Lady Sybil Grey: a lady in the line of fire

In the latest instalment of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Simon Boyd introduces Lady Sybil Grey, an indomitable Englishwoman who, as a nurse in Russia, led a field hospital and had a grandstand view of the February 1917 revolution that toppled the tsar

Lady Sybil Grey, an indomitable Englishwoman who, as a nurse in Russia, led a field hospital and had a grandstand view of the February 1917 revolution that toppled the tsar. (Illustration by Sue Gent for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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The fortune teller sized up the woman in front of her. “You are unlike any other woman I have met,” she said, “you are nearly entirely male and have lived seven previous lives as a man and have fought as a soldier. Nevertheless, you do have a very strong mother love and, if you do marry, you will have two children.”

The woman being addressed was Lady Sybil Grey (1882–1966), second daughter of Albert, 4th Earl Grey. She was 37 years old, and had spent the First World War doing a range of adventurous jobs. First serving as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse at a hospital in her father’s seat in Northumbria, she was then sent to open a British hospital in the Russian capital, Petrograd (now St Petersburg). As the fortune teller had divined, Lady Sybil loved a challenge. She served in Russia for nearly 18 months, was wounded at the front, became embroiled in the murder of Rasputin and witnessed the revolution that toppled the tsar.

Read more from the February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine here, including:

The February 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine

Aristocratic start

Brought up in a world of great privilege at Howick Hall in Northumberland – her grandfather was private secretary to Queen Victoria – Lady Sybil was imbued with a sense of duty and service, an interest in politics, and a love of adventure. Before the First World War, she had travelled to much of Europe, had been big-game hunting in the Congo, had voyaged round the world with her parents, and had lived for seven years in Canada where her father was governor general from 1904–11. She loved Canada’s vast wildernesses, its mighty mountains and fishing in its huge rivers. Above all, she loved hearing about the lives of ordinary people – especially the pioneers exploring the wilds. Speaking 40 years later, she said: “If I were a young man now I think I would emigrate to Canada, that land of sunshine and illimitable possibilities, where if you are prepared to work hard you can hardly fail to succeed.”

But her greatest challenge was in going out to Russia in 1915 to set up the Anglo-Russian Hospital, a volunteer institution with a staff of British doctors and nurses. She chose a royal palace belonging to the Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovitch, a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, as the site of her 200-bed hospital.

She enjoyed the social life of the court, its operas and ballets, and met Empress Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II’s wife. “I had expected a cold, tragic face with all the life gone out of it, but it was a beautiful face, she spoke beautiful English and was very easy to get on with,” Lady Sybil recalled. “But one came away with a heavy heart and thanking God one wasn’t an empress, especially this one. There was an atmosphere about her that cried out for sympathy, I have not felt it so strongly in anyone.” Lady Sybil was right to worry for the empress. As more Russians lost their lives in the First World War, and as the imperial government grew more incompetent and uncaring, people at all levels of society began to criticise the regime.

In the meantime, Lady Sybil headed for the eastern front to lead a field hospital in modern-day Belarus. Here, she was wounded in the face by grenade shrapnel while observing army bombing practice. She was repatriated to recover. Alexandra, mother of King George V, wrote to Lady Sybil’s father: “I am so sorry to hear that your daughter has been wounded, like a soldier! But excuse me, I am sure that the dear girl ought never have gone where she did.”

When she returned to Russia three months later, Lady Sybil found herself at the centre of a huge crisis for the regime: the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the licentious self-proclaimed holy man who had a hold on the empress because he seemed to be able to alleviate her son’s haemophilia. Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, the owner of the palace in which Lady Sybil’s hospital was housed, was one of Rasputin’s killers. After the murder, Pavlovich entrusted Lady Sybil with the keys to his private apartment in the palace, telling her to give them to no one. She wore them under her dress until the danger was past.

Trouble ahead

Though Lady Sybil moved in the same circles as some of the most powerful people in Russia, she was keenly aware of the shortages affecting the country’s poor. “It is the food question that is so appalling,” she said. “Can you imagine what it is like to stand out in the street in a queue all night when it is below zero, waiting to buy bread? It is damnable.”

Finally, she lost all patience: “If I were a Russian, I would be a red hot revolutionary – there is nothing else for it. They will have a terrible revolution some time.” In fact, the first of two revolutions in 1917, the February uprising that swept away the tsar’s regime, followed a couple of weeks later. From the hospital, Lady Sybil witnessed the massacre of peaceful demonstrators that began the insurrection. “At 3pm, I looked down the street and saw soldiers lie down in the snow and fire a volley into the crowd on the bridge,” she said. “Ten men were hit and brought in – three died almost immediately. Soldiers had fired on the people, now nothing could prevent the revolution.”

After Rasputin's murder, one of the killers entrusted Lady Sybil with the keys to his private apartment

She protected her hospital and staff – they hung a huge red cross made from blankets and an old Father Christmas costume outside the hospital and flew the Union Jack prominently in the entrance. When revolutionary troops broke into the hospital, Lady Sybil faced them coolly. An officer, backed by 16 soldiers with bayonets, pointed a revolver at her chest and demanded underlinen for bandages, telling her: “It is an order not a request.” Later, she commented drily: “Sixteen bayonets won the day.”

Following the revolution, she returned home, heading up a hospital at the grand Dorchester House on Park Lane, before taking command of the Women’s Legion in France – the first all-women organisation to be recognised by the Army Council. Responsible for 500 British women, her duties included trying to keep them from having affairs with their staff officers and sending offenders back to base camp. Her charges thought her a stickler for discipline.

After the war, Lady Sybil married Lambert Middleton, and raised two children, a son and daughter. She was involved in charitable work and experimented with the new technology of cinema. One of her films, of Darnick in the Scottish borders, was later screened on BBC TV as an “unknown masterpiece of amateur cinema”.

Simon Boyd is Lady Sybil Grey’s grandson. He worked as an educational publisher for 40 years, as well as travelling and researching his grandmother’s story. He lives in Cambridge

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BOOKS: Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution by Simon Boyd (Hayloft Publishing Ltd, 2017); The Forgotten Hospital by Michael Harmer (Springwood Books, 1982)