Isabella Leonora Mary Emily Grant
Isabella Leonora Mary Emily Grant, born Natal, South Africa, 10 February 1875; died Durban, South Africa, 8 February 1921.
Isabella (Gugu) Grant witnessed the Russian Revolution while serving as a VAD in 1917. She was her family's archivist, saving first-hand accounts of the Indian Mutiny, life and death in the First World War and rural life in nineteenth century Moray.
Gugu joined the Red Cross in Forres in 1913, 'an enthusiastic and efficient detachment' according to The Northern Scot. In December that year she became a VAD nurse and worked in hospitals around Britain before being posted to the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in 1916. She was forty-two years old, and as for many women of her generation and class. it must have been quite an adjustment. She had been trained in basic first-aid and nursing and honed her skills at various British auxiliary hospitals where soldiers with more minor injuries were patients. Nursing was somewhat bloodier in Russia.
The Anglo-Russian hospital was set up in 1916 by Lady Muriel Paget and Lady Sybil Grey. Patronage included Queen Alexandra and the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the Lord Provost of Aberdeen Sir David Stewart. Through these illustrious connections the Russian Royal family were also keenly involved and assisted by offering various palaces as a base for the hospital. It was set up in the former Sergei Palace, the residence of the Grand Duke Dmitri on Nevsky Prospekt. It was a grand building and work was done to install baths and plumbing. The parquet floors were covered with linoleum and the damask walls boarded up. Only the chandeliers were visible.
The hospital was officially opened on 1 February 1916. After all the pomp the real work began. Field hospitals were set up at the Front and a field ambulance was soon established. Many of the original staff went to the Front and Gugu arrived as a replacement in July, having travelled with other staff through dangerous seas to Archangel. From there they boarded a train for the 1,000 mile journey to Petrograd.
Throughout Gugu’s time there she wrote to her younger brothers who were at the front. Their replies were added to her archives. Her young brother Pat served in the 3rd Canadian Pioneers. He was injured in the Somme and invalided home for a while. He wrote to her from his hospital bed in Warwick:
It is nothing but a piece of shrapnel in shoulder… personally I don’t think I need to have stayed in bed at all with the amount of shelling I have been through I think it is a marvel I got off so easily… Miss Morris came to see me Thanks for arranging with her to send me out things.
Her closest brother Sealy (Henry) wrote regularly. At Christmas 1916 he wished her a happy Christmas and added:
I know it is a farce & that you have as much hope of enjoying yourself as I have but no matter. We have been having a quiet time for some weeks – though in many respects I prefer the line to resting… You are lucky not to get any news of the war. After all the result is what will count, & setbacks, how ever appalling they may seem will make no difference to the finale.
Gugu received a special Christmas gift in 1916, a book of pictures. She kept it in her archive box along with a note with it which said:
Given to Isabella Grant (whilst working in the Anglo Russian Hospital in the Dimitri Palace Petrograd) at Christmas time 1916 – from the Czarina.
She had a number of Russian mementoes. Along with her Russian identity card there was a letter from an R B Findlay written on 21 July 1916, just before she left for Russia:
I shall be delighted to vouch for you – I suppose the authorities will write to me if they think it necessary in your case. I wish you all good luck in your work of mercy.
When Gugu received her final letter from Sealy he was already dead, killed in an incident with a Lewis gun on 27 February 1917. He was becoming increasingly angry with the futility of war and by February was predicting his imminent demise. He also said he thought that she would have returned from Russia while she still had the chance. He added:
I don’t suppose they will put you too close to the line…after all a dead nurse is as much use as a dead horse. Hope you won’t have too tough a time all the same…I hope when your time is up you will give nursing a rest. It can’t be very pleasant and you have earned a good rest after two years.
While she was worrying about her brothers, another drama was unfolding on her doorstep. She and the rest of the hospital staff were having a grandstand view of the uprising which led to the abdication of the Tsar. By the end of the year they witnessed dramatic changes to the Russian way of life with the advent of the Bolshevik rule.
The harsh winter and lack of food as well as the war were taking their toll on the people. Russian women chose International Women's Day (23 February on the Julian Calendar) to launch their protests for 'bread and peace'. This was followed by several strikes and demonstrations staged by the workers. On the afternoon of 26 February, the nurses had been watching people queuing for bread in the freezing cold; they were unsurprised when they heard rumours of bread riots. Mill hands and munitions workers had reached the end of their tether and gathered along Nevsky Prospekt and the surrounding streets. Cossacks were on hand to quell them but though shots were fired they were undeterred and threw snow and stones at the troops. Soldiers had been sent to guard the hospital but Lady Sybil thought it wise to make up Red Cross flags out of sheets and Father Christmas suits and string them over the balcony.
Though nervous of the threatening mobs who wanted to search the building they tended the casualties as they appeared. The nurses were escorted to their sleeping quarters across the street during a lull in the fighting but there was to be no slumber for several days; the streets were alive with gunshot, screams and shouting. The police headquarters next to the nurses' home was sacked and many of the police were murdered. But there was a great air of excitement; within days the Tsar had abdicated.
In the months that followed the field hospitals were having an active time but work at the Anglo-Russian Hospital was slowing down. Gugu was posted to Rosherville Military Hospital, Gravesend in July 1917. Her war service ended at Berrington Military Hospital, Shrewsbury in 1919 when her record shows that her work and character was 'very good'.
With grateful thanks to the contributors to, and editors of, Women of Moray: a celebration of the women of Moray and their contribution to history (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2012)