Red Cross women on the Russian front during the Great War (WWI)

WHILE browsing the library stacks at one of our local universities, we stumbled across this report from the field. In this case, the field is the Russian front at the onset of The Great War (a.k.a. World War I) in 1914. The reporter is Stanley Washburn, the American war correspondent who saw first hand the work of Red Cross volunteers.

Stanley Washburn's "Field Notes From the Russian Front" references the Red Cross numerous times and includes a chapter on women serving during The Great War.

EVERY cloud, so the proverb runs, has its silver lining. Surely there can be no greater cloud than the ghastly shadow of war which lies all over Europe to-day, but equally true is it that this one also has its silver lining, a side filled with human sympathy, love and the best instincts of which the race is capable. This, of which I would write a few lines, is the world of devotion and beauty supplied by the sisterhood of the Red Cross in Russia at war to-day. For several weeks now we have travelled constantly amidst scenes of war and the wreckage that man has created among his fellows, and there has not been a day in all these weeks that the picture has not been softened by the presence everywhere of the gentle womanhood of this country, ministering to the smitten, and alleviating the suffering of those who have fallen before the tempest of shot and shell that has swept across this great zone in which we have been travelling.

As the troops have responded to the call to the colours, so the women and girls have given themselves broadcast to the work of alleviating the misery of the wounded, and of speaking the last low words of love and sympathy to those whose minutes upon this earth are dragging to their appointed end. Most significant of all to the stranger who has been led to believe that Russia is a land of two classes the aristocrat and the peasant is the democracy of the women. In response to the appeal to womanhood, there is here no class and no distinction, and one sees princess and humble peasant woman clad in the same sacred robe of the Red Cross. On more than one occasion I have discovered that the quiet, haggard-faced sister, whom I have questioned as to her work among the wounded, was a countess, or a member of the elite of Petrograd’s exclusive society.

As my mind runs back over the past days, a number of pictures stands clear in my mind as typical of the class of selfless, high-minded women whom the exigencies of war have called from their luxurious homes to the scenes of war’s horrors. In Lemberg [Lvov, Poland], just at twilight, I spent two hours in one of the huge barracks of misery in which were crystallized all the results of man’s ingenuity to destroy his fellow. There went with me the round of the wards a woman whose pale face and lines of sadness bespoke the drain on nerve and sympathy that weeks in the hospitals had involved. In her uniform frock and white-faced headgear, with the great red cross of mercy on her bosom, she seemed to typify womanhood at its very best. As we entered each ward every head was turned in her direction. At each bed she paused for a moment to pass a smooth, white hand, soft as silk, across the forehead of some huge, suffering peasant. Again and again the big men would seize her hand and kiss it gently, and as she passed down the line of beds every eye followed her with loving devotion such as one sees in the eyes of a dog.

During WWI, in hospitals such as this one in Tours, France, Red Cross Volunteers worked as nurses, nurses aids, and “searchers,” who tried to find information for families whose sons were wounded or had died. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

And in each bed was a story not a detail of which was unknown to the great-hearted gentle woman. Here was a man, she told me, the front of whose head had been smashed in by a shrapnel ball which had coursed down and come out at the back of the neck. “Two weeks ago,” she said,  “I could put two fingers up to my hand in this man’s brain. Yet we have fixed him up and he will recover,” and with an adorable movement she stooped quickly and patted the great, gaunt hand that lay upon the coverlet. And so we went from bed to bed. When she at last left me I asked the attending surgeon of her. “Ah, yes,” he said, “she is here always, and when there is a rush, I have known her to spend fifty hours here without sleep and with little food. Who is she ? Countess. There are many, many like her here.”

Again comes to mind a picture at Rawa Ruska. The street from the station is lined on both sides with hospitals. As I was returning to the hotel last night I paused beside an open window. Inside the room was an operating table, on which, beneath the dull rays of an oil lamp, was stretched the great body of one of Russia’s peasant soldiers. This point is near the battle line now, and many of the wounded come almost directly here from the trenches. The huge creature that now lay on the table was without coat, the sleeve of the left arm was rolled to the shoulder, and over him hovered two girls as beautiful as a man could wish to see. The one sitting on a high stool, held in her aproned lap the great, raw stump of bloody flesh that had been a hand, and even in the dull light one could see the smears of red upon her apron. As she tenderly held the hand, she spoke in a low and gentle voice to the soldier, whose compressed lips showed the pain his wound was costing, although no groan or murmur escaped him. The other girl, kneeling by his side, was sponging the hideous member with the gentleness of a mother handling a baby.

Chapter VIII, “The Women in the War,” Vladimir Valensky, Russia, October, 21, 1914, Field Notes from the Russian Front, by Stanley Washburn, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Author: American Red Cross

The American Red Cross provides relief to victims of disasters and helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. The Minnesota Region serves 5.2 million people across Minnesota and part of western Wisconsin.

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