01 November 2009

The Princesses & The Soldiers

Hospital Visitor
Young Princess Mary did indeed become a nurse and even worked after the war at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. During World War II, she served as commandant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps and later became air chief commandant of Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service, which is still the nursing branch of the RAF.

However, Mary was not the only royal lady to devote herself to nursing. In fact, once Florence Nightingale standardized and professionalized nursing in the 1850s, princesses and queens flocked to be of service during war time. Queen Victoria was a great admirer of Nightingale and of nurses. In 1883, she created the Royal Order of the Red Cross (like a knighthood) to honor trained nurses of exceptional competency and devotion—Nightingale was the first recipient. Initially intended only for British nurses, Victoria altered the criteria so that she could present it to her granddaughter, Crown Princess Sophie of Greece, who had worked tirelessly to nurse the wounded during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Sophie was the first of more than a dozen royals to receive the honor.

Sophie, encouraged by her mother, the Dowager Empress of Germany, brought English nurses to Greece to train Greek nurses. She acquired a recently constructed military school and converted it into a hospital. When she wasn’t working at the hospital, she was overseeing the final examinations of the nursing students. Her compassion was readily apparent, even extending to treating the enemy, her proud grandmother noted.

The queens and princesses of southern and eastern Europe had the most occasion to become nurses as their countries served as the front lines during the Balkan Wars and both world wars. As a child, Princess Ileana of Romania (who would later found a convent in Pennsylvania), saw her mother, Queen Marie, more often in nurse’s uniforms than in beautiful gowns. Marie was perhaps the most famous royal nurse. Considered the most beautiful royal lady of her day, she became quite a celebrity, even in the United States where she occasionally published articles.

In one of these, she graphically described her experience as a war nurse: “Bed beside bed they lie there. . .I bend over suffering faces, clasp outstretched hands, ray my fingers upon heated brows, gaze into dying eyes. . .A groping hand was stretched out toward me; I took it in mine, whispering words of comfort; bending low toward the parched lips that were murmuring something that at first I could not understand. The man had no face, no eyes; all was swathed in blood-stained cloths.”

Empress As Nurse
Of course, not every princess-nurse was able to stomach the gore and tragedy of the war wounded. The two oldest daughters of Tsar Nicholas of Russia worked daily in a hospital founded by their mother, Empress Alexandra. Eventually, the sensitive Grand Duchess Olga was overwrought and had to be treated with arsenic for a “nervous disorder.” When she felt better, she returned to the hospital but assumed an administrative role while her sister Tatiana continued working in the wards. Even the youngest grand duchesses, 16-year-old Maria and 14-year-old Anastasia (yes, that Anastasia) frequented the hospital, playing games with and reading to the wounded and dying men.

Their maternal aunt, the widowed and childless Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, gave away all of her possessions, became a nun and devoted her life to nursing and orphanages. Like most of the Russian imperial family she was killed during the revolution (she was thrown into a pit and bombarded with grenades) and was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Other nursing princesses also became nuns, including Princess Ileana (mentioned earlier), who started a convent in Pennsylvania after divorcing her husband, an Austrian archduke, and Princess Andrew of Greece, who had been born Princess Alice of Battenberg. Princess Andrew nursed during both World Wars. By WWII, all four of her daughters had married German princes and she was working for the Red Cross in Greece. When a helpful German general asked her if he could do anything for her, she told him “You can get your troops out of my country.” He perhaps didn’t know that her only son, Prince Philip, was fighting on the other side, in the British navy. (Philip is now the husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.)

One of the most dedicated of royal nurses, Eleonore of Reuss-Kostritz, made a career of nursing. A minor German princess, her first claim to fame was as a nurse in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War. Under fire several times, she was even decorated for service. She continued nursing after marrying the Tsar of Bulgaria when she was 48, taking over the hospital his mother had started as well as step-mothering his four children. The Tsar had a poor reputation internationally, but his wife, who had earned the unofficial title “The Royal Nurse,” was hailed as a selfless heroine. “My mission in life,” she said, “is to utilize my rank and wealth for the benefit of the less fortunate.”

It was a sentiment undoubtedly felt by many princesses throughout history, but the princesses of the era stretching from the Crimean War in the 1850s to World War II in the 1940s, put the concept of noblesse oblige to work amidst the most difficult of circumstances.

Like Queen Marie, each of them might have written, “I got accustomed to face every horror, to front every epidemic, to hear each cry of distress, to look into the face of Death without shuddering, and bravely to contemplate the most ghastly sights.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to try to comment again! Talk about girl power! These women were amazing and gave a new definition to their worth and power during a time when women weren't seen as they would today as pioneers and trailblazers. Reading about the queens who were just doing their parts to make the world around them a little brighter makes me think of wonderful women I've read about recently. Our own first lady, Michelle Obama, and the illustrious Maya Angelou always come to mind first for me. Being involved and touching the lives of others seems to come so naturally for them. Even Tyra Banks' philanthropy has done some good for our culture, even though I don't think inspecting poop counts! Look at our activist celebrities. Angelina! Madonna! It's great to live in our time, and it's even greater to read about queens who may have inspired some of our women worth mentioning.

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