New Zealanders in Russia during the Revolution
Although America’s entry into the First World War in early April 1917 occupied many newspaper column inches in New Zealand, the Russian Revolution with its beginning a scant month earlier was nevertheless an event that would also prove to be globally significant.
E.M. Strachan and the Anglo-Russian Hospital
At the time of the revolution Nursing Sister Ethel M. Strachan, and her friend and colleague Sister Sybil Kelly, were among the staff of the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd (St Petersburg), Russia. This ‘forgotten’ hospital had opened in February 1916, a gift from Britain to the Russian people, funded by the British public, and supported by the British Red Cross. Human rights journalist Caroline Moorehead has described the hospital's position as 'ambivalent.'
Certainly, the hospital’s political position proved precarious. Canadian nurse Dorothy Cotton (who Ethel mentioned in her 1916 diary) later characterised its existence into three phases, each representative of political change, and the resulting patronage which affected the ‘prestige enjoyed by the hospital and staff': the foundation phase under the patronage of the Czar, the revolution period, and the final phase under the Bolshevik regime. This final most unstable position resulted in the hospital closing after less than two years service.
Volunteering to nurse in Britain
Ethel and Sybil were New Zealanders by choice. Born in England, Ethel and Sybil had migrated to New Zealand in 1910 where they settled at Wanganui Hospital, staying for a short time with Thomas Mackenzie (later Sir), then a Minister in Joseph Ward’s Liberal government. When war was declared, they volunteered to join the military nursing service.
Preference at that time was for New Zealand trained nurses, so Ethel and Sybil ‘got tired of waiting’ and returned to England with a Wanganui colleague, Sister Dora Dower. They joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and became foundation staff members of the New Zealand Auxiliary Hospital at Walton-on-Thames in England (officially opened in August 1915 by the Hon. Thomas MacKenzie, then New Zealand High Commissioner, in London.
Ethel lost no time in writing from the new hospital to ask for assistance with, ‘Anything… from hospital clothing to amusements. Money of course, is always valuable.’ To the Matron of Wanganui Hospital she added,
I wish some of your staff were here, there’s such heaps of work to do.’ She made a direct appeal to the public through The Wanganui Chronicle, who published her request with the comment ‘The fact that three well-known and capable local nurses are associated with the hospital gives us a special interest in its welfare.’
Experiences in Russia
In January the following year, Mackenzie invited Ethel and Sybil to consider travelling to Russia to join the new Anglo-Russian Hospital. The staff allocation was to reflect the Empire, including representatives from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa together with British personnel. In her small diary for 1916, Ethel recorded their arrival in Russia late in the evening on 1 May. Two days later she was ‘on duty in Ward A.’ The hospital offered a remarkable environment, housed in the middle of Petrograd in the palace of Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich where, wrote Canadian Sister Dorothy Cotton, 'the ballroom, reception rooms and state apartments made stately wards.’
The experience at the hospital was equally remarkable. In addition to nursing work the staff enjoyed ‘visits with royalty, sightseeing and cultural events.’ Ethel recorded visits by the Czarina and her daughters, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova, picnics, picking heather and visiting churches. The small collection of her memorabilia held at Auckland War Memorial Museum includes souvenir items that perhaps allude to the cultural opportunities the nurses had.
Ethel was present during the early days of the revolution and the hospital's central location meant the staff saw much from their windows. In a diary now held at the Imperial War Museum, VAD Nurse Dorothy Seymour described the revolutionary activity in March, noting on 12 March 1917 that in the small section of street on which the hospital was located, 200 had been killed and wounded, some treated in the hospital.
The British staff, including Ethel and Sybil, were evacuated in April and arrived back in Britain in May 1917. With Sybil, Ethel returned to New Zealand in March 1918 and returned to work at Wanganui Hospital, later purchasing a property where she set up a small surgical hospital.
Later that year, New Zealander Alec Noel Hawkes Whitcombe, then a Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery, received orders for Russia as a member of the North Russia Expeditionary Force. They were the Allied support for the Russian White Army in its struggle against the Bolsheviks. Whitcombe subsequently won the military Cross for his 'gallant conduct' during operations at Pocha in June 1919, and was also awarded the Order of St Anne of Russia.
Upon Whitcombe's return to New Zealand, he joined the family company Whitcombe and Tombs. He became General Manager of the Auckland branch in 1939, a position he held until he retired in 1959. Captain Whitcombe's medals are held in the Museum collection.
Brooks Jane, Hallett Christine (eds). One hundred years of wartime nursing practices, 1854-1953. Oxford University Press. 2015. Reference Nurse Dorothy Cotton's correspondence and diary.
Moorehead, Caroline. ' NINE: The Greatest Mother in the World.' Dunant's Dream. Carroll & Graf. 1999.
Wood, Joyce. 'The Revolution Outside Her Window: New Light Shed on the March 1917 Russian Revolution from the Papers of VAD Nurse Dorothy N. Seymour.' The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association 2005. 71-86
Cite this article
In Russia during the Revolution. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 April 2017. Updated: 9 March 2021.