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Austria’s ‘original influencer’: Ten weird facts about the Austrian Royal Family and Empress Sissi

The Austrian Royal Family will be the next to get The Crown treatment by Netflix, with a new series The Empress planned to be broadcast in spring next year. 

Empress Sissi
A portrait of Princess Sissi displayed in her Imperial Apartments in Venice.(Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP

Netflix’s The Empress will chart the life of the Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, commonly known as Sissi. She was the Empress of Austria for the latter half of the 19th century after marrying Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary as a teenager.

Starring German actress Devrim Lingnau in the main role, the six-part series will delve into the royal’s dramatic life, covering events such as her life at court, the tragic murder-suicide of her son and his young mistress, ending with Sissi’s assassination in 1898, when she was stabbed through the heart with a stiletto blade by an Italian anarchist.

Princess Sissi
A portrait of Empress Sissi By Emil Rabending – Scanned by User:Csanády, Photo: Public Domain

‘World famous’ trendsetter who washed hair in eggs and brandy

Princess Sissi was world famous in her lifetime as a fashion icon and trendsetter. Tall (172cm), but with a tiny waist measuring between 40cm and 50cm, she was famous for her physique and long hair, which reached to the floor.

Styling her mane took up to three hours every day, and her hairstyles were copied across Europe. One every three weeks she would wash her hair with raw eggs and brandy, a procedure which took an entire day.  

Raw meat juice anyone?

Sissi constantly starved herself with a diet of raw meat juices, eggs, oranges and raw milk. It’s reported she travelled with her own cow to ensure a regular supply of raw milk. In addition she wore tight corsets which shrank her waist even further.

Sissi adopted the practice of “tight lacing”, importing corsets from Paris such as those worn by French courtesans. Lacing could take up to an hour every morning. The Prince of Hesse is said to have described her as “almost inhumanly slender”.

Actor Romy Schneider is also famous for playing Empress Sissi in a previous adaptation (Photo by AFP)

Corset allowed her to survive longer after being stabbed through the heart, doctors believed

After Sissi was stabbed through the heart with a stiletto blade by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, she was able to stand again and walk some distance before fainting and dying later in her hotel.

Doctors theorised that her practice of reducing her waist in size to 19.5 ins (50cm) could have stopped her immediately bleeding to death, even though her rib, lungs and heart had all been pierced by the weapon. 

A portrait of Princess Sissi is displayed in the audience room of the Imperial apartments of the Royal Palace on December 3, 2012 at the Correr museum in Venice. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Gym bunny

As well as barely eating, Sissi had a long daily workout regime. She started the day with 20 pull ups on a specially designed home gym.

She then completed a self-devised workout using dumbbells and rings incorporating circus skills, before spending the day energetically hiking, fencing and riding. 

Raw veal face masks and goats’ milk baths

Sissi’s beauty routine rivalled Gywneth Paltrow’s for weirdness. She regularly wore a face mask lined with raw veal and crushed strawberries, bathed in goat’s milk and drank five salted egg whites a day to reduce bloating. 

Sissi often refused to be drawn or photographed once in her 30s

Nonetheless, fearing she was ageing, once she reached 32, Empress Sissi began to refuse to sit for portraits and photographs in an effort to retain her youthful image. This is believed to have only enhanced her mystique. 

These Chinese brides and grooms even hired a  Empress Sissi look-a-like after getting married at King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle.  (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)

She wasn’t a fan of court life and loved Hungary

Empress Sissi did not particularly like court life in Austria and often escaped to nearby Hungary, where she could live a more relaxed life away from her difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria.

She married her older sister’s suitor

Princess Sissi was not actually intended to marry Emperor Franz Joseph, who had been promised to her older sister. However, once he met Sissi, he decided to ditch the older sister for the younger one. 

Her son died in a murder-suicide pact, setting in train events which led to the start of the First World War

Princess Sissi is said to have never recovered from the death of her only son, Rudolf in a murder-suicide pact with his 17-year-old mistress Mary Vetsera in a hunting lodge in Mayerling in 1889. 

Ruldolf’s death changed the succession of the Habsburg monarchy, meaning the crown passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, and his eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The change of succession endangered relations with Hungary and indirectly set in motion the Archduke’s assassination. This event led to the First World War and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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The little-known story of the First World War soldiers buried in Copenhagen

After the Armistice of November 1918, British and British Empire prisoners of war in camps in northeastern Germany were transported back to Britain via Denmark, in what became known as the Danish Scheme.

The little-known story of the First World War soldiers buried in Copenhagen
A German prisoner of war camp for Indian soldiers during the First World War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One such soldier, Sepoy Bhader Khan, was on-board a hospital ship, the Formosa, when, on January 6th 1919, he died of a suspected heart condition. 

Bhader Khan was a regular soldier with the 59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force), a diverse regiment made up of Pashtuns, Sikhs, Dogras and Punjabi Muslims. He came from the village of Dhiot, near the town of Rawalpindi in modern-day Pakistan, then part of pre-partition, colonial India.

Following heavy losses in the opening months of the First World War, the British Army brought the professional soldiers of the Indian forces to Europe in September 1914 – Bhader Khan among them. 

They were soon in the thick of the fighting, holding the line in northern France and Belgium during one of the harshest winters on record. In October, the Scinde Rifles were in action at the battles of La Bassée and Armentieres in France, before moving north into Belgium to defend the town of Ypres.

It is likely that Bhader Khan was captured on December 20th 1914, when German troops attacked the British front line near the village of Givenchy. 

Indian prisoners reported being reasonably well looked after by their German captors, although the quality and quantity of food decreased markedly as the war progressed. They were also of great curiosity to the German medical staff and soldiery, but also to other prisoners, many of whom had never met a non-European.

An unrelated photograph of an Indian sepoy (soldier), thought to have been taken during WW1. Photo: Peter Curbishley/

After the end of the hostilities in November 1918, British prisoners of war, including those from countries which were then colonies, and civilian internees at camps in north eastern Germany were transported back to Britain via Denmark, in what was subsequently referred to as the Danish Scheme.

In cooperation with the Red Cross, Danish doctors and nurses were employed to assist in the medical treatment of the returning servicemen and civilians during their short stay in Denmark, with some of the returnees suffering from wounds, disease or malnutrition.

Bhader Khan was on this return journey onboard the Formosa when, on January 6th 1919, he died of a suspected heart condition.

He was buried in Copenhagen’s Western Cemetery (Vestre Kirkegård) on January 11th, along with two other soldiers who had recently died: Private Moody of the Australian Imperial Force, and Private Patience of the Wiltshire Regiment. All three were given a military funeral by British and Danish troops.

In accordance with Khan’s Muslim faith, the British had tried to get hold of a Muslim cleric who could take care of the necessary rituals such as washing the body, but they were not able to find one in the Danish capital.

Advice was sought from those who knew about Islamic burial traditions and a Captain Davidsen, who had lived for several years in Muslim countries in order to study their culture, was close at hand. 

The two other soldiers, Patience and Moody, were buried in a double grave while Khan was buried in a separate plot with his head facing Mecca. The first verse of the Quran was read, the Danish guard of honour fired a salute and “The Last Post” was played.

Bhader Khan's gravestone at Vestre Kirkegård, Copenhagen. Photo: CWGC

An estimated 192,000 servicemen from Britain and the countries which were then part of its empire were taken prisoner during the First World War. The majority would survive their captivity to return home, but some did not. In Germany alone, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates some 6,500 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War, most of whom died in captivity as prisoners of war.

Some 162,000 military and civilian personal were repatriated from Germany, of whom an estimated 40,000 were sent home via Denmark under the Danish Scheme, the majority travelling between November 1918 and January 1919.

Denmark was a favourable collecting and distributing centre for the thousands of POWs who might otherwise have to wait for months before they could be transported. The breakdown of the German railways and the potential congestion in France, Belgium and Holland; and the resources and information available at the British Red Cross in Copenhagen were key factors, as was the closeness of ports at Stettin and Danzig to Copenhagen.

The willingness of directors of Danish shipping companies to assist in the scheme, chartering ships and victualling them on a no-profit basis; the use of northern UK ports to hasten turnaround times; and the willingness of Red Cross personnel in Copenhagen to go to Berlin to arrange collection of the men at the ports were also part of the role played by the Danish capital.

Though many of those captured were wounded, the majority would survive their captivity to return home, but an unfortunate few would never see freedom again.

In a press statement, the CWGC urged people to pay tribute to servicemen and women who are buried far from home.

A tribute entitled Far From Home, Not Forgotten, is aimed at encouraging communities in the UK to discover and remember the stories of Commonwealth casualties whose war graves may be found in local cemeteries and churchyards – including Vestre Kirkegård.

“Thousands of Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during and after the First World War were buried far from home – their graves a lasting legacy of the extraordinary displacement caused by the war,” Liz Woodfield, CWGC’s director of information and communications, said in the press statement.

“We believe the remarkable stories of these men and women illustrate the diversity of the Allied war effort, and that this simple tribute… will show that we, as a grateful nation, have not forgotten their service or their sacrifice,” Woodfield said.

More information about the CWGC tribute can be found on the commission’s website and via its social media channels using @CWGC.

The historical accounts included in this article were provided to The Local by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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