Monday, November 15, 2021

The Curse of November 16


Grand  Duke Ludwig IV and Grand Duchess Alice and their children
(all images except for Getty: Marlene A. Eilers Koenig Collection)

In November 1878 diphtheria struck the Grand Ducal House of Hesse and by Rhine vigorously.  The entire family had gathered for tea and cakes and to listen to the eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, reading Alice in Wonderland to her brother, Ernst Ludwig, and her sisters, Elisabeth, Irene, Alix, and four-year-old Marie, known to her family as May, who was delighted by the story.  

Enchanted by the story, May wanted to hear more.  She also wanted another piece of cake.

Unfortunately for May, there would be no more cake that night.  It was time for the children to go to sleep.  As she was getting ready for bed, Victoria mentioned to her mother, Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse and By Rhine, that she had a sore throat.  Alice asked her daughter to open her mouth so she could have a look.  Fear quickly gripped Princess Alice as she noticed the white membrane on Victoria’s throat.   

Diphtheria.   It was not long before Grand Duke Ludwig IV and all the children but the second daughter, Elisabeth, came down with the disease.  Ella was sent to stay with her paternal grandmother, Princess Karl (Elisabeth) of Hesse at the Prinz-Karl-Palais in Darmstadt to avoid the infection. 

Alice's mother, Queen Victoria, sent her doctor, Sir William Jenner, to Darmstadt to help treat the family.  ‘Darling May’ became ill on November 11. Her fever would not abate and, five days later, shortly after midnight, she succumbed to the disease. 

It was November 16, 1878.

  Worn out from caring for her children and husband, Alice was desolate, saddened by the death of her youngest child.  It was Alice, in the depths of the deepest grief imaginable, who had to arrange for her daughter’s funeral, which took place two days after May’s death.   None of the children had yet been told about May’s death.  Ernie, still extremely ill, had begged his mother for information about his young sister.  Alice could not tell her young son the truth.  With “unbelievable stoicism” she said: “She is now quite well and happy.” Ernie, who would celebrate his tenth birthday on November 25, wanted to give a book to his little sister as a present.  After Ernie recovered, Alice found the courage to tell him that May had died. And then she leaned over and kissed him.

The Kiss of Death. It is believed that Alice contracted diphtheria when she kissed her son.  Alice was too worn out, too weak to fight the disease. She died on December 14, 1878.   Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine, the beloved Landsmutter, was 35 years old.   

Alice’s husband, Grand Duke Ludwig IV, and the four other children who had become ill, all regained their health, but all in their own ways never recovered completely from the trauma of the deaths of their wife, their sister, and their mother. Ernie had learned early how to compartmentalize grief and loss.  When he was four, he witnessed the tragic death of his two-year-old brother, Friedrich Wilhelm “Frat,” during playtime when Frittie climbed on a chair and fell through an open window and landed on the ground.  He would have survived the fall, but Frittie, a hemophiliac, died later that evening,   

Ernie and his sisters were taken in haste to the nursery.  Only four years old at the time, Ernie was understandably “bewildered and confused” by the loss of his only brother.   The youngest child at the time was Princess Alix, who was 11 months old at the time of Frittie’s death.  Alice would give birth one more time.   May was born on May 24, 1878, five days before the first anniversary of  Frittie’s death. Ernie adored his little sister... and then she was gone to Heaven, joining Frittie, the brother she did not know.

One can only imagine the pain and grief that the young Ernie suffered when he lost his two siblings.  The sadness of their loss would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Early autumn 1937.   Schloss Wolfsgarten, south of Darmstadt.  

Ernst Ludwig is 68 years old.  He has not been well for some weeks and is receiving tender care from his wife, Eleonore, and his eldest sister, Victoria.  Several years after divorcing his first wife, Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, Ernie found comfort and joy in his second marriage.  Eleonore gave him two sons, Georg Donatus, the heir to the now-former Grand Duchy, and Ludwig.  He was proud of his sons. Georg Donatus had married in 1931 to Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, the third of five children of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, who was Ernie’s niece, the elder daughter of his eldest sister, Victoria, who had married her father’s first cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg.  This was a supremely happy marriage. Victoria and Louis had settled in England, where Louis rose through the ranks of the Royal Navy, culminating with the rank of Admiral of the Fleet. 

In the final months of Ernie’s life, he would be able to spend time with his family and enjoy the time with his three young grandchildren.  Don and Cecilie and their family also lived at Wolfsgarten, which provided Ernie and Onor with immeasurable pleasure.  As he watched his grandsons play in their late aunt Elisabeth’s playhouse, built in the garden at Wolfsgarten, he may have reflected on the tragedies that had shaped his own life.  He could be forgiven in thinking that now – in 1937 – his family would be free of another tragedy.   There had been already too many tragedies for one man, one family to comprehend.

Ernie had few regrets about his life after the fall of the German empire in November 1917.

Although there would be no official abdication in November 1918, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig lost his throne when Imperial Germany collapsed in the defeat of the First World War. Unlike his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who went into exile in the Netherlands, Ernst Ludwig and his family remained in Darmstadt and eventually received restitution for their confiscated properties.  Schloss Wolfsgarten, south of Darmstadt, in Langen, was private property, and after the war, the family spent most of their time there.  But there could be no compensation for what Ernie had lost due to the war. 

 His elder sister, Victoria, and her family were living in England, where her sons served in the Royal Navy.  Anti-German sentiment had forced her husband, Louis, to resign as First Sea Lord in the fall of 1914, and spent the rest of the world war, living quietly with his wife at their home on the Isle of Wight.

  His third sister, Princess Irene, married to Prince Heinrich, younger brother of Kaiser Wilhelm, spent most of the war at Hemmelmark, their estate in Schleswig-Holstein.  Heinrich was a career naval officer in the Imperial Navy.  Ernie’s two other sisters, Ella and Alix, were in Russia.   Ella was the widow of Grand Duke Serge, assassinated in 1905, as he left their palace in Moscow.  Ella turned her grief into forgiving her husband’s assassin and founding an order of Orthodox nuns.  For the rest of her life, she eschewed her fabulous jewel collection and gave her life to help others.  Alix, called Sunny by her family, was married to Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias.  Ernie could only watch from afar, as the sovereign of an enemy grand duchy, as Russia fell into the conflagration of revolution.  Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and was soon under house arrest.   

In the early hours of July 17, 1918, Nicholas II and his wife, their five children, and several loyal retainers were murdered by the Bolsheviks.  Their bodies were burned in acid and buried in a pit outside Ekaterinburg, where they had lived for the final two months of their lives.  A day later, Ella, along with five other members of the imperial family, Grand Duke Serge’s secretary, and one of Ella’s nuns, all of whom had been arrested by the Cheka and were housed in Alapaevsk, were taken at a gunpoint, and thrown into an abandoned mine.  The prisoners were beaten and pushed down into the mine  The murderers could hear Ella and the others singing Orthodox hymns.  Grenades were tossed into the mine, but only Grand Duke Serge’s secretary died as the result of a grenade.  All the others died of their injuries as all of them had been beaten before being thrown into the mine.  Before she died, Ella took off her wimple and used it as a bandage around the head of the dying Prince Ioann Konstantinovich.

Alapaevsk fell to the White Army a few days later.  The grave was found in October and the bodies were taken east and were eventually buried in a Russian cemetery in Beijing.  The remains of Ella and Vara were eventually taken to Jerusalem and buried at the Church of Mary Magdalene.

Ernie’s grief for the loss of Ella, Alix, Nicky, and their beautiful children, who had been playmates of Ernie and Eleonore’s two young sons, Georg Donatus and Ludwig, was unfathomable.   When she was a child, growing up in Darmstadt, Alix was known as Sunny, the sunshine of her siblings’ lives.

May.  Alice.  Elisabeth.   Alix.  Ella.   Elisabeth’s death was certainly the most difficult for Ernie.  His darling daughter was dead at only eight years old.  

Following their divorce in 1901, Ernie and Ducky shared custody of their only child, Elisabeth.   The divorce settlement required the young princess to spend six months with her mother in Coburg and six months in Darmstadt. Elisabeth, who was born in 1895, was very much loved and adored by her doting father. She was very much Princess Sunshine, especially when she was with her father.  In Darmstadt, she was always happy and relaxed. When it was time for Elisabeth to return to Coburg, she would burst into tears and hide under a sofa. Ernie would comfort her, telling her that her mother loved her.  A tearful Elisabeth responded: “Mama says it, you do it.”

The little princess was a favorite in Darmstadt as she ran through the streets with a dog by her side.   She longed for a younger sister and reveled in her visits to Russia, where she could play with her cousins, the daughters of Aunt Alix.  Grand Duchess Olga was only seven months younger.  Elisabeth thought the youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia was so ugly that no want would want her.  She told her father that she would be happy to take Anastasia back to Darmstadt.

Elisabeth was in Darmstadt when her first cousin, Princess Alice of Battenberg, eldest child of Ernie’s oldest sister, Victoria, married Prince Andrew of Greece.   After Alice’s wedding, Ernie took Elisabeth to Nicholas’s hunting estate at Skierniewice in Russian Poland.   While the adults hunted during the day, the children played games, enjoyed the swings, and got carriage rides pulled by tame deer.    The eight-year-old princess was full of life, and she “masterminded a practical joke, hiding the three eldest Grand Duchesses in her bed. ”  When Empress Alexandra came in to say good night to her daughters, she could not find them.  Elisabeth’s laughter could be heard “all through the house” as the girls’ location was eventually revealed.    

The girls eventually fell asleep, but when Elisabeth woke up the next morning, she complained about a sore throat.  Her illness put a damper on Olga’s eighth birthday celebrations.  That evening, the court doctor, after examining Elisabeth, told Margaretta Eager, who was the governess to the grand duchesses, that he believed there was something wrong with the young princess’ heart.  Neither the Tsarina nor Ernie was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with Elisabeth.  After returning from the theater, Alix and her brother visited Elisabeth “who brightened up and chatted with them.”

Ernie seemed reassured that his daughter was all right.   Her nurse, Miss Wilson, stayed with Elisabeth all night.  By morning Princess Elisabeth’s condition was critical.  She asked that a telegram be sent to her mother.   Miss Wilson asked for someone to wake the Grand Duke and the Tsarina.  They hurried to her room. Elisabeth asked to see Grand Duchess Anastasia.  It was the last request she made.  A few hours later, she was dead.  Typhoid.   

The first telegram reached Coburg at 8:00 a.m., announcing the princess’ illness. Ducky made immediate plans to leave for Poland.  Within 90 minutes of the first telegram, a second telegram arrived at Coburg.  Elisabeth’s condition was listed as grave.   At 11:00 a.m., Victoria Melita was getting ready to leave for the train station to catch the afternoon train to Russia, when she received a third telegram from Poland.   Elisabeth was dead.

Victoria Melita’s close friend Meriel Buchanan wrote that the grieving mother arrived in Poland two days later to find her daughter “between masses of tawny chrysanthemums” on a bed.  Elisabeth’s silver coffin was placed on a funeral train for the journey back to Darmstadt.  Her parents accompanied her for the final trip home.  For Ernie, the journey back to Darmstadt was inexorably painful. “My little Elisabeth was the sunshine of my life,” he wrote years later in his memoirs.

Elisabeth was buried in the Rosenhöhe on the outskirts of Darmstadt.  Ducky left for Coburg after the funeral.  This was the only time she would see her firstborn’s grave, as Ducky never again visited Elisabeth’s final resting place.  Two weeks after Elisabeth’s death, Ernie wrote to his brother-in-law, Nicholas to “tell you how I think of you & bless you for all your love to me.  Your dear letter was such a comfort to me & never will it go out of my heart what you have been to me during my misery...I am getting on all right & will soon settle down to my work again, for that is after all the one great thing that helps one overall in everyday life. ”

Ernie would find joy in his second marriage to Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich.  In the winter of 1903/1904, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig invited Eleonore (known as Onor) and her mother, Princess Anna, to stay at the Old Palace in Darmstadt, as Anna needed to seek medical treatment.  Unfortunately, she did not respond to the treatment, and she died in May 1904.   The Marquise de Fontenoy, whose society columns were syndicated in a selection of American newspapers in the early part of the 20th century, wrote shortly after their engagement was announced on November 21, 1904, that Onor was Ernie's childhood sweetheart’ but it was a “pity that the grand duke did not marry Princess Eleonore in the first place. ”   

They knew each other from childhood – Ernie was three years Onor’s senior – but any plans for marriage were “destroyed by those relatives of the grand duke who were determined that he should marry Princess Victoria.”    This was despite those who had objections to the marriage of the two first cousins as they were “diametrically opposed to each other in character, tastes –indeed in everything .”

Owing to the Russo-Japanese war, Ernie’s sisters, Ella and Alix, and their spouses were unable to travel to Darmstadt for the wedding, which took place on February 2, 1905.   Less than three weeks later,  Ernie had to face another tragic event.  Ella’s husband, Grand Duke Sergei, was murdered when a bomb was thrown into his carriage on February 17.   The newly married Ernie and Onor made the decision to travel to Moscow to be with Ella, as she grappled with her husband’s horrendous death.  After spending time with her, the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess traveled to Tsarkoe Selo to visit Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.   It was the first time that Ernie had seen Alix’s eight-month-old son, Alexis, the heir to the throne.

Ernie’s heir, Georg Donatus, was born on November 8, 1906.   Nicholas II accepted Ernie’s request to be a godfather but was unable to attend the baptism. “It is such a pity we cannot be present at your baby’s christening.  I tried to persuade Alix to go & see you for a short time, but she won’t leave and alas! I neither can leave my country.”

Onor gave birth to a second son, Ludwig, who was known as Lu, on November 20, 1908.  Empress Alexandra agreed to be one of Lu’s godmothers.  Elisabeth also was one of her godchildren.

In November 1918 Ernie proved to be a “fearless personality” when a mob broke into the palace, calling for the death of the Grand Duke.  He refused to go into hiding, preferring to meet the delegation and talk with them, going as far as to offer all a cup of tea.  Unlike other German sovereigns, Ernie never officially abdicated his throne, for himself or his descendants.  He accepted the revolution and the new Germany, free of monarchial rule.   There was not an ounce of bitterness as he and Onor and their young sons stepped back and began to live as private citizens.  

Ernie was bisexual and there would be affairs with men and women.  But he was devoted to Onor.  In 1915, he wrote: “For ten years we have been married ... I will never be able to thank you for what you give and for what you have made of me.  Dear God, how have I deserved this happiness? ”

Onor was his rock, his support, and she was there with him, for him, when he received confirmation that his sisters were dead, murdered by the Bolsheviks.   In 1921, his elder sister, Victoria, traveled to China to help bring Ella’s remains to Jerusalem.   He contributed to the cost of the reburial but could not accompany Victoria.   She wanted to spare him as much as she could about the graphic details of Ella’s death, she writes to him, as she was returning to London: “Oh, my dear Ernie, I fear we shall never have the comfort of being able to do anything for the remains of the other dear ones, shot at Ekaterinburg, and whose bodies were afterward, burned.”

Ernie was very much a prominent private citizen as he and his family remained involved in Darmstadt.   He remained a major patron of the arts and Onor continued her support for local charities.   By the early 1930s, Ernie could be forgiven for thinking that the black cloud of a tragedy that had enveloped his family for too long was finally lifted.   In early June 1930, Ernie’s elder son, Hereditary Grand Duke Georg Donatus, 23, became engaged to 18-year-old Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark.   Don, as he was called within the family, had known Cecilie her entire life.  He and her two older sisters, Margarita and Theodora, were childhood playmates with his first cousin, Tsarevich Alexis of Russia.  Cecilie’s mother, Alice, was Ernie’s niece, and, thus, Don’s first cousin.   

Cecilie’s grandmother, Victoria, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, was thrilled with the news of her engagement ... “that one of my granddaughters should find a home in what was my first one is a joy to me....”

The bride and groom went through three marriage ceremonies, first, the civil ceremony, required by German law, followed by a Greek Orthodox rite at the New Palace, as the bride was Greek Orthodox, and then a Lutheran wedding at the Schlosskirche.   

The wedding was a family celebration.  Ernie’s eldest sister, Victoria, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven, who was the bride’s grandmother, came from England.   Ernie’s other sister, Princess Irene, the widow of Prince Heinrich of Prussia, was accompanied by her son and daughter-in-law, Prince and Princess Waldemar.   The bride’s aunt (and Ernie’s niece), Crown Princess Louise of Sweden attended the wedding, as did Prince and Princess Rene of Bourbon-Parma.  Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia represented Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Neither of the bride’s parents, Princess Alice and Prince Andrew of Greece was able to attend the wedding.  The residents of Darmstadt “took a great interest” in the young Hereditary Grand Duke's wedding.  As the bride’s carriage stopped as it approached the Grand Ducal Palace, Ernie and Don had to “rescue” the bride from the cheering crowds.   The couple’s first child, a son, was born on October 25, 1931, Prince Ludwig was named after Don’s younger brother, Lu.  A second son, Prince Alexander, was born on August 14, 1933.  

In July 1936, Ernie, Onor, Don & Cecilie (who was nearly seven months pregnant), and Lu joined other family members, including Victoria Milford Haven and Crown Princess Louise, at Princess Irene of Prussia’s 70th birthday celebrations at Hemmelmark.   

Princess Johanna Marina Eleonore was born on September 20, 1936, the first princess of Hesse and by Rhine since 1895.   One can only imagine the bittersweet feeling that Ernie felt as he held his granddaughter in his arms and his grandsons at his side in a family photo, taken at the time of Johanna Marina’s baptism.   Was he thinking of his own little Sunshine when he looked at his granddaughter, knowing that Johanna would be able to play in Elisabeth’s playhouse built so long ago in the garden at Wolfsgarten?

Georg Donatus and Cecilie made Wolfsgarten a comfortable and cheerful home, where Ernie and Onor could spend their final years with their grandchildren.  Cecilie’s younger brother, Prince Philip, who attended Gordonstoun school in Scotland, often spent school holidays at Wolfsgarten. He was at Wolfsgarten in September 1937 where his grandmother, Victoria, has spent most of the summer taking care of her brother, who “had been ill since the start of the year with lung disease. ”

The families, including Onor and Victoria, were concerned that Ernie would not live long enough to attend Lu’s wedding in London on October 23.  The 28-year-old Prince Ludwig served as an honorary attaché at Germany’s embassy in London.  His bride-to-be was Margaret Campbell Geddes, daughter of Sir Auckland and Lady Geddes.  Sir Auckland was the British Ambassador to the United States from 1920-1924.   Lady Geddes, the former Isabella Gamble Ross, was American.

Margaret was presented at Court by her mother in May 1934.  She enjoyed traveling and was in Germany in 1936, studying art, when she met Prince Ludwig during a skiing holiday.    Ernie’s sister, Irene, noted in a letter to her brother that “it has not been easy for you to give your consent to his wishes I can well imagine, but all you & Onor told me about her & Lu ought to promise real happiness. ”   

In her book, The Four Graces,  Ilana Miller stated that the objection to Margaret Geddes was never made clear in the letters between Ernie and his sisters.  Margaret was not of royal rank, but Miller believes that the objections were not based on her lack of royal title, but on politics.   Don, Cecilie, and Lu had joined the Nazi Party in early 1937.  Peg Geddes was British and the daughter of a prominent Briton, a respected academic who may not have been pleased that his only daughter was marrying a German.

The engagement was officially announced in The Times on July 16, 1937.  

Victoria hoped that her brother would live long enough to celebrate his younger son’s wedding.   She wrote to Nona Kerr that Ernie was receiving “x-ray treatment for his lungs, which made him feel miserable.”   The treatment was going well, and “there is still hope that by the time of Lu’s wedding he may be fit enough to come over for it.”

It was not meant to be.  Ernie died at Wolfsgarten on October 9, 1937.  His funeral took place in October, and he was buried at the Rosenhöhe next to his daughter, Elisabeth, his sunshine.

It was decided that owing to the death of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, Lu and Peg postponed their wedding, scheduled for October 23 until November 20.   Wedding preparations began in earnest after the funeral was over.    In London, the bride-to-be began overseeing the arrival of the wedding presents, including a “set of monogrammed cuff links” for the groom from Queen Mary and Lu’s first cousin, Louise, the Crown Princess of Sweden sent the couple “some fine table glass.”    

Now back at home at Kensington Palace, Lady Milford Haven sent her grandson, Prince Philip a “timely reminder” about Lu and Peg’s wedding.  “Aunt Onor with Cecile & family arrive to-morrow afternoon .... You are expected to attend Lu’s wedding on Saturday afternoon.”

At Wolfsgarten, Don and Cecilie were making their own plans to travel to London for Lu’s wedding.  Their two young sons, Ludwig, six, and four-year-old Alexander were understandably excited.  They were going to be pages at Onkel Lu’s wedding, and they were going to fly to London on an airplane.  It would be their first time on an airplane.   Fourteen-month-old Johanna Marina remained behind in Wolfsgarten with her nanny, as her mother felt she was too young to travel.  

 Cecilie was eight months pregnant, which was a challenging time for a woman to travel.  She was “reputedly so terrified of aeroplanes that she always wore black when she flew.”

Cecilie made sure that the Honiton lace veil, first worn by Princess Alice when she married Prince Ludwig in 1862, was carefully and tenderly packed into one of the suitcases.  Peg planned to wear the veil with her Bavarian peasant dress.   She had eschewed the idea of a white formal gown.

Finally, it was time to leave for the aerodrome.  Cecilie and Don were accompanied by their two sons, Don’s mother, Onor, Cecilie’s lady-in-waiting, Alice Hahn, and Lu’s best man, Joachim von Riedesel.    Don and Cecilie and their children would be staying with Cecilie’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten (who was Don’s first cousin), and his family at Brook House in London.

The plane took off just before 2:00 p.m., in “the bright sunshine in a three-engine Junkers monoplane,” which was operated by the Belgian airline Sabena.  The pilot, Tony Lambotte, who was a close friend and pilot of King Leopold III, was one of the airline’s “most experienced airmen.”

The flight was scheduled to land near Brussels, but due to “thick fog that swept quickly in from the North Sea,” the wireless operator received a message to change course and land at the Steene aerodrome near Ostend.   There was limited visibility and Lambotte was “flying blind” as he began his descent toward Steene.   The aerodrome’s staff fired three rockets to aid the descent, but only one worked.  

An eyewitness watched the plane “coming out of the fog," scrape a brickwork’s chimney.  One of the engines and a wing broke off, crashing into the building’s roof.  The rest of the plane fell to the ground and burst into flames.   The first responders - the fire engines and ambulances - had to keep back for some time due to the flames.  It was too late.    Later that day, as the firemen sifted through the charred remains, they found the remains of a stillborn child, “lying beside the crumpled body of Cecilie.”    

Lu and Peg were waiting for the plane to arrive at Croydon Airport.  The plane was late, and as they “anxiously paced up and down the tarmac,” they were told “there was some delay,” until one official took Lu into Sabena's office and told him what had happened.

The news of the crash spread quickly and was the leading headline in the evening newspapers.  Lord Louis Mountbatten’s elder daughter, Patricia, was walking home from school and thinking that she would soon see her cousins when she saw the poster announcing the plane crash. “I was going home as I thought I was going to meet them," she said some years later.

Dickie (Lord Louis) had sent two cars to the airport to pick up all the guests, but only Lu and Peg, “prostrated with grief” returned to Brook House.   That evening, the family went to “Peg’s father’s house and had a ghastly family meeting. My mother said the wedding ought to go ahead, not in four days with all the formality and publicity, but the very next day while they were all still in a state of shock. ”

The family rallied around the grieving Lu and Peg. In just over a month, Lu had lost his father, and now his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, and his two nephews, along with one of his closest friends.    Sir Auckland released a statement to the media, asking for the press “to respect the deep grief of both Prince Ludwig and my daughter.  Today his mother and his only brother and sister-in-law and their children have been killed.  The family has been practically wiped out and he is left to face the situation.”

Other family members were informed of the crash.   King George V, a first cousin of Victoria Milford Haven sent a “message of sympathy” to Ludwig on the death of his mother and brother. At Gordonstoun, headmaster Kurt Hahn was the one to break the sad news to Prince Philip, who had been looking forward to traveling to London for the wedding.  Philip would later say that he would never forget the “profound shock” when he was told about the airplane crash that killed his sister and her family.   Hahn noticed that the sixteen-year-old prince did not break down, but that “his sorrow was that of a man.”

The date was November 16, 1937.   Thankfully, Ernie was spared the knowledge of this horrendous tragedy.

Embed from Getty Images 

 It was arranged that the wedding would take place the next morning at 8:00 a.m., at St. Peter’s Church, Eaton Square.   The ceremony was private and officiated by Prebendary Austin Thomas.  Most of the guests, including the bride, wore black. Instead of the Bavarian peasant dress and Alice’s veil, Peg wore a “black dress, black coat, hat, and veil and carried white Camellias.”  Other guests included the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and the Duchess’ two sisters,  Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, and the Countess of Toerring-Jettenbach, the Marchioness of Milford Haven, and Lady Louis Mountbatten.   The Duchess of Kent wore a fur coat over a black dress.  Her two sisters were also dressed in black.    Marina, who was Johanna Marina’s godmother, was particularly saddened by the death of her first cousin, Cecilie.

Lord Louis stepped in as best man and Victoria Milford Haven watched from her pew, comforted by her family, as Lu took Peg as his wife.  One other guest was Lu’s boss, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom.   The ceremony took less than 20 minutes.    Von Ribbentrop and Sir Auckland signed the register.  There would be no wedding breakfast as the bride and groom had to leave immediately for Ostend.  The crossing across the English Channel was rough, and Peg spent most of the time in the lavatory.  “The first time I was addressed as Your Royal Highness was by one of the stewards outside the lavatory when I was being violently sick.”

In Ostend, Prince Ludwig had the unenviable task of identifying the bodies of his family. They remained at the mortuary for just over an hour before a German embassy car took them back to their hotel.  A half-hour later they went to the hospital where eleven coffins (including the pilot and his crew) were covered by a black cloth.    Lu began the arrangements to bring the bodies of his family back to Germany.  

Lu and Peg traveled on the train from Ostend to Darmstadt on November 19.  The five coffins for Lu’s family (the infant born during the crash was placed with Cecilie) were taken off the train by airmen and placed in the station’s Grand Ducal Hall where the Grand Ducal family pastor said a prayer.  The hall “was hung with laurel,” and one of the many wreaths was one from the children of King Leopold III.

A procession that included National Socialist party organizations, the armed forces, and the police formed behind the coffins, which were taken to the mausoleum chapel at the Rosenhöhe, where they would like in state until the funeral, which was held on November 23.  

Victoria Milford Haven and her younger son, Dickie, and his wife, Edwina were among the mourners.  Cecilie’s mother, Alice, who had spent most of the decade in sanitariums, came from Berlin with her youngest daughter, Sophie, Princess Christoph of Hesse.   Prince Andrew traveled from London with Philip.  It was the first time Alice had seen her husband since April 1931 and the first time she had seen Dickie since 1929.  Princess Irene of Prussia and Philip’s three surviving sisters and their husbands were also present.

There were wreaths from members of the British royal family, including “a beautiful one from the Duchess of Kent,” from King George II of the Hellenes, from Kaiser Wilhelm II, in exile in the Netherlands (he was a first cousin of Victoria Milford Haven), Herr Hitler and General Göring.   Six coffins (five for the victims of the air crash and the other for Ernie) were placed in a grave “overshadowed by beautiful cedar trees brought from Lebanon.”

 At the graveside, Pastor Klein turned to face Prince Ludwig: “God has blessed visibly by giving your young wife in the hour of need.” 

An inquiry into the crash had begun a few days before the funeral.  On December 20, the judge at Bruge finished his inquiry.  He found that an employee at the Steene Aerodrome, where the crash took place, was “guilty of homicide by imprudence.”   The employee was expected to be charged in a Bruges court.   He should have “transmitted a message” to the pilot to not land at Steene, but to fly directly to London, due to the fog and the failure of the rockets.

The funeral was over, Lu and Peg returned to Schloss Wolfsgarten, where they began the legal proceedings to adopt Princess Johanna Marina.   They also hoped to start a family of their own.  The curse of November 16 was still with them.  Lu and Peg would have no children of their own. 

On June 14, 1939, Princess Johanna Marina Eleonore of Hesse and By Rhine, the sunshine of Lu and Peg’s life succumbed to meningitis.  She was buried next to her parents and older brothers.  She was two and a half years old.  

It was after the war that Princess Margaret of Hesse and by Rhine “reopened the lines of communication” with the British Royal House and their German relatives.   Peg and her husband sat in the Royal Box at the Coronation in 1953.  Prince Philip and his eldest son, Charles, were particularly close to Margaret. In 1964, Ludwig was named as one of Prince Edward’s godparents. Whenever the Duke of Edinburgh visited Schloss Wolfsgarten, Peg allowed him the time to “wander in the gardens alone,” as Wolfsgarten was the “last link to his childhood.”

Prince Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine, the de jure Grand Duke, died on May 30, 1968.   His beloved Peg remained at Wolfsgarten until her death on January 26, 1997.  They are buried at the Rosenhöhe, near the graves of Elisabeth, Ernie, Onor, Don, Cecilie, Ludwig, Alexander, and Johanna Marina.   

After Frittie’s death, Ernie was said to have climbed into his mother’s lap.  “When I die," he whispered to his tearful mother, "you must die too, and all the others. Why can't we all die together? I don't want to die alone, like Frittie."  

Ernie did not die alone, but he was with his family, together, at Rosenhöhe, forever.

[Another  version of this article was published several years ago in Eurohistory)

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KM said...

Great Article, so tragic.

Andrea said...

R.i.p. Alice, May, Frittie and Cäcilia and her family.



Victorianna said...

Thank you, Marlene for this very well researched article. I learned new information of all the tragic events and was overwhelmed with sadness. Thank you for all you do.

Andrea said...

Seven Montag, not nearly seven month.

Andrea said...

Seven month, not nearly seven month.

Andrea said...