Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, September 23, 2013

HM The Queen Mother in the Great War

Contributed by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother [late mother of Queen Elizabeth II], Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, was born in 1900, by a twist of fate on 4 August. Her adolescence was overshadowed by the Great War in all the ways of those less privileged than she: a brother was killed, dear friends lost, her youth spent in sorrow. But her spirit was a sunny one by nature, and she persevered beyond the Great War — and triumphed in the Second World War at the side of her husband, King George VI. 

 Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and younger brother Lord David Bowes Lyon, sometime in 1915

Below is a letter, recently published, she wrote to her governess, companion, and confidante since childhood, Beryl Poignand, which I enjoy for its poignancy and detail. Her family’s house, Glamis Castle, was one of the many great houses that served as convalescent hospitals for the wounded. For four years, she grew from childhood to womanhood living the war through the soldiers who came to and left her home to uncertain fates.  

26 November 1917 to Beryl Poignand

Glamis Castle[1]

My dear Medusa[2]

            Just back from a nerve racking and terrible experience — bidding good-bye to FOURTEEN men! It really makes me weep & lump in my throat. I can’t bear it ever. And there is such a nice dear Sergeant whom I took a violent affection to yesterday evening, he is so nice tho’ dreadfully ugly. I begged Sister to push him downstairs or give him a blister or something. I wish I didn’t take violent affections too late — it’s always the day before they go!!!! I always have to say goodbye after dinner now, because firstly they go at 7 A.M. and secondly Sister likes to show me off in evening dress, because they never have seen evening dresses which embarrasses me too dreadfully. They invariably look at my shoes, except the ones that gaze rapturously into my eyes sighing deeply all the while, which are nil, nowadays that I have my hair up etc!! Some of them are charming, but oh! the difference from Dec. 1914! I was just remembering this evening, that night when Mr Brookes, Harold Ward, Teddy, David[3] (in pyjamas) & I had a bun fight in the crypt, and David chased Nurse A round the Ward with cocoa & water to pour, & how it all got spilt on the floor, & her black fury!! It was fun — weren’t they darlings? I have been thinking so much between these lines that it is now 10.15 & I must go to bed. […]

            It’s so dreadful saying goodbye, because one knows that one will never see them again, and I hate doing it. Do you remember our goodbyes on the doorstep, & waving them all the way up the Avenue? […]

            We shall come down next week I expect, I’ll let you know the date later. Goodbye from your loving but at the moment depressed —


I remember quite well thinking when I was seventeen I could never be happy again. I mean everybody was unhappy. Because one knew so many people. Every day somebody was killed, you see. It was a real holocaust. It was horrible. I remember that feeling quite well.

[commentary by HM The Queen Mother over eighty years later]

[1] Scotland. Ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore for over 600 years. Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon’s father was the 14th Earl of Strathmore.
[2] presumably nicknamed this for her abundant hair and not a testy personality.
[3] her younger brother, Lord David Bowes Lyon.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in November 1915 at fundraising stall for the Soldiers' & Sailors' Families Association


The Queen Mother's letters (source of these entries) are a glimpse into another world. Recommended for Downton Abbey fans.

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  1. Probably should add that another of her brothers, Capt. Fergus Bowes-Lyons 8th Bn Black Watch was killed at Loos in 1915.

    1. Yes. Fergus is the brother referred to in the introduction.

  2. Another family member was my C/O of the 2nd Bat Grenadier Guards, James Bowes-Lyons. Always had time to speak to the men. It was said he was knocked about rather badly during the 2nd WW. A good soldier.


  3. where was the SSFA picture taken in 1915?