A journey through the past. Dr Mary Ann Blair and the Corsica unit.

In August of 1915, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals sent a unit under the leadership of Dr Mary Blair. They sailed for Serbia to support Dr Alice Hutchison’s unit in Valjevo, Serbia.  Their arrival in Salonika in October coincided with  the desperate  news that all the hospital units working in Serbia were to be evacuated.  Over the next few months Serbia, who had fought tooth and nail against the invading forces since 1914  were now isolated, out-gunned and exhausted.  She stood alone and when the huge fresh fighting force of Germans and Austrians were joined by the Bulgarians, Serbia was forced onto the back foot and The Great Serbian retreat began.  This was not just a retreating army but a whole nation propelled into exile. A journey for most on foot, in the depth of a freezing winter.  A journey of hundreds of miles into Kosovo and over the Albanian mountains and down to the Adriatic sea.  A catastrophe for Serbia as tens of thousands of men, women and children would lose their lives to the cold, starvation and exhaustion.

Dr Blair’s unit searched for a site to avoid being sent home. With a large SWH already functioning in Salonika this looked a possibility, but when the news came in December that they were to run a Serb refugee hospital on the island of Corsica Dr Blair and her sixteen women were thrilled.  On Christmas day 1915 the Corsican unit, also known as the Manchester and District unit, began.  And as 1915 came to a close hundreds of Serbian  refugees poured in on a daily basis. Dr Blair remarked that ” they looked so desolate and forlorn though most put a brave face on it, that we all felt inclined to weep”.

The main hospital was located in Ajaccio in a two storeyed building of Villa Miot.  As the work load grew so did the hospital and tents were pitched in the gardens for open air treatments.  A fever hospital was situated a few miles from the General hospital in Lazaet, a historic building that stood high, over looking the gulf.  By this time nearly 3000 refugees and a few decimated regiments had arrived from Serbia.   Also a band of a few hundred Serbian boys arrived for a few months recuperation. Thirty thousand boys set off on the Serbian retreat. Such were the conditions and horrors of that journey, that only 7000 made it to safety.   Nearly 300 of these lads, after they were rested on the island, were sent on to schools in UK and France.   Out- patients hospitals were opened in Chiavari some 20 miles from Ajaccio and St Antoine.   The value of the work is indubitable and many a young life benefited from the units endeavours.  79 babies were born during the hospitals tenure, a reminder that life even in the darkest of times prevails.   The hospital closed in April 1919.

Recently, i met up with Mary-Ann Blair a relative of Dr Blair. Who left New Zealand to go on a journey to rediscover the past.  In her own words Mary-Ann took the time to record her journey.


Dr Mary Alice Blair, London-based World War 1 doctor, was regarded with admiration and wonder by children growing up on a remote farm in New Zealand, even though we never met her. She was my great aunt, the sister of my paternal grandfather, and over the years her possessions returned to New Zealand. Some, including her war medals, came to my father. In 1934 Mary had paid for my grandfather, her brother, to travel to London for successful ground-breaking surgery to restore his failing eyesight, but sadly he died of an unrelated cause the day before embarking to return home. She continued to support his widow and sons in New Zealand, and we have photographs of my father with her in London in 1945 after he was freed from years as a prisoner of war in Austria. Mary visited New Zealand in 1950 shortly before I was born. Her hard work and courage inspired my curiosity, and over the years I found out more about her times and her achievements.

Last year I was delighted to find out about the research of historian Jane Tolerton, a fellow New Zealander. It was she who told me of Alan Cumming’s enthusiasm and knowledge of Scottish Women’s Hospitals but until I met him I didn’t know that he was the man behind the extensive website. When my husband and I recently travelled to Europe with a plan to follow in some of her footsteps, our first stop was to meet him at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Alan was amazing: I expected a librarian, not a committed volunteer. He gave up a lot of his precious time to tell us more of the crucial significance of Serbia in the war and of the contribution made by Scottish Women’s doctors to the destroyed lives of civilians and soldiers before and after the mid -winter retreat through Albania’s high mountains. He introduced me to the very helpful staff of the Family History floor where he had arranged to have ready and waiting for me Mary’s personal file, with letters to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals administration describing her time in Salonika and Corsica, along with fascinating photos and an album just on Corsica. The staff were happy to speedily photocopy my selection of at least 50 pages of photographs, captions and correspondence, ready to pick up a few hours later. This was a special day.

After exploring Islay, Oban and other parts of western Scotland, then Malta, we arrived in Corsica. We had booked accommodation in Calvi, which did not seem to be far from Ajaccio until we got there and found how difficult it would be to travel between the two. However a day ferry trip was the solution though did not allow time to reach the outlying sites. It was great to arrive by water as Mary would have done 100 years ago. On our arrival Ajaccio’s peaceful ancient port was overshadowed by a monstrous cruise ship in the harbour- totally out of scale with 1915. I was struck by the challenges which the balmy 30 degree heat would have presented for the wartime medical women from London and Scotland. Place Miot proved to be a relatively new reclaimed park area on the beautiful seafront. But on the original seafront was what must have been the convent despite considerable recent modification. I will contact the nearby university to try and confirm this. The rather blurred photo from the water shows that this is the only two-storeyed building near Place Miot. Our final stop was in London where we found the Imperial War Museum very interesting, particularly its presentations on life in 1914 London and also on the retreat from Serbia. It has been an amazing journey and left lots of special memories, starting with the day in Glasgow.

Biographical Outline In 1880 Mary Alice Blair was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, the 6th in a family of 8 children, to William, a civil engineer, and Mary (nee Kennedy) who had arrived in 1863 from Islay and Oban respectively. In 1884 the family moved to Wellington, where William became Engineer in Chief and Under Secretary of the Public Works Department. He died in 1891. After leaving Wellington Girls’ College, in 1899 Mary entered Victoria College of the University of New Zealand in its foundation year and was immediately involved with the Students’ Society. In 1902 she was one of its first two BSc graduates, and the first woman. In 1907, after three years of study at the London School of Medicine for Women, she qualified as a doctor and established a career in obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics in London hospitals. War was declared and in August 1915 Mary joined Scottish Women’s Hospitals, one of the few avenues whereby women doctors could contribute. By the time she reached Salonika bound for Serbia, the Great Retreat was under way. France offered evacuation to Corsica, and she became a leading part of this, her ship with 300 sick refugees arriving at Ajaccio on Christmas Day. Here she was admired for her work establishing and running a hospital and separate fever hospital. Eager to be closer to the military action, she later accepted a contract to work as a Civilian Surgeon attached to the Women’s Medical Unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps and in September 1916 she left Corsica for Floriana Hospital, Malta. Submarine attacks soon threatened the evacuation of patients to Malta and in 1917 she was appointed to the British Salonika Force. Her hospital was mobilised in Malta and she arrived in Salonika in July. Later that year she was mentioned in despatches from the Commander-in-Chief, British Salonica Force for distinguished service. Mary continued there until the war ended. In 1919 she served with Eastern Command and by August was a Civilian Medical Practitioner in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Isleworth Hospital, London. I know little of her post war career, other than that she continued to work, mostly in private practice, until her health deteriorated. Mary Alice Blair died aged 81 in 1962. It is important to remember her.

By Mary-Ann Blair.