With the generation of veterans of World War II slowly passing from the scene, it’s remarkable that so little notice was given to the special distinction attained by Queen Elizabeth II during Britain’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations: She is the only reigning monarch to have served in uniform in the war.
Elizabeth served in the ranks of the women’s army service, having grown up on the besieged island. Her father, George VI, refused to send his daughters to safety in Canada.
Elizabeth’s future husband, now the Duke of Edinburgh, was a 19-year-old midshipman on HMS Valiant. He directed searchlights on two Italian cruisers in the night battle of Cape Matapan, earning praise from his superiors.
These glimpses into the youth of the British rulers — Elizabeth is now 86 — underline the passage of time. As author Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote of Britain in The New Republic, “the empire has gone.”
Still, he said, “the memories are of something real: a time of which we remain proud and which the queen — in conspicuous contrast to modern politicians more keen to order wars than to serve in them — still embodies.”