Russian Romances: Emotionalism and Spirituality in the Writings of "Eastern Front" Nurses, 1914-1918

Article excerpt

Abstract. The nursing work of the First World War is usually associated with the trench warfare of the Western Front. Nurses were based within fairly permanent casualty clearing stations and field hospitals, and patients were moved "down the line" to base hospitals, and then to convalescent hospitals "at home." The nurses and volunteers who worked on the Eastern Front and offered their services to the letuchka or "flying columns" of the Russian medical services had a very different experience. They worked with highly mobile units, following a rapidly moving "front line." The diaries of three British (one Anglo-Russian) nurses who worked alongside Russian nursing sisterhoods in three different flying columns-Violetta Thurstan (Field Hospital and Flying Column), Florence Farmborough (With the Armies of the Tsar) and Mary Britnieva (One Woman's Story)-stand as an important corpus of nursing writing. Written in a highly romantic style, they take up similar themes around their work on the Eastern Front as a heroic journey through a dreamlike landscape. Each nurse offers a portrayal of the Russian character as fine and noble. The most important themes deal with the romance of nursing itself, in which nursing work is portrayed as both character-testing and a highly spiritual pursuit.

The Great War of 1914-1918 conjures images in most Western European minds of the fixed, unmoving warfare of the Western Front, of months spent holding down a devastated strip of land, followed by the occasional push forward and the acquisition of a few square miles in exchange for hundreds of casualties. 1 People in England and the United States through the 20th century were educated and acculturated to view the war in terms of the relentless boredom and inconsequentiality of trench warfare. 2 In other parts of the world the war has a different image. In Australia and New Zealand the annihilation of thousands of men on the rugged cliffs behind Anzac Cove is part of a national mythology. There, in 1915, troops moving into the Gallipoli Peninsula met fierce Turkish resistance and were unable to advance. Stories about the courage and tenacity of these troops fighting in an untenable situation have done much to fuel myths of the First World War as a conflict in which heroic troops were led by callous and inadequate generals. In Southern Europe, it is the heroic Serbian retreat of 1915 and the grueling travel through the Italian Alps that has captured the imagination. 3 The troops of Germany and its allies had advanced so rapidly into Serbia that British and Serbian forces were forced to flee, along with a large section of the populace, across the Alps in winter, with many dying of starvation and exposure. The advance through the Italian Alps toward the end of the war was seen as a dramatic reversal of fortune.

The Russians experienced a Great War that was very different from any other. Theirs was a mobile war that ranged over thousands of miles, with massive, rapid advances, and precipitous retreats. 4 The nurses who participated in the Eastern campaigns had a very different experience from those who nursed in the fixed casualty clearing stations and base hospitals of the Western Front. Although Russia had military hospitals, they were often many hundreds of miles from a rapidly moving front. Much of the immediate and urgent medical and nursing care was undertaken by staffattached to letuchka, or "flying columns": mobile hospitals housed in makeshift accommodation or tents, carried on cumbersome wooden horsedrawn wagons, but often moving almost as rapidly as an army.5

The experience of nurses in these settings has been captured by the writings of three women-two English and one Anglo-Russian. Violetta Thurstan was a fully trained British professional nurse who offered her services to the Russian Red Cross, and was taken on by a flying column that left Moscow in 1914. 6 Thurstan had already experienced a perilous adventure. After working for several months in a field hospital in Belgium, she had experienced the bombardment of Antwerp and been taken prisoner, along with a number of colleagues, by the German army. …