It was during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia that I was first made aware of the Scottish Woman’s Hospitals and the work they did during the First World War. What saddened me was that the women involved are known about and revered in Serbia, yet their work and achievements are barely recognised in the country they came from.
In Serbia one will see statues, monuments and streets named after these women, although in the place they came from these women have been virtually completely overlooked. Britain likes to make a show of celebrating and respecting heroes of war, and even in some cases fictional accounts of war heroism in film, but has not acknowledged the work, bravery and altruism of these women in a time when women did not have a presence of being involved in direct conflict and were certainly not encouraged to do so.
Over the last few years I have researched into this fascinating story and the women involved in it, and with the Centenary of WW1 in 2014 I decided to make known what they achieved to help commemorate the lives and works of these women.
My objective is to collate information from various sources and put it on a website so that people can access information on this subject from one main resource rather than have to search around. Hopefully, it will be an information facility centre to be accessed by schools to aid students when doing projects, historians and any person or group that would be interested in this intriguing story. I hope the website will evolve as people contribute by adding their stories and historical knowledge of this subject.
In order to gather the information I will research what I can on the Internet, books, other written accounts and by talking to people, which could include relatives of the women. Although this would necessitate time and also the need to travel, not only in this country but also to Serbia where there is a body of information on the women and the work they did. As well as the website I would like to contact the relevant people to make a documentary on this subject.
I feel we all owe a debt to these women and they need to be celebrated and respected for their doggedness at seeing though their principles against the odds. This story is indeed a worthy lesson to all and these women are powerful role models for future generations to come so therefore it is important for them to be remembered.
The 4th of August 1914, saw Europe submerged in the darkness of war leading people to be occupied with the thoughts of all the horrors and cruelty that war would bring. In a small room in Edinburgh, Elsie Inglis sat in the offices of the Scottish Federation of Woman’s Suffrage Societies where she hatched a plan to supply a woman’s hospital to the battlefields. So began the SWH. Modestly enough with a goal of £1000 to launch one hospital, by the end of WW1 nearly £500,000 had been raised. With 14 fully equipped field hospitals in Serbia, Belgium, France, Russia, Romania, Corsica, Corfu, and Greece. It was a sad fact that Dr Elsie Inglis was turned down by the British War Office “My good lady, go home and sit still”. Udeterred by this, Dr Inglis sent letters to the ambassadors of these countries who accepted her idea and the breakthrough she had hoped for was now a reality.
Between 1914-1918 it was estimated that some 1000 woman served in the SWH. The woman worked in terrible conditions, often working themselves to exhaustion and going without food, sleep and regard to their own safety. In the hospitals every inch of space was occupied, sick and wounded lay crowded together, men who had just undergone the amputation of limbs, men in the grip of typhoid, dysentery or frostbite. Men waiting to die and men already dead. Many of the women themselves were struck down by typhus, too exhausted to combat the fever. In Serbia, Dr Elizabeth Ross, who knew the hospital had a typhus outbreak and despite only being in Serbia for 3 weeks, demanded to be posted there.
She died of the disease in February 1915 and in the weeks that followed sisters Louisa Jordan, Miss A Mingull and Miss Madge Neil Fraser also succumbed to typhus. Despite all this, the SWH went on to save the lives and bring back to health some 300,000 men, woman and children.
Some of the woman…
For many of the woman the experience of serving in the SWH went onto be a huge personal adventure. Katherine McPhail studied medicine at Glasgow University and qualified in 1911. During WW1 she worked as a doctor in France, Serbia, Corsica and along the Salonica front. Following the war she set up the First Children’s hospital in Serbia and stayed on in Belgrade before retiring to St Andrews in 1947. Olive Kelso King was an Australian who joined the SWH as an ambulance driver in Belgium and went onto serve in France and Salonica. Leaving the SWH in 1916, she joined the Serbian army as a driver and was awarded the Serbian silver medal for bravery after saving the lives of the patients during the great fire of Thessaloniki, during which she drove non stop for 24 hours. Elsie Bowerman from Turnbridge Wells, who in 1912 had been rescued from the Titanic, joined the SWH in 1916 and served in Serbia, Romania, and Russia. There she witnessed the overthrow of the Tsar, Nicolas II in St Petersburg and in 1924 she became the first woman barrister to practice at the Old Bailey in London . Flora Sands joined and became the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army and the only British woman to officially enroll as a soldier during WW1.
She moved up the ranks to Sgt Major after she pursued an extraordinary adventure going on the great Serbian retreat and at one point was shot on a mountain during combat. After the war she settled in Belgrade and married a fellow soldier. During WW2 she and her husband were both imprisoned by the Gestapo in Belgrade but thankfully she survived the war and later returned to the UK where she spent the rest of her days in Suffolk.
Subject to funding during 2013, we plan to take the story into schools in 2014 as part of the centenary of WW1, any support on helping us achieve our goals would be most welcome.