Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians played an important role during the First World War. As early as 4 August 1914, she placed a part of the Royal Palace in Brussels at the disposal of the Belgian Red Cross, for use as a hospital for victims of the war. The first head of this hospital was the famous Belgian surgeon Dr Antoine Depage, who was soon succeeded by Dr Louis Leboeuf, the private doctor of King Albert and Queen Elisabeth.
After leaving Brussels and, subsequently, Antwerp when that city fell, the royal couple moved to De Panne on the Belgian coast, near the French border. Queen Elisabeth asked Dr Depage to establish a large hospital in the neighbourhood of their residence in De Panne. Depage accepted, as this gave him an opportunity to treat wounded soldiers very close to the front line. The headquarters of the Belgian army were not keen on the idea, because they found it too dangerous. But Queen Elisabeth pushed her proposal through and took immediate steps to make it a reality. She obtained the L’Océan hotel in De Panne, and organised the opening of the hospital on 20 December 20 1914. L’Océan became the biggest hospital in unoccupied Belgium during the First World War; some 24,000 soldiers and civilians were cared for there during the war.
Once it opened, the Queen was a frequent visitor to the hospital. She never worked on a permanent base as a nurse (although there was a myth of the ‘Queen-nurse’ after the war), but from time to time she assisted Dr Depage during operations and bandaged wounded soldiers. Her main role was at the level of morale: she boosted the morale of the soldiers by comforting and encouraging them; she sent flowers and distributed chocolates and fruit. She also gave presents to the nurses and showed her appreciation of their work; this played an important role in the recognition of the nursing profession and in the acceptance of non-religious nurses.
Belgian army’s symphonic orchestra
The Queen was also very active in fundraising for the hospital. It was not by chance that L’Océan was called ‘the Queen’s hospital’. The Queen kept in touch with a great many artists during the war. At L’Océan, she encouraged the organisation of concerts and the staging of plays, in order to help the wounded soldiers relax and to arouse their interest in art. She played an important role in the creation of the ‘artistic section’ of the Belgian army (which exempted 26 painters from military service and gave them the opportunity to concentrate on their paintings), and motivated the painters by visiting their exhibitions and buying their works. She was also involved in the founding of the Belgian army’s symphonic orchestra and of a theatre at the front. She had numerous contacts with writers like Emile Verhaeren and with musicians like Eugène Ysaÿe, who was her violin teacher. The Queen was also a passionate photographer during the war: she took thousands of pictures, which documented the daily life of soldiers and proved that as a Queen she stood with ‘her’ soldiers.
Walking and cycling in the footsteps of Queen Elisabeth
One hundred years after the Great War, a useful and free walking and cycling map takes you to all the most important locations, war relics and commemorative monuments in De Panne. Discover this and other cycle and walking routes.