01 November 2009
The Princesses & The Soldiers
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.”
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.”