portrait-of-millicent-duchess-of-sutherland-1904-by-john-singer-sargentMillicent, Duchess of Sutherland, was born in Fife on 20 October 1867 and married Cromartie-Leveson Gower in 1884, when she was just seventeen. In 1892 she became the Duchess of Sutherland. She was a society beauty, a successful London hostess, whose portrait was painted in Stafford House by John Singer Sargent. She was  was an omnivorous reader, wrote fiction which included a book entitled ' Seven Love Stories,' published by Heineman in 1902  and her war memoir, 'Six weeks at the War,' published in 1915  by A C McClurg , 1915.

She was a serious activist for social reform and one of her projects was to form a technical school in Golspie, Scotland, but she will probably be best remembered for establishing, in 1896, the North Staffordshire Cripples' Aid Society, a charity with the aim of training a number of crippled boys in North Staffordshire and teaching them a trade, 'generally assisting them to obtain a living when, by reason of their misfortunes, they are disqualified from doing so through the usual channels.' In 1902 the Guild began to do practical silver smithing and was soon producing handicrafts of a very high standard in the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Her Involvement in philanthropic schemes at home was interrupted when war was declared on 4 August 1914. Millicent persuaded the French Minister of War to exempt her from those regulations forbidding foreigners from serving in French hospitals. She also enlisted the help of Winston Churchill in overcoming entrenched Royal Army Medical Corps opposition to her plans.

At the time British organisations, individuals and groups of friends gave lavishly of funds, stores and the services of trained nurses to the French, Belgian and Serbian Allies and, by 17 August 1914, Millicent had installed an ambulance with eight trained nurses and a surgeon, Mr Oswald Morgan of Guys' Hospital, in Namur. This became the No 9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Duchess of Sutherland's Ambulance) and it was established in the Convent of Les Soeurs de Notre Dame. On 22 August 1914 German forces attacked Namur and the hospital was inundated with wounded soldiers. In her book ‘Six Weeks at the War' which is in fact a diary, she gives a graphic account of her experiences on that day:

'45 soldiers were brought wounded mostly by shrapnel but a few were bullet wounds which inflict terrible gashes but if taken in time rarely prove mortal. The wounded were all Belgian - Flemish and Walloon or French, many were Reservists. Our young surgeon, Mr. Morgan, was perfectly calm and so were our nurses. What I thought would be for me an impossible task became perfectly natural: to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood, to soothe a soldier's groans, to raise a wounded man while he was receiving Extreme Unction, hemmed in by nurse and a priest, so near he seemed to death; these actions seemed suddenly to become an insistent duty, perfectly easy to carry out.'

She also found herself seeking the men's rosaries from the purses in which they carried them because they wanted to hold them in their hands. Their small hospital had to take all the wounded who were brought to them because there were already 700 in the military hospital and the smaller Red Cross ambulances were full. She is full of praise for the nuns and her staff:

‘What a blessing our ambulance was to Namur,no one until these awful things happen can conceive of the untold value of fully trained and disciplined British nurses. The nuns were of great use to us, for they helped in every possible tender way, and provided food for the wounded.'

The hospital was disestablished after the German Occupation of Belgium but it would be re-established in November 1914 at the Hotel Belle Vue at Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk, as an evacuation hospital with the capability of providing 70-100 beds for sick or wounded. No 9 Red Cross hospital became a Tent Unit at Bourbourg in July 1915 and was known as ‘The Camp in the Oatfield', immortalised in the vivid paintings of Victor Tardieu, a French soldier who had fought in the trenches. He painted canvasses ‘en plein air' depicting life in the tented camp at Bourbourg in bright, vivid colours.

Many of these paintings were dedicated to the Duchess by Tardieu: ‘A Madame la Duchesse de Sutherland, Homage respectueux et très reconnaissant d'un simple soldat' is the dedication for one of the paintings.


'Bourbourg, 1915' by Victor Tardieu



‘A Madame la Duchesse de Sutherland, Homage respectueux et très reconnaissant d'un simple soldat,' by Victor Tardieu



‘Bourbourg, Sept 1915' by Victor Tardieu


Later that year, No 9 Red Cross Hospital closed in preparation for a move to Calais where it opened on 12 January 1916 as a hospital for British wounded initially for one hundred beds but later increased to one hundred and twenty.


King George V and Queen Mary at No 9 Red Cross, Calais


The Visitors' Book for No 9 Red Cross Hospital contains the signatures made by a huge variety of prestigious visitors including the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, the President of the Canadian Red Cross Society and by personnel from the international Ambulance Units from America and Australia. On 14 July 1917, King George V, accompanied by Queen Mary and Prince Edward, visited the hospital and signed the Visitors' Book.

In 1915-16 Lady Randolph Churchill wrote an article ‘Amongst the Wounded' in a series entitled ‘Our Women Heroes' which was about women working for the Red Cross at home and overseas. She praised the Duchess of Sutherland for her work as ‘Directress in station to all matters of supplies and pecuniary import in her hospital.'

In March 1918 No 9 Red Cross Hospital moved to Longueness, near St Omer, followed by another move in September 1918 to 20 November 1918.

The constant change of locations of the hospitals was recorded by a nurse who was an avid postcard collector who managed to acquire a postcard of every place in which she worked. Her name was Uma Tomlin Hunter who came from a military family in Northumberland. She was born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1886. In April 1915, she enrolled as a VAD in Northumberland and was sent to France to serve with the No 9 Red Cross Hospital, where she served the major part of her duty. In April 1918 she was posted to the Duchess of Westminster's No 1 Hospital and a postcard written at the time indicated that the Queen of the Belgians had visited the hospital and presented the Duchess with the Order of St. Elizabeth.

Uma was discharged from the VAD on 28 November 1918, whilst at the No.1 Hospital. For her service as a nurse during the War she was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. She was also awarded the Belgian Medal of King Albert 1914-18.

No 9 Red Cross Hospital, administered and financed largely by the Duchess, was recognised for its efficient use of a new, revolutionary treatment of wounds known as the Carrel-Dakin treatment. This consisted of constantly irrigating wounds with a highly diluted antiseptic of sodium hypochloride and boric acid. The main advantages of this treatment were that old infected wounds could be cleaned up, healing quickened and that the general condition of the patient improved almost immediately once the treatment had begun.  The hospital also provided excellent treatment of fractured limbs by means of suspension and extension. The total number of patients treated between 12 January 1916 and 20 November 1918 was 5,914.

Millicent was an indomitable woman who became passionately involved in the war effort, tending to the wounded. She went on to run one of the Red Cross Hospitals in Calais until the end of the War. For her efforts throughout the War she was awarded the Belgian Royal Red Cross, the French Croix de Guerre and the British Red Cross.

She spent much of the rest of her life in France where she died on 20 August 1955, age 87. She was cremated in Paris and her ashes were returned to the Sutherland private cemetery at Dunrobin.

Image sources:

The photo of the John Singer Sargent portrait was sourced courtesy Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millicent_Leveson-Gower,_Duchess_of_Sutherland .

The King George V photo and the Victor Tardieu paintings are courtesy  Abbott and Holder JV: www.millicentsutherlandambulance.com .

This article, by Bridgeen Fox, was Bridgeen's final article to The Poppy, the newsletter of WFA Thames Valley. Bridgeen, chair of WFA Thames Valley, died shortly after the newsletter's publication on 3 April 2012.


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