‘My beloved ones, I can hardly believe that I have left you. It seems such a dream. Russia is such a long way. I feel awfully frightened.’
These were the words of Lady Sybil Grey, who left her home in Northumberland to travel to Petrograd in 1915 to do her bit for the war effort.
It was a tremendous act of bravery, but just one part of her extraordinary life.
And now, the inspirational story of the daughter of the fourth Earl Grey has been chronicled in a fascinating new book, entitled Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution.
The biography is movingly told by her grandson, Simon Boyd, using Lady Sybil’s own words from contemporary letters and diaries.
By his own admission, Simon became fascinated by the story of his grandmother’s wartime exploits after the discovery of a battered old travelling trunk in a back room, which contained notes, musings and correspondence written by her own hand.
And it’s easy to see why he became so captivated.
During the First World War, Lady Sybil transformed her family home at Howick Hall into a hospital before travelling to Russia as a 33-year-old, unmarried woman to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.
There, she met the Russian royal family, led a field hospital to the front where she was wounded in the face by a hand grenade, shielded the murderer of Rasputin and witnessed the Russian Revolution on the streets of the capital.
Later, she spent nearly a year in France leading the Women’s Legion, the first all-women unit of ambulance and staff car drivers for the British Army.
She travelled widely all her life, to Canada where her father was Governor General for seven years, as well as to Africa, South America and round the world, before marrying and settling down to raise a family in her 40s.
She lived through times of massive social and political change, experiencing at first hand the heyday and ultimate decline of the British Empire.
It truly is an incredible story, and Simon is proud and delighted to share it with a wider audience, having worked on the book for six years.
On Monday, he launched the biography at Howick Hall tearoom.
Simon, who lives in Cambridge and travelled extensively to Canada, Russia and Eastern Europe while researching and writing the book, said: “It was the right place to launch the book and I am grateful that Lord Howick kindly agreed to having the book launch at Howick Hall, it was very fitting. I am very proud of what my grandmother did. Yes, she had the social standing and the opportunities to do what she did, but it took great courage to travel more than 2,000 miles over very dangerous seas to Russia.
“A lot of women responded in the First World War to the new opportunities which were available for them. She wasn’t alone in doing that, but she was very brave and level-headed.
“Canada was her greatest love I think. It was the first place which bowled her over – because of its size and its wild places and she was taken by the fact that it offered opportunities for all.”
The book (ISBN: 978-1-910237-29-8) has been published by Hayloft Publishing Ltd. The 375-page hardback, with 72 black and white photographs, is £25 and is available from www.hayloft.eu