My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs.

My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down.

Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out.

In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur?

Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject.

Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

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21 thoughts on “My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

  1. Debbie, you seem to be indefatigable in your research for your story! What a lot you have done, and given others access to what you have discovered too. You certainly put me to shame. I am writing about when I was young, in the 1950s and 60s, so I have experience of the time. However, I do of course need to do research on the period – but nowhere near what you have to do! I think I would be too daunted by it all. 🙂

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  2. Hi Debbie
    Last summer I started looking for evidence of what my aged father (running his 109th year) used to tell me about the allied forces in my region (Edessa then Vodena) when he was a kid. So I found some evidence on various field hospitals established in the region during WWI, one of which was the SWH America Unit. Arnissa (then Ostrovo) is a small village in Central Macedonia (Greece) by the Vegoritis lake and I think I have spotted the fields where the America Unit was settled in September 1916 (Coordinates: 40°46’31 – 21°51’05). I have also the complete list of all those who served in this Unit during the period 1916-1919. I could send it to you if you are interested. Keep up the good work.

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    • Hi Nikiforos
      So exciting to hear from you! I would definitely like the list. Can I add the possible coordinates to Wikipedia
      Do you live very far from there? It would be wonderful to have a photo of what it looks like now
      Would love to hear about your father and how he knew about the field hospital
      Sorry to overwhelm you with questions but am so excited!

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  3. Debbie, I will send you by e-mail the list as well as a photo of volunteers of the SWH “America Unit” before embarking into HM Hospital ship “Dunluce Castle” in Southampton. They embarked on 3 August 1916 and they arrived in Thessaloniki (Salonika) on 13 August (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3D-AMIN1IYM). They camped temporarily in Mikra at the outskirts of the city and on 5 September the first convoy of 37 motor buses left Salonika for Arnissa (Ostrovo) via Pella, Yannitsa (Jenidze-Vardar) and Edessa (Vodena). They arrived on time as the ferocious battle of Kaymakchalan begun on 12 September (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kaymakchalan). Now there is a ski center on the top of the mountain (http://www.kaimaktsalan.gr/en/home-en/).
    My father, as a 10 year kid, was impressed not only from the cars but also from the fact that women were driving the lorries. As for photos, I plan to go to Greece to see my dear father and if the weather is good I will take some shots.

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    • Thank you so much. My email address is lakelady2282 at hotmail.com A while ago I scanned the book about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by McLaren, Eva Shaw. I’ll hunt it out and email it to you as it has some wonderful photos of the tents set up at Ostrovo. Another book that has some great photos of Ostrovo is Ross, Ishobel (1988) Little Grey Partridge: First World War Diary of Ishobel Ross Who Served With the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit in Serbia Aberdeen University Press. You’ve certainly done some research as well. It is fascinating isn’t it? It’s amazing that your father remembers them. I definitely don’t want them forgotten. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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  4. I would be very interested in receiving McLaren’s scanned book. I do have Ross’s diary from which I considered the dates. May I suggest also the book by E. P. Stebbing At the Serbian Front in Macedonia? He had volunteered also during the war and he served since the beginning in SWH America Unit as a driver. I think he became later a famous forester and entomologist. Some of his dates diverge from Ross’s but his descriptions are excellent. I used his descriptions and pictures to locate the SWH’s site.

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    • I’ve read Stebbing (well most of it) and it is a very useful book. I’m in the process of looking for the McLaren. It is saved to disk somewhere as it was scanned when I was using a notebook and now have a Mac Air. Hope to locate it shortly. Glad you read the Ross Book. Will be in touch soon.

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  5. Thanks Ruth. I am in the process of doing the final rewrite after having a manuscript assessment done. I’m turning first person diaries into third person and hopefully slashing about 5 – 10 thousand words. And then the hunt for a publisher! Research is fun isn’t it?

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  6. Hi Debbie
    I have sent you by email some photos of the SWH location in Arnissa (then Ostrovo). I took the photos some days ago during my short visit to Greece. After a century, the landscape and the fields where the hospital was set up are almost unchanged.
    Good luck with the publisher!
    Nikiforos

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    • Hi Nikiforus,
      I’ve got the file of the Mclaren book. The images make up eight emails. Did you want me to forward them one at a time? I didn’t want to send them without checking first. I’ll go look at the photos now. Many thanks.

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  7. Pingback: Research communities | Starving in a Garret

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