Florence Farmborough (1887-1978), War Correspondent for the BBC

Profiles in Nursing

Florence Farmborough (1887-1978), War Correspondent for the BBC

Frontline surgical nurse with the Imperial Russian Army, and WWI diarist and photographer

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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When Florence Farmborough was born in a quiet village in Buckinghamshire, England, her parents named her after a distinguished neighbor: Florence Nightingale. In many ways, Farmborough’s nursing career reflected that of her namesake: bedside nursing of wounded soldiers. However, unlike Nightingale, Farmborough’s greater fame came not as a nurse, but as one of the most important diarists and photographers of World War I.

At War in Russia

In 1908, Farmborough moved to Kiev, Russia, working as a governess and English teacher. In 1910, she moved to Moscow, where she became a language tutor for the daughters of surgeon Pavel Sergeievich Usov. When war broke out in 1914, she volunteered at Usov’s hospital and then trained as a Red Cross nurse. In March 1915, with Usov’s help, she was assigned to a surgical field unit of the 3rd Russian Army Corps.

Unlike nurses serving on the Western Front, who worked primarily in casualty clearing stations and field hospitals, those on the Eastern Front moved with the lines in “flying columns.” Farmborough worked simultaneously as a nurse and as a war correspondent for the BBC and The Times, dragging her glass-plate camera, tripod and darkroom essentials from camp to camp.

As a frontline surgical nurse with the Imperial Russian Army, Farmborough got an intimate glimpse of the horrors of the Eastern Front. “[I]t’s not surprising that we sometimes wince … when an unusually ugly wound is bared for dressing,” she wrote. “It is, however, astonishing how quickly even a raw recruit can grow accustomed, though never hardened, to the sight and sound of constant suffering.”

Triage was especially heart-rending. The need to focus attention on those who could be saved meant there was little time to treat or even comfort the dying. Recalling one grievously wounded soldier, Farmborough wrote, “What it cost me to turn away without aiding him, I cannot describe, but we could not waste time and material on hopeless cases.”

Russian Revolution

In 1917, Farmborough encountered members of the 1st Women’s Battalion of Death (also called the Bochkareva Women’s Death Battalion), made up of female soldiers recruited by Maria Bochkareva, a sergeant from Siberia and one of the few women allowed to serve with the Russian army.

Farmborough acknowledged the battalion’s courage, but maintained that “women were quite unfit to be soldiers.” Despite that judgment, she herself received the St. George’s Medal for her wartime valor. Even before the end of World War I, Russia was sinking into civil war between pro- and anti-Communist factions. Following the capture of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the Bolsheviks sued for peace with Germany and the other Central Powers.

The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 brought an end to Farmborough’s military nursing career. She and a group of other Allied refugees, including Bochkareva, had to flee the country, traveling to Vladivostok and boarding a ship for San Francisco. Having witnessed the collapse of the Russian army and the rise of the Bolsheviks, Farmborough became a fierce anti-Communist, characterizing Bolshevism as a “disease.”

Postwar Author

After several years back in England, Farmborough moved to Spain, where she became a lecturer at the University of Valencia and later an English-language radio newscaster. During the Spanish Civil War, she supported the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco, applauding the general (who went on to make Spain a military dictatorship) as an anti-communist crusader.

With the outbreak of World War II, Farmborough returned to England, where she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service and offered her skills as a linguist.

After an exhibition of her wartime photographs garnered attention in 1971, she was approached to write a book. She spent the next year editing and collating the material from her extensive wartime diaries. Her book, With the Armies of the Tsar: A Nurse at the Russian Front in War and Revolution, 1914–1918, first published in 1974, earned widespread acclaim for its unparalleled depiction of war and the role of women — particularly nurses — during World War I.

Farmborough returned to Russia for a time in 1962, but she spent most of the rest of her life in England, where she received Honorary Life Membership in the British Red Cross and became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her adventures later became the subject of a BBC Two documentary, “Yesterday’s Witness,” which originally aired in 1977, a year before her death.

Today, many of her photographs are available online.

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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