In October, 1917, I was asked whether I was willing to go to Petrograd to nurse wounded Russians. My friends all tried to dissuade me, saying that it was folly to go to a country in the state of upheaval in which Russia already was, but the opportunity seemed too good to be missed, and the evening of the 19th October saw me at St. Pancras en route for Aberdeen and Petrograd. As a send-off, there was an air raid! It was here I met Sister Conway, with whom I was to make the journey.
The passage across the North Sea was rough, but uneventful. We were told the crossing was time worst the “Louth” had so far experienced.
From Bergen, where we landed, the railway to Christiania winds through glorious scenery, following the shores of the fjords and then climbing through the Finsta Pass at an altitude of 4000ft, the highest point on the line. The Norwegians are justly proud of this line, which has only been completed in very recent years.
We spent a day in Christiania, and a day in Stockholm. The latter is a very beautiful city; built on islands.
From Stockholm we went to Haparanda, and crossed the frontier to Torneo by steam-ferry. Torneo is the Finnish frontier, and is situated only twenty miles from the Arctic Circle. It was here we had our first experience of the Russian Tommy, who was already showing signs of becoming a “tovarish” (comrade, since degenerated into an epithet amongst educated people) and of his growing independence. I cannot say that my first impressions were favourable. The Russian soldier doing duty as a Customs official struck me as a particularly slovenly and dirty individual, so that the sight of the batman attached to the King’s Messenger was a relief to sore eyes! (We were fortunate enough to be travelling from England in company with the King’s Messenger and some British officers, who saved us from starvation more than once!) It would be only fair to say that I had occasion to modify this opinion later, for on a closer acquaintance I found that the Russian soldier, despite his many faults, was quite a lovable creature.
It was at Haparanda that Sister Conway and I made the unfortunate discovery that our luggage had gone astray. When I say “unfortunate” it proved to be rather the contrary, since it was the means of our making the acquaintance of some friends, one of whom brought our luggage on, and who afterwards did much to render our stay enjoyable, for we had no acquaintances in Petrograd.
The journey from Torneo to Petrograd is not particularly interesting. The line runs through a country of lakes and forests, beautiful enough in itself, but rather monotonous.
We arrived in Petrograd at the dirty Finnish station at 3 a.m., to find no one to meet us. Once again our British officer friends helped us out of our difficulties. No one who has not been to Russia can realise the absolute helplessness of the foreigner without a word of Russian at his command faced with the problem of explaining to an “isvostchik ” (driver of the diminutive Petrograd cabs) where he wants to go. However, all’s well that ends well, and we got to our destination safely, despite all the scaremongers on the way, who had assured us that the hospital had been evacuated to Moscow, and that we should never get to Petrograd, where murders were taking place in the streets in broad daylight. Arrived at the hospital, we found only night sisters on duty, and had to go on to the Club, some five minutes away, where we were given a good reception and found the baths and beds of which we were so badly in need.
The following day we began our duties. I was placed in a fracture ward of sixty beds under a trained sister and with a Russian princess to act as interpreter. Here, for the first time, I met with women “sanitars ” (orderlies) who were dressed as soldiers, many of them belonging to the Women’s Battalion. It was an amusing experience to be surrounded by patients with whom one could only converse by gesture, but I quickly picked up the few words needed.
In November came the Bolshevik uprising, with the consequent overthrow of more or less responsible government, and from that time, or until I left, I can honestly say no day passed without shooting in the streets in some quarter of the city. Every other man carried a rifle on his back. Frequently as we walked back to the Club we would be surprised by shots apparently coming from nowhere. However, no one belonging to the Hospital was ever hit. Occasionally wounded would be brought in from the streets, but casualties were remarkably few in comparison to the amount of firing. Curiously enough. although machine-guns might be playing down the street, the trams never stopped running – simply, I suppose, because it never occurred to the drivers to stop. The theatres remained open, and were fairly full, and often when driving back in a sleigh from the Mariensky Theatre, where Sister Conway and I enjoyed many a good opera at the invitation of our friends of the lost luggage, we would hear shots fired in close proximity. While speaking of theatres, I shall never forget the splendor and lavishness of the staging at the Mariensky Theatre. The opera “Boris Godonov” will always stand out in my mind in this respect. I feel ashamed to say how often I approached Matron with thee plea for late leave for the Mariensky Theatre. Towards the end of my stay it became a standing joke with her to ask me to what opera I was going; that evening whenever I happened to be near her.
My friends told me I could not see Petrograd as it should have been, as a great deal of its attraction had disappeared with the Revolution. What I did see of it was sufficient to show me how interesting it must have been, though, apart from the opera, I had little enough time to see the city. All the big churches are interesting, especially the St. Isaac Cathedral, and their gilded domes and spires on a fine winter’s day are quite dazzling in the sunlight. The tramways were rather amusing, as they carried clusters of human beings clinging to every conceivable projection, and nobody ever seemed to pay. Driving in the little sleighs, where the driver is more or less standing in a slot and there is no back to the seat, was very amusing if sometimes rather chilly. There is a very good chance of overturning, as the roads are no longer swept, and so one travels up hill and down dale over heaps of snow. The isvostchik protects himself against the extreme cold by an infinite number of coats. I was told that to be smart the driver of a private carriage or sleigh must look fat, and that be sometimes wore as many as nine overcoats to achieve this object! I shall never forget the black bread of Petrograd. It was a mixture of straw, Iceland moss, potato flour and a suspicion of rye flour, the whole only half baked and often sour. Despite all the drawbacks of life in a country where one lived in an atmosphere of rumours, and where one never knew what the morrow would bring forth; it was with a feeling of real regret that I learnt one evening from our C.O. that conditions rendered it impossible for the British Staff of the Hospital to remain in Petrograd. Group by group we were sent home, and on the 22nd December, I left with the last of the working staff for England.
Several of our patients begged to be taken to England. By this time I had learnt to appreciate the Russian Tommy, and although naturally, among so great a number, there were bound to be one or two black sheep, on the whole they were very good fellows. Even the black sheep were not wholly bad, as witness the case of a Bolshevik sailor, wounded during the uprising. His friends accused us of not looking after him properly (quite unjustifiably), but he at once spoke up and said it was not true.
A curious custom, was the singing of grace before meals. All the patients who could get up assembled in the Dining Hall, and intoned this grace standing. It was quite an impressive ceremony.
Many patients gave me photographs with inscriptions in pigeon English and promises to write. They were all so grateful for what we had done for them, and did not appear to view the taking over of the Hospital by the Russian Authorities with any enthusiasm. As a matter of fact, shortly after our departure the Hospital was closed, as being too expensive to maintain, and the fate of our poor patients is a matter of conjecture.
We left the Finnish Station in the early hours of December 22nd. We had been warned to take food with us, as none was to be had until Haparanda was reached, so we were well provided with Army rations. Our friends of the lost luggage gave us two white loaves as a great treat; a gift worth its weight in gold at that time! At every station soldiers or Red Guards boarded the train and searched everything, but did not otherwise inconvenience us. We suffered from a shortage of washing water, which was absolutely lacking. The crossing from Torneo to Haparanda took place at dead of night, and this time we crossed the frozen river on sleighs. At Haparanda the medical formalities were long and tedious, our pulses and temperatures were taken, tongues and throats looked at, &c. The next day -Christmas Day – was spent in the train, and Matron greeted me at the door of the compartment with an extra ration of tea for a Christmas present! And a very welcome present it was. We arrived in Stockholm that night, where we celebrated our Christmas dinner. In Christiania we spent a couple of days, and then went on to Voss, a little village four hours’ rail front Bergen. Here we waited some ten days for the boat, and, I had the opportunity of learning to ski. The hotel was filled with the staff of the Anglo Russian Hospital and other English people, and we were quite a cheerful party – even the extreme chilliness of the hotel could not cool our spirits. We crossed from Bergen on our old friend the “Louth” without escort‘, and the journey was rather rough. We went right up to the Shetlands before turning south to Aberdeen, and I felt very proud of myself, as I was one of the few who were not ill. It was good to be home again.