Exclusive: New plans to commemorate Great War heroine Elsie Inglis in Serbia
Campaigning historian Alan Cumming reveals plans to remember Scottish heroine Elsie Inglis, with eight memorials in Serbia.
Alan Cumming has brought home the extraordinary story of Elsie Inglis, the pioneering doctor who sacrificed everything to help the Serbian people in their darkest hours in WW1.
Elsie’s native Edinburgh has decided to name a street after, a fitting tribute for the woman whose death brought many thousands of people to the streets of the Scottish capital.
Б: Edinburgh already honours Elsie with five memorials, why do you think this street naming is also important?
Alan: History belongs to the people and its so important that in order to get the message out there, that as many different individuals, museums and governmental bodies play their part in whatever way they feel appropriate. Clearly having Edinburgh city’s involvement will help promote the story to a greater audience.
Alan was also excited to announce plans to commemorate Elsie in Serbia:
My plan is a simple one really. I have identified eight locations in Serbia where Elsie’s work or legacy has importance. The plan is to build fountains or a memorial in each of these places. Relatives of Elsie Inglis who have never been to Serbia before will accompany me next year to visit these memorials and take part in an opening ceremony in each town or city.
My great friend Velibor Vidic from the Valjevo hospital archives is assisting with this venture to make it a success. Velibor is also working on various programmes in Serbia to commemorate Elsie’s story.
Alan: Of course on the day itself in Edinburgh we will have our own remembrance and celebration of Elsie’s life. I know a number of Serbs want to attend and its also important that France and Russia are represented. My very good friend Louise Millar who has really been like a mentor to me is also lending her support.
Б: What unique qualities did Elsie bring to the movement of Scottish women who served in WW1?
Alan: Elsie knew how to fight for something and remain within the law, in her struggles to become a Doctor and later on to serve in front line hospitals or indeed her battles for women’s suffrage, Elsie’s endless energy and drive conquered all obstacles. This lady had the heart of a lion but also the claws to match. She simply did not know the meaning of “No”.
During his investigations, Alan says he was amazed how frequently Elsie took very long, exhausting treks by steam train or ship. Between 1914 and 1917 when she died of cancer. Elsie surprisingly traveled to France (twice), Corsica, Greece, Serbia, Russia, Romania. She spent weeks at sea and those water were very dangerous places to be, filled with enemy U -boats and mines.
Alan: Elsie was the founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and as well as four primary hospitals in Serbia, they also had hospital units in France working in front line hospitals. A hospital unit was also deployed in Corsica to aid with Serbian refugees at the end of the Serbia retreat. A large hospital was in use at Salonika that supported the Serbs push for home.
Two more hospitals were located on the Russian front and while the units did tend Russian and Romanian soldiers, both those units were there to support two Serbian divisions made from Austrian Slavs who had surrendered to the Russians. The unit was lead by Elsie at the request of the Serbian government.
Elsie’s refusal to abandon those Serb divisions at a time during the Russian revolution in 1917 demonstrated her devotion and love for the Serbian people. Those 13,000 men would have been slaughtered at the front but Elsie battled with the authorities and refused to return home unless the men were guaranteed a safe passage out. This happened but sadly a number of weeks later, in fact the day she returned to the port of Newcastle, she passed away.
Б: What does this all mean to yourself personally, after such a passionate campaign?
Alan: For me the research will go on as cataloguing the women for the Web site is something that’s very important to me. I will continue with the talks and presentations. But of course after next year some of the gloss will come off the paintwork. I understand Elsie’s love of the Serbian people and I despair at the world sometimes indifferent attitude to such a wonderful nation.
For me this story is a bridge between the people of Scotland and Serbia. In my many trips to Serbia its clear we have so much in common.