Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(18) The Duchess of Sutherland

Millicent, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, within days of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, went to France with the intention of joining the French Red Cross. However, there were strict rules stopping foreigners working as nurses in French hospitals. Undeterred, she went to see the French Minister of War, who "broke every regulation in my favour", she said, "and gave me a permit and expressed devoted gratitude for my services".

She joined a group of French nurses traveling to Belgium. There, the Belgian Red Cross suggested to her "how splendid it would be, if groups of English nurses could be formed into ambulance units and sent to the provinces of Belgium". Millicent promptly resigned from the French Red Cross and joined the Belgium Red Cross. She immediately sent a wire to England requesting a surgeon and eight nurses, they joined her a few days later. The unit was to be known as the ‘Millicent Sutherland Ambulance’, and she would be their commandant.

Millicent was a women who would not take 'No' for an answer and therefore usually got her own way. This sepia coloured printed-photographic card was possibly used to raise funds for her ambulance unit.  According to the faint caption on the bottom of the card, the picture thereon depicts "MILLICENT DUCHESS OF SUTHERLAND AT THE FRONT" with some of her nurses. (Millicent is on the extreme left.)

The Millicent Sutherland Ambulance travelled to the border town of Namur and set up its hospital in a local convent and waited for action to begin. At the top of the postcard  shown above, is the title "DUCHESS AS RED CROSS NURSE". She let it be known that henceforth she was to be addressed as ‘Sister Millicent’.

The unit did not have to wait long before it was involved in the war. On 22nd August the town was shelled, and within 20 minutes 45 wounded people had arrived at the makeshift hospital, including two elderly Belgian army officers - who although not wounded - threw down their weapons and asked for Red Cross armbands, "before the German soldiers arrived". Sister Millicent threatened them with a loaded revolver and "in a few minutes...they regained self-control and went out into the streets" - without the armbands

Soon Namur was occupied by the Germans. A "look of terror" on the faces of many of the townspeople "who feared for their safety", and the seizing of their belongings did not alarm Sister Millicent. She immediately marched off to German Headquarters and handed in her calling-card for the commandant, General Von Bulow. He agreed to see her - although later, he probably wished he had not. She demanded, and got from him, a written order stating that the stores belonging to the nuns, whose convent she had turned into a hospital - would not be requisitioned.  The following day she was back at HQ, complaining about the treatment she had seen being handed out to British PoW's by German soldiers. 

Day after day, the Duchess of Sutherland went back to the German High Command, demanding this, and complaining about that, and quoting various clauses from the Geneva Convention. The officers remained courteous and civil because "the Germans like well-known people" she said. But others thought differently and said that "their liking for well-known people was rapidly waning in the formidable presence of this blue-blooded tormentor" A German officer said getting rid of her "was more taxing...than a military operation". She heard that some English ladies had gone to Mons with an ambulance full of nurses, and she too, wanted to go to Mons. Would the German commandant "supply a motor car and driver to take her?". Yes, he certainly would.

After more adventures the Duchess and her unit ended up at The Hague, and on 18th September 1914, set sail for England. Back home, Millicent threw herself into raising funds and making preparations to go back. But it was not to be, the days of independent action were over and if she wanted to go to France she had to work within the confines of the British Red Cross. In 1915, it set up ‘The Duchess of Sutherland’s Red Cross Hospital' outside Calais. It was superbly efficient and was in operation until the end of the war. Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, was its commandant.



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