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.
Yes, that’s me when it comes to moving my main character from A to B, ie England to Salonika during the last few days of 1917 to early 1918. Should I have her spend most of the travel time on board say, a French liner/hospital ship with the possibility of it being attacked by a submarine? During one week in April of 1917 55 ships were sunk in the Mediterranean. So maybe not…
Or then I can have her going overland to Le Havre, Rome, Taranto and then by ship via Corfu to Salonika but where did she stay on the way? On board the train or in small hotels? The mind wanders and at this rate she’ll never get there! She is stamping her foot in frustration and I’m dithering around like a maiden aunt. But then of course I know what is ahead of her: driving an ambulance along a torturous road with men crying out in pain in the back, freezing cold such she has never known in Australia, horrible sights that no-one should have to witness and young orderlies, VADs and nurses did witness, sometimes for years, more often than not working incredible hours that would compromise their health in later life. Yes, it’s all ahead of my Miss Summerville and I’m petrified for her. No wonder I am delaying sending her to Macedonia.
After posting my last blog a mystery has developed. On Saturday 13th July I spent the day at the Mitchell, after first viewing the World Press photos and the SMH Photos1440 http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/exhibitions/2010/photos_1440/items/image05.html I went carefully through A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Eva Shaw McLaren looking for a reference to the tragedy at the Ostrovo Unit. Nothing. Just a mention of the unit being moved. Now I know from our excellent historian Susanna De Vries’s book Heroic Australian Women in War, in a chapter on Agnes Bennett and Lilian Cooper, that the skeleton staff of the unit were massacred by the Bulgarians and our very own Miles Franklin was referenced. I am waiting for my local library to get a copy of De Vries book that features Miles Franklin – The Complete Book of Great Australian Women for more details.
In the meantime I decided to go back again yesterday to the Mitchell and had a very interesting day. I went through two old directories (1914 and 1919) of the Newcastle, Cessnock, Maitland districts and also leafed through Flora Sandes’s two autobiographies. Sandes was the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian Army. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Sandes I also went through Stebbing’s At the Serbian Front in Macedonia – again no details of the massacre of the unit. The mystery deepens.
Lastly I went through the 1917 diary of Miles Franklin which proved to be fascinating – particularly descriptions of the camp. Matron was a terror evidently and the work in the kitchen exhausting. Unfortunately I ran out of time to read the 1918 diaries but am looking forward to reading the chapter on MF in De Vries’s book and delving deeper into what happened to the unit.