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18th May 1915

I find the campaigns in Russia absolutely fascinating, but I didn't know that so many British women served on the front.


I wanted Celestine and Marjorie to be as authentically there as possible.


The method I used was the same as before, mapping their lives against historically accurate ones and following a general notion that the observer - in this case either Florence Farmborough or Violetta Thurstan - had been in the same unit but had neglected to mention them.


Marjorie, therefore, was captured by the Germans in a forward dressing station in October 1914, which was the fate of Violetta Thurstan in THE HOUNDS OF WAR UNLEASHED, who was sent behind the lines, eventually being liberated into Denmark.


From here she went to Russia via Finland. She’s very much followed the wartime route of Violetta Thurstan (detailed in another of her books, FIELD HOSPITAL AND FLYING COLUMN, which is available as a pdf at She leaves Russia in early 1915 but the book is fascinating. Before we leave Violetta, though, I would like to recommend her TEXTBOOK OF WAR NURSING which is available in cheap-ish scanned reprints. It's an amazing read; want to build a tented hospital from scratch? Full instructions. What 70-plus items should a dispensary always have? Listed right here. How to make seven different types of poultice, what they are for, how to tie them on. How to make ice-cold water using an old stocking. Coffee or red wine enemas as stimulants. Puts you in the room, truly.)


On the spot though is Florence Farmborough, as described in   NURSE AT THE RUSSIAN FRONT, an Abebooks-type paperback.


As with the Autumn Offensive of 1914, the Germans have penetrated every Russian coded message being so carelessly broadcast - details of routes of retreat, counter-attack, everything. For example, they always change their codes at midnight. So a message in the old code sent before midnight is replied to in the new code in the morning. That is child’s play to decode, especially when they sometimes send messages in both keys, just to be doubly sure it gets through. Or in plain language explaining their previous coded message. And as for special false messages designed to deceive the enemy - they are always prefaced “Ignore this message, it is false”.


Once again, even though the Russians can clearly hear the Germans and their coded messages, a fatal sense of superiority we would recognise from the Allies on the Western Front means the Russians believe the Germans incapable of decoding their stuff. All the Penkala material we go into is authentic as well, as well as the Arendt system of listening devices Mickey knows so well.  


Everyone on the retreat is exhausted, dirty, hungry and frightened. Germans are often in the next field, even in the other wing of the building they are in. As soon as they are set up, they have to move: the retreat never stops.


Celestine has joined Marjorie after her unhappy time in London.


After training in Moscow (she’d be a governess to a famous surgeon’s children) Celestine joined Marjorie in a front line surgical unit, the 10th Otryad (Squad/unit) of the All-Russian Zemski Provincial Soyuz - just like Florence. This is run by a Zemstvo, a local government department not unlike a UK local council. The key point here is that this is a body founded in response to the 1905 revolution. There are official state and military medical units with whom they work in sync. But it is the Zemstvo units that seem to always be in the thick of the fighting – Orlando Figes' mighty THE PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY is very good on this stuff.


The Otryad has two Letuchkas (flying columns) of about fifty medical personnel and about 20 wagons, and a base. Celestine and Marjorie are in the 1st Flying Detachment. The fact a civilian unit is then attached to the 61st Division of the Russian Third Army (led by Radko-Demetriev) and sticks with it wherever it goes tells you something about the Russian military/civil mindset.


They were down on the front at Gorlice when the Germans attacked on May 2nd, and have been in an 80 mile retreat over the last 16 days, with no sleep. Florence was in


May 2 – Biecz, May 3 – Jaslo, May 4 – Frysztak, May 9 - Jaroslaw

May 15 – Zapalow, and today May 18 she’s in Ryszkowa Wola, 50° 4 0 N, 22° 52 0 E., so that's where they were, too.


Ryszkowa Wola is so close to the front line it is a matter of yards rather than miles. The previous day Florence transferred over to 62nd Division from the 61st, so although she never mentions it, she’s with the 62nd Sebastopol Infantry Division which comprises the 245th Berdyan Infantry Regiment, the 246th Bakhchi Sarai Infantry Regiment, the 247th Mariupol Infantry Regiment and the 248th Slavyanoserb Infantry Regiment. (This info is the best I can do with some unverifiable Russian ORBAT's). She does mention the regimental goat, Vaska. They are all reserve regiments rather than regulars, only called up in August 1914, and there are so many exemptions (being an only son or the sole adult male worker in their family being the biggest) that recruit calibre is low. They are up against elements of the German 11th Army.


Thurstan has some remarkable details: blackened wounds on the hands come off easily with peroxide, revealing them to be the powder burns of a self-inflicted wound. There’s the interesting idea that local peasants get to hear there is a hospital and turn up in a major casualty situation with their daily ailments, and on several occasions that completely crippled and badly injured men can rouse themselves from their death beds and run out if their terror about the shelling reaches a high enough psychological peak.


Thurstan's HOUNDS is also an excellent read on the sheer grind that being in permanent retreat imposes on the participants. The enemy is imbued with buckets of victorious energy. You are sullen, tired, hungry, crawling back over land conquered just a few months ago. When someone chucks bloody and pus-covered swabs in the butter pail, just scrape it off and get spreading. They are low on anti-tetanus serum particularly, and chloroform so operations and amputations are conducted without anaesthetic.


Florence was amazed to see women soldiers fighting along with their husbands, and sex with Russian officers is strongly alluded to in HOUNDS.


If you've reached this far, you might be interested in a short essay I wrote to try to explain Russia's war in as short a space as possible for my fellow writers, producers and directors on TOMMIES - it's here.