When World War I broke out in 1914, the trouble that had loomed at the edge of the Romanov's awareness began to penetrate the protective shell of imperial privilege. In response to the suffering of their people, and in an attempt to present an image of patriotism and concerned involvement, Alexandra enrolled herself and her older daughters in nurses' training and had the palaces converted into provisional hospitals to care for the increasing number of wounded.
Meanwhile, the Czar spent more and more time at the front with his armies. Alexandra wrote daily to her husband:
20 November 1914. "This morning we were present (I help as always giving the instruments and Olga threaded the needles) at our first big amputation. Whole leg was cut off. I washed and cleaned and bandaged all up."
25 November 1915. "During an operation a soldier died. Olga and Tatiana behaved well; none lost their heads and the girls were brave. They had never seen death. But he died in a minute. How near death always is."
Even as she ministered to the wounded and dying, they distrusted her. She wanted to be seen as a Sister of Mercy – the nun-like dress and cross she wore made her look like a martyr, an image she thought would endear her to the Russian people. But mostly they were shocked, and thought she looked ridiculous. They resented her presence there and were embarrassed by her ministrations. They could not have loved her less.
At that time, there was great hope that Russia would yet prevail in the war, and Faberge was asked to continue the tradition of Imperial Easter eggs. But to match the solemn mood of the nation and reflect the noble efforts of the family, Faberge wisely altered the tone of the Easter gifts that year. Inside the Red Cross egg (1915) given to the Dowager Empress Maria, are portraits of the Romanov women dressed as Sisters of Mercy. Inscribed inside are the words, "Greater Love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends."
In 1915, the Czar appointed himself "Supreme Commander of the Army," displacing one of the top generals. For this act, he was awarded the Order of St. George, given for outstanding military bravery or achievement. "Nicholas had decided to take over from his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikoliovich, this tall giant of a man, beloved by his soldiers, who had been at the head of the armies. And this was maybe, for the Czar, the high point of his reign," says author and Faberge expert, Geza von Habsburg. "He could do no wrong at that time, and the war went very favorably at first for Russia."
Believing as many did that now the Czar would overcome the difficulties, Faberge designed two eggs to applaud the event. For the Czarina, he painted an image of Nicholas consulting with his officers at the front. Resting on the points of four miniature artillery shells, the Steel Military egg (1916) makes up in sober significance what it lacks in ornamentation. According to Von Habsburg: "Faberge had to close down his workshops because his craftsman were all at the front. He was unable to continue to make these objects of art. He had no more precious materials. Gold and silver were no longer allowed to be handled by jewelers at that time so it was steel and brass and copper that they were using. And the imperial family could also not be seen ordering expensive things from Faberge at a time when Russia was bleeding to death."
The simple Order of St. George egg (1916), given to the Dowager Empress Maria that year, was another gesture to wartime austerity. Away from St. Petersburg supervising Red Cross activities in the south, she wrote to her son: "I thank you with all my heart for your lovely Egg, which dear old Faberge brought himself. It is beautiful. I wish you, my darling Nickya, all the best things and success in everything. Your fondly loving old Mama."
But Nicholas was not successful at leading his armies. "His taking over the army was not well received," says Faberge expert Christopher Forbes. "His second cousin was a more capable general, and for the Czar to be so directly involved with the army, when that wasn't necessarily his forte, didn't go down well with the officers." From the front, Nicholas wrote home to his wife:
31 August 1915. "My beloved Sunny, how grateful I am to you for your dear letters! In my loneliness they are my only consolation. Much gravity lies in the terribly weak condition of our regiments, which consist of less than a quarter of their normal strength; it is impossible to reinforce them in less than a month, as the new recruits will not be ready and there are few rifles."
Russian manpower was virtually inexhaustible, but the Czar's army was untrained. Arms factories were few and unproductive, and the railway lacked the capacity to carry enough supplies or even food to the soldiers at the front. In the first five months of the war, Russia lost over one million men – killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
By March of 1917, demonstrations, riots and strikes were commonplace in the major cities of Russia, and the Imperial troops could no longer suppress them. Alexandra wrote to Nicholas about the chaos, but he was too far away to realize how bad the situation had become. When he did, it was too late, and he was forced to abdicate.
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