On Service Voices – Monday 02.12.19 from 6 to 7pm Adelaide Time (or listen again any time after 7pm)
DEBBIE ROBSON: The SWH and the Aussie women who served in it.
This month 102 years ago, a British female doctor called Elsie Inglis died. Elsie was almost 50 years old when World War One was declared. She offered her medical skills to the War Office, and was resoundingly rejected with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
Sitting still at home had never been one of Elsie’s strengths. She contacted the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies with the intention of forming independent medical units staffed by women, in order to support Allied troops where they were needed most. She was able to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (the SWH), and they sent medical teams to Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia. Many Australian women served in these units. They saved countless lives during WW1 and alleviated untold suffering. Today Debbie Robson brings us the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and some of the Australians who served in them.
Please tune in and I hope you enjoy hearing about these marvellous women.
Scottish Women’s Hospital at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons
I am so excited! I have been invited by Helen McLeod Meyer from Radio Adelaide to give a talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for her Christmas Day 2019 Scottish Broadcast.
Since 2010 when I stumbled upon this marvellous organisation I have been inspired by what this group of women achieved 100 years ago. There is so much history I want to cover: how the organisation was formed, how they efficiently ran dressing stations and field hospitals in France, Corsica, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and in Serbia and how they raised the standards of hygiene and disease management in the theatre of war.
That’s just to name a few points. Don’t get me started on all the wonderful women that worked in the field hospitals, including several Australians – Chief Medical Officers, orderlies, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, nurses and surgeons. I am looking forward to putting together a half hour talk. The challenge will be to limit myself to that time frame when there is so much to tell.
Descendants of pioneering Scotswoman Dr Elsie Inglis gathered at her grave today (within Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh) to mark the centenary of her death and pay tribute to her remarkable accomplishments in establishing and running the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One. Photo source: Lenny Warren / Warren Media
The story of Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an amazing story that should be more widely known and I was so pleased to hear, earlier this year, that there would be Centenary commemorations for this marvellous woman at St Giles Cathedral on the 29th November. Although I couldn’t attend I was very excited to receive an invitation.
When war broke out in 1914 the Government put out a call for doctors and nurses to help on the front line. “Elsie was more than willing to play her part. She went first to the military authorities in Edinburgh and then to London to the War Office itself to offer her services, only to be told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
Of course she didn’t sit still. She went on to form what soon became known as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which “served the war effort from 1914 to 1919 and were not finally disbanded until 1925. They started off in Calais supporting Belgian soldiers, but their main locations were four hospitals in France, two in Corsica, two in Greece, one in Macedonia, two in Romania and six in Serbia. There were also a number of satellite hospitals and dressing stations.
As a writer, discovering the existence of the SWH was life changing and of course led me to write a novel inspired by the movement and Australian women who worked at the field hospital in Ostrovo, including the novelist Miles Franklin. I am indebted to Alan Cumming for keeping me company on this journey of discovery and to Ann Wells for the gift of the booklet that was given out at the commemoration and from which I have quoted. Also for the use of the photo above. Luckily for historians and writers there are quite a few good biographies and memoirs written by members of the SWH. Contact me through this website and I can give you my full list.