Sisters of Mercy in Russia’s Great War

I wanted to write an article about Sisters of Mercy in Russia’s Great War and their participation in World War 1 for a long time and always postponed the draft in favour of another article.  But few months ago a came across the book by Laurie Stoff “Russia’s Sisters of Mercy and the Great War. More Than Binding Men’s Wounds” and could not delay any more.Sisters of Mercy

This is a must read book, if your female ancestor was a nurse, or if there is even a slight possibility that she was in the army, or simply out of curiosity and knowledge.

In this book the author explores the engagement of women not only as soldiers but undoubtedly in a nursing capacity.  Without the participation of these “sisters of mercy,” as pre-Revolutionary Russian nurses were called, the nation would have been unable to continue the war and provide care for Russia’s civilian population.

Prior to the start of the war, the number of sisters of mercy in the communities of the Russian Red Cross was less than 4000.  This was in no way enough to sustain the army.  From the first days of war the Russian Red Cross began immediate efforts to increase the number of trained female nurses.  Enlistment was usually limited to literate women who possessed at least some secondary education.  Assignment to medical services required at least some degree of formal training conducted by the local societies of the Red Cross or their subordinate organizations.

By the end of the first war year, the Red Cross had created 150 schools with 10,000 students in attendance.  Only those who had been trained in these schools were given official designation as sisters of mercy of the Red Cross.  This not only gave them the right to receive compensation from the organization for their work, but also to wear the Red Cross uniform.  Many came as volunteers with little more than an introduction into anatomy and the bandaging of wounds.

Russia’s wartime nurses came from a variety of social backgrounds, ranging from peasants and working class women to nobles and even royalty, and from various nationalities.  It is a well known fact that the most famous sisters of mercy were the Empress Alexandra and her eldest daughters.

Social status played an important role in determining whether the nurse was sent to the front line or not.  Sisters with aristocratic pedigrees and valuable social connections did not usually have to do their service under the most adverse conditions (unless they so desired).

Those who had no connections were assigned to units at the front.  Even when they possessed wealth and education, women of lower social standing were often unable to affect the terms of their service and were sent to the front.

What happened at the front line?  You can read in the L. Stoff’s book, in the article links below and in the book  “Cossack Fury.  The experiences of a woman soldier with the White Russians” written by Lul Gardo in 1938 ( if you find it).  I have wrote an article about Varvara K, or Lul Gardo, few weeks ago.  This book is the full recount of Varvara’s life during the times of peace and war. cossack fury

At present the only record I was able to find about Varvara is the reference in White movement database.  Here she is listed as

Kossovskaia Varvara Nikolaevna – sister of mercy.  In Volunteer army. Participant of Kuban Campaign (Ice March) in military hospital.

In her book Varvara tells in detail about everyday life in the army, and the Ice March in particular, but for some reason she hides her being a sister of mercy, at least she is not paying any attention to it on the pages of the book.  Varvara boasts more about her military achievements and not her medical skills, if she had any.

Since she was a volunteer, I was unable to find her in a reference document- Book (listing) of official sisters of mercy prepared by Chancellery of Russian Red Cross based on information as at 1 August 1915. Russian State library has the book in digital format, nearly 940 pages with 6758 names, when by available statistics there were nearly 25,000 nurses by 1916.

Do not expect much but to find the name of your ancestor in the book.  Which in some cases is mind-blowing anyway.

This is not the only resource available which you might pursue.   Russian State Military-Historical Archive has the fund 12651 – Management of the Red Cross Society and in particular covers Sisters of Mercy Society for period 1909-1917.  

It is much harder to find any archival references for female ancestors in Russian archives.  And if these sources will shed more light on your ancestry, it is great.

Do you have an ancestor who might have been in the Red Cross during the World War 1?

Sources /references:

They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (Modern War Studies) Hardcover– November 15, 2006, by Laurie Stoff

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