Forgotten Heroines



The diaries of Ysabel Birkbeck, Ambulance Driver on the Romanian Front, 1916-17

edited by Douglas Gordon Baxter and Marsali Taylor.

When Dr Elsie Inglis offered the War Office two front-line units staffed entirely by women, she was told to ‘go home and sit still’.  Her reply was to create the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service, funded through the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Ysabel Birkbeck, author of these diaries, drove an ambulance for Inglis’ last field hospital, attached to the First Serbian Division.

The drivers of Forgotten Heroines show how World War I was the turning-point in Edwardian women’s emancipation.  The Buffs, as they called themselves, were mostly ‘surplus’ county daughters who’d resigned themselves to a life of good works and flower arranging.  This was the most interesting time they’d ever had, and they made the most of it.  They cut their hair short, wore breeches, and were reproved by Dr Inglis for their swearing.  There were balls and excursions between aeroplane bombardments, and they learned to flirt in French, German and Russian.  While the army retreated, they continued to ferry the wounded from the front line; their Model T Fords were the last vehicles to cross the Danube. They inched through marshes by moonlight, and stuck in wheel-deep mud so often that all chauffeurs became known as ‘shovers’.  They were often hungry, ill, exhausted and afraid … but the only time they were bored was when a male mechanic was sent from England to take over the cars they’d coaxed and fixed themselves for three months.  Birkbeck’s diaries show how their intelligence, endurance and courage were tested, and how they thrived on the challenge.

Birkbeck’s story is brought to life by numerous photographs and her own lively paintings and line-drawings.  Paperback, 212 pages, illust. throughout.

Forgotten Heroines is privately printed. Copies are available at £9.99, including postage, through e-mailing

About Marsali Taylor:  Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women’s suffrage in Shetland. She’s also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  She is the author of four Shetland-set detective novels.