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Violetta Thurstan

(1879-1978) – Nurse on the Russian front

All through the war Violetta Thurstan saw active service and experienced extraordinary adventures. Her war started in Brussels, she then volunteered for the Russian Red Cross and served with their Flying Ambulance Unit. Violetta later became an expert on ancient textiles and retired to Penryn.

Credit: Penryn Museum and Bernie Pettersen photos

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Throughout the First World War, Violetta Thurstan saw active service and experienced extraordinary adventures. 

In 1914, at the outbreak of war, Violetta, a trained nurse, worked in Brussels.  Nursing British prisoners after the Battle of Mons, she was awarded the Mons Star.  Taken prisoner by the Germans in their advance, Violetta was released and sent by train to Copenhagen.

She then volunteered to go to Russia, firstly taking charge of a hospital in the Polish town of Lodz, which was under siege.  She was evacuated, narrowly avoiding capture again.  Injured by shrapnel, Violetta became very ill with sepsis and pleurisy.  She received the Royal Cross of St George for her work with the Flying Ambulance and in 1915 was sent back to England to recuperate.  Her account of this time, The Hounds of War Unleashed – a nurse’s account of life on the Eastern Front during the 1914-1918 war (published in 1978), ends tragically with the loss of her Russian fiancé.  He was shot in the chest while driving one of the ambulances.  As Violetta wrote:

‘It was today that my Nicky and I were to start out on the enchanted journey to the shadowed forests and deep flowing rivers of his home in the Ukraine.  Nothing mattered any more; I should not even see him to say goodbye.  This hateful, hateful war’.

Violetta returned to Russia in 1916 to nurse the thousands of refugees that fled the advancing German invasion.  She was bombed by the Germans and remained concussed for three days.  In 1917, suffering from shell-shock, Violetta was sent home and awarded the Military Medal.  During this time she wrote many nursing books. Violetta remained unmarried and died in Penryn in 1978.  She was an expert on weaving and dyeing and an organiser of local arts and craft activities.

Key words: women, nursing

Credit: Penryn Museum and Bernie Pettersen photos