The outbreak of the world war came as a terrible blow to the Empress. She seemed to have a presentiment of coming events; for she was most depressed when they left the Standart, on which she had gone with the Emperor to recover from the fatigues of the Presidential visit, and said to some of those with her that she knew it would be the last cruise they would all take together. She had a horror of war. The memories of the RussoJapanese War, and of the troubles that had followed, were yet too fresh in her mind. The Emperor and she hoped to the last that some agreement might be reached. Though the Emperor did not distress her by giving her all the details of the Governmental discussions, she felt very anxious, but she still did not realise how tense the situation had become.
Right: Nicholas II by Serov, 1902. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
On the first of August the Empress and her daughters waited a long time for the Emperor to come down to dinner. As a rule he was very punctual, and the Empress felt that something serious must have happened. He was receiving the Minister for Foreign Affairs, M. Sazonov, and the audience seemed to last inordinately long. When the Emperor came, it was with the news that Germany had declared war. At first the Empress could not grasp it. War! Her nightmare! She knew the completeness of German organization; she knew that Russia was not prepared for war at that moment; and that England had not yet joined Russia and France. She was in despair, but, then and always, she had the conviction that Russia would win in the end.
The moment of the declaration of war made her set up a wall in her heart between Germany and Russia. She was the Empress of Russia-Russian always in heart and soul. "Twenty years have I spent in Russia, half my life, and the happiest, fullest part of it. It is the country of my husband and son. I have lived the life of a happy wife and mother in Russia. All my heart is bound to this country I love," she once said to me during the war. People in Germany do not understand how the Empress came to adopt the Russian standpoint so completely, and become so thoroughly Russian in her views. The reason for it was her intense, passionate love for the Emperor. She considered herself as wholly belonging to him. His country was her country, as also his religion had completely become hers. She always gave herself up entirely to those she loved, and identified herself with them.
The thought of her brother and of his feelings at having to take part in a war where he would be in the other camp gave her acute pain, but she brought her will-power to beat to face the inevitable. She regarded the inexplicable telegram sent by the Emperor William, after his ambassador, Count Pourtales, had already handed the declaration of war to the Russian Foreign Minister, as an attempt to shift the responsibility for the outbreak of war on to the Emperor Nicholas, and was very indignant. The mystery of that telegram has never been explained. She expressed her opinion on the matter to the Tsarevich's Swiss tutor, M. Pierre Gilliard, who quotes the conversation fully in his book, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court. According to her wont, the Empress did not remain content with lamentations. At ten o'clock at night on the day of the declaration of war, I came back from a drive, not knowing what had happened. My maid told me that a woman's voice from the Imperial villa had rung me up three times during the last hour, that it was either one of the Grand Duchesses or the Empress herself. I immediately rang up "Alexandria," the Emperor's villa, and found the Empress already at the telephone. In a voice broken by suppressed sobs, she told me of the event. "War is declared," she said. " Good Heavens, so Austria has done it! "I exclaimed. "No, no," she said, "Germany. It is ghastly, terrible-but God will help and will save Russia . . . But we must work . . . go at once to Mme. E. and speak to her about opening the workshop at the Hermitage. Then talk to my secretary and ring me up - no matter how late, or come round." She entered into details, getting calmer as she spoke, giving minute instructions. I spoke to the Empress again later. She was perfectly calm, having got over her momentary weakness.
Above: The proclamation of WWI in Palace Square.The next day, August 2nd, the Emperor and Empress with their daughters - the little Tsarevich was ill - went to St. Petersburg to attend a solemn Te Deum at the Winter Palace. This was an old custom that had been followed at the outbreak of the Japanese War. Crowds of people thronged the Winter Palace; they were in a very frenzy of patriotism. Ladies clung to the Emperor, kissing his hands. No one alive had seen such enthusiasm, which was reminiscent of 1812. At the outbreak of the Japanese War there had been some street demonstrations of students in the early days, but now the whole country was roused. The climax was reached when the Emperor, addressing the officers present, repeated Alexander I's promise of 1812 - not to conclude peace while a single enemy still remained on Russian soil. Sir George Buchanan, in his book, My Mission to Russia, quotes the words: "I solemnly swear not to make peace, as long as there is a single enemy on Russia's soil." Multitudes cheered in the streets, and when the Emperor and Empress appeared at the Palace windows, the whole crowd that thronged the huge square spontaneously knelt down and sang the National Anthem.
The Duma, in a memorable sitting, expressed its loyal feelings in words of ardent patriotism, so that the Emperor felt that the whole country was behind him.
On board the yacht that took them to Peterhof, the Emperor and Empress spoke optimistically to their suite of the turn events were taking and of their admiration for the spirit of the people., Telegrams were brought in just then, describing the plucky conduct of the young Grand Duchess of Luxemburg, and the Empress was full of admiration for her.
When the mobilization was announced in the St. Petersburg military district, the Guards were the first to go. The Empress went to a Te Deum before her Lancer regiment left for the front, and said goodbye in person to all the officers and men. All through the war she followed the actions of this regiment, and after every battle in which the Lancers took part she helped all the families to get news.
The Dowager-Empress was in England on a visit to Queen Alexandra, when war became imminent. She tried to cross Germany on her way from London to St. Petersburg, but war was declared while she was on her way, and she was not allowed to go farther than Berlin, being directed from there to Copenhagen. She had to travel all the roundabout way over Sweden and Haparanda in the extreme North. On her way through Germany she was treated with great hostility and greeted with insults by the German crowd. Alexandra Feodorovna, in a conversation she had later with M. Gilliard, said very strongly what she felt at her mother-in-law's treatment. When the Empress Marie Feodorovna returned to Peterhof after her long journey, she was met with unwonted ceremony by the Emperor and Empress as an expression of their affectionate and dutiful regard for her. The Empress also spoke to M. Gilliard of her own little Darmstadt, which, as she had often said to me, she always in her mind completely separated from the rest of Germany :
"What ever has happened to the Germany of my childhood? I have such happy and poetic memories of my early years at Darmstadt and the good friends I had there. But on my later visits, Germany seemed to me a changed country - a country I did not know and had never known. . . . I had no community of thought or feeling with anyone, except the old friends of days gone by. Prussia has meant Germany's ruin. The German people have been deceived. Feelings of hatred and revenge, which are quite foreign to their nature, have been instilled into them. It will be a terrible, monstrous struggle; humanity is about to pass through ghastly sufferings."
The Imperial Family had been prevented by the Tsarevich's health from leaving for Moscow, where, according to old custom, they had "to announce the war to the inhabitants of the ancient capital." The child had hurt his leg and was again laid up. By ill-luck these accidents always happened before some public function, at which, if he appeared at all, he had to be carried in the arms of a stalwart Cossack. The Empress was in despair, as she feared that the idea would get about that the Tsarevich was permanently lame. However, it was decided that the ceremony could not be delayed for his recovery, as his leg was stiff and would take some time to get right.
The sovereigns arrived at Moscow on August 17th and found a great welcome awaiting them. If any place could have shown more enthusiasm than did St. Petersburg it was Moscow. The crowds in the streets, the nobility, the Zemstvos - all showed the greatest patriotic excitement. The Emperor's informal drive through the city was an occasion for great demonstrations of loyalty, such as had only been seen at the State entrance at the Coronation. At the solemn service in the Cathedral of the Assumption the Allied Ambassadors, Sir George Buchanan and M. Paléologue, were present, and when the Imperial procession returned from the cathedral to the Kremlin in a scene of delirious enthusiasm, the Emperor asked the Ambassadors to walk closer to him, saying, "These acclamations are addressed to you as well as to me."
Moscow was in a frenzy of activity. Things were being hastily organized. The Emperor and Empress went everywhere, and all day long saw various people in connection with war work. The Empress sat till late in her small dressing-room, the room she generally used, discussing war charities with the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna (Serge), who had at once begun to take an active part in everything as well as doing her usual work at the "Obitel." The Imperial party inspected the Zemstvo relief organizations, those of the nobility, and of the merchants,, and the hospitals that had just been opened and many others. The Empress never thought of her health. She braced- herself to do more than ordinary human strength could manage. She seemed indefatigable, and her suite could scarcely keep up with her. She wrote to Princess Louis of Battenberg, describing her work in her haste in telegraphic style:
Awfully busy. Have seen splendid sklad of merchants nobility, Zemstvos and mine. Blessed two hundred sisters, going to the war. Saw my train well arranged. Fastening images on to strings, whenever free. Returning over St. Serge and there part from Ella. . . . Have no news from many people who could not return or be found and return in an awful plight, bruised, ill-treated. Such horrors they have gone through, it's inconceivable, simply twentieth-century culture. Saw a few wounded, happily nothing serious. Shall get my hospitals in order at Tsarskoe and then set Olga and Tatiana to work. Having bad health makes all more difficult and stops me from doing many things one would have wished to. Glad for dear Ella's sake, that we have been here to cheer her up.... She has any amount to do, is energetic, here there and everywhere. All help as they only can. It is right one prints no news [from the front], but it is anguishing (August 21st, 1914).
At one time there was a suggestion that the Imperial Family should transfer their residence to Moscow for the time of the war, and should live at the Neskoutchnoe Palace, a little way out of town. It was even inspected for the purpose by officials of the Court, but the idea came to nothing. The visit to St. Serge, one of the oldest sanctuaries in Russia, took place on August 21st, and the Abbot blessed and gave to the Emperor an antique ikon that had always accompanied the Russian Tsars in their war campaigns. At Tsarskoe Selo the Empress continued to work with the same feverish energy. She thought out a whole programme of work based on her experiences of the last war, but greatly changed and improved. She desired to adapt as many palaces as possible for hospital work, feeling that all available space was likely to be needed. The Petrovsky Palace at Moscow had already been turned into a hospital, the "Poteshny " was soon to, follow. The Nicholas Palace, the former home of the Grand Duchess Serge, was a sklad. At Tsarskoe Selo, the Catherine Palace, where all the fetes used to be given, was to be a hospital for officers. In the existing Court hospital the Empress and her daughters began their practical training. Princess Hedroits, a well known surgeon, was at the head of the hospital. The Empress thought her daughters too young to nurse, and agreed to their request only on the understanding that they and she should go through a course of training. All three went through the usual probationers course and could be seen every morning working at the hospital. Her Majesty was deft and very quick-handed, and brought to the work, what was far more precious to the patient, her understanding of suffering and her capacity for comfort. Neither mother nor daughters ever shirked the most fatiguing and difficult task. The Grand Duchess Tatiana showed special aptitude for the work. It had a scientific interest for her, apart from its human side.
Both young girls were very enthusiastic, and when they had passed their examinations insisted on going on with their hospital duties. The Empress did the same. It gave her moral satisfaction to feel that She was really working for the wounded. and her work made her forget the anxieties and sorrows that pressed on here writing at this time, she says:
"To some it may seem unnecessary my doing this, but I can much better then look after my hospital here, and help is much needed, and every hand is useful, and it does one good, and draws one's thought away from much sorrow."
Her soothing influence helped many a wounded man through the agonizing moments before an operation, and many a dying soldier passed away happier for her presence. The humblest in her hospital, when he called for the Tsaritsa, would see her at his side. This was a great physical and still greater mental strain. Sometimes she had only just come home when a message from her hospital would tell her that a specially bad case called for her. She would seize the first free moment to rush back to the hospital in her car. She visited the other hospitals at Tsarskoe Selo constantly, and those in St. Petersburg about once a week in that year. Her letters to Princess Louis are almost all full of her hospital work:
With my big girls I went to Pskov one day, privately, as sisters, to see Marie. Then we went out to meet Nicky at Grodno, visited hospitals also there and at Dvinsk together. When he goes off again, shall go to more towns. It's shy work, but the sisters' dresses help one. We wear it on such inspection on journeys without Nicky. We passed our exams and received the Red Cross on our aprons and got the certificates of sisters of the war time. It was an emotion putting them on, and appearing with the other sisters - 40 - who had finished their course. We had a Moleben [Te Deum] in my Red Cross Church. We are continuing lectures about illnesses, medicaments, anatomy, etc., to have a fuller course and we all enjoy it. Our mornings at the hospital continue, and weekly a train arrives with fresh wounded. Three thousand places at Tsarskoe and Pavlovsk. In the Big palace we have officers and I go there every afternoon to see one, who is specially suffering. He is contusioned, and in the last week always unconscious, recognizing nobody. When I come, he regularly recognizes me, and then remains with a clear head all the night. He thinks he sleeps all day, suffers hideously - such cramps in the head and whole body-nerves too shattered, poor soul. He is touching with me, I remind him of his mother's kindness and as soon as I come, takes me at first for her (she is dead). When I call him and talk, he stares, then recognizes me, clasps my hands to his breast, says he now feels warm and happy. His children are in Siberia and his wife (that has
not made him happy) too. (November 25th, 1914.)
Such sad cases always awakened the Empress's sympathy. There were several such unknown, solitary men, from obscure line regiments, who died in her hospital whose last hours were comforted by the Empress. She lost her shyness in her nurses' dress. She felt she was one of many, and to all in the hospital she showed herself in her true light and as her home circle knew her.
Many princesses wore nurses' dress during the war, and in many cases the feeling that dictated this was admired and understood. To the general public in Russia, however, and particularly to the uneducated mind, this was not the case. The Empress was advised not to wear nurses' dress when she went about the country during the war. She was unknown in the towns, and the people did not recognize her when she came without the usual apparel, and so the effect on the public of the Imperial visit was lost.
At the close of the year the Empress wrote to her old governess :
January 8th, 1915.
DARLING MADGIE, - I cannot tell you how deeply touched I was that you sent Ella and me those charming books and we thank you heartily, as also for your dear letter. We did not send you any present, not being sure with these abominable times whether a parcel would ever reach you. During your Xmas we were at Moscow-he [the Emperor] was away a month from here and the children and I two weeks. I visited hospitals in 8 towns with my big girls and in Moscow he joined us from the Caucasus and the 3 little ones from Tsarskoe.
The result has been that my heart has been so bad again and such weakness - I utterly overtired myself. Nothing is more tiring than visiting heaps of hospitals and speaking by the hour to the poor wounded. So I have not been able to work in the hospital now, which is a great grief to me, as I love the work and find consolation in nursing the sick and binding up their wounds however terrible they may be. And we assist at operations and I always gave the instruments.
We have many hospitals at Tsarskoe and now Xmas trees everywhere and the children go instead of us. He has also been in bed with a chill and cough-overtired, but now almost well again. The children are all right, thank God. Winter has been mild here in the North, but now severe cold has set in, but not much snow. Such a sad Xmas, one's thoughts are all at the war. Will send this off now and hope it will reach you safely.
Very tenderest blessings and kisses,
From your fondly loving
P.Q. No. III
Next chapter: The Empress's War Work
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