From Edinburgh to Egypt

< Women Away from the Western Front

From Edinburgh to Egypt: Nurse Elsie Russell‘s war as seen through the lens

Elsie Russell who was born about 1886 and grew up in Edinburgh trained to become a nurse around 1902. At the outbreak of the First World War she joined up as a reserved nurse in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). At that time she was single and in her late twenties.


Elsie’s wartime experiences were captured in photographs and with the kind permission of her grandson, Stuart James, we are able to share her story.


Elsie Russell at back left with other QAIMNS Nurses travelling to Canada 1914-15 (© Stuart James)

It is known that Elsie went to the Alexandra Military Hospital, Cosham, Portsmouth where she would have been caring for soldiers from the Western Front and from there she worked on a troopship sailing between the UK and Canada, probably bringing Canadian troops to Europe.


German Submarine which held us up 30 miles off the Irish Coast in April 1915 on our way home from Canada (© Stuart James)

The return journey from Canada seems to have been particularly hazardous as Elsie wrote against one of the photographs in her album,’ German Submarine which held us up 30 miles off the Irish Coast in April 1915 on our way home from Canada’. In 1916 Elsie was then sent away to serve in Egypt, firstly to Cairo and then Alexandria.


She worked at Ras el tin in Alexandria, which was a British barracks with a hospital caring for troops involved in the fighting in Sinai, Palestine and Mesopotamia.


Elsie Russell on voyage to Egypt 1916 (© Stuart James)

Elsie Russell with a British soldier Ras-el-Tin British Military Hospital, Ras-el-Tin Barracks, Alexandria (© Stuart James)


Off duty in Egypt


Sister Elsie Russell at the Great Sphinx Of Giza. 1916 (© Stuart James)


The Nile Delta, 1916 (© Stuart James)

In addition to her nursing duties Elsie, like other nurses, had opportunities to explore. Her albums show her visiting sites of antiquities and enjoying leisure time in the places she had read about at school.


Elsie Russell at Ras-el-tin British Military Hospital, Alexandria, Egypt. After the Gallipoli landings in April 1916, 16000 casualties were shipped to Egypt and this hospital was rapidly expanded from 120 to 1000 beds. Elsie’s cheerful smile hides the intense pressure she and the other medical staff must have endured. (© Stuart James)

Stuart says, “My mother always said what a lovely, happy person she was and I think that comes across in the photographs. It looks like they had quite a good time with picnics, boat trips and excursions, but I think the reality also included rampant dysentery and suffering, also the likelihood of never going home.”


Back to Britain

Elsie returned home in 1917 and continued to work as a military nurse at Prees Heath Camp in Shropshire. In 1919 she was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class, for “valuable nursing services in connection with the War.” Her name is listed in The London Gazette, 9 April, 1919 (Suppl. 31281 p.4679) and an entry in the Nursing Mirror describes these decorations being awarded in 1920 by King George V at an event in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace.


After the war

After the end of the war Elsie put away her albums for safekeeping, where they remained for nearly one hundred years until they were recently passed on to her grandson, Stuart James, who has digitised them and allowed us to share her story. Elsie died in 1961.