Partner Helena Gleichen

Queer Places:
Watchetts Estate, Upper Verran Rd, Camberley GU15 2JL, UK
Hellens Manor, Much Marcle, Ledbury HR8 2LY, UK
St Peter's Churchyard Frimley, Surrey Heath Borough, Surrey, England

Nina Augusta Stracey Smyth (March 4, 1862 – July 1, 1948) was the eccentric sister of Dame Ethel Smyth, the composer, suffragette and sportswoman. Her long-term companion was Lady Helena Gleichen: they raised and manned one of the first mobile X-Ray units to be used by the British in World War I - Marie Curie was organizing the French radiography service - for which they both received numerous decorations. Exposure to the X-rays left Nina severely debilitated for the remainder of her life. After the sale of Watchetts Estate, Nina moved to firstly to Ledbury where she shared a home with Countess Gleichen and then to Crowthorne. Her eldest son Richard died in Monaco in 1928 from tuberculosis. During WW2 she served again in the Red Cross and also in the Women’s Voluntary Service.

Nina Augusta Stracey Smyth was born in Sidcup in Kent in 1862. She was the daughter of General John Hall Smyth and Emma Struth, daughter of ‘Madame de Stracey’ and granddaughter of Sir Josias Stracey, Bart. Born into a extremely well-connected family of Anglo-Irish extraction, the six sisters were clearly of strong independent minds. The two nearest elder sisters being Mary and Dame Ethel Mary Smyth: Mary married Charles Hunter, a wealthy American mining businessman, and became a celebrated Edwardian socialite and art collector, well known to Monet, Sickert, Rodin and John Singer Sargent, who painted her; and Dame Ethel Mary, a composer, writer, militant suffragette, who also served in France with the British Red Cross in the radiography field, and went out to support Unit No. 4 in Italy for a short time.

Nina married Herbert John Butler Hollings on the 18th of February 1886 at St. Peter's, Frimley. Nina Smyth had lived at Frimhurst in Frimley Green, which was her family home and John Butler Hollings owned Watchetts House and estate on the boundary of Frimley and Camberley. After their marriage they moved to Watchetts House.

Nina Hollings was an excellent horsewoman and member of a number of hunts. She was also an avid motor car driver and traveller. In 1903, Nina Hollings met Helena Gleichen, great-niece of Queen Victoria, cousin of King George V and a celebrated artist and sculptor friend of Dame Ethel’s. In her memoirs, Helena Gleichen remarks, “About that time I made friends with Nina Hollings, Dame Ethel Smyth’s sister, a friendship that has nearly equalled that of the Ladies of Llangollen as it has lasted ever since. The attraction was first horses and hunting, Nina being a wonderful rider to hounds. She was also a first-rate companion, always good tempered and cheerful, very quick in the uptake, very energetic and highly amused at everything. So, we arranged that when I left Eddie (Helena’s brother) she should meet me in Munich and we would go together to France for me to paint.”

Later during the same trip, “I consider that Nina saved my life one day. It had been very hot and we dawdled up the river to look for a place that the townspeople had recommended to us for bathing. We must have misunderstood them, as when I jumped in to what looked like an ideal pool, I was instantly caught by an undercurrent and swept under the bank; there my legs became entangled amongst some strong roots and I was perfectly helpless and hardly able to keep my head above water, the current being so fast. Luckily Nina was very strong, and throwing herself down on the ground managed to catch hold of my arms. Even so it was not easy to get out and we were two very exhausted people by the time she hauled me up on to the bank.”

During the years before the Great War, Nina and Helena cemented their friendship, notably in 1904, Nina and her daughter, Hilda, were invited by Empress Eugenie to go yachting in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and invited Helena to join the party.

In December 1914, following the death on the Western Front of her eldest son ‘Jack’, Nina Hollings, aged 52, went over to France on behalf of Lady Eva Wemyss to identify a location for an English hospital in France. She would have been memorable for the fact that she wore a black arm band in remembrance of her son throughout the War. The Chateau du Fayel in Compiegne was chosen and Nina and Helena worked at the Wemyss Hospital there from February to May 1915, driving ambulances and fetching wounded from the centre of Compiegne. A Surgeon Mencieres visited the hospital and invited Nina and Helena to take up radiography. At the time, Marie Curie was developing the French radiography services and with Mencieres’ introduction, Nina and Helena went to the Pantheon Military Hospital in Paris and studied for six months, obtaining 1st class certificates in radiography. They returned to London to work under Sir James Mackenzie Davidson, the renowned X-ray specialist, in order to assimilate his methods with those learned in France. He was so impressed by their endeavours that he gave them a 70hp Berliet and the Red Cross in London donated a Mercedes to add to their own Austin, which would carry their equipment. Relations were tasked with raising the funds to purchase the necessary mobile X-ray equipment whilst Nina and Helena were undergoing training. They first offered their mobile services to the British War Office and were turned down on the grounds of being female radiographers. They approached the French who were enthusiastic but mistrust developed as time and again jobs were promised but permits to go to the front were never forthcoming. Eventually, the French Red Cross asked them to go to St. Pol, but this turned out to be a rather tawdry ruse by which the French were only interested in commandeering their three vehicles and the X-ray equipment and no less than four attempts were made to do this, with Nina Hollings long-standing friendship with General Sir Henry Wilson proving vital on one of these occasions in scuppering French ploys. They then met with Honourable Sir Arthur Stanley in Paris, who instantly suggested that they approach the Italian authorities and on 7 December 1915, they were on their way to the Italian Front where they were to remain until October 1917, making history in the process as Joint Commandants of the only X-ray unit run by women during the Great War. The Duke of Aosta was quoted as saying “we are cleverer than the English then, because we employ who and what we can for our wounded regardless of whether they wear trousers or petticoats.

The original documentation outlined previously provides much background to already published works, some material illustrating Helena Gleichen’s written memoirs, others providing further evidence of Nina and Helena’s story filling in many gaps. Notable published works regarding Countess Helena Gleichen and Nina Hollings’ experiences: Contacts and Contrasts (Countess Gleichen) provides a detailed account of the work of Unit No. 4’s, and Outposts of Mercy (E. V. Lucas, a chapter and photograph of the pair, photocopy of the whole work included here). Refer also: Women and the Great War: Femininity under Fire in Italy (A. Belzer), Women Heroes of World War I (Kathryn J. Atwood) and 1916: A Global History (Keith Jeffery). Contemporary and recent press articles include The British Journal of Nursing and The Times.

There are many stories of heroism on the Italian Front included in Helena Gleichen’ memoirs, but perhaps the most fitting tribute to the two women and their work is recounted in a letter from Nina Hollings to Feo Gleichen in November 1916 when the two women were summoned by General Lombardo to attend ‘an important event’, which turned out to be a medal presentation ceremony at the Gorizia Opera House, after the 6th Battle of Gorizia: “Have you got an English flag which you can lend me?” I gave him one and he departed. I instantly sent an Orderly to find Helena who was working somewhere else and tell her to come in to Gorizia that night. About 10 a.m. next day, a Staff Officer arrived to fetch us, and we walked with him to the Opera House, an enormous and beautiful building with huge gaps made by shells in its roof. When we got to the entrance a wonderful sight greeted us. They had removed all the seats and the floor of the house was packed with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with the light gleaming on their steel helmets, accoutrements and rifles. Tier after tier, the boxes were decorated by wreaths of different-coloured roses. These had been picked by the soldiers at the risk of their lives, during the night before, from the Rosen Allee (the principal rose garden in Austria, which lay the far side of the Italian trenches and barbed-wire entanglements). Each box held officers, representative of the different regiments which had taken part in the Battle of Gorizia.

As we were escorted down the centre of the house to our box all the men turned towards us, standing at attention, and the officers in all the boxes round the house rose to their feet and saluted. All this time aeroplanes which had been ordered to guard the Opera House against the Austrian planes were humming to and fro across the sky, which was visible through the open roof.

The General and staff were on the stage, backed and surrounded by banks of roses ... a bugle sounded ... and the General stepped forward to address the troops. He said, “We are here to do honour to those who have not only gained Italy’s greatest prize, the Medal for Military Valour, but have given their lives in so doing. I do not ask if they are present, I know they are.” He then called a name in a loud voice which echoed through the house. The answer came:

“Presente.” Again, the General spoke. “Colonel, you who were fighting so bravely in the trenches when you were shot through the spine; although mortally wounded you refused to be moved, and by your example inspired your men to hold on to an almost impossible position. We give to you and to your family the Gold Medal of Valour.” Then the General handed the medal to an officer of the dead man’s regiment, who stepped forward, saluted and received it.

The other gold medal was given in the same way, the name being called by the General and being answered by a voice that echoed through the silence of the hall: “Presente.” Other medals were given to officers and men who came up to receive them.

The General then turned to our box which had been decorated with the Italian and British flags.

He spoke in a loud voice, “Soldiers here present, we greet these two English women whom we look upon, not only as two of our most gallant officers, but as beloved members of our families, and we offer them, and ask them always to wear the medal we have had struck for all the officers who took part in the Victory of Gorizia.” He then stepped forward and reached up to our box and handed us each a silver medal with a replica of the seal of the town of Gorizia on the one side and a figure of Victory on the other.”

In September 1917, concerns for Nina and Helena’s health come to the conclusion that both women should return home. A letter from The Hon. Sir Arthur Stanley, Chairman of the Joint War Committee, British Red Cross and Order of St. John notes “Dear Mrs Hollings, Many thanks for your letter of Aug. 15th, I can well understand how unhappy you must feel at giving up the wonderful work that you have been doing for so many strenuous months, but I cannot help being glad to hear that you are coming home as several people had reported to me that you and Lady Helena were beginning to suffer from the X rays. It is very kind of you to give so much of your equipment to us and I hope you will be good enough to come and see me when you get home so that we may discuss how to make the best use of it”.

Nina Hollings suffered for the rest of her life as a result of the X-ray work she had done on the Italian Front. The press later reported that Nina and Helena had taken over 17,000 X-rays during their time in Italy. An exhibition of Lady Gleichen’s pictures from drawings of the time took place in Milan in 1934.

Nina and Helena left Italy in October 1917, and after the war lived together for a time in Gloucestershire. Nina was awarded the following medals and awards; British Red Cross medal O.B.E (1918) St John of Jerusalem medal Italian bronze medal for valour Italian Medaglia Dell Guerra 1915-1918 Italian Medaglia Della Vittoria Interalleata (Medal of Allied Victory) Medal for the Unification of Italy (Medaglia a Ricordo dell'Unità d'Italia), 1848-1918 British War Medal 1914-1918 .

Nina's daughter Hildegard Nina Hollings also served as a V.A.D. in France during the Great War, and her other son Richard also served in the Royal Navy and survived the War.

In 1922, her husband, Herbert Hollings died. Nina moved to Breconshire and in 1939 resided with Helena Gleichen in Ledbury, Hertfordshire where during the World War II, Nina worked with the British Red Cross and Women’s Voluntary Service and Helena formed the first Home Guard in Much Markle in March 1940, also working with the British Red Cross and Air Raid Precautions. Helena Gleichen died in 1947 and Nina Hollings died a year later in 1948, when residing at Oaklands, Crowthorne, Berkshire. Nina Hollings was interred in St. Peters, Frimley, Surrey.


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