A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A British nurse on the Eastern front

A teacher in Moscow at the outbreak of war, Florence Farmborough was a volunteer nurse with the Russian army. This is her account of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive on the Polish front

So much has happened. I am dreadfully tired. We are retreating! In that one word lies all the agony of the last few days. We were called from our beds before dawn on Saturday 18 April [in the Russian calendar; Western equivalent: 1 May]... The Germans had launched their offensive!

Explosion after explosion rent the air; shells and shrapnel fell in and around Gorlice. The roar of the rival cannons grew increasingly intense.  Rockets and projectors were at work. Patches of lurid, red light glowed here and there where fires had been kindled by shells. Our house shook to its very foundations, its windows rattling and quivering. Death was very busy, his hands full of victims. Then the wounded began to arrive. We started work in acute earnest. At first we could cope; then, we were overwhelmed by their numbers.

They came in their hundreds, from all directions; some able to walk, others crawling, dragging themselves along the ground.

We worked night and day. And still they came! And the thunder of the guns never ceased. Soon their deadly shells were exploding around our unit; for hours on end, the horror and confusion continued... Those who could walk were sent on immediately without attention. “The Base hospitals will attend to you,” we told them; “Go! Go! Quickly!” The groans and cries of the wounded were pitiful to hear. We dressed their severe wounds where they lay on the open ground; one by one we tended them, first alleviating their pain by injections. And all the time the bombardment of Gorlice was continuing with brutal ferocity.

On Sunday, the violence of the thunderous detonations grew in length and strength. Then, suddenly, the terrible word “retreat” was heard. At first in a whisper; then, in loud, forceful tone: “The Russians are retreating!” And the first-line troops came into sight: a long procession of dirt-bespattered, weary, desperate men – in full retreat!

We had received no marching orders. The thunder of the guns came nearer and nearer. We were frightened and perplexed; they had forgotten us! But they came at last – urgent, decisive orders: we were to start without delay, leaving behind all the wounded and all the equipment that might hinder us. A dreadful feeling of dismay and bewilderment took possession of us; to go away, leaving the wounded and the unit’s equipment! It was impossible; there must be some mistake! But there was no mistake, we had to obey; we had to go. “Skoro! Skoro!” [“Quickly!”] shouted familiar voices. “Skoro! Skoro!” echoed unfamiliar ones from the hastily passing infantry. “The Germans are outside the town!”

Snatching up coats, knapsacks, any of our personal belongings which could be carried,  we started off quickly down the rough road. And the wounded? They shouted to us when they saw us leaving; called out to us in piteous language to stop – to take them with us; not to forsake them, for the love of God; not to leave them – our brothers – to the enemy. Those who could walk, got up and followed us; running, hopping, limping, by our sides. The badly crippled crawled after us; all begging, beseeching us not to abandon them in their need. And, on the road, there were others, many others; some of them lying down in the dust, exhausted. They, too, called after us. They held on to us; praying us to stop with them. We had to wrench our skirts from their clinging hands. Then their prayers were intermingled with curses; and, far behind them, we could hear the curses repeated by those of our brothers whom we had left to their fate…

© Florence Farmborough 1974.

Extracted from “Nurse at the Russian Front”, by  Florence Farmborough, published by Constable.

Tomorrow: The sinking of the Lusitania

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

£400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

Lead Application Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

Senior Networks Architect

£65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

SAP BW/BO Consultant

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices