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“Royal Knight of Charity”: King Alfonso XIII of Spain in WWI

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(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division.)

[Alfonso XIII, King of Spain, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing right], c1914. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
At midnight, on April 16, 1931, the train carrying the former king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, pulled into the train station in Paris. Two days earlier, Alfonso had abdicated the throne and had come to France to live in exile. The former king saw, to his surprise, that the citizens of Paris had turned out to give him the kind of welcome usually reserved for great national heroes. As he stepped out from the train, the thousands of people gathering at the station started shouting in unison: “Vive le Roi! Vive le Roi! Vive le Roi!” (Long live the King!). In their excitement, the crowds tore down the security barriers, and the former king and his bodyguards were nearly crushed. They managed to escape from the station and made their way to Hotel Le Meurice, on the Rue de Rivoli. Even there, Parisians turned out to applaud and shout his name. Choked with emotion, Alfonso stepped out and could only utter: “Merci, merci.” According to one Parisian newspaper account, the crowd’s applause was thunderous. (Enrique González Fernández, “La obra humanitaria del Rey Alfonso XIII durante la Primera Guerra Mundial” (King Alfonso XIII Humanitarian Work During World War I) in “Mar Oceana: Revista del Humanismo español e iberoamericano.” V. 2 (1995), pp. 293-296).

[Avenue de la opera i.e. Rue de Rivoli and the garden of the Tuileries, Exposition Universal, 1900, Paris, France]. , ca. 1890. [Between and Ca. 1900] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
On December 22, 1922, Time magazine featured the king on the cover and wrote that “he was, through his personal organization, enabled to help stricken relatives [of soldiers in WWI] in every way possible… Much more than his embittered enemies may he be called a democrat of Spain. Hard worker, severely earnest in fulfilling his responsibilities, unusually tactful and liberal-minded, rapid and accurate in his decisions, he combines to a high degree of perfection those qualities of intellect for which he has earned recognition.” He was, in other words, regarded as everybody’s king. And rightly so, because he carried out great humanitarian efforts during World War I (1914-1918), for which he was much admired. In France they called him “The Royal Knight of Charity.” In England he was referred to as “The Angel of Mercy” and the “Charitable War Postmaster” and the Germans called his office “The King of Spain’s Archive of Tears.” As one American said at that time, “No one in trouble is a stranger to him.” He helped everybody regardless of nationality or creed. And so, “we find ourselves before an admirable work, surpassing all the Nobel Peace Prizes, unprecedented in the history of the world.” (González Fernández, p. 283).

French pick up dead near Charleroi. Bain News Service, publisher. 1914 Oct. 21. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

It all started very casually in September 1914, when a poor French washerwoman, desperate for news about her husband, a soldier who had disappeared in the bloody Battle of Charleroi (Belgium) on August 21st, wrote to the king pleading for information. Alfonso mobilized Spanish diplomats throughout Europe and found the missing husband in a German prisoner-of-war camp. The king personally wrote a letter to the French woman to give her the news. He also sent her some money. As word of the king’s effort on her behalf traveled across Europe, letters from all over Europe began pouring into the Royal Palace with requests for help in finding sons, husbands, brothers, uncles, and so forth. At first, the king and his personal secretary, Emilio María de Torres, handled the correspondence. But in 1915, overwhelmed by the number of petitions, the king created the Oficina Pro Cautivos (Pro-Captives’ Office) – the first Spanish NGO, as some like to call it - in the Palace itself, to handle all the requests in an orderly manner. He hired three diplomats and forty additional people (including the famous historian Julián Juderías, who in 1914 had published a very influential work on the Black Legend*). The office, located in the Palace’s attic, was divided into ten sections:

  1. Missing People
  2. Information and Correspondence in Occupied Territories
  3. Prisoners
  4. Repatriations of Soldiers Severely Wounded or Sick
  5. Repatriations of Civilians
  6. Internment Service in Switzerland
  7. Pardons
  8. Commutations of Sentences
  9. Remittance of Funds to Individuals and Families in Occupied Territories
  10. Reports on Inspection Visits by Spanish Delegates

Madrid. El Palacio Real por la plaza de Oriente. [between 1890 and 1940]. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
The Palace received two daily mail deliveries. Every letter was read and then assigned to a section. An arduous task if one considers that thousands of letters were received each month — once even reaching 20,000 — in various languages which made filing in alphabetical order ever more difficult. A system was devised by which little colored flags were placed on the letters to indicate the nationality of the missing person, whether a letter contained money, and the status of the missing person; for example, black was used for the dead, red for the not found, etc. A similar color scheme was used for folders holding diplomatic correspondence of the belligerent states: yellow for the French, blue for the English, green for the Italians, white for the Germans, orange for the Russians, red for the Austrians. (Alberto Mousset, “El Rey Don Alfonso XIII y su filantropía en la guerra” (1917), The King Don Alfonso XIII and His Philanthropy During the War, p. 15). Every single piece of correspondence was answered. When information about a soldier or a relative was confirmed, a letter was sent to the family, in many cases written by the king himself. The office not only searched for information, but also sent food, medicine, books, and money. Many times, the office helped in the repatriation of soldiers and civilians, and provided legal aid. Spanish diplomats and military officers visited hospitals, as well as concentration and refugee camps. King Alfonso even tried to save the Russian Royal Family in 1917 by negotiating with diplomats and leaders of various countries to find ways to protect the Imperial Family.

Writing a letter home. [between 1914 and 1918], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
That same year, King Alfonso mediated between the Allies and the Central Powers to stop the sinking of more hospital-ships. As a result, Spanish naval observers sailed in the hospital-ships of various countries to make sure that the ships were being used for that purpose, rather than for military expeditions (Manuel Gracia Rivas, “Alfonso XIII y la labor humanitaria de España” (“Alfonso XIII and Spain’s Humanitarian Work”) in “Revista Española de Defensa,” October 2014, p. 60). The king even cooperated in the creation of a special signal code for hospital-ships.

King Alfonso was greatly admired around the world. A young English girl even wrote this prayer which appeared in a newspaper: “And God bless Father and Mother, and Nurse, and send Father back soon from his horrid prison in Germany. And God bless specially the dear King of Spain who found out about Father. Amen.” (In Víctor Espinós Moltó, “Alfonso XIII y la Guerra: espejo de neutrales” (Alfonso XIII and the War: The Mirror of Neutrals), 1918, p. 59).

King Alfonso’s handwritten letter. Víctor Espinós Moltó, “Alfonso XIII y la guerra: espejo de neutrals” (1918).

By the time the Oficina Pro Cautivos was closed in 1921, it had handled 500,000 petitions, of which, 250,000 were successfully completed. It had provided aid to 122,000 French and Belgian prisoners, 7,950 English, 6,350 Italians, 400 Portuguese, 350 Americans and 250 Russians. It was also able to repatriate 21,000 sick prisoners and 70,000 civilians. (Gracia Rivas, p. 61) Spanish diplomats and military officers made 4,000 visits to hospitals and prisoner of war camps. (Ibid., p. 60). Among the thousands that were saved by the king’s actions, were prominent people like Belgian historians Henri Pirenne and Paul Fredericq, French actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinski, Polish piano player Arthur Rubenstein. Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel Prize winner, contacted King Alfonso for news about John, his only son. John’s body was identified in 1922. The office was also to secure the commutation of 102 death sentences. All the expenses incurred were paid personally by the king, not the Spanish state, (approximately 2 million pesetas, which would be about 6 million euros today) or by private donations. In the midst of the horror and destruction of the Great War, Alfonso’s work brought comfort and solace to many.

Czar and Family. Bain News Service, publisher. 1917 March 19. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1917, King Alfonso was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it was given to the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was nominated again in 1933, when he was already in exile. In honor of its royal visitor, Le Meurice Hotel has a room with his name, Suite Royale Alphonse XIII, where the very famous Spanish painter Salvador Dalí spent one month every year for thirty years.

Despite the magnitude of the task undertaken by King Alfonso, and despite the thousands of people he helped, his work has largely been forgotten and his image is much maligned in Spain. Very few people know about this important chapter in Spanish history. He has been relegated to a secondary status, associated with the disastrous Rif War in northern Morocco (1920-1926), the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera (1923-1930), and the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, which led to his abdication and exile, and later to the Civil War (1936-1939). In 1941, he died in obscurity in Rome.

Hospital ship, Mesopotamia. Bain News Service, publisher. [between 1914 and 1918] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

In 2016, the Casa Real (a non-official web site created by a monarchical group) published a long article about King Alfonso’s work. Earlier, in 2012, Televisión Española (RTVE, the Spanish National Television Network) made a documentary about his efforts during WWI. In 2014, Spanish author Jorge Díaz wrote “Cartas a palacio” (Letters to the Palace), a well-received historical romance novel set against the backdrop of the inner workings of the Oficina Pro Cautivos and World War I. In 2002 Juan Pando wrote “Un rey para la esperanza: la España humanitaria de Alfonso XIII en la Gran Guerra” (A King for Hope: Alfonso XIII and Humanitarian Spain During the Great War), a recent in-depth analysis of this period. As Europe commemorates the 100th anniversary of World War I, perhaps this chapter in Spanish history will get more attention, and lead to a reevaluation of King Alfonso’s legacy.

Bessarabian village set afire by Russian troops. [no date recorded on caption card] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Further Reading (in chronological order):

Alberto Mousset, “El Rey Don Alfonso XIII y su filantropía en la Guerra” (The King Don Alfonso XIII and His Philanthropy During the War) (1917)

Víctor Espinós Moltó, “Alfonso XIII y la Guerra: espejo de neutrales” (Alfonso XIII and the War: The Neutral Mirror) (1918)

Juan Pando, “Un rey para la esperanza: la España humanitaria de Alfonso XIII en la Gran Guerra” (A King For Hope: Spain’s Humanitarianism Under Alfonso XIII during the Great War) (2002)

Readers are encouraged to visit the Library of Congress Online Catalog for books on King Alfonso XIII and his reign and do a search under the following subject heading: “Spain–History Alfonso XIII, 1886-1931”

*The Black Legend refers to a well-known expression of historical writings about the supposed atrocities committed by the Spaniards in America during the conquest and colonial period. This was done mainly by foreign writers and foreign political leaders to denigrate Spain since the 16th century. Julián Juderías was the first to study the topic. He coined the expression.

Comments (6)

  1. Wow! What a great story. Glad to read that leaders are capable of being humanitarian given the current state of affairs in this world in 2018.

  2. Se hace necesario dar las gracias a historiadores como el doctor Juan Manuel Pérez no sólo por su estudio de la Historia, con gran esfuerzo en la recopilación y clasificación de este legado conservado con mimo en la Institución en que trabaja, sino por su esfuerzo complementario en darle valor divulgativo, en intentar fomentar el interés en un público amplio al que la historia contada desde un punto de vista documentado con esmero quizás les haga revisitar partes olvidadas, ocultadas o tergiversadas de la historia no tan lejana que nos formó en lo que hoy somos. Como española y europea, gracias.

  3. A great humanitarian. There should have been or should be a humanitarian award in his name. Unless there is some bad/evil underside to his life, a humanitarian award or recognition for similar works should be established in his name so that his name and history of good works are not lost to anonymity.

  4. Great Story! A very important and controversial figure in Spanish history, a rather unknown episode and a very interesting article. Thank you!

  5. Very interesting. In the English-speaking world we tend to hear more about the British royal family. Of course, Alfonso was married to one of Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters, “Ena.” Unfortunately, not a happy union.

  6. Respectand gratitude for this hero.

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