Farmborough, Florence (1887–1978)

views updated

Farmborough, Florence (1887–1978)

British nurse whose extensive diary of her World War I experiences as a nurse with the Russian Army became a major source on the breakdown of the tsarist system during the eve of revolution. Born in Buckinghamshire, England, on April 15, 1887; died in Marple, England, on August 18, 1978; had five brothers and sisters; never married; no children.

At the end of her long life, 91-year-old Florence Farmborough could look back on countless adventures as well as many solid accomplishments. As a frontline nurse with the Russian Army during World War I, she compiled an extraordinary diary of 400,000 words that chronicled in great detail the progressive collapse of morale in the tsar's armed forces, a catastrophe that made all but inevitable the two revolutions of 1917 and radically transformed both Russian and world history. This important historical document remained unknown until 1974, when it was published in London to enthusiastic reviews. Thus Florence Farmborough became somewhat of a celebrity in her old age, but she took it all in stride as a dignified lady without ever abandoning her natural British reserve and composure.

Florence Farmborough grew up in a large family as the fourth of six children. Wanting to see the world, she received her parents' approval in 1908 when she moved to Kiev to teach. After two years, she moved to Moscow, where she was hired by Dr. Pavel Sergeyevich, a pioneering heart surgeon, to teach English to his daughters Asya and Nadya Sergeyevich . This pleasant life was shattered in the summer of 1914 when Farmborough, just returned from a trip home to England, found herself in a Russia engulfed in war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Determined to remain in Russia and be of help to the war effort, Farmborough volunteered to work for the Russian Red Cross along with Asya and Nadya as nursing volunteers in a hospital operating under the patronage of Princess Golitsin .

After some months of this work, Farmborough determined that she would be of greater value if she could work as a nurse in a frontline unit. By January 1915, she was busily preparing to leave for the Galician front. Among other things, she bought war clothing: a flannel-lined, black leather jacket and a thick sheepskin waistcoat called a dushgreychka ("soul-warmer)." At the moment of her departure, Farmborough was requested by Anna Ivanovna Sergeyevich , her Russian "mother," to kneel before her. Thereupon Ivanovna fastened a chain with an icon and cross that had been blessed by an Orthodox priest around Florence's neck, kissed her three times, and solemnly blessed her and wished her Godspeed. The young Englishwoman was now a soldier in the tsar's army departing to the front.

On Saturday, April 11, 1915, Farmborough and her medical unit arrived at the frontline town of Gorlice in Galicia. Gorlice was "a poor, tormented town under constant fire from the Austrian guns," she wrote in her diary. "For over five months, its inhabitants have been obliged to lead the existence of night birds. Their days are spent in the cellars, for the slightest movement in the streets could bring a shower of bullets. After dusk, they come creeping out, begging sympathy and food from each other and from the soldiers—the Russian soldiers." Farm-borough spent the next two years at the front with a field surgical unit, saving lives and watching countless young men die in agony far from home. Besides keeping her extensive diary, she also took many photographs with a plate camera and tripod, developing the plates in improvised darkrooms under makeshift conditions.

By early 1917, Farmborough had survived innumerable bombardments, advances, and retreats in her sector of the front. Morale was increasingly eroded as tales of corruption on the home front reached her unit. Constant shortages of food and munitions sapped the soldiers' will to fight on, and a profound sense of warweariness permeated all elements of the tsarist army. Another sign of social decay caused by the war was an increase in anti-Semitism, the Jews now being seen by some as the cause of Russia's woes.

The abdication of the tsar in early 1917 did little to arrest the general decline in morale, and the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin took full advantage of the situation to call for an end to the war and a new social order based on "Bread, Land and Peace." In her voluminous diary, Farmborough chronicled these events. When her unit disintegrated as a viable fighting force, it was ordered to return to Moscow by whatever means available. Farmborough managed to save not only herself but her diary and photographs. She sold her camera to pay for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and from there sailed for the United States.

Farmborough's adventures in wartorn Russia did not slake her wanderlust; some years later, she went to Spain and took a job teaching English at the University of Valencia. Her years in Russia had made her an implacable foe of Bolshevism, making it easy for her to support the anti-Marxist crusade of the Spanish conservative and fascist forces during that country's civil war of 1936–1939. Farmborough supported General Francisco Franco by reading daily news bulletins on the Spanish National Radio. In 1938, she also published a book enthusiastically supporting Franco's rebel forces, which she regarded as upholders of Western and Christian ideals in an age of intellectual and moral error. Although she never changed her views on Communism, Farmborough did revisit Russia—this time in peacetime—in 1962.

Florence Farmborough was enjoying her retirement when in April 1971, at age 84, she arranged an exhibition of her photographs and memorabilia at Heswall, Cheshire. Her remarkable collection soon came to the attention of journalists and publishers, and in 1974 her memoirs were published simultaneously in London and New York. Reviews of her book, which had been edited down by Farmborough from over 400,000 words to a more publishable manuscript about half that length, were enthusiastic. She was named a life member of the British Red Cross, among other honors. In 1979, a selection from her series of war photographs, entitled Russian Album, was published. Florence Farm-borough spent her last years at the home of her nephew J.L. Farmborough, the vicar of Marple. She died there on August 18, 1978, leaving behind an important body of historical documentation of some of the most crucial events of the 20th century.


Blodgett, Harriet, ed. Capacious Hold-All: An Anthology of Englishwomen's Diary Writings. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Crankshaw, Edward. Putting Up With the Russians. NY: Elisabeth Sifton/Penguin Books, 1985.

Farmborough, Florence. Life and People in National Spain. London: Sheed & Ward, 1938.

——. Russian Album 1908–1918. Edited by John Jolliffe. Salisbury: Michael Russell, 1979.

——. "Three Weeks in a Coal Siding in Vladivostok," in The Times [London]. September 11, 1918.

——. With the Armies of the Tsar: A Nurse on the Russian Front, 1914–18. NY: Stein and Day, 1974.

Glover, Jon, and Jon Silkin, eds. The Penguin Book of First World War Prose. London: Viking, 1989.

"Miss Florence Farmborough," in The Times [London]. August 21, 1978, p. 12.

John Haag, Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia