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

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