“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.