The Royal College of Nursing (founded in 1916 with 34 members, but now with 440,000) is busy celebrating its centenary; and, at its grand headquarters in London’s Cavendish Square, there was another little celebration last week. This was to mark the centenary of a small, short-lived and generally unremembered medical institution, the Anglo-Russian Hospital of St Petersburg, at which some 6,000 wounded Russian soldiers were treated by British doctors and nurses during the last two years of the first world war.
These were only a tiny fraction of the millions of Russians killed and wounded in that dreadful conflict, and the hospital was so completely forgotten that it didn’t even get a mention in the ‘Official Medical History of the Great War’. But at a time when the famously brave and stoic Russian soldiers were dying in far greater numbers in the east than the soldiers of any of its allies in the west, and when there was a great urge in this country to make at least some practical gesture of support for them, this ‘British Empire’s gift to our Russian allies’, as it was called, had great symbolic significance.
Its patron was Queen Alexandra, the widow of Edward VII, and the first of the private donations given to it were from King George V and Queen Mary (£150 between them). The project had the support not only of the British establishment and the British Red Cross, but also of their equivalents in Russia. Its opening in January 1916 was attended by the last great gathering of Russian royalty ever to be seen in public. They included the Tsarina and two of her daughters (all to be murdered two years later), the Dowager Empress, the Grand Duchess Vladimir, four other Grand Duchesses, and two Grand Dukes. There is a formal photograph of them all with the hospital’s 50-strong British medical staff; and seated among them, in a nurse’s uniform, is my grandmother, Lady Muriel Paget.
This, of course, explains my presence at the celebration. I never knew my grandmother, for she died in 1938 at the age of 61, 18 months before I was born. A daughter of Murray Finch-Hatton, the 12th Earl of Winchilsea, to whose ancestors Kensington Palace once belonged, she led a conventional upper-class social life until, in her thirties, she suddenly tired of what she called the ‘busy idleness’ of women of her class and was seized by a frantic desire to do good for mankind.
Her first charitable effort in 1905 was to set up ‘Invalid Kitchens’ in London to provide nourishing meals for sick children, convalescents and nursing mothers. But when the first world war came along, she was so moved by first-hand accounts of the slaughter and suffering on the Eastern Front that she used her feverish energy, willpower and organisational drive to launch the Anglo-Russian Hospital, raising the money, hiring the staff and, together with her friend Lady Sybil Grey, another earl’s daughter, setting it up with beds for 200 patients in the state rooms of the Dmitri Palace on the Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg.
These two English ladies from sheltered aristocratic backgrounds were exposed in Russia to horrors and savagery that they could never have imagined; but they were made of the sternest possible stuff. Lady Sybil was wounded in the face during a visit to one of the A-R H’s field hospitals at the front, but thought little of it; and being permanently in charge of the hospital in St Petersburg while Lady Muriel was on her travels, she had a ringside seat during the March 1917 uprising and coolly confronted not only marauding bands of revolutionaries but also, following the murder of Rasputin in December 1916, some of the Mad Monk’s supporters seeking revenge on Grand Duke Dmitri, a party to the murder, who had let the hospital occupy his palace.
After the triumph of the Bolsheviks in October, the Anglo-Russian Hospital was forced to close, but Lady Muriel, a world-class hustler, later appeared in Paris to lobby world leaders about her philanthropic schemes while they were negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. ‘Her energy is terrifying,’ wrote Harold Nicolson, one of the British negotiators. ‘She sends prime ministers scuttling on her behests.’
Among the dozens of descendants of those involved with the hospital at the celebratory lunch was John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, whose father, also called John, had served as an orderly at the hospital in St Petersburg while training to become a surgeon in London. John senior was already 65 when his son was born and died when he was 14, so John junior had few memories to pass on — only that his father, in preparation for his career as a surgeon, had been particularly interested in the amputation of a gangrenous Russian leg.