Monday, December 28, 2009

A Russian Countess from Down Under

Some of the best and most remarkable human interest stories are to be found in small publications that go unnoticed by the world at large and are often stumbled upon by accident. These are usually produced by family research or historical societies with the aid of local sponsorship or grants, or are self-published at their own expense by descendants. They can be a treasure trove of historical information and real insight into the lives and achievements of those who have been forgotten by subsequent generations.
A recent addition to my collection is a slim volume by Susanne Foster Atkins entitled "How a Red Cross V.A.D. Became a Russian Countess and Other Soldiers' Stories" *. 
It caught my eye largely because I have both a VAD and Russians in my own Atkins family tree and naturally my curiosity was aroused.
Much of the book focuses on the stories of the male relatives in Atkins' family, one of whom died during the Boer War and was buried at Umtali, Rhodesia (a place mentioned in an earlier blog) and another who died at Polygon Wood in France during World War I - their stories would be common to so many families who lived during those eras.
However, it is Atkins' Great Aunt Lil - Lilian Avice Foster OBE - who is unique and more than worthy of a prominent place in history.
Lilian was an Australian, born in Sale, Victoria, in 1870. Her father was a magistrate and during his time at Beechworth, he sat for the indictment of the famous bushranger, Ned Kelly. Lilian remembered Ned and his "black, beady eyes" and how children danced alongside him as he was to led to the Court House, while he pretended to shoot at them.
Lilian went on to study and teach piano and it was while she was undertaking extra study in Berlin in 1914 that her world changed forever and she never played piano again. She joined the war effort as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and after serving in London, France, and the island of Lemnos, ended up " ... as a Quartermaster of three hospitals under the British Committee of the Russian Red Cross". Atkins further summarises her Great Aunt Lil's achievements as follows:
"She is quite possibly the most notable Australian woman to have served in the Great War ... She received the British War Medal, the Victory Medal with an oak leaf for being mentioned in despatches, the Russian Orders of St. Stanislas and St. Anne, and the O.B.E. for service to new settlers when she returned to Australia [and] the Coronation Medal with an Authorisation letter from Buckingham Palace 1937".
It was for her work in Turkey with Russian refugees escaping from the Bolsheviks that earned her the highest Tsarist accolade from General Wrangel, the leader of the White Russian Army and Provisional Government. (Both of the Russian Orders carry personal nobility, thus Lilian was entitled to call herself a Countess.)
Lilian returned to Australia and continued with welfare work until she died in 1955. She was also a regular volunteer at Anzac Day Dawn Services in Melbourne.

* Published Colando Press 2004, PO Box 484, Hobart, 7001. Copyright Susanne Foster Atkins.

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