Memories Of The Russian Court

1914 - The Great War

1914, that year of fate for all the world, but more than all for my poor country, began its course in Russia, as elsewhere, in apparent peace and tranquillity. With us, as with other civilized people, the tragedy of Sarajevo came as a thrill of horror and surmise. I do not know exactly what we expected to follow that desperate act committed in a distant province of Austria, but certainly not the cataclysm of a World War and the ruin of three of the proudest empires of earth. Very shortly after the assassination of the Austrian heir and his wife the Emperor had gone to Kronstadt, headquarters of the Baltic fleet, to meet French and British squadrons then on cruise in Russian waters. From Kronstadt he proceeded to Krasnoe, near St. Petersburg, the great summer central review center of the old Russian Army where the usual military maneuvers were in progress. Returning to Peterhof, the Emperor ordered a hasty departure to Finland because, he said, the political horizon was darkening and he needed a few days of rest and distraction. We sailed on July 6 (Russian Calendar) and had a quiet cruise, the last one we were ever destined to enjoy. Not that we intended it to be our last, for returning to Peterhof, from whence the Emperor hurried again to the reviews, we left nearly all our luggage on the yacht. The Empress, however, in one of her fits of melancholy, told me that she felt that we would never again be together on the Standart.

The political skies were indeed darkening. The Serbian murders and the unaccountably arrogant attitude of Austria grew in importance every succeeding day, and for many hours every day the Emperor was closeted in his study with Grand Duke Nicholas, Foreign Minister Sazonov and other Ministers, all of whom urged on the Emperor the imperative duty of standing by Serbia. During the short intervals of the day when we saw the Emperor he seemed half dazed by the momentous decision he was called upon to make. A few days before mobilization I went to lunch at Krasnoe with a friend whose husband was on the Russian General Staff. In the middle of luncheon this officer, Count Nosstiz, burst into the room exclaiming: "Do you know what the Emperor has done? Can yon guess what they have made him do? He has promoted the young men of the Military Academy to be officers, and he has sent the regiments back to their casernes to await orders. All the military attaches are telegraphing their Governments to ask what it means. What can it mean except war?"

From my friend's house I went almost at once back to Peterhof and informed the Empress what I had heard. Her amazement was unbounded, and over and over she repeated that she did not understand, that she could not imagine under what influence the Emperor had acted. He was still at the maneuvers, and although I remained late with the Empress I did not see him that night. The days that followed were full of suspense and anxiety. I spent most of my time playing tennis-very badly - with the girls, but from my occasional contacts with the Empress I knew that she was arguing and pleading against the war which apparently the Emperor felt to be inevitable. In one short talk I had with him on the subject he seemed to find a certain comfort in the thought that war always strengthened national feeling, and in his belief Russia would emerge from a truly righteous war stronger and better than ever. At this time a telegram arrived from Rasputin in Siberia, which plainly irritated the Emperor. Rasputin strongly opposed the war, and predicted that it would result in the destruction of the Empire. But the Emperor refused to believe it and resented what was really an almost unprecedented interference in affairs of state on the part of Rasputin.

I think I have spoken of the Emperor's aversion to the telephone. Up to this time none of his studies were ever fitted with telephones, but now he had wires and instruments installed and spent a great deal of time in conversations with Ministers and members of the military staff. Then came the day of mobilization, the same kind of a day of wild excitement, waving street crowds, weeping women and children, heartrending scenes of parting, that all the warring countries saw and ever will remember. After watching hours of these dreadful scenes in the streets of Peterhof I went to my evening duties with the Empress only to find that she had remained in absolute ignorance of what had been taking place. Mobilization! It was not true, she exclaimed. Certainly armies were moving, but only on the Austrian frontiers. She hurried from the room and I heard her enter the Emperor's study. For half an hour the sound of their excited voices reached my ears. Returning, the Empress dropped on her couch as one overcome by desperate tidings. "War!" She murmured breathlessly. "And I knew nothing of it. This is the end of everything." I could say nothing. I understood as little as she the incomprehensible silence of the Emperor at such an hour, and as always, whatever hurt her hurt me. We sat in silence until eleven when, as usual, the Emperor came in to tea, but he was distraught and gloomy and the tea hour also passed in almost complete silence.

The whole world has read the telegrams sent to Nicholas II by Kaiser Wilhelm II in those beginning days of the war. Their purport seemed to be sincere and intimate, begging his old friend and relative to stop mobilization, offering to meet the Emperor for a conference which yet might keep the peace. Historians of the future will have to decide whether those tenders were made in good faith or whether they were part of the sinister diplomacy of that wicked war. Nicholas II did not believe in their good faith, for he replied that he had no right to stop mobilization in Russia when German mobilization was already a matter of fact and that at any hour his frontiers might be crossed by German troops. After this interval the Emperor seemed to be in better spirits. War had come indeed, but even war was better than the threat and the uncertainty of the preceding weeks. The extreme depression of the Empress, however, continued unrelieved. Up to the last moment she hoped against hope, and when the German formal declaration of war was announced she gave way to a perfect passion of weeping, repeating to me through her tears: "This is the end of everything." The state visit of their Majesties to Petersburg soon after the declara. tion really seemed to justify the Emperor's belief that the war would arouse the national spirit, so long latent, in the Russian people. Never again do I expect to behold such a sight as the streets of Petersburg presented on that day. To say that the streets were crowded, thronged, massed, does not half express it. I do not believe that one single able-bodied person in the whole city remained at home during the hours spent in the capital by the Sovereigns. The streets were almost literally impassable, and the Imperial motor cars, moving at snail's pace from quay to palace through that frenzied sea of people, cheering, singing the national hymn, calling down blessings on the Emperor, was something that will live forever in the memories of all who witnessed it. The Imperial cortege was able, thanks to the police, to reach the Winter Palace at last, but many of the suite were halted by the crowds at the entrance to the great square in front of the palace and had to enter at a side door opening from the small garden to the west.

Inside the palace the crowd was relatively as great as that on the outside. Apparently every man and woman who had the right to appear at Court were massed in the corridors, the staircases, and the state apartments. Slowly their Majesties made their way to the great Salle de Nicholas, the largest hall in the palace, and there for several hours they stood receiving the most extraordinary tokens of homage from thousands of officials, ministers, and members of the noblesse, both men and women. Te Deums were sung, cheers and acclamations arose, and as the Emperor and Empress moved slowly through the crowds men and women threw themselves on their knees, kissing the hands of their Sovereigns with tears and fervent expressions of loyalty. Standing with others of the suite in the Halle de Concert, I watched this remarkable scene, and I listened to the historic speech of the Emperor which ended with the assurance that never would there be an end to Russian military effort until the last German was expelled from the beloved soil. From the Nicholas Hall the Sovereigns passed to a balcony overlooking the great square. There with the Tsarevich at their side they faced the wildly exulting people who with one accord dropped to their knees with mute gestures of love and obedience. Then as countless flags waved and dipped there arose from the lips and hearts of that vast assembly the moving strains of our great hymn: "God Save the Tsar."

Thus in a passion of renewed love and patriotism began in Russia the war of 1914. That same day the family returned to Peterhof, the Emperor almost immediately leaving for the casernes to bid farewell to regiments leaving for the front. As for the Empress she became overnight a changed being. Every bodily ill and weakness forgotten, she began at once an ex. tensive plan for a system of hospitals and sanitary trains for the dreadful roll of wounded which she knew must begin with the first battle. Her projected chain of hospitals and sanitary centers reached from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Kharkov and Odessa in the extreme south of Russia. The center of her personal activity was fixed in a large group of evacuation hospitals in and around Tsarskoe Selo, and there, after bidding farewell to my only brother, who immediately left for the southern front, I joined the Empress. Already her plans were so far matured that ten sani. tary trains, bearing her name and the children's, were in active service, and something like eighty-five hospitals were open, or preparing to open, in Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, Pavlovsk, Louga, Sablino, and neighboring towns. The Empress, her two older daughters, and myself immediately enrolled under a competent woman surgeon, Dr. Gedroiz, as student nurses, spending two hours of every afternoon under theoretical instruction, and the entire hours of the morning in ward work in the hospitals. For the benefit of those who imagine that the work of a royal nurse is more or less in the nature of play I will describe the average routine of one of those mornings in which I was privileged to assist the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, the two last named girls of nineteen and seventeen. Please remember that we were then only nurses in training. Arriving at the hospital shortly after nine in the morning we went directly to the receiving wards where the men were brought in after having first-aid treatment in the trenches and field hospitals. They had traveled far and were usually disgustingly dirty as well as bloodstained and suffering. Our hands scrubbed in antiseptic solutions we began the work of washing, cleaning, and bandaging maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes, all the indescribable mutilations of what is called civilized warfare. These we did under the orders and the direction of trained nurses who had the skill to do the things our lack of experience prevented us from doing. As we became accustomed to the work, and as both the Empress and Tatiana had extraordinary ability as nurses , we were given more important work. I speak of the Empress and Tatiana especially because Olga within two months was almost too exhausted and too unnerved to continue, and my abilities proved to be more in the executive and organizing than in the nursing end of hospital work. I have seen the Empress of Russia in the operating room of a hospital holding ether cones, handling sterilized instruments, assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeons amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and even vermin-infected dressings, enduring all the sights and smells and agonies of that most dreadful of all places, a military hospital in the midst of war. She did her work with the humility and the gentle tirelessness of one dedicated by God to a life of ministration. Tatiana was almost as skillful and quite as devoted as her mother, and complained only that on account of her youth she was spared some of the more trying cases. The Empress was spared nothing, nor did she wish to be. I think I never saw her happier than on the day, at the end of our two months' intensive training, she marched at the head of the procession of nurses to receive the red cross and the diploma of a certificated war nurse.

From that time on bur days were literally devoted to toil. We rose at seven in the morning and very often it was an hour or two after midnight before we sought our beds. The Empress, after a morning in the operating room of one hospital, snatched a hasty luncheon and spent the rest of the day in a round of inspection of other hospitals. Every morning early I met her in the little Church of Our Lady of Znamenie, where we went for prayers, driving afterwards to the hospitals. On the days when the sanitary trains arrived with their ghastly loads of wounded we often worked from nine until three without stopping for food or rest. The Empress literally shirked nothing. Sometimes when an unfortunate soldier was told by the surgeons that he must suffer an amputation or undergo an operation which might be fatal, he turned in his bed calling out her name in anguished appeal. "Tsaritsa! Stand near me. Hold my hand that I may have courage." Were the man an officer or a simple peasant boy she always answered the appeal. With her arm under his head she would speak words of comfort and encouragement, praying with him while preparations for the operation were in progress, her own hands assisting in the merciful work of anesthesia. The men idolized her, watched for her coming, reached out bandaged hands to touch her as she passed, smiling happily as she bent over their pillows. Even the dying smiled as she knelt beside their beds murmuring last words of prayer and consolation.

In the last days of November, 1914, the Empress left Tsarskoe Selo for an informal inspection of hospitals within the radius of her especially chosen district. Dressed in the gray uniform of a nursing sister, accompanied by her older daughters, myself, and a small suite, she went to towns surrounding Tsarskoe Selo and southward as far as Pskov, staff headquarters, where the younger Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna was a hospital nurse. From there she proceeded to Vilna, Kovno, and Grodno, in which city she met the Emperor and with him went on to Dvinsk. The enthusiasm and affection with which the Empress was met in all these places and in stations along the route beggars description. A hundred incidents of the journey crowd my memory, each one worth the telling had I space to include them in this narrative. I remember, for example, the remarkable scene in the big fortress of Kovno, where acres of hospital beds were assembled and where the tall figure of the Empress, moving through those interminable aisles, was greeted like the visit of an angel. I never recall that journey without remembering the hospital at Grodno,where a gallant young officer lay dying of his wounds. Hearing that the Empress was on her way to the hospital, he rallied unexpectedly and declared to his nurses that he was determined to live until she came. Sheer will power kept life in the man's body until the Empress arrived, and when, at the door of the hospital, she was told of his dying wish to see her she hurried first to his bedside, kneeling beside it and receiving his last smile, his last gasping words of greeting and farewell.

After one very fatiguing day our train passed a sanitary train of the Union of Zemstvos moving south. The Empress, who should have been resting in bed at the time, ordered her train stopped that she might visit, to the surprise and delight of the doctors, this splendidly equipped rolling hospital. Another surprise visit was to the estate of Prince Tichkevich, whose family supported on their own lands a very efficient hospital unit. It was impossible to avoid noticing how in the towns visited by the Empress, dressed as a simple sister of mercy, the love of the people was most manifest. In Grodno, Dvinsk, and other cities where she appeared with the Emperor there was plenty of enthusiasm, but on those occasions etiquette obliged her to lay aside her uniform and to dress as the wife of the Emperor. Much better the people loved her when she went among them in her nurse's dress, their devoted friend and sister. Etiquette forgotten, they crowded around her, talked to her freely, claimed her as their own.

Soon after returning from this visit of inspection the Empress accompanied by Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, General Racine, Commander of the Palace Guards, a maid of honor and myself, set off on a journey to Moscow, where to my extreme sorrow and dismay I perceived for the first time unmistakable evidences of a spreading intrigue against the Imperial Family. At the station in Moscow the Empress was met by her sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the latter's intimate friend and the executive of her convent, Mme. Gardieve. Welcome from the people there was none, as General Djounkovsky, Governor of Moscow, had announced, without any authority what. soever, that the Empress was in the city incognito and did not wish to meet anyone. In consequence of this order we drove to the Kremlin through almost empty streets. Nevertheless the Empress began at once the inspection of hospitals, accompanied by General Racine and her maid of honor, Baroness Buxhoeveden, daughter of the Russian Ambassador in Denmark. During our stay in Moscow I was not as constantly with the Empress as usual, our rooms in the Kremlin being far apart. However, General Odoevsky, the fine old Governor of the Kremlin, installed a telephone between our rooms, and on her free evenings the Empress often summoned me to sit with her in her dressing room, hung with light blue draperies and looking out over the river and the ancient roofs of Moscow. I lunched and dined with others of the suite in an old part of the immense palace known as the. Granovita Palata, and here occurred one night a disagreeable scene in which General Racine, in the presence of the whole company, administered a stinging rebuke to General Djounkovsky, Governor of Moscow, for his responsibility for the cold welcome accorded her Majesty. The Governor turned very pale but made no answer to the accusation of General Racine. Already my mind was in a tumult of trouble, more and more conscious of the atmosphere of intrigue, plots, and conspiracies, the end of which I could not see. In the coldness of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, in my childhood such a friend to me and to my family, her chilly refusal to listen to her sister's denial of preposterous tales of of the political influence exerted by Rasputin, by the general animosity towards myself, I began dimly to realize that there was a plot to strike at her Majesty through Rasputin and myself. There was absolutely nothing I could do, and I had to watch with tearless grief the breach between the sisters grow wider and deeper until their association was robbed of most of its old intimacy. I knew well enough, or I was con. convinced that I knew, that the dismissed maid of honor, Mlle. Tutcheva, was at the bottom of the whole affair, her family being among the most prominent in Moscow. But I could say nothing, do nothing.

With great relief we saw our train leave Moscow for a round of visits in surrounding territory, and here again the enthusiasm with which the people welcomed the Empress was unbounded. In the town of Tula, for example, and a little farther on in Orel, the people were so tumultuous in their greeting, they crowded so closely around their adored Empress, that our party could scarcely make our way to church and hospital. Once, following the Empress out of a church, carrying in my hands an ikon which had been presented to her, I was fairly overthrown by the crowding multitude and fell halfway down the high flight of steps before friendly hands could get me to my feet. I did not mind this, being only too rejoiced at evidences of love and devotion which the simple people of Russia felt for their Empress. In one town where there were no modern carriages she was dragged along in an old coach of state such as a medieval bishop might have used, the coach being quite covered with flowers and branches, in the town of Kharkov hundreds of students met the train bearing aloft portraits of her Majesty. In the small town of Bielgorod, where the Empress wished to stop in order to visit a very sacred monastery, I shall never forget the joy with which the sleepy ischvostiks hurried through the darkness of the night to drive us the three or four versts from the railway to the monastery. Nor can I forget the arrival at the monastery, the sudden flare of lights as the monks hastened out to meet and greet their Sovereign Empress. These were the people, the plain people of Russia, and the difference between them and the plotting officials we had left behind in Moscow was a sad and a terrible contrast.

On December 6 (Russian Calendar), the birthday of the Emperor, we met his train at Voronezh, where our parties joined in visits to Tambov, Riazan, and other towns where the people gave their Majesties wonderful greetings. In Tambov the Emperor and Empress visited and had tea with a charming woman of advanced age, Mme. Alexandra Narishkina, friend of Alexander III and of many distinguished men of her time, Mme. Narishkina, horrible to relate, was afterwards murdered by the Bolsheviki, neither her liberal mind nor her long services to her country, and especially to her humble friends in Tambov, sparing her from the blood lust of the destroyers of Russia.

The journey of their Majesties terminated at Moscow, where the younger children of the family awaited them. I can still see the slim, erect figure of Alexei standing at salute on the station platform, and the rosy, eager faces of Marie and Anastasia welcoming their parents after their long separation. The united family drove to the Kremlin, this time not quite so inhospitably received. In the days following the Moscow hospitals and military organizations were visited in turn, and we included in these visits out of town activities of the Moscow Zemstvo (county council), canteens, etc. In one of these centers our host was Prince Lvov, afterwards active in demanding the abdication of the Tsar, and I remember with what deference he received their Majesties, and the especial attention he paid to the Tsarevich, whose autograph he begged for the visitors' book. Before we left Moscow the Empress paid two visits, one to the old Countess Apraxina, sister of the former first lady in waiting, Princess Galatzina and, with the Emperor, to the Metropolitan Makari, a good man, but mercilessly persecuted. during the Revolution.

There was one small but significant incident which happened after our return to Tsarskoe Selo, near the end of the year 1914 - It failed of its intended effect, but had it not failed it might have had a far-reaching influence on world events at that time. Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder exactly what lay back of the plot, and who was responsible for its inception. One evening late in the year I received a visit from two war nurses lately released from a German prison where they had been taken with a portion of a captured Russian regiment. In much perturbation of spirit these nurses told me of a third nurse who had been captured and imprisoned with them. This woman they had come to distrust as she had been accorded many special favors by the Germans. She had been given good food and even champagne, and when the nurses were released she alone was conveyed to the frontier in a motor car, the others going on foot. While in prison this woman had boasted that she expected to be received by the Emperor, to whom she proposed to present the flag of the captured regiment. The other nurses declared that in their opinion his Majesty should be warned of the woman's dubious character.

Hardly knowing what to think of such an extraordinary story, I thought it my duty to lay the matter before General Voyeikov, Chief Commander of the Palace Guards, and when I learned from him that the Emperor had consented to receive the nurse I begged that the woman be investigated before being allowed to enter the palace. The Emperor showed some vexation, but he consented. When General Voyeikov examined the woman she made a display of great frankness, handing him a revolver which she said it had been necessary for her to carry at the front. General Voyeikov, thinking it strange that the weapon had not been taken away from her by the Germans, immediately ordered a search of her effects. In the handbag which she would certainly have carried with her to the palace were found two more loaded revolvers. The woman was, of course, arrested, and although I cannot explain why, her arrest caused great indignation among certain members of the aristocracy who previously had received her at their homes. The whole onus of her arrest was placed on me, although the Emperor declared his belief that she was a German spy sent to assassinate him. That she was a spy I have never doubted, but in my own mind I have never even tried to guess from whence she came.

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Tsar Nicholas II

Tsar Nicholas II

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