Monday, March 5, 2018

The Nicolina Sisters – The Badass Karelian Women of the Military Medal

On the 6th September 1916, King George V presented the Military Medal to 6 women, The Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Feilding of the Munro British Red Cross Motor Ambulance Corps; Matron Miss Mabel Mary Tunley, Sister Miss Beatrice Alice Allsop, Sister Miss Norah Easeby, and Staff Nurse Miss Ethel Hutchinson, all of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service; and Staff Nurse Miss Jean Strachan Whyte, of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. These became the first women to be awarded the newly established award (the Military Medal having been established on 25th March 1916 “for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”).

The 1st September 1916 supplement of The London Gazette, with the names of the first 6 females decorated with the Military Medal. Source: The London Gazette

Since then the award has officially been given to 146 women before it was discontinued in 1993 and all ranks could be awarded the Military Medal (previously only given to Commissioned Warrant Officers).

However, the Military Medal was also given in an ‘immediate’ form to foreigners serving under British control. Here is where we find the awarding of 2 Military Medals to a pair of Sisters serving under Major General Maynard, commander of the Murmansk Force, North Russian Expeditionary Force.

Kem in 1916 with the original Military Medal overlaid. Source: both Wikipedia, edited by myself through GIMP


Background

After the collapse of the Tsarist Government of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Western Powers became more and more concerned about the withdrawal of the Russians from the war, thus allowing for a mass transfer of Forces from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. When the newly empowered Bolsheviks entered into what would become known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Allied Forces of the West knew that they had to secure their Eastern Allies (many Tsarist/anti-Communist groups ‘Whites’ were still fighting). A force made up of Imperial British, French, Italian, Serbian, Polish and American troops were sent to Murmansk and Archangel with the objective of securing Western given supplies in those areas to deny them to the Bolsheviks and Germans, to help the White Forces become more organised and better trained, and to deny those areas to the Germans (and their White Finnish allies) for use as U-Boat bases.

The SYREN Force (Murmansk) under command of Major General Maynard recruited several locals into ‘local’ regiments to help reinforce their small force. One of the most interesting is the Murmansk Legion (which I will look at in a future post), made up of Finnish Reds who had escaped Finland during the Finnish Civil War. Another, equally interesting but less well known, is the Karelian Regiment, also called the ‘Royal Irish Karelians’.


This unit was formed 7th July 1918 in Kem, Russia, under the command of Colonel Woods, of the Royal Ulster Rifles, who had been instructed by General Maynard to “do something with them [Karelians]”. The force started around a small cadre of British officers and NCOs and 65 Karelians (many were former soldiers in the Tsarist army) but soon grew to a peak of around 4,000 men and women.

A young member of the Karelian Regiment. Notice the Shamrock capbadge. Source: Imperial War Museum


The Karelian Women's Auxiliary 

Alongside the fighting males, a large number of women (unfortunately the exact number hasn’t been determined) also served under Woods in a Karelian Women's Auxiliary. The main tasks of these “healthy, capable and cheery,” women were to row the boats filled with fighting men, supplies and other materials to help keep the Regiment functions; they also performed the roles of cooks. Woods had much praise for these women, stating they were “quite at home in river craft, often rowing all day from seven o’clock in the morning until seven at night with only one rest of an hour’s duration and against a current of 2,5 to 3 knots. This they could and did maintain for days on end, and on landing it was their duty to cook the food”.

The women were often young, unmarried, and had escaped the advance of the Finns into their territory. They were eager to do their part in helping to liberate it from the invaders. General Maynard records about the women, “They were excellent waterwomen, and had a fixed determination to assist their menfolk in driving out the Finns.” However, despite their young, innocent age, they were hardy and able to handle their own. Woods recounts that there was only one incident of ungentlemanly conduct from the men; his own batman (a soldier who acted as an officer's servant), Johnston, decided he would play the comedian and ‘help’ a cook. He approached the smiling cook and proceeded to encircle his arms around her waist. Woods continues with “His head rang for hours with the playful box on the ears he received for his pains from the blushing lady”.

Major General Maynard and his Chief of Staff, Colonel Lewin. Circa 1918. Source: The Murmansk Venture


The Nicolina Sisters

It wasn’t just in ‘defence’ of their personal space could these women show moxie.
Another case recorded by Woods is of Ackolina and Sasha Nicolina, two young sisters who were the sole crew of a small ration boat. During a convoy to bring much needed supplies to the Karelian Regiment in their summer 1918 Uhtua Campaign, they raced ahead of the other vessels “in order to attend to some private and domestic matter of their own in the next village”, it was whilst alone that their watercraft was spotted by three Finnish soldiers operating behind the front lines. They were hidden within the reeds of the banks and soon pushed out in the small boat and approached the girls. While two rowed, the third balanced himself at the bow and pointed his rifle at the Karelians demanding their stopping. The women refused the order and attempted to row to safety, prompting the reaction of the Finn firing his rifle. Lucky for the girls, the Finn's aim was poor (Woods states “his position and the movement of the boats caused him to miss his target”), and after several shots, of which the only casualty was a tin of biscuits and presumable the Finn’s pride, the women faltered and then turned their boat around and headed towards them.

Here the Finns must have thought they had won, Woods comments that the Finns stopped rowing and one even shouted “a list of many punishments about to be meted out to them”. But as they closed, the Finns started to give them directions and cursed them for not following commands, it was here that the girls suddenly swerved their vessel and smashed it directly amidship of the Finnish boat. The Finn who had fired at them, who was now disarmed and bent down ready to secure the Karelian supply boat, was thrust overboard with the impact. The two rowers got up and prepared themselves to fight. The first received a swift, but powerful jab which toppled him after his companion into the river, the second connected with a well aimed oar shot that snapped his neck, killing him instantly, and his corpse fell into the water. The convoy guards picked up the first man, the other two bodies were found later at the bottom of the rapids. The Finnish boat was added to the Karelian inventory.

General Maynard commented on this action, “The Karelian women had never heard of Nelson, but they acted as, in all probability, he would have done...the Karelian women proceeded to belabour them (The Finns) with their oars.” He continues “However unprecedented and irregular it might be, I felt that devotion such as this should not go unrewarded, and a little later I decorated both women with our Military Medal. There were, I think, no two prouder ladies in North Russia that day.”


Afterwards

The Times’ Murmansk correspondent, Andrew Soutar, wrote an article entitled ‘Royal Irish Karelians. A Tale of Two River Amazons’ which was published in April 1919. It spoke about the founding of the Regiment, its Shamrock badge, its victories against the White Finns and, erroneously, the awarding of the Military Cross to the two women.

Major-General Charles Maynard, later knighted, published the account in his memoirs, The Murmansk Venture, in 1928. The story was also included in Colonel Philip Woods’ unpublished memoirs, which were eventually published in a two volume transcript by Professor Nick Baron, The King of Karelia: Colonel P. J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918-1919 : a Brief History and Memoir. Unfortunately their story is not in Norman Gooding’s book, Honours and Awards to Women The Military Medal.

Colonel Woods, Commanding Officer, The Karelian Regiment. Circa 1918. Source: Imperial War Museum
The Karelian Regiment, alongside their females auxiliaries, continued on their campaign, eventually expelling the German supported Finns from their land and then helping support the rest of the SYREN Force in securing a line at Lake Onega. In the end the Regiment was broken up and disbanded due to White Russian politics and distrust. After successfully breaking it up, they finally managed to get it downgraded from a fighting unit to a labour and outpost reinforcement unit – angering many of their number, who eventually quit or deserted.

Unfortunately, like many stories outside of the popular campaigns of Military History, this tale of extreme courage, of female ferocity, has largely been forgotten.  It is thought provoking to wonder what happened to these sisters and their medals after the evacuation of Allied forces in the area, the subsequent chaos of the Russian Civil War and the eventual turning of Karelia into a Soviet republic.


Sources:
Baron, Nick, The King of Karelia: Colonel P. J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918-1919 : a Brief History and Memoir (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2007)
Maynard, Major General Sir Charles, The Murmansk Venture (The Naval & Military Press, 2010)

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