Clam-Gallas family correspondence provides moving testimony of the two world wars – Part I

Count Franz Clam-Gallas (centre, in uniform), the great-grandfather of Christine Kelly

Christine Kelly is the granddaughter of Edina Winkelbauer, nee Clam-Gallas (1889-1970), a member of the old nobility who was a nurse with the Knights of Malta on the Italian front in WW I. On her mother's death Christine Kelly inherited a collection of more than 500 letters – correspondence between members of her family during World War I and World War II. The letters her grandmother sent from the front and others exchanged by family members during World War II are a moving document of the times and reveal how the wars changed her family’s fortunes and impacted the lives of her ancestors. In an interview for Czech Radio Christine Kelly explains how much insight she gained through this precious family legacy.

Coat of arms of Clam-Gallas family
“When I read the letters from WWI about my grandmother becoming a nurse I realized that she was a great patriot. She just wanted to do the right thing for her country. You can imagine, seven girls, no sons and my grandmother’s sister said in her memoirs that the worst disappointment of her life was that she could not wear the uniform of the Kaiser. I think these girls wanted to be sons for their father. And when the war came they thought they must do something for the Kaiser. My grandmother felt it wasn’t enough if she stayed home and worked for the Red Cross, she wanted to go out and be a nurse in the war. Her mother was not very happy with this idea, but her father said OK, if you really want this, I will arrange it – and so she became a nurse with the Knights of Malta. My great-grandmother was afraid and said it is terrible, a young woman alone, that’s not a good thing. But my grandmother, she was very tough, she was not emotional, she was a hard-working simple woman. She changed her name when she went to the front because she did not want people to know who she was. She wanted to work like a simple person and just prove that she was a good nurse because she worked hard, not because she was the daughter of so-and-so. She wanted to be anonymous and so she changed her name. She was not a feminist in a modern way, but she was very modern for her time and I think that for women in this period who had no role in society except to make a good marriage, have children and obey the rules, the war was an opportunity to do something different. I think my grandmother must have promised her mother when she went that she would write every day because even after working for days and nights she would sit down and write a letter instead of going to bed. You read that over and over again. She was very aware that she had a responsibility to write to her parents and say she was OK.”

Count Franz Clam-Gallas (centre, in uniform), the great-grandfather of Christine Kelly
So the letters are great documentary material….

“It is amazing documentary material. Incredible. And when you read the family history the essential thing about it – especially as concerns my great-grandfather is that he never thought of himself as the owner of this area, but rather as someone who is meant to look after this area so that he can pass it on to the next generation. He had 27 churches to support, maintain, repair, pay for, he had dozens of schools, homes for old people, he made camps for schoolchildren in the summer time and he felt this was his duty – this was what you did - if you had the responsibility of owning the land you must do something for the people. And when the Land Reform Act came in 1918, which was a very bad moment for my family, what you read in the letters over and over again is what will become of our people, what will happen to them? Not – oh, it is terrible that we don’t have our land anymore, but what are we going to do about our people. So the patriotism and the love of the land is very obvious in the letters.”

Nová Louka, photo: Rawac, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Could you see from these letters how the war and its outcome reflected on your family, your great-grandfather?

“For him these changes were terrible. He was shocked and broken and the changes came gradually, they did not all come in 1918. I think it took them a while to take it in. I think shortly after the war the family had to sell some land, some was taken away and other things had to be sold and his most favourite place in Bohemia was Nova Luka. He lost that in 1928, maybe he had to sell it, I am not sure, but shortly before he died he said - soon this will be gone and then I can die. Because for him this was the worst tragedy – this beautiful place, the beautiful woods that was his heart – and when that went he died very soon after. It broke his heart.”

Illustrative photo: Simon Howden,
And the letters express these feelings?

“Well, not really, because the letters describe what my grandmother felt about her own patriotism and then as the war is coming to an end and everything is getting more dramatic she stops talking about her patriotism and starts talking about surviving. Because the war was so dramatic where they were and the casualties were so terrible. They would have so many wounded people in one day. The wounded often had to be transported to hospital on makeshift stretchers and many died of blood loss during the rough journey and then the earth had a microbe that as soon as the wound touched the earth you developed gangrene. So the soldiers would arrive and within hours they would have gangrene. And the surgeons would start to cut of legs and arms and at the end of the day the pile of arms and legs was taller than they were. So she didn’t talk about what will our life be like after the war – she was talking about how shockingly horrible this was. And then when the war ended they had to go on foot through the Brenner Pass. It’s amazing because she had very little experience in the world. These girls were very sheltered – they had a governess, they wore the same dresses, they led such a sheltered life and my grandmother was a shy girl with no idea of anything. And when she came back from the war she had the confidence to give directions and mace decisions - Before the war, and her new found independence, she had never told anyone what to do. Being a nurse was her coming of age.”