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Active Duty (Biographies)

Dorothy Cotton

Nursing sister at the Anglo Russian Hospital in the Dmitri Palace
Nursing sister at the Anglo Russian Hospital in the Dmitri Palace

Petrograd, Russia

In this section:

A graduate of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal, Dorothy Cotton was one of 37 nurses who were sent to serve in Russia during the First World War. In May 1915, as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Dorothy travelled overseas with the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, a special project of McGill University, and served in England and France for 6 months. From November 1915 to June 1916, Dorothy served with the Anglo-Russian hospital in Petrograd before she was recalled to England. Dorothy returned to Petrograd to serve from January to August 1917, then returned to England and was appointed acting matron at an officer's hospital in London. She was later transferred to Halifax until her demobilization in August 1919.

The Dorothy Cotton fonds held by Library and Archives Canada includes a diary dated from November 2, 1915 to July 1, 1916, created by Dorothy as a record of reports she completed in Russia for the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC). The fonds also contains letters to Dorothy's family, written between December 1915 and December 1916.

The following text uses excerpts from Dorothy's diaries to provide an insight into her war experience through her own words.

“The day for the departure of the Anglo Russian Hospital had finally arrived….”
(Cotton diary, Nov. 2, 1915, p. 2)

Dorothy was aboard the Calypso, which set sail for the Anglo-Russian hospital on November 4, 1915. She shared the voyage with 37 passengers, made up of 20 nursing sisters including the matron, 10 volunteers, 3 doctors and 4 orderlies, all destined for Petrograd. Over-crowdedness was not a problem; they had the ship to themselves.

The threat of enemy attacks however, proved to be a real concern. Dorothy writes that their ship was escorted by small cruisers and minesweepers, and notes in her diary when they finally ceased their patrol. She continues:

Much excitement was therefore caused by our ship suddenly slowing down and giving four sharp blasts on the hooter, very shortly after they had left us. Three or four of the mine sweepers which had already disappeared into the mist, returned in answer to our call. On asking what was the matter we were told that we had almost run into a floating mine which had been sighted by the lookout men, only forty yards away, right ahead in our track! We swerved sharply aside and the mine floated past some twenty yards away.
(Cotton diary, p. 6)

After arriving in Russia Dorothy spent time becoming accustomed to her new surroundings as she waited for patients. Dorothy and her fellow nursing sisters helped the Red Cross roll and prepare bandages for the front every afternoon. She makes special note in her diary of one of the most interesting things they had seen since their arrival in Russia: a Polish refugee camp. Dorothy accompanied an English nurse who was sent to inquire into the conditions of the refugee camps, and to distribute bags of sweets, toys and other small articles to each women and child. Her diary notes:

Here in a big wooden shed at the railway station… were housed some 1,000 refugees — men, women and children from the neighborhood of Duiust and Riga. One part was portioned off for a dining room with wooden tables and trestles, and an earthen floor, whilst the remainder of the shed was used as living quarters. Each family had a space of 10-13 square feet with a raised wooden platform, at one end, on which they slept. There was no privacy… Some of these refugees had been people of means, before the Germans drove them out of their homes and now they are penniless with no future before them.
(Cotton diary, p. 15-16)
“On January 18th, 1916 we started working in our Hospital at the Dmitri Palace, once the residence of the Grand Duke Serge.”
(Cotton diary, p. 18)

When Dorothy begins working in the hospital, she enthusiastically includes a description in her diary: "It is a large building with two beautiful big wards and four smaller ones accommodating altogether 200 beds. I have been put in charge of the largest ward of 70 beds, with 3 sisters and a VAD to assist. The ward is about 112 feet by 70 ft. with large windows down one side and at one end is a small chapel where the opening ceremony is to take place…" (Cotton diary, p. 18).

The hospital formally opened February 1, 1916, with a ceremony attended by the Dowager Empress and two of the princesses.

“The first convoy of patients arrived on February 4th and since then we have had several new relays of wounded with a total of about 150.”
(Cotton diary, p. 22)

The patients that make it into Dorothy's diary seem to have a special meaning for her. She mentions one young soldier who claims to be 15 years of age. She writes, "I am sure he is not a day over 11. I believe they are used in the Army as scouts. Both his hands were badly wounded by a German bomb, one of which the doctors are afraid will not be able to be saved" (Cotton diary, p. 22).

By the end of February, the hospital had not yet received its supplies or stores, which were supposedly ice-bound in Archangel. Dorothy writes that the matron had to purchase supplies locally.

“Since my last report of February nothing has occurred, except the numerous convoys, which come in, keeping the hospital well up to its full capacity.”
(Cotton diary, May 25, 1916, p. 25)

Dorothy compares the practices of the Russian and English hospitals throughout her diary. Along with noting the Russian practice of separating the bandage room from the operating room, she notes another "rather interesting custom on the departure of men who have been discharged from the hospital. Each one is given a suit of clothes and a bright coloured shirt called a "rubashta" as well as soap, cigarettes, nuts…. If he is a married man he gets as well an outfit for his wife and some article of clothing for each child" (Cotton diary, p. 25).

Interestingly, Dorothy freely discusses the most interesting cases of her patients in her reports (later transcribed in the diary) in a straightforward, almost clinical, fashion:

One or two of the most interesting cases have been, first that of a man who had a glancing shrapnel wound across the chest about four and a half inches long which at one place exposed the chest wall — so that the heart could be seen, plainly, pulsating. He was discharged at the end of two months, no complications having set in, and his wound was well healed. The second case was that of a young boy of twenty who was admitted about two days after being wounded, with a bullet wound in his head and a shrapnel wound in his leg just below the popliteal space. He was brought at once to the Operating Room, where they examined his head. It was presumably a bullet wound with entrance and exit. The entrance about 1 inch above outside corner of right eye and the exit further back, about 2 inches and slightly to the left. They probed around and found nothing but loose bone. A great portion of the skull surrounding the wound was cracked in large pieces, which could be easily moved with the forceps. The wounds remained wonderfully clean, but a double hernia very soon developed. The hernia of the lower wound protruded more than that of the upper one. His condition remained fairly good….
(Cotton diary, p. 26-27)
“On the first Sunday in June, a blessing ceremony was held by the Greek Church, for the first Unit of the Anglo-Russian Hospital to leave for the Field.”
(Cotton diary, p. 33)

Dorothy was part of a group to venture closer to the fighting to set up a field hospital. In a letter written to her mother, dated April 5, 1916, she stated that she would have hated to pass up the opportunity to complete field work. Of the experience, she writes, "On Saturday evening the 10th of June, after many delays the Field Hospital left Petrograd for an unknown destination, in the direction of Polock, a town south of Duiust. We had a special train made up of 41 coaches…" (Cotton diary, p. 34-35). "After an interesting journey of five days we finally arrived at Veraparaoau[?] a small country village fifteen versts from the front (a verst is 2/3 of a mile)" (Cotton diary, p. 36).

Dorothy describes the experience of being closer to the front: "At the beginning the booming of the big guns was distinctively heard, but later on became less frequent. One day about noon, we heard firing, and saw shrapnel busting in the sky just over our heads, apparently firing at an aeroplane of which we saw no signs owing to the cloudy day" (Cotton diary, p. 39-40). Unfortunately, Dorothy did not get the see the hospital in action: "Owing to the necessity of my immediate return to England on June 29th my report finishes before the Field Hospital had actually commenced work" (Cotton diary, p. 40).

“In Petrograd I thought the number of wounded I saw about was great….”
(Cotton diary, p. 43-44)

In January 1917, Dorothy returns to Russia to inspect the Sparskey and Athabasca copper mines in Central Siberia. It is during this journey that Dorothy is struck by the number of wounded she sees in Moscow, an interesting point considering her year-long work in a Petrograd hospital. Dorothy writes, "but not until I arrived in Moscow later on did I realize the enormous numbers of wounded there are in the latter city [Moscow] as compared with the former [Petrograd]. In Petrograd it seemed to one that as much as possible they were trying to hide the evidences of the war, as the contrast between the two cities is great" (Cotton diary, p. 43-44).

“At the time I arrived the refugees from Poland and Galicia were pouring in, not by hundreds but by thousands, one of the saddest sights you can conceive.”
(Cotton diary, p. 45)

During her visit to the mines, Dorothy is again moved by the plight of refugees in the country. She takes great care to describe them and their hardships in her report. To the modern reader of her reports, there is an interesting contrast between the clinical way in which she describes the patients she treated, and the heartfelt tales she tells of the refugees she encounters. The former, of course, she was able to treat and help, whereas she was solely an observer of the sufferings of the refugees — the other victims of war.

Later in her report Dorothy says of the refugees:

None of these people had anything provided for them but a loaf of rye bread. The first hot meal they had had for weeks, and in some cases months, was provided by the English community organizing soup kitchens and sending them round to the 5 central stations. I was at one of them when a soup kitchen arrived for the first time. It was difficult to make the people understand that by going out into the street they could get a litre of good hot soup and an extra loaf of bread. They could scarce believe in such kindness as apparently they had received none except in isolated cases of charity which was but a flea bite as compared with the whole.
(Cotton diary, p. 46)

Dorothy sums up her reaction to the refugees when she writes: "It is difficult to describe what a throng of this kind is like, but when you see it for yourself it brings forcibly before one all the horrors of war much more even than seeing the maimed and wounded soldiers. Some of their stories were too terrible to even write about and from what we could make out their stories agreed if you traced up the districts they came from" (Cotton diary, p. 48-49).

Dorothy continues to describe her voyage to the mines and ends her reports by talking about Russia and its people in general. Her letters home to her friends and family cover the same time period, yet delve more into the social activities Dorothy experienced. She talks about the hospital and the visiting empress, the meals and the importance Easter holds in Russia as the most important festival of the year.

Although Dorothy left Russia for service in England, she returned to Russia from January to August 1917. Thus, aside from being an active participant in the war through her service as a nurse, Dorothy also witnessed the historic revolution of the country. In a letter home, dated March 4, 1917, Dorothy describes the riots that helped to transform Russia into a republic. She writes a very detailed letter, intending it to act as a "diary" of the event:

On Saturday all Imperial signs and coats of arms over the shops or anywhere were taken down and burnt and I think there were huge signs on almost every story on the Nevsky, also on the Palaces. A guard with fixed bayonets came and demanded that we take down the Russian flag. Everyone is wearing red rosette or ribbon. A red flag is flying from the Winter palace and the Dowager Empress's.
(Letter to Elsie, March 4, 1917)

Dorothy returned from Russia to serve in London until August 1918, when she was transferred to Halifax until she was demobilized in August 1919.