In the late 19th and early 20th century, haemophilia stalked the royal bloodlines of Europe like a banshee, a curse passed down by the matchmaking ‘grandmother of Europe’, Queen Victoria.
While the most infamous flowering of the ‘royal disease’ struck Imperial Russia with the Tsarevich Alexei – his all-to-brief life an indelible chapter of the Russian Revolution – tragedy also followed in the wake of Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. Beatrice was a carrier of haemophilia and her daughter – Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (1887-1969) – brought it into the Spanish court by marriage, depriving Spain of its crown prince in a car accident.
Two of Beatrice’s three sons also lived in the shadow of haemophilia, while Alexander (later Alexander Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Carisbrooke) lived to a respectable age, Maurice and Leopold both died young. Both are described as haemophiliacs in some accounts and both answered the call of cousin and country in 1914, but precious little has been written about them.
Prince Maurice of Battenberg’s haemophilia is disputed in light of his record as a second lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Feted for heroism during the Battle of the Marne and Mentioned in Dispatches for a valiant charge to secure a bridge, the prince was wounded by shrapnel while leading an attack at Zonnebeke in October 1914.
Rifleman William Darlow who was wounded by the same shell described the scene to the Birmingham Mail (10 November 1914):
The KRR had been ordered to storm a German position and capture some guns which were doing a lot of damage. On the advance they came to a wood, which was too thick for them to get through conveniently, and they had to cross an open field. Prince Maurice was leading his men across this open space when the shell fell and burst right by him. He knew that his injuries were mortal and wished the men around goodbye. He was carried to a field dressing room, but died before it was reached.
Aged 23, Prince Maurice was the only member of the British Royal Family to have been killed in World War I.
Rather than repatriate his remains, he was buried in Ypres cemetery in Belgium – “a soldiers funeral amidst the noise of battle” – with a plain wooden cross. News was withheld from his sister until the Queen was well enough to hear it, and three weeks of mourning were declared with a memorial service held at the Royal Chapel of St James’s Palace. Princess Beatrice was devastated, with the news precipitating her withdrawal from public life.
It seems unlikely that a known haemophiliac would have been allowed to serve on the frontline of World War I. What’s more, even in peacetime the dashing Prince Maurice didn’t exactly comport himself like a man at risk, he was twice fined for speeding and his obituary noted that he enjoying flying so much he joined a pilot for a loop-the-loop.
But while it’s easy to dismiss, it’s also tempting to ponder upon the impossible when we consider the immense courage shown by his older brother.
Prince Leopold of Battenburg (later Lord Leopold Mountbatten after the Royal Family Anglicised their family names and lost their German titles in retaliation for the 1917 Titles Deprivation Act) was definitely a haemophiliac. While Maurice’s youth was a series of capers culminating in Sandhurst, Leopold is beset by falls, faints and ill-health and the press is filled with near-constant progress reports. Though haemophilia isn’t mentioned, his ‘fragility’ is obvious and the account of his passing following a hip operation from the Gloucester Citizen (24 April 1922) recalls:
From childhood he was not strong, but it may be said that on the whole he enjoyed fairly good health. While pursuing his studies at Wellington College he was debarred from taking part in many sports and exercises that might have overtaxed his physical powers.
But while he was eventually kept from the fighting by a promotion to aide-de-camp (and full lieutenant) in April 1915, there’s nothing on record to place him out of harm’s way for August and September 1914 and newspapers proudly describe both Leopold and Maurice at “the front” with the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
Leopold was invalided home with a knee injury some weeks before Maurice’s death and remained in Britain until early 1915. His fall and subsequent evacuation perhaps convinced the War Office that the front was no place for a haemophiliac. It’s a potent reminder, though, that the rigours of military life could pose as potent a risk to a haemophiliac as shellfire, and the strength of character required to enlist as Leopold did can’t be understated.
While their mother’s bloodline exposed them to haemophilia, their father left them a legacy that would prove just as fatal.
The German-born Prince Henry of Battenberg had given up his career in the Prussian Guard (wearing his striking white dress uniform for the last time at his wedding) as one of the conditions of his marriage to Princess Beatrice and accepted his enforced position as a gentleman of leisure with good grace. Soon the call of the boot polish and saddle soap grew too strong to resist and in 1895 he petitioned Queen Victoria for a chance to make himself useful in the Gold Coast colony in “what proved to be a very brief and a bloodless war against King Prempeh of Ashanti.”
Prince Henry contracted malaria on the march and despite his health beginning to improve, he died on board HMS Blonde off the coast of Sierra Leone. He was buried in full service uniform with full military honours.
For the Battenberg princes, the colours held an irresistible pull and it perhaps didn’t occur to Leopold that he shouldn’t enlist when war broke out in 1914. Perhaps he was commissioned into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps so that the vulnerable prince would enjoy the ‘protection’ of his rakish brother, but then perhaps the headstrong Prince Maurice was as much under Prince Leopold’s watchful eye as vice versa.
Though highly unlikely, it is tempting to believe that the “gallant” Prince Maurice, like his bother, defied the genetic cards he’d been dealt in order to play his part. These were clearly young men with a remarkable sense of duty and they lived highly unlikely lives.
When Leopold followed his brother to the grave in 1922, aged 33, the gun carriage that bore his coffin carried a wreath in the colours of their regiment, while a memorial stone marked them both in Winchester Cathedral, poignantly returning them to each other’s side for the first time since the autumn of 1914.
An echo of Maurice’s soldier’s grave, it ended simply “to whose memory their brother officers have set up this tablet.”
- Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion by Helen Rappaport
- The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison
- Newspapers accessed via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk