“Nicht wi Burns”


Despite the many challenges the women faced working and running the many hospital units on the Eastern and Western fronts. Every effort was made by their chief medical officers to ensure the staff had a little breathing space, an opportunity for them to gain some distance and forget briefly the physical and mental hardships of working in those front line hospitals. Occasions like Christmas, Easter and New year were all observed and even it were for only a few hours brought laughter, music and chance to indulge in a little extra food and drink.   These celebrations were at the heart of why these units were such a huge success. The staff, patients and soldiers all enjoyed the rest bite, a chance to have some fun and bond with one another. A break from the daily grind and toll.  Burns nights where one of these occasions and most of the units whether in France, Salonika, Serbia or on the Russian front took the chance if they could to “kick their heels”.  Being a prisoner of war in Hungary for some might not seem like an ideal place of a burns night, but for Dr Alice Hutchinson and her unit of 32 women, who after the fall of Serbia were now POW’s and under guard by Austrian soldiers it was exactly the right thing to do. Perhaps to antagonize her captures by showing them the spirit they lived by, but also to provide themselves with entertainment and a focus.  Locked up in their twelve feet by sixteen feet wooden huts, 16 women cramped into the one room. It was January it was punishingly cold, with very little food and no communication with home. The women sat on their straw filled beds and one after the other sang and recited the works of Robert Burns. Weeks later they got their freedom and were sent home.

Isobel Ross from the Isle of Skye recalls in her diary while working with the American unit at Lake Ostrovo – situated today in Northern Greece – but was part of Macedonia during WW1.
“We have been practicing for the burns concert tomorrow. We are having a real stage and are going to sing in character. Sheila is to sing coming thru the rye to Dr Scott (a country swain) and Miss Gordon is singing: My love is like a red, red rose to me. Sister Dow is reciting Tam o Shanter, all the chorus are to be sung in dress too, plaids and Tams. We are to finish up with Scots Wha Hae”  All the women agreed that the event had been a huge success, the Serb soldiers had loved the festivity’s and joined in with large amounts of plum brandy.

Letter from Peebles High School.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – Visit to Peebles High School, January 19th 2015 by Alan Cumming
Mr Cumming was invited by the History Department of Peebles High School to address the entire Higher History cohort of some 60 students. The topic of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals comes into the Higher course primarily when the students learn about the involvement of Scots in the Great War and its impact on women’s position in society. However, it also has relevance to the element of the British history topic of votes for women. It was felt that Mr Cumming’s expertise on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals would give students a valuable insight into a subject which is less well-known than it should be as well as enhancing their overall learning experience.
Mr Cumming’s presentation comprised of a dvd showing his explorations of the SWH’s history and work and a question and answer session, where pupils and staff were able to address points unanswered or stimulated by the content of the dvd. The dvd was really interesting, with both teachers and pupils learning a great deal. Mr Cumming’s relaxed and friendly manner really got the best out of the “civilians” and academics to whom he spoke during the film and he was able to gain access to areas and sources that others, who were less well-connected, couldn’t. The focus on the SWH’s work in Serbia was particularly enlightening as much of our learning about the Great War focuses on the Western Front. The fact that the work of these amazing women is more celebrated in Serbia than in their native Scotland was a sobering one.
The subsequent discussion session was also valuable for both teachers and students – Mr Cumming is clearly extremely knowledgeable and was able to answer questions about a wide range of aspects of the work of the SWH as well as sharing with us information relating to the four members of the SWH from our local area. We particularly appreciated that he had gone to the trouble of exploring these particular women’s stories as pupils often engage more strongly when there is a local connection. His genuine, enthusiastic and unpatronising manner with the students was perfectly pitched and they responded very positively.
Overall, we would regard Mr Cumming’s visit as a very positive experience for our department and we would wholeheartedly encourage others, whether in schools or not, to take advantage of his expertise to enhance their knowledge and understanding of this neglected but fascinating topic.

Miss Fiona J. Dunlop
Teacher of History, Peebles High School

Dr Bennett by Debbie Robson

Agnes Elizabeth Lloyd Bennett (24 June 1872-27 November 1960) was a New Zealand doctor, a Chief Medical Officer of a World War Imedical unit and later was awarded an O.B.E. for her services in improving the health of women and children.


She was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on 24 June 1872, the sixth child of W. C. Bennett, and his first wife Agnes Amelia, ne Hays. Bennett attended Sydney Girls High School, as well as Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Dulwich Girls’ High School and Abbotsleigh. She won a scholarship in 1890 and studied science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1894); she was secretary of and a night-school teacher for the Women’s Association (later University Women’s Settlement).

Initially unable to find a job as a medical practitioner, Bennett worked for a time as a teacher and governess, then left Australia in 1895 to study at the College of Medicine for Women, University of Edinburgh (M.B., Ch.M., 1899). She returned to Sydney in 1901 and set up in private practice in Darlinghurst Road but although she gave free medical advice she was forced to give up her practice because of the then common prejudices against female doctors. She briefly worked at Callan Park, the hospital for the Insane before leaving in 1905 to take over the practice of a woman doctor in Wellington, New Zealand. This time the practice thrived. She was chief medical officer at St Helen’s maternity hospital, and honorary physician to the children’s ward of Wellington Hospital from 1910. In 1911 she completed her M.D. at Edinburgh.

In 1915 Agnes Bennett became the first female commissioned officer in the British Army, when as a captain she worked as a medical officer in war hospitals in Cairo. When the work came to an end she sailed for England, uncertain what to do next. Almost immediately she met up with Elsie Inglis in London who asked her to work with the SWH. On the 2nd August 1916, the America Unit, in the command of Dr Bennett, reached Southampton preparatory to embarking on the hospital ship Dunluce Castle for Salonika. The ship arrived in Salonika on the 13th August and on the 17th of that month Dr Bennett travelled by car to visit the proposed camp site.


Originally intended as a base hospital at Salonika, the unit’s status was changed. As the only hospital for the use of the defeated Third Serbian Army, it would now be situated near the front, acting more or less as a casualty clearing station. Finally on the 7th September 1916 the first vehicles of her thirty-nine car convoy (Mrs Harley’s Unit included), left Salonika on the road to Ostrovo Lake. By the 11th September, Dr Bennett was able to record of the Ostrovo Unit. “The hospital is gradually getting into being-progress slow, partly on account of labour.” By the 28th September she as wring: “We have admitted 204 patients up to today; ten of the staff are ill which means 14 off work…”

While Chief Medical Office of the Ostrovo Unit, Dr Bennett was concerned with the difficulties the unit faced being so far from the front. Far too many men were losing their lives through the delay in getting them down to her hospital.


There was also the problem of malaria. Although, Ostrovo was up in the hills and the malaria threat was not as bad as in Salonika, it still claimed lives and would ultimately end her term as CMO when she fell victim to the disease as well. Gradually as the Serbian fighting line pushed the enemy back, the hospital work eased. In late October she wrote: “Our 400th patient admitted today.” By winter conditions became more severe. Fighting died down and the roads became impassable. The hospital was nearly isolated. Cases of scurvy were brought in occasionally, for food was short in the front line. In December a site was chosen for the outpost hospital at Dobraveni and the personnel sent off.


By the new year Dr Bennett was plagued by internal problems and worry over the outpost at Dobraveni. By late winter German air raids became more frequent and the outpost was moved in March with the help of 100 German prisoners. With summer came the threat of malaria again. Dr Bennett succumbed to the disease and was forced to resign because of ill health. She was replaced by another Australian Mary De Garis.

Dr Bennet became the first president of the Wellington branch of the International Federation of University Women in 1923, and represented New Zealand at its world conference at Cracow, Poland, in 1936. She had visited Australia often since 1905, and in 1938-39 was medical officer at the hospital at Burketown, North Queensland. She returned to Wellington and in 1939 helped to form the Women’s War Service Auxiliary.


Between 1940 and 1942 she worked in English hospitals and, on returning to New Zealand, lectured to the women’s services on venereal disease and birth control. Dr Bennett was appointed O.B.E. in 1948; she died in Wellington on 27 November 1960 and was cremated with Presbyterian rites. She contributed largely to the improvement of maternal and infant medical care in New Zealand, and through example, argument and organization, did much to advance women’s status.