “For Londoners, there are no longer such things as good nights, there are only bad nights, worse nights and better nights.”
Princess Elizabeth, who was just 13 years old when war broke out in 1939, was sent to Windsor Castle, about twenty miles away from central London, along with her sister Princess Margaret. The young sisters were among the nearly three million children who were moved away from the cities for safety during the war.
But Elizabeth, of course, saw the destruction and misery that war brought to her countrymen, to those who, sooner than she thought, would soon be her subjects. She grew up caring about them. Years later, on her 21st birthday, just a few short years before she was to become Queen, she vowed, in a now familiar radio address, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She meant every word of it.
So, Elizabeth was unique among the select few who would lead their countries from the middle of the 20th century well into the 21st century. There are, of course, no other heads of state today, none, who saw military service during World War Two, that gruesome and unprecedented bloodletting against which all other wars in history pale.
Joe Biden, America’s oldest serving President, was only a year old when the Second World War broke out. Jimmy Carter, born two years before Elizabeth, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, but the Second World War had already ended when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Very few of today’s heads of state were even alive during World War Two, and typical of the age into which Elizabeth reigned, few of today’s world leaders have served in their nation’s military at all. There is something noble about presidents and other heads of state who have answered their nation’s call. While there is no need to disparage those leaders who never served, it is noteworthy that sixteen of America’s forty-five commanders-in-chief never served in our nation’s armed forces. Then again, few of the world’s current or recent heads of state today can boast of any active military service. Not Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Russia’s Putin (other than Soviet college-required military training), France’s Macron, or Germany’s Olaf Scholz.
Elizabeth’s time as a Royal, a young princess, and then as her country’s Queen spanned eras of great change. During Elizabeth’s decades of service to her country, she did what her subjects expected of her, from calibrating carburetors to christening ships. There is a reason her subjects have lined up for miles to say a final and often tearful goodbye to Elizabeth II. They know her entire life was devoted to their service, not as a political figure, but as the human connectivity, the living linkage to both a historical past and, hopefully, to a worthy future. Elizabeth took her responsibility to the people of Great Britain very seriously.
While the Monarch in Great Britain is proscribed from making political decisions, she, or now he, is duty bound to be well informed and to meet with the political heads-of-state every week and ask those questions deemed to be in the nation’s and, therefore, the people’s best interest. It was Elizabeth, among all of the royals of the House of Windsor, for whom service to the people and the traditions of the Crown came before all else. Notwithstanding the material wealth theoretically associated with the monarch, the monarchy in Great Britain is, in so many respects, a life of personal sacrifice.
Elizabeth worked with fifteen British Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, who the Queen installed just two days before her death. History changed mightily from the time she was born a Princess to the time she passed away a Queen — from one age to another, from Josef Stalin to Vladimir Putin, from Calvin Coolidge to Joe Biden, from steamships to space ships, from radio to television, telegrams to the internet, props to supersonic jets, small conventional bombs to mighty hydrogen bombs. Through it all, the 20th century’s great wars most informed her sense of history and, unquestionably, her unwavering commitment to serve.
On May 8, 1945, the Second World War in Europe ended, and thousands flooded into the streets and onto Buckingham Palace, where the King and Queen waved to them from the balcony. In her army uniform, Princess Elizabeth slipped into the crowds with her sister, Princess Margaret. Thirty years later, Queen Elizabeth reminisced to a BBC audience, “I remember we were terrified of being recognized, so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes.” Elizabeth spoke of “the lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.” Some Londoners insisted they saw the two princesses join a conga line through the Ritz Hotel along with hundreds of others. “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life,” the Queen said.
While I never met Queen Elizabeth, as a college sophomore at the University of Maryland, I enjoyed a football game with her at College Park when she came to Byrd Stadium to watch my Terrapins beat the North Carolina Tar Heels. I really don’t remember much of the game, most of which I spent trying to focus on the young Queen with my binoculars. Still, I do remember the marching bands of both schools forming “USA-BRIT” across the field during half-time as their respective bands played the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen.”
Two realities, more than anything else, have represented continuity and order in Great Britain during the lifetimes of just about everyone alive today— the tolling of Big Ben at Parliament, and the life, the presence, and the heartbeat of England’s Queen Elizabeth. The bell still tolls at Parliament. Elizabeth’s heart, sadly, is still.
Long live the king.