Saturday, August 18, 2018

Guilty of murder

‘I was at my post by 8 a.m. Two men have died, one after a trepanning operation, the other when he was being carried to the operating-table. It has been an unhappy day for me, because I have been through a very trying experience. Perhaps, by writing down all the facts clearly, my mind may be eased of some of its guilt. ‘Guilt’ is a strong word to use, but I was told during the afternoon by Ivan Ivanovich, our head dispenser, that I could consider myself “guilty of murder”.’ This is from the ‘compelling’ diary of Florence Farmborough, a young British nurse who worked for the Russian Red Cross during the First World War, and who died 40 years ago today.

Farmborough was born in 1887 in Buckinghamshire, the fourth child of a family of six, and named after Florence Nightingale, a friend of the family. In 1908, she went to Kiev as a child’s companion and teacher. And then, two years later, she moved to Moscow to take another position as English tutor to the daughters of a heart surgeon. During the First World War, she trained as a nurse at a hospital established by Princess Golitsin in Moscow. In early 1915, she joined a Russian mobile medical unit as a surgical nurse. Her unit was usually very close to the action on the Eastern Front, and often confronted daily with hundreds of wounded.

After returning to Britain in 1918, Farmborough was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1926, she moved to Valencia, Spain, where she lectured in English, and then to Salamanca. She was a supporter of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and made radio propaganda broadcasts to English speaking-countries. Her book, Life and People of Spain, was published in 1938. She later returned to England and worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service during the Battle of Britain, becoming particularly involved in the rehabilitation of Spanish-speaking Gibraltarians.

Farmborough later spent four years as a government censor in Jamaica, checking correspondence to and from South America. Back in England, she settled at Sompting near Worthing, Sussex, and gave Russian lessons at her home to pupils from the local high school. Later she moved to Newton Abbot. She made a return visit to Russia in 1962, and visited the Holy Land in 1966. In the mid-1970s, she was the subject of a BBC documentary. She was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the British Red Cross. She died on 18 August 1978. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Lives of the First World War, Working Nurse, Imperial War Museum, and

While working as a nurse with the Russian army Farnborough also acted as a 
war correspondent for the BBC and The Times, carrying a glass-plate camera, tripod and darkroom essentials from camp to camp; her many photographs are now held by the Imperial War Museum, and are considered of historical importance. She also kept a diary, often written on scraps of paper. However, it was not until the 1970s, when she was already an old woman, that she decided to edit the diary, subsequently published by Constable as Nurse at the Russian Front - A Diary 1914-18. Since then, it has become a source book for those studying the Great War, the realities of war, and women’s roles in war - see here for example. Reviewers at Good Reads rate the book as compelling, heartbreaking, fascinating. Here are several extracts. (I have listed them by their date in the Western calendar, but have also included, in brackets, the date as given in the book, Russian style, i.e. 13 days behind behind the Western calendar.) 

3 June (21 May) 1916
‘I was told that in Hut 131 a sick woman needed attention. At length I found her, a young mother, sick with typhoid, and her baby. We Sisters are doing our level best to instil into the village-folk the urgent need to boil all their drinking-water - an idea which seems unable to take root in the peasant mind. The same old argument is raised: his parents never drank boiled water, why should he? But we persist. They listen attentively, but their minds are quite impervious to the meaning of ‘pollution’ and ‘contamination’.

Before retiring for the night, it was whispered around that a great battle was expected within the next twenty-four hours, but we sceptically went off to sleep, having heard it so often before.’

27 June (14 June) 1916
‘I was told that well over 200 men had passed through our Unit today; I was also told something that almost took my breath away: that some 3,000 men are to come to us during the next few days to be fed, as the Zemski Soyuz has arranged that enormous supplies of food should be stored in the town under our unit’s supervision. This will entail a vast amount of extra work for our Letuchka; luckily, however, the regiments concerned have agreed to send us extra help.

I sat in the operating-room, awaiting further newcomers. I think that I must have slept, for when I opened my eyes, my watch was pointing to midnight, and all around was very quiet. At 6 a.m. more wounded arrived. One of them had a most unusual wound; a bullet had entered his body at the shoulder-blade, gone down his right side and lodged in his thigh. After an early breakfast, we resumed our work. I extracted a bullet from the upper left arm of a young soldier; it was not a difficult extraction, for the tail-end of the bullet was visible, but even after the wound was cleansed and bandaged, he continued to weep and moan: “Sestritsa, bolit! bolit! [Little Sister, it hurts!].” I was washing the face of another young soldier, a face covered with grime, dust and dried blood. “Sestritsa,” my patient said, with an attempt at a smile. “Leave it dirty! I shall not go visiting any more.” At first I thought that he was joking and some light-hearted repartee was on the tip of my tongue; then I saw the ugly gash on his head and I understood what he meant.

One of the stomach patients had deteriorated greatly in the last few hours. The craving for water was on him; it was all that a Brother and I could do to prevent him from throwing himself off his straw mattress. In his delirium he cried out that he and his comrades were drinking from a great river, and that he was drinking, drinking, always drinking.

In the tent which housed the sick, the patients were less restless. One soldier refused to drink because the water given to him had been boiled; he vowed that boiled water always gave him colic. A young Tatar assured me that if only I would allow him to sit up and smoke, in two days’ time he would be up and about again; but as things were, he said that it was Plokhoye delo! Ochen plokhoye delo! [Bad business! Very bad business!].’

30 July (17 July) 1916
‘About 70 wounded came during the night while I was on duty. I have heard that the 103rd Regiment has managed to cross the River Koronez and occupy Dubenko, half of which town had been in its possession for several days past. The 102nd Regiment has gone into reserve for three days after three and a half months in the trenches.

Our next attack is timed for 4 p.m. The guns have been blazing away. Mamasha and I slipped away for a few minutes, climbed a small hill and crouched on its summit among waving corn and wild flowers. From our vantage point, we could see the Front spread before us. Shells were falling, throwing up blackish clouds of earth about our trenches; farther away, our shells were engaged in similar action near the enemy’s defensive ramparts. Shrapnel was exploding in mid-air, leaving puffs of slowly dissolving smoke behind, and scattering bullets and metal particles to right and left. We picked a few flowers and returned to our quarters.

Dusk had scarcely descended when cartload after cartload of wounded made their appearance. Difficulty arose regarding transport; the highways round Barish were under fire and our ambulance-vans in urgent request alongside the Fighting Lines. We placed the men on the straw-strewn earth in the empty sheds, told them to rest awhile and, at the earliest opportunity, they should be driven to the Base. A young Tatar, heavily wounded, was carried to the operating-table. He could speak no Russian and vainly tried to whisper something to us which we could not understand. One of our Tatar drivers was sent for; he stooped low over the prostrate form, but no answer came to his eager questioning. “He’s gone!” said a voice. The weather-beaten face of the older tribesman stiffened with emotion as he walked away. An infantry officer whose thigh-wound had been dressed and bandaged, declared that he could walk without difficulty; he was most anxious to help and assured us that he had taken a first aid course before joining the Army. He was allowed to tend the more lightly wounded and this he did with considerable skill, but insisted on wearing rubber gloves which, he said, gave him greater confidence and grip.’

26 August (13 August) 1916
I was at my post by 8 a.m. Two men have died, one after a trepanning operation, the other when he was being carried to the operating-table. It has been an unhappy day for me, because I have been through a very trying experience. Perhaps, by writing down all the facts clearly, my mind may be eased of some of its guilt. ‘Guilt’ is a strong word to use, but I was told during the afternoon by Ivan Ivanovich, our head dispenser, that I could consider myself “guilty of murder”. It seems strange to write these words, but the whole scene was strange. I was watching over three men who had recently been operated on, but were gradually losing their hold on life. Our surgeons had seen them in the morning, had said that there was nothing more that one could do for them, only “tend them to the end”. One of the three was the stomach case, operated on during the previous night. He had regained consciousness, but found it difficult to speak; he could articulate only one word: Vo da [water]. I would shake my head; tell him gently that he must not drink; when he would be stronger, water would be given to him. I could see that he was dying, but his cries for water were insistent; he was beseeching, imploring; his thirst must have been agonising. Near one of the other men, a mug of water was standing. He had seen it and, raising an arm, pointed towards it. His eyes challenged mine; they were dying eyes, but fiercely alight with the greatness of his thirst. I reasoned with myself: if I give no water, he will die tormented by his great thirst; if I give him water, he will die, but his torment will be lessened. In my weakness and compassion, I reached for the mug; his burning eyes were watching me; they held suspense and gratitude. I put the mug to his lips, but he seized my arm and tilted the mug upwards. The water splashed into his open mouth, sprayed his face and pillow, but he was swallowing it in noisy gulps. When I could free my arm from his grasp, the mug was empty.

I was deeply distressed and knew that I was trembling. I wiped his face dry and he opened his eyes and looked at me; in them, I saw a great thankfulness, an immense relief. But, before I could replace the mug, a strange, gurgling sound came from him, and, out of his mouth, there poured a stream of thick, greenish fluid; it spread over the stretcher-bed and flowed on to the floor. His eyes were closed and . . . he had stopped breathing. I ran to the door; in the yard stood a Brother and Ivan Ivanovich. “Come quickly,” I begged them. They followed me in, but there was nothing that one could do, for he was dead. Ivan Ivanovich seemed to take in the whole picture at a glance. “Have you given him water to drink?” he asked. “Yes,” I nodded. “His thirst was terrible.” “Then you have killed him,” he said, and added: “Quite simply, you have killed him.” “He was dying,” I gasped. “So you thought you would put the finishing touch!” Shrugging his shoulders, he left the room. The Brother called an orderly and together they washed the dead man and carried him to the mortuary-shed.

I remained in the room until one of them returned. I felt cold and lifeless; as though some violent thing had struck me unawares. Only Mamasha was in our room; she was the last person whom I wished to see; she was so practical and undemonstrative, but I felt that I had to tell somebody. She listened patiently. Then she said: “You are very silly to let these things prey on your mind. You were certainly wrong in disobeying orders, but this kind of thing is happening every day in our abnormal world at the Front. As to Ivan Ivanovich, I have always said that the man is a knave or a fool, or both. In the circumstances, and knowing that death was near, I am sure that, had I been in your place, I should have done exactly the same thing.’’ “Mamasha,” I sobbed. And then for the first time in our long acquaintance, Mamasha took me into her arms and I could feel the throbbing of her motherly heart, comforting and consoling. It didn’t hurt half so much after that. I knew that all my life I should have the grievous memory of hastening a soldier’s death through my disobedience; but, at the same time, there would be another less grievous memory: that of a pair of dying eyes looking at me with infinite gratitude. Throughout the evening, the wounded were being brought to us. We buried our many dead as dusk fell, with prayers, music and the silent homage of soldiers who were stationed in the vicinity.’

21 June (8 June) 1917
‘Enemy aeroplanes had been over about 4 a.m. and awakened us; discontented murmurings came from most beds. We took turns in washing, with as little water as possible. Once or twice we had tried to persuade Rupertsov, our tent-boy, to scrounge another bucketful for us. He would screw his face up and shake his head. Smirnov’s tent was next door to the water-cart and woe betide the person who tried to steal more than his share, for Smirnov knew each one’s quota to a spoonful. Our water-cart had to go to Bojikov to be filled, so we had been warned not to be extravagant.’

27 October (14 October) 1917
‘I was still dressing when the father returned. Outside in the street a little group of mourners stood; two were carrying an empty coffin; another was holding a discoloured banner. There was no priest. They took the boy’s body, which we had wrapped in a sheet, and laid it in the coffin. The father came hastily toward me, bowed low and kissed my hand. I do not know whether he saw the tears in my eyes. As they moved away, they began to sing a dirge-like chant.

In the evening, we were told that all the Red Cross Otryads of the Zemski Soyuz would be disbanded, with three exceptions: the 1st, 5th and 10th. So we, the 10th, would, thank God, remain!’

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