Assignations at the Astoria Hotel Brussels, Belgium

August/September 1914


When war broke out in August 1914, women everywhere were desperate to “do their bit” for the War Effort.  Amongst them were a British aristocrat and a German Doctor of Political Economy.  Larger than life characters, both were temporarily resident at Brussels’ luxurious Astoria Hotel following the city’s fall to the Germans in late summer 1914.  The ruthless German Governor of Brussels, Field-Marshall Colmar von der Goltz had little idea of what awaited him when these two women, independently, set about battering his defenses.  Who were they and why exactly were they there?


In August 1914, 47-year-old Millicent Duchess of Sutherland, an internationally renowned Society hostess, volunteered the services of the Millicent Duchess of Sutherland’s Hospital Unit to the Belgian Red Cross.  Having established a makeshift hospital in a convent in Namur, they were soon in direct and continuous line of fire of German heavy artillery.  When Namur fell on August 24th, they were trapped behind enemy lines.  Hastily burying one of her revolvers under a tree, tucking the other into her bloomers and, throwing all convention to the wind, Millicent laid siege to the German commander General von Bülow demanding her staff and their patients’ release.  In mid-September, no longer able to withstand the daily ducal bombardment, he ordered the imprisoned Unit to proceed to Brussels.  Let the Governor-General of the Belgian capital deal with the woman once dubbed “Meddlesome Milly”.  Ensconced (at German expense) in the Hotel Astoria, amused by the two sentries posted at the door of her suite, delighted by the excellent poached eggs and toast and her well-appointed bathroom (after the Spartan convent one), Millicent resumed the tactics she had used so effectively in Namur and demanded constant audiences with von Goltz.  Eventually the German Commander capitulated, contacting the Kaiser himself for advice about what to do with this woman who was running up a very sizable hotel bill and seemed determined not to understand that Germany faced more pressing concerns than what to do with a small voluntary Hospital Unit.


Perhaps having seen the bill, the Kaiser ordered the Unit’s release.  He foresaw endless trouble and expense if Millicent remained a prisoner.  Better, he felt, to save Germany the inconvenience and, to make ensure their immediate departure from their superior prison quarters, he underwrote the cost of the petrol of their return journey to England.


In her account Six Weeks at the War, Millicent warned, “spy fever rages on the Continent.”  However, the British authorities were dismissive, “I was told I was overstrung!”  Time would prove Millicent right.  Unbeknownst to her, another Astoria resident was poised to become a key player in the murky role of espionage.  As resolute as Millicent, she too had bombarded von Goltz.  Although he and she were on the same side, he would have been forgiven for doubting this.  Her name: Elisabeth Schragmüller.


In 1908, despite few German universities accepting women students, Elisabeth entered the Fribourg-en-Brisgau university.  An able linguist, she proved so brilliant that she was reluctantly allowed to continue her studies.  The first German woman to earn a doctorate in Political Economy, her wealthy family considered her outstanding brain an inconvenience for a female.  Dubbed ‘Fraulein Doktor’ Elisabeth began social work amongst what she termed ‘the broad strain of the population and with the working-class; this increased her knowledge and understanding of human psychology, skills she would put to excellent use in the service of her beloved Fatherland.


When war broke out, cursing fate that she was female, she hastened to German-occupied Brussels.  Her sister who was performing a suitably feminine role as a nurse, begged her to do nothing that might endanger the family’s reputation.  Residing at the Astoria, Elisabeth daily waylaid von der Goltz demanding a job.  As worn down by her as he would be by Millicent, he shunted her off to a backwater, a military office handling mail confiscated from Belgian soldiers.  Her ability to pick out every vital nugget of information and create a bigger picture to provide military commanders with an accurate overview of troop morale and movements drew the attention of Walter Nicolaï, Head of the German Intelligence Bureau.  He sent her to be trained in military intelligence.  His staff were outraged when they discovered that she was to head up the entire anti-French Intelligence Bureau.  Unheard of for a woman working alongside members of the German Army, she was placed in charge of the recruitment and training of agents as well as de-briefing them after their mission across the entire Western theatre.  To her, every aspect of intelligence gathering was a ‘mind game’ which she relished and played to the very best of her superb intellectual abilities.


She set high standards for those whom she recruited.  What Millicent had termed “systematic espionage”, was a skill which could be taught and learnt, not an adventure to be undertaken for cheap thrills and a quick buck.  From her brief career in social work, she realized that a good spy can be found in unlikely places.  An illiterate florist and a music-hall artiste in Marseille proved amongst her most effective agents, responsible for sinking thousands of tons of Allied shipping and contributing to France’s defeat on the Chemin des Dames.


What of the Astoria itself?  Having accommodated the highest echelons of the German Army between 1914 and 1918, in 1919 Brussels’ premier hotel resumed its glittering pre-war life where anyone who was anyone went to be seen.  Its distinguished guest list for the 20th century includes the Crown Prince of Japan, the Shah of Persia, Winston Churchill, David Ben Gurion, Arthur Rubinstein and of course, Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland and Fraulein Doktor Elisabeth Schragmüller.


Read about more extraordinary women during World War One in historian Viv Newman’s books:

We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War

Pen and Sword: or Amazon

Nursing Through Shot and Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story

Pen and Sword: or Amazon

Tumult and Tears: The Story of the Great War Through the Eyes and Lives of its Women Poets Pen and Sword: or Amazon

Singer, Siren, Spy: The Undercover World of Agent Régina Diana will be published by Pen and Sword n November 2017


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