When war broke out in August 1914 people clamored to do what they could to support the war effort. Men volunteered for the army and others set about establishing relief units to help the army or provide assistance to civilians and refugees. The Scottish women’s Hospitals were one of those – yet they were also very different, unique in fact. Unique because, right from the beginning, they were set up with two very specific aims: firstly, to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and secondly, and equally importantly, to promote the cause of women’s rights and by their involvement in the war, help win those rights.
Their original idea had been to establish a hospital in Edinburgh to treat war wounded but this idea had been quickly abandoned in favour of establishing hospitals in the field and close to the fighting to treat the injured. A committee was quickly established and fundraising commenced (this was highly successfully and by the end of August 1914 they had raised more than five thousand pounds, a quite incredible sum). Elsie Inglis, one of the prime movers behind the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, met with the War Office to offer the hospital to the British Army but was told that they were not needed (‘go home and sit still woman’ had been the response) but, undeterred, the hospital was offered to Britain’s allies. The first to accept were the French and the Belgium’s who were soon followed by the Serbians, who were glad to accept due to the dire conditions their soldiers were facing.The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were very closely associated with Serbia and although they operated hospitals in France, Macedonia,Greece, Corsica, Romania and Russia the majority of their work was to help Serbia.
In December 1914, a hospital unit led by Dr Eleanor Soltau was dispatched to Kragujevac, Serbia. Other units quickly followed and Serbia soon had four primary hospitals, at Kragujevac, Mladenovac, Lazarevac and Valjevo all working around the clock. The conditions in Serbia were dire. The Serbian army had a mere 300 doctors to serve more than half a million men and as well as battle casualties the hospital had to deal with a typhus epidemic which ravaged the military and civilian populations. Serbia had fought a surprisingly successful military campaign against the invading Austrians but the fight had exhausted the nation. Both soldiers and civilians were half starved and worn out and in those conditions diseases thrived and hundreds of thousands perished. Many of the nurses failed to return home, Louisa Jordan, Madge Fraser, Augusta Minshull died while working at the hospital in Kragujevac and Bessie Sutherland died at Valjevo, they all died of typhus during the epidemic. Many more would not return home and today they are all buried in the Chela Kula cemetery at Nis, Serbia. By the winter of 1915 Serbia could hold out no more. The Austrians had been joined by German and Bulgarian forces and again invaded, and the Serbs were forced to retreat. The SWH staff had a terrible choice to make, stay and go into captivity (or worse) or go with the retreating army into Albania. In the end some stayed and some went. Elsie Inglis, Evelina Haverfield and others were taken prisoner and were eventually repatriated to Britain. The others joined the Serbian army and government in its retreat and suffered the indescribable horrors of that retreat and shared the hardships endured by the Serbian army.
The second Serbian unit of the Scottish Womens Hospitals sailed out of Cardiff docks in Wales on the 21st of April 1915 bound for the typhus stricken Valjevo. During the winter of 1914-1915 Dr Soltau, Emily Simmonds and the magnificent Flora Sandes had been pleading for more medical aid to be sent to Serbia and Valjevo in particular. All the women who were working in Serbia at that time were exhausted and many were very ill. Dr Elsie Inglis keen to support the Serbs sent out Dr Alice Hutchinson as Chief Medical Officer of the unit, Dr Hutchinson an Edinburgh graduate of 1903 who had experience of working with typhus when she took charge of the unit that supported the Belgian troops at Calais, France in November 1914. Dr Hutchinson was a spirited and charismatic leader and later was know as “the little general”. Its a fair assumption that many of the women had no idea of where Serbia was and knew very little of the country that they were planning to help. The unit consisted of four Doctors, 25 nurses, an administrator, a sanitary inspector, matron, dispenser, clerk, two cooks. four orderlies and two handymen. As they boarded the ship the SS Ceramic, crowds gathered to cheer them on their way, they must of felt every emotion possible. The journey would take them from Britain into the Bay of Biscay, the Mediterranean Sea and finally into the Aegean sea and on to the port Salonika in Greece. A journey fraught with dangers from mines, enemy aircraft and Austrian submarines, a journey time of some 10 days.Once they settled into the voyage they would learn about the diseases they would face and to some extent the horrors that Serbia had been facing up to. Many also attempted to learn some of the Serbian language. The journey was diverted en route for two weeks when they were requested to help at Malta, the mainly Australian and New Zealand wounded troops had been pouring into the hospitals in Malta. They had suffered heavy causalities in the fighting at Gallipoli and the unit was delighted to do what it could. But by May the unit was making its way by train from Salonika to Valjevo, frustrated by the lack of speed the train was taking Dr Hutchinson remarked ” the Greek like the Serb has emancipated himself from the tyranny of time”. As the train rolled deeper into Serbia all the women were struck by the beauty of the countryside, the rolling hills, the green fields and sparkling rivers, it reminded them of Scotland, only with a great deal more sunshine!!
Valjevo had been through it own personal hell that winter and although by the spring the typhus epidemic was receding the morality rate in the town was around 70%, hardy a Doctor to be found as Valjevo had lost twenty one Doctors that spring alone, filthy rooms stacked high with bodies of men close to death and flies swarmed in their millions rising from the rotten carcasses of the horses killed during the fighting. Valjevo was practically quarantined with no way in or out, food was a rare luxury and the towns folk were starving. Very few people willingly entered the town and why would they as death lurked around every corner.
In early June the hospital unit arrived in Valjevo and quickly went to work erecting the tents, the hospital site was on a hillside overlooking the town and completely under canvas. At the end of the road sat the Chief Medical Offers office tent, Dr Alice Hutchinson would run the hospital from this vantage point. rows and rows of tents, cook houses, sleeping quarters, six huge marquees used as wards for operations, on farther down the hill the wash houses, bath and shaving tents and an area set aside for refuse. All in around 40 tents. The women were extremely proud when the hospital opened. To help prevent the spread of Typhus the soldiers were striped, clothes boil washed or burned, the men were scrubbed and all body hair removed, (lice always headed for the warmest places on the human body). Benzene was often sprayed on the men and in the tents to help kill anymore of the lice. The nurses and Doctors wore rubber boots with stripes of cloth tied around their wrists and legs, soaked in camphor oil, just one bite from the lice and you could easily become infected by the deadly typhus disease that was killing Serbs in its thousands.
Things after a period of time began to settle down and the hospital began treating the towns civilians and a chemist was opened to assist with the nursing of Valjevo’s children. More Doctors and nurses were sent out, one party in July and more reinforcements in September. Dr Alice Hutchinson was full of fun and knew that a happy unit was an efficient one she wrote” we have started a camp journal, and a bugle, and i intend to organise fortnightly entertainments whenever the work allows. Its a grand thing to keep people happy and i should like it to be a success”. In August many of the women were becoming seriously ill with enteric fever, Dr Bignold from Edinburgh, Dr Mary Phillps from Wales with many other staff were sent home to recover. Sadly Sister Sutherland of Edinburgh too week to travel died on the 7th of September, she was buried in Valjevo, but after the war the body was moved to nis. Dr Elsie Inglis was adamant that the hospitals at Valjevo, Mladenovac and Lazarevac be supported to the full and work as blocking hospitals to prevent any future typhus epidemic, particularly with the coming winter. This wonderful plan was never allowed to play out. In October Belgrade fell and Serbia was thrown into chaos. November 1915, the hospitals were ordered to evacuate, some of the nurses at Valjevo joined the Serbia Retreat perhaps hopeful of being able to assist or indeed just not wanting to fall into enemy hands. But for Dr Alice Hutchinson and most of the unit they choose to stay, firstly being sent to Pozga for a matter of days when Austrian soldier poured over the western borders of nearby Bosnia, then on to Vranjacka Banja, they even managed to take some of their patients with them. They quicky opened a hospital and again went to work this time it was mainly battle casualties that came pouring in. Very soon the the Austrians had occupied Vrnjacka Banja, Alice was as tough as old boots and she argued with her captures over every detail and when the Austrians sent them to Krusevac she refused to give up her equipment, they were furious with her and she loved every bit of it. Finally they gave up with her and sent her and the unit to Kevavara on the lonely Hungarian plains. The unit, all 32 of them spent the next three months incarcerated in wooden huts constantly upsetting their guards and commanding officers. In February they were repatriated via Budapest, Vienna and on to Switzerland.
On their return home many of the women went on to join other units who supported the Serbs on the Russian front or headed back to Salonika and pushed with the Serbs to their homeland, other headed to Corsica to nurse the Serbian civilians. In spite of the harsh winters, the starvation, the suffering, the numerous epidemics and at times the sheer hopelessness of the situation the women never gave up, never backed down and stood many times alone, but shoulder to shoulder with the gallant Serbian people.
Having spend many years trawling through the various letters and diary’s written by these brave stoic women i have yet to find a wrong word written by these women about there time nursing the Serbs. Many of the women went on to help the Serbian people long after the war by setting up and working in hospitals all across Serbia. It is no exaggeration to say the women completely loved the Serbian people and in return they were loved back. How proud they would be today, 100 years on and the Serbian people still very much in love with their deeds of the past.