There is a curious incident in Yvonne Fitzroy’s ‘With the Scottish Nurses in Roumania’ (1918): it is September 30 1916 and Yvonne, the former actress and society lady now working as an orderly with the Scottish Women’s Hospital, finds herself at Tchernavoda on the Danube. The Hospital had come up the river by barge, and Yvonne writes that as the women were disembarking, they “to our astonishment found an Irishman serving in the Russian Army in charge.” Yvonne refers to this man as “Captain B”.
On October 23 they encounter him again. The women are sitting by a roadside, waiting for the arrival of their lorries during the chaos of a retreat :
At last Captain B. passed by in a car, and got out to speak to us. He managed to commandeer a passing lorry […] We found ourselves at the mercy of an insane driver, who dashed along regardless of anybody, wrecked one refugees’ cart, terrified the horses all along the road, and stopped for nothing and nobody. As Captain B. had had to knock him down twice before the poor little man would consent to take us at all he no doubt thought here was a great chance of getting his own back. At last at dusk he charged a cart, made a belated attempt to avoid it, and drove clean off the edge of the road.
Who on earth was this man, this Captain B., an Irishman in the position of authority in the Imperial Russian Army? Well, his name was Charles Bryson, and he left an autobiography: ‘Unsought Adventure’ (1939), written under the pseudonym ‘Charles Barry’. In it he gives his own account of this incident:
At one place, where I was trying to untangle the traffic, I found Dr. Inglis and one or two members of her staff of the Scottish Women’s Hospital standing guard by the roadside over a quantity of hospital equipment and medical supplies. I asked them what they were doing there and was told that they were waiting for one of their lorries to come back for the stuff. I pointed out the impossibility of such a thing. They agreed that things did not look too bright, but said they would wait a while longer. As we were talking I saw a Russian Army lorry coming along slowly with the rest of the fugitives. I ran over and saw that it was actually empty. The driver had not even thought of offering transport to sick or wounded humans. I ordered him to pull in to one side, but he refused point-blank. I repeated my order, but he still refused, and then for the first time since I had attained officer’s rank I struck a soldier. He obeyed then, and I packed my fellow countrywomen – more or less – with their effects into the lorry and sent them on their way.
Charles Bryson was a remarkable man. He was born in Belfast in 1877 and in a busy life trained for the priesthood; became a monk; became a teacher in Paris; and served with the British secret service in both world wars. He received some modest fame between the wars, as the author of a number of detective novels (featuring Inspector Gilmartin of Scotland Yard).
But in 1914 he was travelling; at the outbreak of war he was in Germany, and made his way, by walking the 120 miles, to Russia. At the British Embassy in St Petersburg he was turned down for service with the British Army (on the grounds that he wore glasses). Fluent in Russian, he volunteered for the Russian army:
” … with no knowledge of artillery, a total ignorance of cavalry drill, and the absence of every qualification except for good health and physique and the ability to sit on a horse, I joined the Imperial Russian Horse Artillery.” Promotions, decorations and a commission quickly followed.
Bryson was serving on the staff of an Army Corps when he was ordered to meet and escort “an English ambulance unit.” This was the beginning of his involvement with the Scottish Women’s Hospital. He has left us a couple of anecdotes about that remarkable unit:
It was when they were at Ismail, I think, that a curious thing happened. The doctors – I believe Doctors Inglis and Proctor – were sitting at a table when a Russian soldier walked in with his cap cocked at a funny angle and demanded to be treated for a wound. As the fellow appeared to be a little drunk, but otherwise all right, the women began to persuade him to go and sleep it off. He insisted, however, and when asked to show his wound took off his cap to display the handle of a clasp-knife projecting from the top of his skull. It must have been months afterwards when I met the unit again in Odessa. I reminded Dr. Inglis of the incident and asked what had happened to the man with the knife in his head.
‘Oh,’ she told me, ‘we took the knife out and he left us in about three weeks, apparently cured.’
‘Didn’t it effect his brain?’ I asked.
‘Probably,’ Dr. Inglis replied, ‘but it was not obvious. Heaven knows what will happen later, for the knife did not come away without taking some other matter with it.’
I don’t think I should have liked to meet that soldier later on when inflamed with raw spirit and revolutionary fervour.
I received from the members of the Scottish Women’s Hospital compliments, which I am sure were sincere, on my excellent English. I admitted that I had learned it in Ireland, but one good lady among them seemed to regard my accomplishment with suspicion. At any rate she was just a little less amiable than the other charming women who composed the unit. A year later I am afraid I had forgotten her existence, but she had obviously remembered me. I was sitting at lunch one day on the veranda of the [Thames] riverside resort which was then known as the Karsino, with a number of other officers, when I was approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as an Assistant Provost-Marshal, with the request that I give an account of myself. I was not particularly polite to the A.P.M. nor were my friends who were with me, and there was something of a wrangle. At last, however he told us the reason for his demand. There was a lady at a table near by who had denounced me to him as a spy. She was positive that she recognized me as a man she had seen in Rumania dressed up in Russian uniform. Even there she had had her suspicions. There was a roar of laughter from my friends […] and we invited the A.P.M. to sit down with us. I then gave him an outline of my military career up to then and produced a little identity card which had been given me by a certain department of the War Office. I convinced him, I think, that though I must be a queer bird I was not a spy. I don’t know what he said to my denouncer. I never saw her again.
Bryson’s service took him away from the Scottish Women’s Hospital. At the outset of the Russian Revolution he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Provisional Government and joined the British Military Mission. He returned to this country, obtained a commission in the British Army and was employed in the secret service in Murmansk. After the war, ‘Unsought Adventure’ reveals, he worked in the International Labour Organization in Geneva. He served in the Intelligence Corps during the Second war.
Charles Bryson died in 1963.