Historians have argued that the Great War crystalized the idea of a modern popular monarchy in Britain and across the British imperial world. This version of sovereignty successfully negotiated the wartime crises of resurgent republicanism and the nationalisms that toppled other dynasties across Europe. But the story has largely been told ‘from above’. The article draws on the extensive and under-examined testimony of soldiers and nurses from Australia, Canada and Britain to argue that wartime efforts by George V and his advisors to make the monarchy more accessible produced diverse and contradictory responses, which challenged imperial expectations. Shaped by human-interest journalism and demands to reduce the cultural distance between monarchy and mass society, these personal accounts revise conceptions of royal patriotism. Letters, diaries and oral histories from the front and the home front reveal how reactions to meeting royalty close-up ranged from respect, through casual and tourist interest, to satire, derision and desacralization, as well as stimulating more overtly political demands. Men and women differed significantly in their attitudes to royalty and the article explores how the monarchy was experienced as part of the masculine and feminine rituals of wartime everyday life.