Sisters of Mercy in Russia’s Great War

The First World War, as a “total war,” required the participation of millions of individuals, many of them women. Although women were engaged in a variety of activities during the conflict, the most popular form of female service was undoubtedly nursing. Without the participation of these “sisters of mercy,” as pre-Revolutionary Russian nurses were called, the nation would have been unable to prosecute the war. Army military medical services needed extensive assistance from civilian organizations to treat enormous numbers of wounded and ill soldiers during the hostilities. Nurses also provided vitally important care for Russia’s civilian population, as the war precipitated a crisis in public health in Russia: epidemic diseases spread, millions faced homelessness, starvation and illness, and thousands of children were orphaned.

Prior to the start of the war, the number of sisters of mercy in the communities (obshchiny) of the Russian Red Cross was less than 4000, despite the fact that the organization had determined that even in peacetime conditions, the provision of medical services to the Russian population required 10,000 nurses. Notwithstanding an initial outpouring of volunteers for wartime nursing, serious shortages of qualified personnel existed. As a result, the Russian Red Cross began immediate efforts to increase the number of trained female nurses. The All-Russian Union of Zemstvos and the All-Russian Union of Towns similarly recruited and trained nurses for war service under the umbrella of the Red Cross. 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. To meet the increased demand, in September 1914, the Red Cross shortened the regular year-long training courses to two months to prepare women for wartime medical service. By the end of that 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. Women could also be accepted into medical service as “volunteer” sisters without having completed any formal training. As a result, a number of these women had little more than a cursory introduction to medical training: basic anatomy and the bandaging of wounds. Much of their real learning occurred on the job.

Even counting the thousands of women who applied to become nurses, there was a chronic shortage of qualified sisters of mercy, particularly during periods of active fighting. This was a result of the time it took not only to train the women, but also to transport them from the interior to the medical establishments supporting the army at the front. In many instances, nurses arrived at field hospitals and other medical units only after the most critical need had passed. To alleviate this problem, the Red Cross established special reserves of nurses who were ready to be sent to the front when needed. Despite these measures, personnel shortages persisted. The Red Cross eventually reduced training to just six weeks to try to meet the demand for qualified nurses created by the war.

By 1916, the number of women serving as sisters of mercy in the Russian Society of the Red Cross was nearly 25,000.1 Russia’s wartime nurses came from a variety of social backgrounds, ranging from peasants and working class women to nobles and even royalty. The most famous sisters of mercy were the Empress Alexandra and her eldest daughters. The women of the Imperial family served as examples of appropriate wartime service for Russian womanhood and were meant to inspire enlistment in the Red Cross. Many more women from the lower gentry and middle classes volunteered for wartime medical service. The wives and daughters of professionals and merchants, as well as women who had careers of their own, including doctors, academics, schoolteachers, members of the intelligentsia, and even revolutionaries entered the ranks of the various civilian organizations dedicated to caring for the wounded. There were even those from Russia’s laboring classes who became nurses during the Great War. Indicative of the ethnic diversity of the Empire, nurses also came from various nationalities. Religiously, Russian Red Cross units were more homogenous, reflecting its original Christian mission. Jewish women did serve, but were typically given the designation “volunteer sisters” rather than “sisters of mercy.” This was especially useful in regions with large Jewish populations, such as Poland -- a primary area of conflict on the Eastern front.

Women's motivations for joining wartime medical services were as varied as their backgrounds. As was often the case with men who enlisted in the armed services, many women desired to contribute to the national crisis. The voluntary nature of nursing through the Red Cross and its subordinate civilian organizations meant that for most, some form of patriotism was the primary impetus for service. Women who joined medical services commented on their wish to “do their part” in the war effort and believed that medical service was the best way for them to do so, as it was consistent with what they perceived to be normative gender roles and characteristics of Russian women. For these women, war was not an exclusively male arena off limits to them as a result of their gender. They believed nursing to be an entirely appropriate wartime activity for women. They would not kill or destroy; rather, they would mend and heal. Progressive women seeking to expand women’s rights viewed wartime nursing as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their usefulness to society during the war, something which they believed would be rewarded politically.

Social status seemed to be the most important factor in determining the place and type of service, and ultimately experience, of Russia’s wartime nurses. Sisters with aristocratic pedigrees and valuable social connections did not usually have to perform their service under the most adverse conditions (unless they so desired). Well-connected members of the nobility typically chose when and where they served and could use their influence to obtain preferred assignments, to secure leaves when desired, and to transfer to other medical establishments if they found their placement unsatisfactory. These experiences contrasted sharply with those of nurses assigned to units at the front, which tended to be staffed by women from the lower gentry and middle strata, the professional classes, and the merchantry. Even when they possessed wealth and education, women of lower social standing were often unable to affect the terms of their service. Despite a significant level of material comfort in their peacetime domestic lives, many faced hardships and deprivations at the front.

As part of frontline units, a number of Russia’s wartime nurses performed under very dangerous conditions, serving in forward positions, in the trenches, and even venturing onto the battlefields to retrieve wounded soldiers. The experiences of Russian nurses were often profoundly different than those of their Western counterparts. In contrast to the often stagnant trench warfare of the Western front, combat on the Eastern Front was extremely mobile. Russian medical personnel were required to move with the troops. At times, events moved so rapidly that medical units arrived at a location one day only to evacuate the next. Unlike Western European nurses, Russian sisters of mercy often served very close to the fighting and were subject to conditions very similar to those of combatants. Officially, female medical personnel were supposed to remain three to four miles from the actual combat, as in Western nations. Such procedural regulations were completely impractical, considering the rapidity with which the front lines moved and the great need for medical personnel. The battle lines on the Eastern Front shifted so often that distinguishing between “front’ and “rear” became virtually impossible. While some Russian women were stationed in permanent hospitals or other fixed medical establishments far behind the lines, many others were part of movable units which operated alongside the armies on the front. The red crosses that these women wore on their uniforms did not protect them from becoming victims of the war. They experienced extreme cold, constant fatigue, vermin infestations, contagious diseases, the effects of gas attacks, deadly artillery fire, and aerial bombardment. Nor did Russian nurses merely stand by the bedsides of the wounded as a passive source of comfort and solace to male combatants. They often acted in dynamic, forceful, and sometimes even aggressive ways. They assumed positions of authority at times, even over male personnel. As historian Peter Gatrell has commented, “military nursing is the obvious example” of how “the war also demonstrated female capacity to enter directly the military terrain, in ways that both liberated women and disturbed current convention.”2

Laurie Stoff, Louisiana Tech University (USA)

  • 1 V. P. Romaniuk, V. A. Lapotnikov, and Ia. A. Nakatis, Istoriia sestrinskogo dela v Rossii, (St. Petersburg: SPbGMA, 1998): 78
  • 2 Peter Gatrell, “The Epic and the Domestic: Women and War in Russia, 1914-1917,” in Evidence, History and the Great War, 202.

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