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

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

A Russian Nurse in War and Revolution: Memoirs 1912–1922

by Tatiana Varnek
Translated & Edited by Kimball Worcester
Blurb Publishing, 2021

Tatiana Aleksandrovna Varnek was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1894 into an affluent upper-class family of some distinction. Her great-grandfather was a noted portrait artist, her grandfather an architect, and her father a navy officer and Arctic explorer. She had a sister and two brothers, and until the start of the war she lived the life of an educated young lady, winters in Petersburg and summers in the Caucasus at the family estate. The seemingly only dark time was the death of her mother in 1908. Varnek starts her memoir in 1912, when she graduates from the gymnasium (high school), the cataclysm yet to come. Four years later she is in the throes of the Southwestern Front of Russia’s war with the Central Powers, her personal fortitude and nursing skills considerably tested. [Bracketed comments in italics are the translator’s notes.]

Unidentified Frontline Nurse with Drozdovite
Volunteer Army Unit, January 1918

Just before Christmas [1916] we two [her colleague Ksenia] and part of the detachment were sent urgently to Romania, to Tecuci. We spent Christmas Eve sitting in a crowded rail car, by the window a little tree we had brought from Kiev. We arrived in Tecuci at the height of the Romanian Army’s retreat. When we left the station for our lodgings, we were met with crowds of soldiers and officers, many of whom were sitting on carts with furniture and belongings, most of which had no military value at all. They shouted at us to flee!

The next day we started helping in a Russian hospital, full to the brim with wounded. It was a long walk away. Mud clogged the streets, and we could get through only thanks to our boots, but the orderlies carried Mara Silven, since she didn’t have any boots.

We worked there for a few days, when a hospital train arrived from the front and we had to board it. It turned out to be a Romanian hospital train—some carriages without heating [There was a wide range of railway cars then, some with heat, some not, e.g., a teplushka is a heated car.], a rustic kitchen car, and two 1st-class cars for the staff, one for long-distance travel but with all the windows shattered and of course no heating, and the other was tiny, rough, with open floors, no washroom, and of course freezing. On the 31st, everything was ready for embarkation: suitcases packed, everyone in their coats, the little Christmas tree on the table. We waited on our feet until midnight, drank a glass of wine, and set off.

A frost descended unexpectedly. The train, having come from the front, was full of wounded, exclusively Russians, who lay right on the floor. Not even an orderly with them!

We got to work with a good attitude. First—separate the dead from the wounded and frostbitten, then we laid out straw and set up stoves and fashioned some bunks. The trip was arduous: it was a very fierce frost, and often the track was covered with snow. We slept with our clothes on in sleeping bags. We heated washing water on a primus stove. There were frequent crashes but nothing big, thank God. The train strained, a carriage rolled down a slope, stopping at the last minute before a ruined bridge, but it all turned out fine. We survived this voyage from Tecuci to Galați to Reni [in Ukraine] and back to Siret along the front line where we were to collect wounded. On the return trip, between Reni and Galați, we came under heavy German artillery fire. The train moved slowly along the embankment, with swamps on both sides. On the left, beyond the river and swamp, were the mountains the Germans were firing from. We were well visible. Whenever the train passed in daylight, they opened fire. A train had been hit the day before, and we saw it lying along the embankment with a dead man alongside, whom we couldn’t get to. Shells burst along both sides of the train. Huge pillars of water and mud flew upward. We three nurses were sitting together. It was terrifying but beautiful! Orderlies, Romanians, everyone ran out along the embankment, and many didn’t return to the train. Our kitchen team, Russians, lay under the stove with pots on their heads! One shell exploded right on the embankment, the shrapnel killing one passenger and wounding another, who had been riding as stowaways. Having passed this dangerous place, we exhaled in relief, but at the Galați station, which was constantly under fire, it was “hot”—a shell had hit a railroad car.

We three nurses were awarded the George Medal. The detachment commander congratulated us and said that in a few days we would receive the notice, but because of the nascent revolution [February 1917] we never received them.

Translator/Editor Kimball Worcester is a member of the editorial team that produces Roads to the Great War.


  1. Very interesting, Kimball. This is from a source few of us would be able to access, so your translation is much appreciated. What a life those nurses lived!

  2. Thank so much, David. Stay tuned for two more memoirs coming soon, one of them from a Women's Death Battalion.