Society hostess and social reformer: Remembering Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland

Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the Duchess of Sutherland, with wounded soldiers at No.9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Sutherland Ambulance) at Calais, July 1917. IWM Q 2606

Many women seized the opportunity to do ‘their bit’ during the First World War. Women provided support in numerous ways, including telephone operating, war industries, military auxiliaries, agriculture and medical care. Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower was one such motivated individual, setting up a Red Cross Hospital on the Western Front. 20 August 2017 marks 62 years since her death, and in this blog post Catherine Long shares her fascinating story.


  • Life before the war

Millicent was born on 20 October 1867 at Dysart House in Fife, Scotland. Her parents were Robert, 4th Earl Rosslyn, and Blanche St. Clair-Erskine.

Millicent married Duke Cromartie Leveson-Gower in 1884, aged 17, becoming the Duchess of Sutherland. They had four children, Victoria (b. 1885), George (b. 1888), Alistair (b. 1890) and Rosemary (b. 1893). The Duke died in 1913, at that time owning 1,500,000 acres.


  • Experiences during the conflict

When war was declared Millicent travelled to Paris to join the French Red Cross, but she was told that she would need a permit from the Minister of War to serve in a French military hospital. In a memoir entitled ‘Six Weeks at the War’, she wrote that the Minister of War ‘broke every regulation in my favour, gave me a permit, and expressed devoted gratitude for my services!’

The Duchess set up Number 9 Red Cross Hospital in Namur, Belgium, at the Convent of Les Soeurs de Notre Dame. By 17 August 1914 Millicent had installed an ambulance with eight trained nurses and a surgeon, Mr Oswald Morgan of Guys’ Hospital, in the hospital.

In ‘Six Weeks at the War’, she wrote about not only her experience at the hospital, but also her perception of Germans and the war as ‘a ghastly psychological study.’ Millicent wrote about her determination toward ‘Germany’s deliverance’, criticism of the Prussians and perception that ‘the millions of soldiers at war must not be so sternly blamed as the [Prussian] machine that drives them.’

What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural

Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower’s early contribution to the war was encapsulated in her own words: ‘What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural: to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood, to hold basins equally full of blood, to soothe a soldier’s groans… these actions seemed suddenly to become an insistent duty, perfectly easy to carry out.’

Whilst at Namur she experienced shelling, German occupation of the town, and also had to turn in French and Belgian patients as German prisoners of war. Extracts about these experiences can be read on her Life Story page.

Millicent with her staff of nurses and VADs at No.9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Sutherland Ambulance) at Calais, July 1917. IWM Q 2615

Millicent re-married in October 1914, to Percy FitzGerald, who was serving as Brigade Major in the Hussars. She returned to France shortly after their wedding, and served with the Red Cross in France for the remainder of the war. She worked as Commandant, Organiser and Director of the hospital. During the war the hospital moved location from Namur to Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk, to Bourbourg, to Calais, then Longueness near St. Omer. In 1917 King George V and Queen Mary visited her hospital at Calais at the end of their royal tour of the French battlefields. IWM hold a series of photographs of her at her hospital in Calais, which can be seen on Lives of the First World War.


  • Post-war life

Millicent (third from left) with British and French Staff Officers and sisters in the courtyard of the Civil Hospital at Hazebrouck after the investiture with decorations. IWM Q 109515

For her contribution she was decorated with the Royal Red Cross, Croix de Guerre and the Order of the Belgian Red Cross. Millicent married for a third time in 1919, to George Hawes, divorcing in 1925. Millicent lived in France after the war. She died in Orriule Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France on 20 August 1955. Her ashes were buried in the Sutherland private cemetery at Dunrobin in Scotland.

The Duchess of Sutherland is remembered as one of the great English beauties and a successful society hostess. She was also an advocate for social reform and an author.

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