Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Still on Duty: The Red Cross in Siberia, Christmas Eve 1919

Rosalie O'Donnell, American Red Cross
Some Americans were still serving overseas long after the Armistice.  Red Cross volunteer Rosalie O'Donnell had served on the Western Front, primarily helping with the repatriation of prisoners of war. She stayed in touch with her Red Cross friends afterward.  One of those – believed to be Helen Lillian (Bridge) Pohlman — was still serving in Russia at holiday season 1919. Here is her letter to Rosalie describing her adventures on Christmas Eve that year.

On Board the American Consul General's Train,
Irkutsk, Siberia, December 25, 1919

Dear Rosalie:

At home, I am sure, you are making calls today and perhaps feeling sorry for me away over here. I wonder if you would like to hear about our Christmas that even now seems years ago?

It will be difficult for you to imagine an atmosphere so filled with hate and ill-will that it almost bristles. We are on a side track in the railroad yards of Irkutsk, one of thirteen eschelons carrying that many nationalities out of Siberia. This partially accounts for the atmosphere. Where soldiers of so many nations are gathered in close quarters, in mid-winter, there is little good will. Omsk has been sacked and partially burned and everyone and everything is evacuating eastward. You will not be able to understand this either, for you have never seen a whole country moving eastward over one slender line of railroad over 6000 miles of territory. Alas! Alas! Last night we were so happy, all huddled together in our cold room, popping corn, cutting the only bright paper we could find in all Siberia (salvaged from our own trunks) into strips, roasting crazy Chinese peanuts and putting all the little trinkets we could find into Comfort Bags for the soldiers in our Hospital. Then it was so easy to forget that we are 6000 miles from home and plenty and that our food is cold fish and frozen black bread. Yes, that was last night.

At midnight an order came to evacuate. All our possessions, tinned food, etc. were packed into our bags and we were hurriedly huddled into ezvosticks [cabs] and taken under cover of darkness to the Angara River, where we were again hurried on to a shaky Russian river boat and transported across the river filled with floating blocks of ice, which made me think of the runaway slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin, to the other side where our train awaited us. All we know is that we have been compelled to leave our wounded and helpless men behind in a hospital that is soon to fall into the hands of the invading Reds. Sentinels are everywhere, stray firing is heard on every side. In this medieval city the midnight stillness is broken by racing motorcycle messengers tearing down the narrow cobbled streets and across the cathedral square. The city is under martial law. A band of Cossacks riding superbly kick up a cloud of drifted snow; church bells are ringing wildly, as they can only ring in Russia; the streets are filled with people. Excitement runs high, but why are we being taken away so hurriedly? Have we not seen rioting before? Is it possible that we are leaving old Irkutsk, once the capital city and once the last point of civilization touched by the exiles on their way to the far north? We are too tired, too disturbed, too discouraged to let the excitement take hold of us. We do not think of Christmas.

A Detachment of Red Cross Nurses Somewhere in Russia

It is the day before Christmas. A brilliant sunset lights up a snow covered waste. All day we have been prisoners on the train, not allowed to leave our narrow coupes; forbidden to go to the windows, but as evening draws nearer the firing is less and the day no doubt will end in peace. Night will soon be here, for we already hear the howling of Russia's hordes of stray dogs. We beg, we plead to be allowed to make one trip back to the hospital that has been the only home we have known. We cannot forget the Comfort Bags, all the little treasures we collected from our own meager store, just to make Christmas possible for the men. We had waited so long for an opportunity to hear the gay Czechs sing their Christmas songs, and perhaps, a Russian, if he be not too sick. It is Christmas Eve. We win. A guard is sent for. Into our heavy coats, hoods, valenkies [felt boots] we jump and soon we hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of the Russian Guards over the dry snow on their way to our train to conduct us back to the city and our Hospital. Does it matter that all Russia is at war? We have won; we are on our way to the hospital. We form into line, two abreast; on either side of us a line of tall Astrakan-capped Russian soldiers in long tunics, carrying crazy looking rifles with long bayonets across shoulders already stooped from long months of war without bread. Down the railroad yeard [sic] we go, between rows and rows of trains, past the station, across an open space, to the old pontoon bridge, three hundred years old. How amazingly bright the stars are, how crisp and clear the air! We are across the Angara, again in the old city, again we go through the narrow streets; this time not as one fleeing. On we go through the Chinese and Tartar quarters, up more narrow streets across the cathedral square and on to the hill, past the old monastery, and on to the hospital.

We cross the road and start to enter the gates. "Stoya!" A sharp command halts us. It is the military guard, Red no doubt, halting our White Guard. Is our venture going to end in sad disappointment? Quickly one of the girls draws back her cape, points to the Red Cross on her arm and says "Amerikansky Crosna Crest". "Zuda psalster?" ("May we pass?") Without another word the guard says "Mozna." (Forward) [sic]. We make our way to the door and our guard goes back to the barracks to return for us within an hour or so.

It is too good to be true! We are back in the old familiar corridors and the huge rooms of what was a technical school connected with the monastery, now the only hospital within three thousand miles. We run through the wards, doing our best to let the poor, sick Russian soldiers know and see that we have come back; that we have not deserted them in the face of danger. Too sick, too discouraged, they do not respond. Some one thinks of the Comfort Bags and we race off to get them. As we start down the corridor that leads to the big dormitory we are again halted. This time by our old Czech friend, with his kindly "Naznaia". He cannot believe his eyes. The "Sistras" are back! The news spreads throughout the Hospital. Perhaps the sisters have not gone? We load ourselves with bags and this time we go to our favorite Ward — the "Czech Ward" where we know we will have a hearty welcome. As we go up the stairs to what was once a chapel we hear a rustling in the corridor. To our amazement we see lined up against each wall a row of our old friends, the German War Prisoners, each with a great bundle of rushes in his hand. From each side they step forward, brush the floor before us, then make the sign of the cross over each of us as we proceed. They are back at home, carrying out an age old custom of chasing the evil spirits away so that the spirit of Christmas may pass unmolested. Old, war-worn men, many of them past fifty, but all at home tonight — boys. We rush to the door, throw it open, and as best we can, we greet the surprised men with 'NAZNAIA". Heads pop up. "Sistra; Sistra; Sistra! comes from a dozen at once. We pass between the rows of beds, giving each a Comfort Bag, and in broken German, English and Russian, wish them a Merry Christmas. One bright little fellow, much younger than the others, sits up in bed and begins to sing "Stulle [sic] Nacht". Through tears and laughter, in German, Czech and English we sing that old carol to the end. 

In the midst of our celebration a loud rap is heard and in strides an officer. He announces the arrival of the guard. Like a flash we are back to reality. Can it be that we are in Siberia? Can it be that the whole face of Russia is changing? A minute ago all was warmth and good cheer and peace and now guards, armoured trains, Siberian snows and black bread. Slowly we reach the door. A Red Guard! A Red Guard! All Russia has gone RED. What of it? We have had one hour of Peace on Earth Good Will to Men. Will it be the last Christian Christmas in Russia?



Rosalie O'Donnell's niece Julie Chitwood has compiled her letters in The World After WW1, 1918 - 1921 available on both Amazon and Amazon UK.


  1. Thank you for a very different Christmas story. There were good people in the world then and I hope there is a similar story evolving today somewhere in the war torn parts of this world. I hope I get to hear about it too!

    I am not afraid to say "Happy Christmas"!

  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Letter writing back then was an art. Julie Chitwood