Mary Ingham, author of Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors discovered the unusual story of Selma Valentine: First World War Wren decorated for her courage or a ship-stealing suspected spy, who was completely unable "to hold her tongue"
|WRNS Officer and Ratings : Boat-cleaning at the Coastal Motor Boat Base, |
Haslar Creek, Portsmouth
by Arthur David M'Cormick, 1919, (Imperial War Museum)
Researchers travel hopefully. We don’t always find what we hope for, and, paradoxically, the most rewarding aspects of research are often nothing to do with what we are actually researching. But they beckon us down a distracting side alley, lured into delving deeper, to find out more...
This is how I come to be telling the story of Selma Amy Valentine, who won the Military Medal in Russia in 1918. I was at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, which houses a treasure trove of fascinating journals. The February 1922 issue of The Wren (for ex-WW1 Women’s Royal Naval Service members) carried a front page article about Lady Muriel Paget’s Mission (dubbed ‘Pagemish’), sending former Wrens as relief workers to eastern Europe. The following caught my eye:
|Was Selma Valentine |
a Russian spy?
‘For the Crimea Unit – enter another Wren, senior writer [naval-speak for clerk] Valentine, unknown to HQ… absorbed by the Admiralty up in Archangel as general clerk, interpreter, etc., and given a Wren uniform… gained a severe reprimand and a military medal for taking a hospital ship without orders to rescue some British wounded who had been left behind during the retreat [of the doomed Russian Expeditionary Force]'.
The WW1 medal index revealed her full name, and that she had been a VAD, although with no WRNS or VAD service record. Sadly, there isn’t space here to detail how, with some help, I found out more about her. The trail led to South Africa and a pamphlet Selma published about herself during WW2, advertising lectures in aid of refugees.
The pamphlet explained why I had failed to find her on any UK census. Her origins were much more exotic. Born and raised in Russia, Selma boasted an Irish father descended from a French aristocrat who had fled the Revolution, and her maternal grandfather was an acting governor of the Baltic States (Lithuania and Estonia).
Selma spoke four languages and studied in London, arriving back in Russia in December 1916, on the day Rasputin was murdered. She spent a year in Petrograd, attending speeches by, among others, Lenin, Trotsky and the Czar, before moving to teach in Shenkursk, to help her now-destitute parents. Taken hostage when the British attacked in 1918, she managed to escape and reach the British forces.
Selma worked as a translator for the Royal Navy, then returned to Shenkursk as a VAD to nurse the wounded. It was here, according to the official citation, that she earned her MM for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on 10th and 14th October 1918, tending wounded under heavy fire on ship and shore, while attached to the hospital river steamer Vologjanen.’ Turning it back against orders was, disappointingly, not mentioned.
|First World War WRNs badge|
(Imperial War Museum)
However, Googling ‘Valentine’ and ‘Shenkursk’ produced an account of the American Expeditionary Force in Russia, which tantalisingly mentioned a ‘Miss Valentine’ nursing Russians and suspected of being a Bolshevik spy. Had she worked in intelligence? Was she a double agent? It seemed odd for an upper-class woman to return to Russia at such a dangerous time, be taken hostage, and then escape. As a ‘lecturer for the British government’, she returned to the UK several times, in the 1920s and again in the 1950s – during the cold war… Then secret service records specialist Phil Tomaselli turned up a secret naval memorandum which mentioned her.
Dated September 1918, from the head of security at Archangel, it described Selma Valentine as a ‘dangerously talkative’ woman who had acted as interpreter and secretary to the head of British intelligence in Archangel and who should not, although there was no reason to suspect her of being an enemy agent, be given access to confidential information, due to ‘complete inability to hold her tongue’.
Oh, well. Selma Valentine now suddenly shrank from glamorous spy into incurable gossip. Although, to her great credit, she did win the Military Medal. Now, what was I really supposed to be researching? Hang on a minute, though. As a ballet, elocution and PE teacher, how come Selma managed to lecture for the British government on Russia and world affairs, met Hitler and Mussolini in the 30s, moved ‘in political circles’ and worked in WW2 ‘mainly in the detection of fifth column activities’?
Was Selma a fantasist, or was the gossip persona simply an elaborate disguise? I feel another research detour coming on…
Discover more about Mary's research into First World War servicewomen on her website
or buy her book, Tracing Your Service Women Ancestors (published by Pen and Sword) for the bargain price of £11.99 here