The Grand Duchess and her Tommies Topic: Marie Georgievna, GD
Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna with her daughters, Princesses Nina and Xenia
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 15th, 2014 edition of the Telegraph. The author Tom Rowley owns the copyright presented below.
As war broke out in 1914, a Russian aristocrat was visiting Harrogate. Stranded, she felt it her duty to care for injured troops
Coming round after a painful operation some time in 1915, a soldier wounded on the Western Front stared up woozily at the woman standing over his hospital bed.
“I am Princess Margaret of Denmark,” said the nurse, noting his quizzical expression. “And that is Princess Victoria, the King’s sister.” “Oh yes,” said the soldier, pointing to the final nurse. “And who is she?” “Oh, that’s the Grand Duchess George of Russia.” At that, the soldier could contain himself no longer. “Blimey,” he gasped. “We really are among the nuts.”
The nurse was quite correct. In one of the most colourful episodes of the First World War, George, the socialite daughter of the King of Greece, was stranded in Harrogate, Yorkshire, when hostilities broke out.
Unable to return to Russia, she established several military hospitals in the town, enlisting her relations to nurse about 1,000 wounded soldiers and sailors back to health.
Now, to mark the war’s centenary, a retired librarian, Malcolm Neesam, has spent three years piecing together the story of the grand duchess and her Tommies.
Edward Fox, the actor — whose great-grandfather, Samson, was the town’s mayor — and his wife, Joanna David, will bring the story to life at the Harrogate International Festival next month.
“She did not want it to be any more of a story than any other tale of gallantry, of which there are myriad,” said Fox, explaining why little has been written about the episode.
“She had no wish to highlight it. She was a Russian aristocrat, but, when faced with this crisis, she gave a very human response. It is such a good story.”
Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna with Emperor Nicholas II
It begins in 1910, when the grand duchess made her first visit to Harrogate. Born Maria Georgievna in Athens in 1876, she married George Mikhailovich, one of Russia’s grand dukes, at the age of 24.
They had two children, princesses Nina and Xenia. When Xenia fell badly ill at the age of six, a relation recommended a fashionable cure: a trip to the town’s Royal Baths.
The visit was so successful that the family returned the next year, and the next. The grand duchess became a fixture around the town, being photographed by the local newspaper attending charity cricket matches. She and her daughters were soon mobbed when they visited the baths.
In July 1914, Princess Xenia became ill once again. The family’s doctor decided she must return to Harrogate for the “bracing air”.
This journey across Europe, says Mr Neesam, was a “royal progress”. The grand duchess had already spent a holiday with the Kaiser in Crete that year, and she stopped the Russian royal train in Berlin to see him again with her daughters.
When the party arrived in London, they dined at Buckingham Palace with her cousin, George V.
Yet the grand duchess remained remarkably oblivious to the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. She wrote in her memoirs that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was “on everybody’s lips”, but she still believed “catastrophe would be averted”.
“The thought that my children and I would never return to Russia never crossed our minds,” she wrote. They arrived in Harrogate on August 4, dropping in on a garden party.
At 11pm, Britain declared war on Germany. “Feel completely crushed and so anxious,” the grand duchess confided in her diary. “A real hell of a position. May God have pity on His World.”
She tried to return to Russia, where her husband would become the Tsar’s supervisor of wartime operations, but was warned off by the King and the Admiralty.
But she was determined to be useful. “She was fired with this zeal to fulfil what she saw as her commitments to God,” said Mr Neesam. “She had this great emphasis on duty.” Three days later, Joseph Sheffield, the town’s mayor, wrote to the local paper expressing his delight that the grand duchess was to found a hospital for “the treatment of naval men wounded in the war”.
She set about finding a suitable site with “indescribable rapidity”. Within six weeks, she had converted a large private house into a hospital for 12 beds, expanding its remit to cover all servicemen. She recruited locals as nurses and sent for a doctor from Leeds to grant their Red Cross qualifications.
In these early days, not everything went to plan. The first matron was an alcoholic. Then the War Office objected to the hospital, resenting the dominance of a foreigner. A letter from the King soon overcame their concerns.
By September 25 the grand duchess was ready to receive her first patients. To the astonishment of locals who lined the platform at Harrogate station to greet the first contingent, the grand duchess tore down the Union flag and ran alongside the carriages waving it vigorously, bellowing: “We must make them welcome.” She appealed for beds and linen, and recruited a doctor to perform amputations in a rudimentary operating theatre. “They were highly qualified in the science of the day,” said Mr Neesam. “We would probably find it primitive and frightening but it was better than nothing.”
She did not avoid the more unpleasant duties. She tended to the soldiers with such dedication that she once caught lice. On one occasion, she and Princess Victoria were seen carrying an amputated leg out of the operating theatre.
The grand duchess grew close to the men under her care, whom she termed “my soldiers”. She bought them matching blue uniforms to wear during their recuperation, and they became known about town as her “boys in blue”. Her daughters brought the patients flowers to raise morale.
When they began to recover, the men were clearly amused by their royal carers. “I was told by one of the nurses of a discussion between some of the men as to how they were to address me,” the grand duchess recalled. “One man said they were to call me 'Sir’ because that was the way they addressed their commanding officers.”
That first Christmas, she hired the town’s spa rooms, put up a Christmas tree, and gave presents from the people of Harrogate. Her relations sent gifts too: six hares and 15 pheasants from the King, and a cake from Queen Mary. The soldiers returned the favour, giving the grand duchess silver jewel cases, cigarette boxes and framed photographs of themselves.
She engaged music hall artists and jugglers to go from bed to bed and hired the town’s Royal Hall for concerts. When she bought a house, she staged garden parties for her patients.
Grand Duchess and her nurses at Heatherdene Hospital in Harrogate in 1915
By July 1915, the King was so impressed by her efforts that he invited her to Windsor Castle and presented her with the Royal Red Cross. She soon opened two more hospitals, one named St Nicholas in honour of Tsar Nicholas II. Despite these efforts, the grand duchess was shunned by much of London society. One society hostess even asked the Foreign Office to deport her.
She received a very different response from the people of Harrogate, and especially her soldiers. Once they returned to the front, many wrote her letters of thanks. One, Sapper Walsh, wrote to her after spending seven months in Harrogate. “I was very much disappointed when I left without seeing you,” he wrote. “It caused me more pain than all I had gone through to leave, as it was leaving home.” She replied to every letter.
Some of her patients, of course, were not well enough to return to duty. She established a convalescent home in the town for them, which she named St George’s after the King. Nine of her patients did not survive. They were each given a military funeral, escorted to the station by 200 troops and the band of the Yorkshire Hussars. Leading the cortege was the grand duchess herself, carrying a wreath.
Throughout the war, she sent a letter each day to her husband in Russia. She asked permission to return several times, “as I felt that my place was really there”, but was always discouraged.
Then, in April 1918, she heard of his arrest by the Bolsheviks. She harboured hopes that he would be released, but the duke was shot dead on January 28, 1919, alongside three other grand dukes. The grand duchess concealed her emotions in her memoirs, writing only of the “Russian catastrophe”.
In the days that followed, she wanted to resign from the hospitals, but other members of the committee refused and the grand duchess was still at the helm when their last patient left later that year.
In 1922, she married a Greek admiral and moved to Rome. But that was not the end of her connection to Harrogate. A few months before she died, in 1940, a journalist from the town visited her apartment in Rome. The grand duchess led her to a little room which was plastered with pictures.
“Hiding the wallpaper, there were countless framed photographs,” the journalist wrote. “Of her hospitals in Harrogate, of groups of wounded Tommies, and grateful letters sent to her. It was her shrine. I was too moved to speak.” Even at the end, this duchess of Russia still treasured her “sons” from Harrogate.
That Most Gracious and Noble Lady is on at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, at 8pm on Sunday 20 July as part of the Harrogate International Festival. For tickets, call 01423 562303 or visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com
Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna of Russia Topic: Marie Georgievna, GD
Princess Marie of Greece and Denmark was born on March 3rd, 1876 at Athens, Greece. She was the fifth child and second daughter of King George I of Greece and his consort, Queen Olga, (née Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinovna of Russia). Marie was the granddaughter of King Christian IX of Denmark, great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I, niece of Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia, and first cousin and confidant of Tsar Nicholas II.
On 30 April 1900, Marie married Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia. After her marriage, she took the name Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna. Together, they had two daughters: Princess Nina Georgievna (1901-1974), and Princess Xenia Georgievna (1903-1965).
Grand Duke George Mikhailovich, was the third son of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, and Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna (née Princess Cecilie of Baden). He was also a first cousin to Emperor Alexander III. He served as a General in the Russian Army during the First World War. During the Russian Revolution, he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and shot by a firing squad in 1919, along with his brother, Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich, and his cousins Grand Dukes Paul Alexandrovich and Dimitri Konstantinovich.
The Grand Duchess spent most of her life abroad: Russia, England, Italy—and on her return to Greece in 1940, she vowed never again to be driven into exile. During the Second World War, as the German army advanced on Athens and the Royal Family prepared to flee, Grand Duchess Marie passed away in 1940, at the age of 64.
Given her position in life, her travels, and the personal tragedies that she endured during her lifetime, she was to bear witness to some of the world’s most monumental historical events, and writes of them with skill and candor in her memoirs.
A Romanov Diary spans 50-years in the life of Royal Europe (1884-1934) during one of the most turbulent periods of history. In her memoirs, Grand Duchess Marie writes of emperors, kings, queens and royal cousins in their everyday private lives, as well as their intricate relationships which determined the course of history.
Some of the most compelling portions of A Romanov Diary are the letters written by her husband, Grand Duke George Mikhailovich, from prison after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. These letters were smuggled from prison, and detail events up to shortly before the Grand Duke’s murder in 1919. Grand Duchess Marie has set forth extensive portions of these letters, and the last days of the Romanov dynasty come alive.
After being out of print for nearly 20 years, a new edition of A Romanov Diary: The Autobiography of the Grand Duchess Marie Georgievna has been published by Gilbert’s Books, the publishing division of Royal Russia.