Florence Farmborough

Florence Farmborough

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The golden-robed priest stood before me. "Your name?" "Florence," I answered. The priest paused and whispered to his deacon-acolyte. A book was brought and consulted, then he consulted me: "Of the Pravoslavny (Orthodox) Church?" "No," I said, "of the Church of England." Again the whispered consultation, again the book was referred to. I felt myself growing cold with fear. But he was back again and resumed the prescribed ritual, the tongue slightly twisting at the pronunciation of the foreign name.

"To thee, Florenz, child of God, servant of the Most High, is given this token of faith, of hope, of charity. With faith shalt they follow Christ the Master, with hope shalt thou look towards Christ for thy salvation, with charity shalt thou fulfill thy duties. Thou shalt tend the sick, the wounded, the needy: with words of comfort shalt thou cheer them." I held the red cross to my breast and pressed my lips to the crucifix with a heart full of gratitude to God, for he had accepted me.

One by one, we moved back to our appointed places. On our breasts the Red Cross gleamed. I looked at my Russian sisters. We exchanged happy, congratulatory smiles. As for me, I stood there with great contentment in mind and spirit. A dream had been fulfilled: I was now an official member of the great Sisterhood of the Red Cross. What the future held in store I could not say, but, please God, my work must lie among those of our suffering brothers who most needed medical aid and human sympathy - among those who were dying for their country on the battlefields of war-stricken Russia.

About a dozen men perished on the spot; others crawled out, but collapsed and died soon afterwards. Only two of them were able to stand and they were brought to us. They came, both of them, walking: two naked red figures! Their clothes had been burnt off their bodies. They stood side by side in the large barn which we had converted into a dressing-station, raw from head to foot. Injections were immediately ordered, but we could find no skin and had to put the needle straight into the flesh.

We laid them down upon straw in an adjoining shed. In an hour or two, the cotton wool was completely saturated, but we could help them no further, save with oft-repeated injections of morphia which, we prayed, would deaden their sufferings. They died, both of them, before morning. And neither of them had spoken a single word! I don't think that anything which I had ever seen touched me so keenly.

As we continued our journey, we passed more than one battlefield. The dead were still lying around, in strange, unnatural postures - remaining where they had fallen: crouching, doubled up, stretched out, prostrate, prone, Austrians and Russians lying side by side. And there were lacerated, crushed bodies lying on darkly stained patches of earth. There was one Austrian without a leg and with a blackened, swollen face; another with a smashed face, terrible to look at; a Russian soldier, with legs doubled under him, leaning against the barbed wire. And on more than one open wound flies were crawling and there were other moving, thread-like things.

I was glad Anna and Ekaterina were with me; they, too, were silent; they, too, were sorely shaken. Those "heaps" were once human beings: men who were young, strong and vigorous; now they lay lifeless and inert; shapeless forms of what had been living flesh and bone. What a frail and fragile thing is human life! A bullet passes through the living flesh and it ceases to live.

11th May: Today we left Strusuv for Podgaytsy. Our division is back at the front and two of its regiments are already in the trenches. Now and then unexpected skirmishes take place - the initiative always with the Austrians - and a few wounded are brought to us. We notice a strange apathy about them; they lack the spark of loyalty, of devotion to God and their mother-country which has so distinguished the fighting-men in the previous two years. It worries us; we do not need to be told that the Russian soldier has changed; we see the change with our own eyes.

There is an English hospital in Podgaytsy, run by a group of English nurses, under the leadership of an English lady-doctor (Dr. Elsie Inglis). I was very glad to chat with them in my mother-tongue and above all to learn the latest news of the allied front in France.

They are very nice women, those English and Scottish nurses. They all have several years of training behind them. I feel distinctly raw in comparison, knowing that a mere six-months' course as a VAD in a military hospital would, in England, never have been considered sufficient to graduate to a Front Line Red Cross Unit. They could not believe that I had experienced all those nightmare months of the Great Retreat of 1915, as well as the Offensive of 1916. "You don't look strong enough to have gone through all that, said the lady-doctor, "and too young," she added, "I don't think I should have chosen you for my team." I secretly rejoiced that I had my training in Russia!"

I was surprised and not a little perturbed when I saw that tiny bags, containing pure salt, are sometimes deposited into the open wound and bandaged tightly into place. It is probably a new method; I wonder if it has been tried out on the Allied Front.

These bags of salt - small though they are - must inflict excruciating pain; no wonder the soldiers kick and yell; the salt must burn fiercely into the lacerated flesh. It is certainly a purifier, but surely a very harsh one!

At an operation, performed by the lady-doctor, at which I was called upon to help, the man had a large open wound in his left thigh. All went well until two tiny bags of salt was placed within it, and then the uproar began. I thought the man's cries would lift the roof off; even the lady doctor looked discomforted. "Silly fellow," she ejaculated. "It's only a momentary pain. Foolish fellow! He doesn't know what is good for him."

26th July, 1917: Yasha Bachkarova, a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour. When she knew the soldiers were deserting in large numbers, she made her way to Moscow and Petrograd to start recruiting for a Woman's Battalion. It is reported that she had said, "If the men refuse to fight for their country, we will show them what the women can do!" So this woman warrior, Yasha Bachkarova, began her campaign; it was said that it had met with singular success. Young women, some of aristocratic families, rallied to her side; they were given rifles and uniforms and drilled and marched vigorously. We Sisters were of course thrilled to the core.

9th August, 1917: Last Monday, an ambulance-van drove up with three wounded women soldiers. We were told that they belonged to the Bachkarova Women's Death Battalion. We had not heard the full name before, but we instantly guessed that it was the small army of women recruited in Russia by the Siberian women soldier, Yasha Bachkarova. Naturally we were all very impatient to have news of this remarkable battalion, but the women were sadly shocked and we refrained from questioning them until they had rested. The van driver was not very helpful but he did know that the battalion had been cut up by the enemy and had retreated.

13th August, 1917: At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bachkarova had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go "over the top". But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear.

The youth of Spain turn towards their Leader, Generalissimo Franco, as towards a shining light; he is the beacon that guides them to their highest goal. In all people this great faith in the Caudillo is to be found; in the highest and lowest, in the richest and poorest, in the oldest and youngest, for even the very small children are taught to play their role of loyal subject to National Spain. And that reminds me of an incident which I witnessed the other day, an incident which amused me and yet seemed to touch a deeper chord. I was walking through the Arcade of the Plaza Mayor in this city of Salamanca (one of the most beautiful old squares in Europe, surrounded by a columned promenade, lined on one side by shops), when I saw in front of me a woman of humble station in life, holding a small boy of some three years by the hand. Suddenly the child stopped, turned towards a shop-window and, relinquishing his mother's hand, drew

himself up to his full height, clicked his tiny heels together and, standing to attention, was about to raise his arm in the Phalangist salute. His mother, unconscious of his action, grasped his hand and dragged him along with her - none too gently! The wee boy's face was a study in expressions of anger and disappointment. But, with sudden determination, he turned, manfully resisting his mother's display of force, and, nearly toppling over himself in his anxiety that his heels should touch each other, he stiffened his small round body and saluted, solemnly and ceremoniously, in Phalangist manner! His unheeding mother, sensing rebellion, seized him so vigorously that the child stumbled and nearly fell - but he was docile now, he had done his duty. He had saluted a large portrait of Generalissimo Franco in the shop-window!

And what of the woman's role in the great Movement of Liberation in National Spain? The answer comes readily: the woman of Spain is not found wanting. Her place is in her home, miles away, perhaps, from the front line, but her heart is in the trenches. How could it be otherwise? Is not every soldier a mother's son? And has not every soldier a mother, sister, or sweetheart, who are daily, hourly, experiencing anxious thought for his welfare? 'Men must work and women must weep.' And though it may be true that the women of Spain, by reason of the greatness of their heart's pain, have, and still do, shed tears for their absent ones, it is also true that this pain is mitigated by pride, a pride born of self-sacrifice and patriotic abnegation in the heart of every woman who gives her best-beloved to her country that he may defend it in its evil hour.

Latvia&mdashLettish Life in Legendary & Modern Times Florence Farmborough, Special Correspondent of "The Times," ca. 1920

We have found no other contemporaneous account from an outside observer which better captures the determination and optimism of the newly independent Latvia even as it recovered from the devastation of war wrought by invaders on two fronts, both Germany and Russia&mdasha devastation both powers would revisit upon the Baltics in less than a generation.

Nursing on the Eastern Front

Florence Farmborough on the Eastern Front, 1915 Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia

Farmborough’s massive diary–originally 400,000 words before being culled down for publication–begins with a scene redolent of Russia’s plight at a procession attended by Czar Nicholas II and his family at the Kremlin in August 1914. As Farmborough watched, the imperial family advanced in august splendor toward the Cathedral of the Assumption. On their way, an old peasant man somehow managed to slip through the security cordon and attempt to present a petition for redress of grievances. While the Czar studiously ignored the old man, a security detail descended upon the peasant and quickly blotted him from view. Everyone in the crowd knew he was doomed.

Joining the Red Cross, Farmborough was sent to the front in time for the campaign of 1915. Serving alongside the Russian Army in Poland, she witnessed its hopeful advance against German forces, and its crushing defeat.

“Is there anything so hopeless, so dreadful, as a retreat at night?” she wrote in her diary in May 1915. “The earth lies cold and forgotten, multitudinous human beings struggle onwards towards an unknown destination. How and when will it all end? All this I felt and more when I could think and analyze my feelings, but ever and again that strange, unaccountable wave of exultation would sweep over me. It was difficult to define, yet I well knew that, had I been offered an alternative I would have cried without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Hardships, a legion of them, and all else besides, but only to remain on active service.'”

Those hardships came as Farmborough followed campaign after campaign in Poland, Russia and Romania over the years to come–all described lyrically and with an attention for detail in her incredible diary. She accompanied the heady advances of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive, and then the decay and eventual collapse of the Czarist and then the Liberal Kerensky regimes in 1917. November 1917 found her in Moscow, witnessing the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund – review

T he long summer that led up to the last days of peace in Europe in 1914 gave little hint of the storm to come. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June, however, and the ensuing mobilisation of German troops, Kaiser Wilhelm II engulfed defenceless Belgium, and the world was set to witness one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Through poison gas, starvation, shell fire and machine-gun, the first world war killed and wounded more than 35 million people, both military and civilian. The figure is so unimaginable, so monstrous, that it numbs. Few had reckoned on such a long, drawn-out saga of futility and wasted human lives.

By the conflict's end in November 1918, from the eastern border of France all the way through Asia to the Sea of Japan, not a single pre-war government remained in power. The once great German, Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires had fallen. Amid the moral and material ruins of postwar Europe, many hoped to see a heroic prelude to healing and renewal. Friends and family hurried to embrace the troops returning home yet within days the exhilaration of their homecoming had evaporated. Paradoxically, some demobbed servicemen began to fear death in a way they had not encountered at the front. "I ought to have felt great joy, but it was as if a cold hand took me by the throat," records a Belgian fighter pilot. Was this the collapse that follows on from a "great relief"? The pilot's insight into his psychological state was rare among surviving combatants. Few were aware of the disturbance that lay ahead so soon after the armistice had been declared on 11 November.

In The Beauty and the Sorrow, an extraordinary new history of the first world war, we follow the lives of 20 people caught up in the conflict. Among them are an American ambulance driver, an English nurse in the Russian army, a South American adventurer fighting for the Turks, a 12-year-old German girl and several other civilians. In the course of 227 short chapters (some of them no more than a page long), they take turns to tell us what they saw or felt on a given day. Interspersed with authorial commentary, their testimonies make up a haunting chronicle, and a convocation of ghosts.

This is by no means a conventional history. Peter Englund, a Swedish academic historian and former war reporter, has created a sort of collective diary in which the unknown (or now largely forgotten) lives intertwine minutely and often poignantly. Throughout, effective use is made of diary accounts, letters, memoirs and other first-hand material.

For Laura de Turczynowicz, the American-born wife of a Polish aristocrat, the war is less an event to be followed than a condition to be endured. She has found herself stranded on the wrong side of the frontline in German-occupied Poland. Having commandeered her husband's estate, German troops begin to use starving Russian PoWs as slave labour. Laura reports her deep shock at the sight of men transformed into "animals, or even things". However, once people have been deprived of their humanity, it is much easier to kill them. All future dictatorships were to understand this. (The Jews in Hitler's cattle trucks were so degraded by their journey to Auschwitz that they were no longer Menschen – human beings – but animals to the slaughter.)

The book is thick with other forebodings of the second world war. A dapper Ottoman official, on orders from his paymasters in Constantinople, stands calmly by as Kurds bestially slaughter Armenian Christians in present-day Turkey. "He represents a new species in the bestiary of the young century," says Englund – that of the well-dressed, articulate mass murderer who condemns thousands to death at the mere stroke of a pen. In Nazi Germany such bureaucrats would become known as Schreibtischtäter – "desk-murderers". Apprenticeship in Ottoman obedience in April 1915 required a stunted moral imagination lack of imagination (not sadism) had made the official cruel.

According to the author, the 1914–18 conflict heralded a new age of atrocity and diminished individual responsibility for it. Politicians, ideologues and army generals, by delegating unpleasantness down a chain of command, were able to ignore the moral consequences of their work. In a village deep in the Austro-Hungarian empire, an English red cross nurse called Florence Farmborough witnesses a "new and terrifying sound". Austrian artillery have begun to open fire simultaneously, again and again, to create maximum terror and destruction. "This is something new – artillery fire as a science," Englund comments.

Throughout the war, sympathy for victims was increasingly diminished by physical distance. The Austrian artillerymen were only dimly aware of the civilians and soldiers they targeted. If they could have seen the human devastation, how might they have reacted? In one extraordinary episode, an Allied airman is devastated to see a German pilot spiral fatally to the ground after his plane has been hit. Finally the airman has come to see "the human being" instead of "some kind of gigantic insect".

Many of the young men who joined up so eagerly in 1914 were quickly disillusioned. The "plodding drudgery" of trench warfare in Flanders and on the Somme took its toll. Day after day, the dead remained unburied horses were slaughtered for food amputees crowded the field hospitals. The nouveaux riches of Europe, meanwhile, grew fat on the munitions industry. In France and pre-fascist Italy the so-called pescecani (sharks) flaunted their war wealth in fancy clothes and conspicuous restaurant dining. The idea of a war without end suited them well: only the men at the front were pacifists now. Most of them would do anything to go home (even purposely contract venereal disease).

Michel Corday, a French civil servant, watches in disgust as black-marketeers in Paris fleece the unsuspecting war-wounded. To him, the glorious "war to end all wars" is now nothing but a "bitter and disillusioning defeat".

Inevitably, The Beauty and the Sorrow is a chronicle of human loss, atrocity and famine. What happened at the Marne, in the Ottoman province of Armenia, on the Gallipoli peninsula, at Ypres, in the Piave and on the Asiago plateau was tragic, inhuman. ("I have seen and done things I want to forget", PJ Harvey sings on her dark, Somme-haunted album Let England Shake.) Yet the horror is recorded here in plain, everyday speech. Amid the symbolic poppies and wreath-laying, Peter Englund's book stands out as a work of magnificent, elegiac seriousness.

History is a complicated concept!

** I’m currently reading poetry, letters, diaries, notes by women involved in the First World War. This is for a course I’m teaching at the U3A Summer School at RAU Cirencester from August 18-21. Some of these women were on the home front, looking after their families and/or out at work while others were serving on base or battlefield.

At the moment I’m reading the diaries of Florence Farmborough who was in Moscow teaching English to the two daughters of a heart surgeon when Germany declared war on Russia, our ally at the time. Florence, and her pupils, began nurse training and after six months Florence was sent with a Red Cross unit to the South-West Front. There she dealt with appalling wounds in makeshift hospitals, often as shells were exploding nearby, bringing down masonry and breaking windows. Writing in her diary later she recalled: ‘I caught a glimpse of my white overall, covered with blood-stains and dirt… Mechanically my fingers worked: ripping, cleaning, dressing, binding. Now this one was finished, another one begun.’ (Florence Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front: Futura Publications 1977, p.42)

There are many more examples of the bravery of women involved in WW1: it’s an aspect of our history well worth exploring in detail.

** And ‘history’ is a complicated concept. Elsewhere on this website I’ve published two short stories I wrote as part of my Creative Writing MA course at the University of East Anglia, in 1977. Both are about young women facing a future on their own. The first, Plait, is set in the 19th century and I researched the historical background in detail. The second, The Cat’s Whiskers, was ‘modern’ when I wrote it but somehow it seems now to be the more old-fashioned of the two pieces. It’s set in the 70s when access to computers was limited and the personal computer and the mobile phone still on the geeks’ ‘to do’ list. So, there was no quick and easy contact via email or text messaging no personal websites no Facebook no Twitter. Somehow that story seems so much more ‘historical’ than the first – or do I just mean ‘old fashioned’? I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have happened all these years later!

When Women Get Involved

This winter, a dual exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie titled Qui a peur des femmes photographes? 1839–1945 presents a survey meant to highlight the long history of contributions to photography by women practitioners and artists. Throughout this expansive, multi-venue project, the visitor is invited to take a critical approach to the history of photography and to ponder the value of gender-specific exhibitions. In a mechanical visual medium that seems more resistant to distinctly male or female touches than other arts, the diverse selection of photographs here constantly reminds us to consider who was behind the camera and why. By choosing to exhibit a very large sample of lesser-known women photographers, Qui a peur des femmes photographes? aspires to enrich or even rewrite photographic history.

Barbara Morgan, We are three women – We are three million women, 1938 © Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie

The first of the exhibition’s two parts, hosted by Musée de l’Orangerie, covers the years from 1839, marking the French patent on photography, to 1919. The second, at Musée d’Orsay, is bookended by the two world wars. As for this division, the end of World War I, of course, brought about social and political changes, but many stylistic patterns continued from the previous era. The chronological set-up seeks to narrate a story of both stylistic experimentations, exploring the possibilities and limits of photographic processes and social developments by and of women photographers, but sometimes lacks context about the individual careers of those who are not as famous as figures such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier, or Dora Maar. Take Madame Yevonde and her path breaking work in color photography, or the pioneering travel photography by Helen Messinger Murdoch. Monographic exhibitions on these artists would grant their place in the pantheon of photographers.

Christina Broom, Young Suffragettes advertising the Women’s Exhibition, 1909 © Museum of London

But what is distinctly female about the works in this exhibition? For me, as a male viewer, Lee Miller’s early-1930s anti-voyeuristic image, Severed Breast from Radical Surgery in a Place Sitting, an image of an amputated breast on a plate, haunts me more than any other image on view. It made me realize that the title of the exhibition is ill-chosen: it should not have been Who is afraid of female photographers? but What Are Men Afraid to Photograph? Whether this might be explained by the impossibility for men to separate the breast from its maternal or sexual functions is open to discussion: Miller, in any case, shows a relationship to the breast that transcends these categories. In Miller’s transgressive audacity, something decidedly feminine can be found.

Aenne Biermann, Gummibaum, 1927 © Museum Folkwang Essen

From its invention, photography proved to be a more inclusive medium for women, who were not allowed into art schools or academies: discovering the possibilities of the camera by trial and error didn’t necessarily require formal instruction. From those looking at everyday life to the more conceptually adventurous, female photographers quickly covered all imaginable fields. The beautiful photographs of plants by Aenne Biermann, Alma Lavenson, and Tina Modotti come to mind or taboo images of male nudes by Imogen Cunningham, Anne W. Brigman, and Harriet V.S. Thorne. These images seem to avoid objectification by foregrounding the sensual, even mystical aspects of the naked male body, whose formal beauty is sublimated into something easy to look at, but hard to define. In these pictures, the body is allowed to perform a non-pornographic erotics and to escape a reductive gaze unlike those of female nudes by their counterparts. In another critical position on the body, one segment of the exhibition is dedicated to self-portraiture, where subject and object collide and the photographer can take complete control over her final image. Madame D’Ora’s Selfportrait with Black Cat (1929) is an exquisite example: not only does the work show absolute mastery over material and light, it inscribes itself consciously into art history (references to Manet’s Olympia are on the horizon).

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Marins dansant la valse à bord de l’USS Olympia, 1899 © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

However, in the realm of photojournalism, the exhibition makes its strongest argument for a gender-specific presentation. Notions of identity are performed in theaters of conflict, and domains formerly restricted by gender are pried open. Christina Broom’s underappreciated work (at least in the marketplace) for both the suffragettes and the British army, and Florence Farmborough’s pictures from the front lines of World War I, show when and how women photographers started to level the playing field. In the next war, photographers such as Gerda Taro, Julia Pirotte, Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and Joanna Szydlowska found their distinct voices. Taro’s brutal Air Raid Victim in the Morgue, Valence (1937) or Szydlowska’s images taken illegally inside a women’s concentration camp are vivid examples of their tenacity. Olga Vsevolodovna Ignatovitch, unfortunately, is the only example from the Soviet side of the Allied war effort. During “the great patriotic war,” as the conflict was called in the USSR, women chose to fight for their country either by taking up arms or picking up a camera. This subject would provide enough material for its own exhibition.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Mills Thompson travesti, ca. 1895 © Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Simultaneously on view at the Musée d’Orsay is Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution, 1850–1910, which focuses on women as passive objects of male voyeurism It’s a fascinating coincidence to have two exhibitions dedicated to “the feminine” in art history on view at the same moment. The prostitution show is a spectacle and has been extremely popular with audiences, which grants the more modest exhibition on female photographic practitioners an urgency it perhaps wouldn’t have had otherwise. Together, the exhibitions foreground the logic and task of the contemporary museum in catering to unquestioned tastes for “the feminine” and aim to confront audiences with what was at risk of being forgotten.

Elfriede Stegemeyer, Self-Portrait, 1933 © Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence

Qui a peur des femmes photographes? takes the role of debunking the male gaze much more seriously than the exhibition on images of prostitution. Even so, it’s not a radical exhibition in a political sense: there is little overt activism in that it does not try to steer the audience towards a reductive interpretation of female photographers and their social suppression by men. The exhibition left me with a hunger for dedicated exhibitions on multiple aspects of the show that were only mentioned in passing. This broadness is a strength, but also points to the fact that the study of women photographers is still in an early phase. It’s impossible to imagine an exhibition dedicated to “male photographers” in fact, it would rightly be considered absurd. Qui a peur des femmes photographes? 1839–1945 is a necessary exhibition that points to important women practitioners to whom we have been partly blind. One can only wonder what is still hidden in the archives.

Qui a peur des femmes photographes? 1839–1945 is on view at Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée de l’Orsay, Paris, until January 24, 2016.

The Women Photographers of World War I

No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, England, is highlighting a perspective frequently missing from Word War I centenary commemorations: that of the women involved in the conflict.

“During the centenary, there has been a lot of emphasis on men’s experiences,” Dr. Pippa Oldfield, No Man’s Land curator and head of programming at Impressions Gallery, told Hyperallergic. “I think it’s fair to say that war is conventionally assumed to be the concern of men, and that women’s experiences of conflict are seen to be peripheral, less important, or somehow less authentic than the fighting soldier.”

The exhibition, supported by Arts Council England Strategic Touring, is planned to tour Bristol Cathedral, the Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. Through support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Peter Palmquist Memorial Fund, Oldfield extensively researched World War I women photographers in the archives of the Imperial War Museums, the Liddle Collection at University of Leeds, and the National Library of Scotland. Many of the photographs in No Man’s Land have rarely been seen by the public. For instance, Olive Edis is best known for her studio portrait photography, although she brought those same techniques to the battlefield as one of the first women in the world to be an official war photographer. Commissioned by the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum, she photographed women on the frontlines, including telegraphists, medical personnel, and engineers.

Olive Edis, “Commandant Johnson and two other women of the General Service Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) Motor Convoy outside Nissen Huts, Abbeville, France” (1919) (© IWM (Q 8036))

“She was a very successful portrait photographer and businesswoman, and was technically very accomplished, so many of her images are elegantly composed and beautifully lit by natural light,” Oldfield said. “As an official photographer, she also had excellent access to record a wide range of activities by women in the auxiliary services at the Western Front. However, this also meant that she was restricted in what she was shown, and what she could photograph. Her images are celebratory of women’s contributions, and present the British armed forces as efficient, ordered, and hierarchical.”

Meanwhile, Florence Farmborough was much more independent, serving as a Red Cross nurse on the Russian Front instead of as an official photographer. Thus she often photographed the grisly violence of war, along with rare views of Cossack soldiers on the Eastern Front. “Farmborough was a keen amateur photographer and, amazingly, managed to hang on to her plate camera and tripod for most of the war, developing glass plates in tents or makeshift darkrooms where she could,” Oldfield stated. “Farmborough didn’t shy away from the horrors of war, and photographed many distressing sights, such as the corpses of exhausted horses at the side of roads, or the bodies of soldiers lying dead in fields.”

Florence Farmborough, “Dead Russian soldier, photographed on the road to Monasterzhiska (Ukraine)” (1916 (© IWM (Q98431))

Many World War I photographers employed cameras like the Kodak Vest Pocket. The compact model was first released in 1912, and it was even advertised as the “soldier’s Kodak,” something to “make your own picture record of the War.” Mairi Chisholm, a motorcyclist who volunteered at the age of 18 as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, set up a First Aid post in Pervyse, Flanders, with her friend Elsie Knocker. That station was walking distance from the trenches, where they took their photographs using snapshot cameras.

“Chisholm’s images are often startling in their range, from humorous and domestic, to graphic and disturbing,” Oldfield said. “Like Farmborough, she recorded corpses and casualties of war, but she also had a mischievous sense of fun and vitality. Some of her most striking images show her friends and colleagues making the best of incredibly hard circumstances: playing with pets, rowing a boat they nicknamed ‘the Punt at Henley,’ or joking around on a makeshift see-saw.”

Three contemporary artists are showcased alongside the historic work in No Man’s Land, including Chloe Dewe Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn on sites where soldiers were executed for desertion, Dawn Cole’s use of photographic processes to layer images from the diary of her great-aunt, a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in France, and Alison Baskerville’s digital autochrome portraits of women in the British armed forces. As Oldfield affirmed, “Women have been, and continue to be, active participants in armed conflict, and greatly affected by its consequences.”

Olive Edis, “Miss Minns, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), Matron of a Hospital on the Quay at Le Havre, France” (1919) (© IWM (Q8051))

Mairi Chisholm, “Elsie Knocker” (© National Library of Scotland)

Florence Farmborough, “Russian Cossack troops in winter uniforms outside their accommodation huts.” (© IWM)

No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War continues at Impressions Gallery (Centenary Square, Bradford, England) through December 30.


In the spring of 1945 the Russian's counteroffensive against Germany had rolled across Eastern Europe into Austria. Following fierce fighting, the Reds captured Vienna and its surrounding suburbs and had moved beyond. Soon after the gunfire ceased, twenty year-old Elfriede Schonarer and her younger sister Elsie ventured from the safety of their cellar in a search for food. Their scavenging had just begun when they heard the dreaded words, "Frau komm!" The soldiers now surrounding the two were not from the disciplined battalions of front line troops who had continued on against the Nazi war machine, but rear echelon rabble bent on punishing Germans in the worse possible ways.

Elfriede and Elsie's fate seemed sealed as the two were herded into bombed out structure. Elfriede halted and stepped toward her attackers determined to be the first victim, thus perhaps sparing her sister. As Elfriede closed her eyes and rough hands pawed her, there boomed the sound of a female voice shouting, "Sobakie - Dogs," accompanied by the thud of impacted flesh. Elfriede opened her eyes to the sight of a female Russian medical officer slashing her countrymen across their faces and backs with a horse whip. Again the doctor shouted and again her blows fell, forcing the men to retreat.

In halting German, the officer calmed the two sisters and offered them her protection. "You are my aides," she told them, "stay with me and you will be safe."

No Man’s Land: Women photographers in the First World War

A new exhibition exploring female perspectives on the First World War has opened at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, featuring images taken by women working on the frontline, as well as contemporary artists directly inspired by the conflict. We talked to Dr Pippa Oldfield, curator of the exhibition, to find out more&hellip

Please note this article contains images of a sensitive nature

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Published: November 9, 2017 at 10:25 am

Q. What was the inspiration for the exhibition?

A. We wanted to commemorate the centenary of the First World War at Impressions Gallery, but take a different angle. We decided to look at women’s experiences of the First World War through their photography. There has been quite a lot of focus recently on women’s roles in the first world war, but their contribution to war photography seems to have been ignored in favour of photos made by men. As a curator, what I was interested in doing was finding out what kind of pictures women took and how their use of photography would express their own experiences and perspective. That was the question that kicked off the project.

Q. What do these photographs tell us about women’s experiences?

A. Women couldn’t join the armed forces as soldiers during the First World War, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t get involved in other ways. While many women worked on the home front, others volunteered for overseas positions. The women in our exhibition – Mairi Chisholm, Florence Farmborough and Olive Edis – were all working overseas during the war and taking photographs coming from different angles.

Mairi Chisolm is a particularly interesting case study. She was this intrepid ambulance driver who volunteered to join the Flying Ambulance Corps when she was 18-years-old. She then went with her friend Elsie Knocker to set up a first aid post in Belgium just yards away from the trenches, and she used a snapshot camera to take photographs of the kind of things she was seeing and experiencing. Some of her images are horrific – particularly those depicting dead soldiers and no man’s land – but they also depict plenty of fun moments too. There are quite a few photographs that she took that show Elsie joking around with the Belgian soldiers. Her images show how people can make the best of difficult and traumatic circumstances. They’re very warm and human – quite different to the official war photography that was released at that time. So compared to someone like Horace Nicholls [appointed Home Front Official Photographer during the First World War], whose images of women’s war work on the home front are very orderly and composed, Mairi’s photographs are incredibly personal and spontaneous. They are almost reminiscent of the type of images people take on their mobile phones today.

Q. What can you tell us about photography in general at the time?

A. At the time of the First World War, snapshot cameras were still a very recent invention. They were cheap and portable, so you didn’t have to be a professional photographer to take pictures. It was a really big watershed moment in the history of war photography because it meant that ordinary people could capture their experiences. Kodak even marketed one particular snapshot camera – the Vest Pocket Kodak – as a soldier’s camera that could be taken to the front line and used to make a memento of the war.

Despite being advertised for soldiers, snapshot cameras were actually banned at the beginning of the war by Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. You have to remember that at this point in time newspapers were not permitted to show dead bodies, and the government didn’t want photos depicting the true horrors of war from reaching the general public. The ban was also in place to try to control incidents such as the publication of snapshots from the Christmas truce of December 1914 [an unofficial ceasefire that took place on the western front]. These images, showing troops ‘fraternising’ with the enemy, went against the nationalistic ethos of the day.

Q. How much would a snapshot camera cost?

A. When first introduced in the UK in 1912, they cost £1.10 (about £70 in today’s money). They weren’t super cheap, but they were certainly accessible to a lot of people. By 1915 at least 28,000 cameras had been sold in the UK alone. A lot of the women who volunteered to go to the western front were upper or middle-class, so they could generally afford a camera.

Q. Tell us about Olive Edis, who features in the exhibition. She has been described as the UK’s first official female war photographer– is this true?

A. I would say that she is the UK’s first official female photographer who was sent to a war zone. That’s because there was also the military photographer Christina Broom, who was official photographer to the Household Division, but she was based in the UK during the war and didn’t go abroad. Olive Edis was sent to Northern France and Flanders. She was not the first female war photographer to be officially commissioned in the world though – there are claims for other women in Spain, Mexico and the USA.

Q. How significant were Olive’s achievements?

A. It was a massive step forward for women. There weren’t that many professional photographers at the western front anyway – we’re talking less than 10 – so the fact that one of them was a woman was quite remarkable.

What’s interesting about Olive is that she was a portrait photographer, so she would traditionally work in a studio. That was the kind of photography that women were ‘allowed’ to do at the time. Being commissioned to photograph war, which was traditionally seen as a masculine field, was really quite unusual. Olive was quite revolutionary in that sense.

Q. Did women capture images or moments that perhaps wouldn’t have been noticed by a man? Is there a gender aspect to these photographs?

A. When I first began my PhD research into women and war photography, I did wonder whether men and women take different pictures. There is an assumption that women would shy away from taking pictures of the grislier details of war, but you can see from the photographs in our exhibition that this not the case. So I would say that the answer is no, but I think it’s also a bit more complicated than that.

In my opinion, there is nothing intrinsically different between men and women that makes them want to photograph different things. Where you do see differences in their work, this tends to be informed by access and the constraints or limitations imposed on gender roles. For example, if women are more likely to be working in nursing during the war, then naturally you might find more photos of that type of work. But it doesn’t mean that women are intrinsically more interested in photographing nursing than men.

One interesting thing to consider is whether women behave differently with female photographers. Olive Edis was commissioned by the Women’s Work Sub-Committee because they thought that she would get a different response than a male photographer. They believed that she would be more accepted by the women she was commissioned to photograph and could therefore get more intimate pictures. In this sense, the photographs that men and women take can perhaps be influenced by power dynamics and relationships.

Q. You mentioned that women’s contribution to war photography seems to have been overlooked in favour of photos made by men. Why is this?

A. The contribution of women to war photography is generally overlooked and underrated. There have been hundreds and hundreds of female photographers who have been ignored, so there’s still a lot of work to do to get them into the history books.

Part of the reason for this is that war has always been gendered as a masculine activity. In terms of photography and visual media, it just follows on from that. So war photography is something people associate with a daring photo-journalist out on the front line risking his life alongside the soldiers – someone like Robert Capa, for example, who made iconic pictures of the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings. Of course, this is something that has been difficult for women to emulate. Women have often been forbidden from being at the front lines, and historically their photographs have been received differently, perhaps considered not ‘authentic’, simply because they have not been made by a man. That’s something I hope this exhibition will demystify – the authentic experience of women who have experienced war. Their images are equally powerful and arresting.

Q. The exhibition includes works by modern-day photographers. What is the reason for this and what is the role of art in remembering events such as the First World War?

A. The exhibition commemorates the centenary, and I wanted to reflect some of the ways in which women are photographing war, a hundred years after the conflict. There are lots of ways art helps us respond to the world. Art can move us and it can make us feel empathy. Certainly, I had quite an emotional response to some of the images produced by our contemporary photographers. Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews, for example, is a really interesting body of work that explores a secret chapter of history – the stories of the men, some of whom were probably suffering from PTSD, who were executed by firing squad for desertion. What Chloe did was travel to the places in Northern France and Flanders where these men were executed and photographed the site at the same time of day and in the same season. Nothing is explicitly shown in the landscape, but what is really powerful about the images is that they let your imagination fill in the blanks. That’s a good example of how photography can be used to elicit an emotional response, spark our imagination and activate memories.

Q. Tell us about some of the other images that moved you…

A. I find some of the works by Mairi Chisolm really extraordinary because they show her humour and sense of mischief. There is this picture of two men on a see-saw – just yards away from no man’s land – that totally changed my view on what the First World War looked like. It’s so unexpected to see this moment of real warmth and humour taking place in such horrendous circumstances.

Florence Farmborough, on the other hand, captured some horrifyingly brutal images while photographing on the eastern front. There is this one image that I find incredibly sad – it’s a picture of a little Romanian boy and his arm has been blasted off by shrapnel. He’s sitting on the knee of a nurse and his face is just so desolate. It’s an image that really gets to you.

Q. What are you hoping that the audience takes away from this exhibition?

A. I hope the exhibition helps to broaden people’s understanding of what the war was really like and how it affected people. I hope that it helps to move people away from the idea that experiences of war are by nature a masculine experience. And although the subject matter of war is of course often upsetting, I also want people to take something positive from the women featured in the exhibition. I hope visitors will look back at them from the 21st century and see how pioneering they were and the risks that they took. I think their stories are really inspiring and I think people will go away from this exhibition feeling inspired too.

Dr. Pippa Oldfield is Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery in Bradford and curator of No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War. The exhibition will run at the gallery until the 30th December before beginning a tour of UK venues in 2018 and 2019, including Bristol Cathedral, The Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall.

The exhibition is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund for Historical Photographic Research.

For more information about women’s experiences during the First World War, BBC One’s new six-part series Women at War: 100 Years of Service is currently airing. The first four episodes are on BBC iPlayer now.

Russian Civil War Siberia I

Clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919 a White infantry division in March 1920 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army Leon Trotsky in 1918 hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.

In the West today, Siberia is remembered as a land of living death where post-Revolutionary Russian governments confined millions of ‘counter-revolutionary elements’, common law criminals and dissidents in the Gulag camps. Before the Trans-Siberian mainline was constructed in the nineteenth century to connect St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland with the Pacific at Vladivostok – the name means ‘lord of the East’, implying Russian ownership of the East Asian littoral – long columns of convicts were marched into Siberia, many of them in chains. They stopped at the border for men and women both to kiss the earth of Mother Russia and wrap a handful of it in a piece of cloth or paper, to treasure during their exile. Few of them felt anything for Siberia except that it was immensely vast and about as hospitable as the far side of the moon even fewer expected to return.

Its enormous climatic differences over a north–south extent of 2,000 miles include one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet: recorded temperatures at Verkhoyansk range from a low of minus 69°C in mid-winter, when there is no daylight for two whole months, to a midsummer high of 37°C. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, which cost thousands of lives and was largely financed by foreign loans that were never repaid, was for two reasons: to open up the territory’s rich mineral and other resources to commercial exploitation with slave labour and to move troops quickly from European Russia to the Pacific littoral, a train journey of 5,000-plus miles. It was indeed the perceived threat to Japan posed by the second purpose of the railway that triggered the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war which ended so disastrously for Russia, the enormous number of casualties being a major cause of the 1905 revolution.

How many diners in a Chinese restaurant realise that the Tsingtao beer which washes down their dim sum is made from a recipe first brewed at the Germania brewery established in Tsingtao (modern Quangdao) after the German annexation of the port in 1898? What had originally been a poor Chinese fishing village became the home port of the Kaiserliche Marine’s Ostasiatische Kreuzergeschwader or Far Eastern Squadron. On 7 November 1914 a joint British and Japanese force captured the port from the German navy, making passage to Vladivostok safe for supply ships that transported millions of tons of materiel, to be dumped there for forwarding along the Trans-Siberian to the tsarist forces fighting 5,000 miles to the west. Some supplies, including Japanese rifles and ammunition, were transported, but despite the French and British governments urging their Japanese allies to take responsibility for security in eastern Siberia, where geography favoured them, Tokyo was playing a different game, in which the real prize was the hoped-for seizure of Manchuria and a large slice of north-eastern China.

By December 1917 no less than 600,000 tons of undistributed supplies had accumulated at Vladivostok, although the Bolsheviks had taken command of the harbour area and were sending shipments to the Red forces. To discourage them, the Admiralty tried the technique that had worked so well against ‘the lesser breeds without the law’ through the nineteenth century, and sent a gunboat: the British Monmouth Class cruiser HMS Suffolk was despatched from Hong Kong. In a game of nautical chess, Tokyo moved two rather ancient battleships – Asahi and Iwami – to outbid the single cruiser flying the White Ensign in Vladivostok harbour, but Japanese ground forces made no move, even when it was again suggested that they would fulfil a useful function by taking over security of the Trans-Siberian.

The railway still functioned, after a fashion. Florence Farmborough had been given permission in Moscow to travel with a group of other foreigners on the longer, northern route to Vladivostok for repatriation. After leaving behind the Urals in March 1918 in the dirt and discomfort of what was termed ‘a fourth-class carriage’ attached to a freight train, their journey was described as ‘twenty-seven days of hunger and fear’. From Perm to Ekaterinburg and on to Chelyabinsk they progressed slowly, their train making only 10 or 12 miles on some days after being repeatedly shunted into sidings as more important traffic thundered past. At Omsk, Red Guards stormed the foreigners’ carriage, pushed aside the screen of male passengers and insisted on searching every compartment in the hope of finding fleeing tsarist officers to execute by firing squad. Finding women and children instead, they ignored the protests, the properly authorised Soviet travel papers and the British passports to search the baggage for arms or contraband. From Omsk, the train slowly continued to Irkutsk and skirted svyatoe morye – the holy sea of Lake Baikal – on the last stretch of the line to be completed, which had required forty tunnels to be blasted and hacked through mountains that came right down to the water.

The people in the virgin forests and tundra of Transbaikalia were Asiatics: Kalmuk and Buryat. Soon Chinese faces became more common. After Chita, the Manchurian border being closed, the train followed the mighty Amur River, where mutinying troops had killed the governor, but allowed his two teenage daughters to walk away. One of them, called Anna Nikolaevna, later taught the author at the Joint Services School for Linguists in Crail. That she was somewhat odd is understandable after living through that and having to beg her way with her sister on foot for 600 miles from Blagoveshchensk to Vladivostok, where they hoped to find a ship to take them to Europe. On the way, they soon learned that poor peasants would normally share food with them while richer people turned them away.

At least Florence Farmborough did not have to walk. After arrival at Vladivostok, the passengers on her train were immensely cheered to see His Majesty’s ships Suffolk and Kent moored in the harbour. British, American, French, Belgian, Italian and Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets, thronged with thousands of civilian refugees of many nationalities. Whilst Red Guards were still a nuisance, their worst excesses were restrained by the Allied presence. She was told this was because a White general named Semyonov – but who behaved more like the Baikal Cossack ataman or warlord that he also was – was expected shortly to drive the Bolsheviks out of the port-city altogether. At night none of the passengers left the train, which was parked in a coal siding, because shots were frequently heard. The greatest joy for the weary, and very hungry, travellers was to find that food could freely be purchased in the Chinese street market, at a price. Spirits fell somewhat when a Chinese ship sailed into harbour flying a yellow fever flag and they learned that there was an epidemic of typhoid and smallpox among the undernourished coolies working as dockers.

After three weeks in the coal siding, guarded at night by a shore patrol from HMS Suffolk, great was their excitement at the arrival of a passenger ship to take them to San Francisco. Embarking themselves and their luggage under the protection of American sailors who beat off any interference from the locals and from other refugees who did not have the right papers, Florence and her exhausted companions settled into their overcrowded cabins, revelling in clean bed linen, clean towels and even clean curtains at the portholes. They went on deck to be played out of harbour by Royal Navy, US Navy and Japanese bands on the decks of the ships moored there.

Among the passengers on board was the indomitable Maria Bochkaryova, who had narrowly escaped execution by Red Guards on two occasions since being invalided back from the front. Early in 1918 she had been asked by loyalists in Petrograd to take a message to White Army commander General Lavr Kornilov. After fulfilling that mission, she was again detained by the Bolsheviks and sentenced to be executed until a soldier who had served with her in 1915 convinced his comrades to stay her execution. Thanks to him, she was granted an external passport instead, allowing her to leave for Vladivostok, en route to the USA. There, she dictated her memoirs to an émigré Russian journalist and met President Woodrow Wilson – and later King George V in London – to plead for Western intervention forces to crush the Bolsheviks.

Although she could certainly have requested political asylum in the West, she begged the War Office to let her return to Russia and continue the fight. In August 1918 she landed in Archangel, where she attempted to form another women’s combat unit without success. In April of the following year, she returned to her home town of Tomsk, hoping to recruit a women’s medical unit to serve under Admiral Kolchak. Captured by Bolsheviks, she was interrogated in Krasnoyarsk and sentenced again to death as vrag naroda – an enemy of the people. Sentence was carried out by firing squad on 16 May 1920. So ended the life of one of the bravest people to fight on the Russian fronts.

It has to be admitted that both sides in the civil war committed atrocities. The Whites justified this by regarding the enemy as traitors to Russia. The Reds regarded them as traitors to the Revolution. General Semyonov had one of the worst records, frequently holding hostages for ransom and holding up trains belonging to both sides like a bandit. However, he had his uses, so the British decided in February 1918 to pay him £10,000 a month. Two months later, the subsidy was cancelled, since his ‘army’ was more interested in looting than fighting. With smaller handouts from the French, he stayed in the region. To stop the large-scale pilfering of stores from the widely separated dumps of Allied stores, the captain of Suffolk proposed landing Allied ground forces, meanwhile deploying fifty Royal Marines in a cordon around the British Consulate. The Japanese took off the velvet gloves and landed 500 troops to restore order, but by 25 April these troops were withdrawn and the Bolsheviks were again masters of the port, the city and the stores.

A Belgian armoured car corps arrived – sans armoured cars or guns, which they had sabotaged after being given permission to withdraw via Vladivostok. Next came some of the Czech Legion, now several thousand men strong – and all impatient to get out of Russia and participate in the liberation of their homeland. The war on the Western Front was, of course, still ongoing at this point. Suffering some casualties, they kicked the Bolsheviks out of Vladivostok after just fifty-eight days of skirmishes and demanded stores from the Allied dumps so they could travel back along the railway to rescue the large number of their comrades far in the rear, who had taken control of the major Siberian city of Irkutsk after fighting with the Bolsheviks there. These were men who, forcibly conscripted by the Central Powers, had been taken prisoner and then volunteered to go back into action until Trotsky signed the second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It says something about their esprit de corps that the slogan painted on the cattle wagons in which they lived on the railway was ‘Each of us is a brick, together we are a rock’.

Watch the video: Florence in 4K (May 2022).