Florence Farmborough

Florence Farmborough

Florence Farmborough was born in Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire, on 15th April 1887. She was named after Florence Nightingale, who lived nearby. She was educated at home by a governess before attending St. Thorolds in London.

Florence moved to Russia in 1908 where she found work as an English teacher. On the outbreak of the First World War, Farmborough immediately offered her services as a nursing sister at the hospital established by Princess Golitsin in Moscow. Later she accompanied Russian troops in Poland, Austria and Romania.

Forced to retreat with the Russian Army, Farmborough witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1917. Farmborough fled to Siberia where with Maria Bochkareva, the head of the Women's Death Battalion, she managed to get a ship to the United States. All through the First World War, Farmborough kept a diary and by 1918 it contained over 400,000 words.

Sybil Margaret Thomas
Florence Farmborough

In 1926 Farmborough became a university lecturer in Valencia and remained in the country for the next ten years. A supporter of General Francisco Franco, Farmborough moved to Salamanca after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. During the war Farmbrough made radio propaganda broadcasts to English speaking-countries. Her book, Life and People of Spain, was published in 1938.

Farmborough returned to Britain at the start of the Second World War. During the Battle of Britain she served with the Women's Voluntary Service. Her book of war memoirs, based on her war diaries, entitled Nurse at the Russian Front, was published in 1974.

Florence Farmborough died on 18th August 1978.

Primary Sources

(1) In January, 1915, Florence Farmborough attended a special church service in Moscow to mark her promotion to a qualified Red Cross nurse.

The golden-robed priest stood before me. "Your name?" "Florence," I answered. The priest paused and whispered to his deacon-acolyte. A book was brought and consulted, then he consulted me: "Of the Pravoslavny (Orthodox) Church?" "No," I said, "of the Church of England." Again the whispered consultation, again the book was referred to. I felt myself growing cold with fear. But he was back again and resumed the prescribed ritual, the tongue slightly twisting at the pronunciation of the foreign name.

"To thee, Florenz, child of God, servant of the Most High, is given this token of faith, of hope, of charity. With faith shalt they follow Christ the Master, with hope shalt thou look towards Christ for thy salvation, with charity shalt thou fulfill thy duties. Thou shalt tend the sick, the wounded, the needy: with words of comfort shalt thou cheer them." I held the red cross to my breast and pressed my lips to the crucifix with a heart full of gratitude to God, for he had accepted me.

One by one, we moved back to our appointed places. On our breasts the Red Cross gleamed. I looked at my Russian sisters. We exchanged happy, congratulatory smiles. As for me, I stood there with great contentment in mind and spirit. A dream had been fulfilled: I was now an official member of the great Sisterhood of the Red Cross. What the future held in store I could not say, but, please God, my work must lie among those of our suffering brothers who most needed medical aid and human sympathy - among those who were dying for their country on the battlefields of war-stricken Russia.

(2) In 1916 Florence Farmborough witnessed an explosion on the Eastern Front (28th May, 1916)

About a dozen men perished on the spot; others crawled out, but collapsed and died soon afterwards. Only two of them were able to stand and they were brought to us. They came, both of them, walking: two naked red figures! Their clothes had been burnt off their bodies. They stood side by side in the large barn which we had converted into a dressing-station, raw from head to foot. Injections were immediately ordered, but we could find no skin and had to put the needle straight into the flesh.

We laid them down upon straw in an adjoining shed. In an hour or two, the cotton wool was completely saturated, but we could help them no further, save with oft-repeated injections of morphia which, we prayed, would deaden their sufferings. They died, both of them, before morning. And neither of them had spoken a single word! I don't think that anything which I had ever seen touched me so keenly.

(3) In the summer of 1916, Florence Farmborough accompanied the Russian Army to Poland (31st July, 1916)

As we continued our journey, we passed more than one battlefield. The dead were still lying around, in strange, unnatural postures - remaining where they had fallen: crouching, doubled up, stretched out, prostrate, prone, Austrians and Russians lying side by side. And there were lacerated, crushed bodies lying on darkly stained patches of earth. There was one Austrian without a leg and with a blackened, swollen face; another with a smashed face, terrible to look at; a Russian soldier, with legs doubled under him, leaning against the barbed wire. And on more than one open wound flies were crawling and there were other moving, thread-like things.

I was glad Anna and Ekaterina were with me; they, too, were silent; they, too, were sorely shaken. Those "heaps" were once human beings: men who were young, strong and vigorous; now they lay lifeless and inert; shapeless forms of what had been living flesh and bone. What a frail and fragile thing is human life! A bullet passes through the living flesh and it ceases to live.

(4) In her diary, Florence Farmborough described the change of mood of the Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front during the summer of 1917.

11th May: Today we left Strusuv for Podgaytsy. Our division is back at the front and two of its regiments are already in the trenches. Now and then unexpected skirmishes take place - the initiative always with the Austrians - and a few wounded are brought to us. We notice a strange apathy about them; they lack the spark of loyalty, of devotion to God and their mother-country which has so distinguished the fighting-men in the previous two years. It worries us; we do not need to be told that the Russian soldier has changed; we see the change with our own eyes.

(5) In May 1917 Florence Farmborough met Dr. Elsie Inglis and her nurses at a hospital in Podgaytsy.

There is an English hospital in Podgaytsy, run by a group of English nurses, under the leadership of an English lady-doctor (Dr. Elsie Inglis). I was very glad to chat with them in my mother-tongue and above all to learn the latest news of the allied front in France.

They are very nice women, those English and Scottish nurses. They all have several years of training behind them. I feel distinctly raw in comparison, knowing that a mere six-months' course as a VAD in a military hospital would, in England, never have been considered sufficient to graduate to a Front Line Red Cross Unit. They could not believe that I had experienced all those nightmare months of the Great Retreat of 1915, as well as the Offensive of 1916. "You don't look strong enough to have gone through all that, said the lady-doctor, "and too young," she added, "I don't think I should have chosen you for my team." I secretly rejoiced that I had my training in Russia!"

(6) Florence Farmborough disapproved of some methods used by the VAD nurses in Russia.

I was surprised and not a little perturbed when I saw that tiny bags, containing pure salt, are sometimes deposited into the open wound and bandaged tightly into place. It is probably a new method; I wonder if it has been tried out on the Allied Front.

These bags of salt - small though they are - must inflict excruciating pain; no wonder the soldiers kick and yell; the salt must burn fiercely into the lacerated flesh. It is certainly a purifier, but surely a very harsh one!

At an operation, performed by the lady-doctor, at which I was called upon to help, the man had a large open wound in his left thigh. All went well until two tiny bags of salt was placed within it, and then the uproar began. I thought the man's cries would lift the roof off; even the lady doctor looked discomforted. "Silly fellow," she ejaculated. "It's only a momentary pain. Foolish fellow! He doesn't know what is good for him."

(7) In her diary, Florence Farmborough records hearing about Yasha Bachkarova, the founder of the Women's Death Battalion.

26th July, 1917: Yasha Bachkarova, a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour. When she knew the soldiers were deserting in large numbers, she made her way to Moscow and Petrograd to start recruiting for a Woman's Battalion. It is reported that she had said, "If the men refuse to fight for their country, we will show them what the women can do!" So this woman warrior, Yasha Bachkarova, began her campaign; it was said that it had met with singular success. Young women, some of aristocratic families, rallied to her side; they were given rifles and uniforms and drilled and marched vigorously. We Sisters were of course thrilled to the core.

9th August, 1917: Last Monday, an ambulance-van drove up with three wounded women soldiers. We were told that they belonged to the Bachkarova Women's Death Battalion. We had not heard the full name before, but we instantly guessed that it was the small army of women recruited in Russia by the Siberian women soldier, Yasha Bachkarova. Naturally we were all very impatient to have news of this remarkable battalion, but the women were sadly shocked and we refrained from questioning them until they had rested. The van driver was not very helpful but he did know that the battalion had been cut up by the enemy and had retreated.

13th August, 1917: At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bachkarova had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go "over the top". But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear.

(8) Florence Farmborough, Life and People of Spain (1938)

The youth of Spain turn towards their Leader, Generalissimo Franco, as towards a shining light; he is the beacon that guides them to their highest goal. In all people this great faith in the Caudillo is to be found; in the highest and lowest, in the richest and poorest, in the oldest and youngest, for even the very small children are taught to play their role of loyal subject to National Spain. And that reminds me of an incident which I witnessed the other day, an incident which amused me and yet seemed to touch a deeper chord. I was walking through the Arcade of the Plaza Mayor in this city of Salamanca (one of the most beautiful old squares in Europe, surrounded by a columned promenade, lined on one side by shops), when I saw in front of me a woman of humble station in life, holding a small boy of some three years by the hand. Suddenly the child stopped, turned towards a shop-window and, relinquishing his mother's hand, drew

himself up to his full height, clicked his tiny heels together and, standing to attention, was about to raise his arm in the Phalangist salute. His mother, unconscious of his action, grasped his hand and dragged him along with her - none too gently! The wee boy's face was a study in expressions of anger and disappointment. But, with sudden determination, he turned, manfully resisting his mother's display of force, and, nearly toppling over himself in his anxiety that his heels should touch each other, he stiffened his small round body and saluted, solemnly and ceremoniously, in Phalangist manner! His unheeding mother, sensing rebellion, seized him so vigorously that the child stumbled and nearly fell - but he was docile now, he had done his duty. He had saluted a large portrait of Generalissimo Franco in the shop-window!

(8) Florence Farmborough, Life and People of Spain (1938)

And what of the woman's role in the great Movement of Liberation in National Spain? The answer comes readily: the woman of Spain is not found wanting. Her place is in her home, miles away, perhaps, from the front line, but her heart is in the trenches. How could it be otherwise? Is not every soldier a mother's son? And has not every soldier a mother, sister, or sweetheart, who are daily, hourly, experiencing anxious thought for his welfare? 'Men must work and women must weep.' And though it may be true that the women of Spain, by reason of the greatness of their heart's pain, have, and still do, shed tears for their absent ones, it is also true that this pain is mitigated by pride, a pride born of self-sacrifice and patriotic abnegation in the heart of every woman who gives her best-beloved to her country that he may defend it in its evil hour.