Scottish pioneer of war nursing

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A NEW book seeks to honour the bravery of a Scotswoman who ran hospitals on the front line during the First World War, writes Emma Cowing

ON 29 AUGUST, 1916, a ship set sail from Liverpool bound for the northern Russian port of Archangel. On board was a group of 80 women, most of them Scottish and many of them doctors, determined to contribute to the First World War effort.

At their helm was Dr Elsie Inglis, the formidable Edinburgh medic who started her own maternity hospital in 1894 and in 1914 founded the Scottish Women's Hospitals (SWH) – a group of field hospitals across Europe that treated war-wounded soldiers of all nationalities. Stern, sturdy and a prominent suffragist, she ruled her "gels" with a rod of iron.

"Dr Inglis likes a great deal of deference paid to her as head of the unit, and she goes in for roll calls, cabin inspection, etc," wrote Eleanor Rendel, a final-year medical student, during that voyage to Russia. (After the war, Dr Rendel would count Virginia Woolf and others in the infamous Bloomsbury Set among her patients). "At roll call she has given the order that we are to say 'Here, Ma'am'. Some of the Unit are rather upset by this and there are one or two grumbles."

Grumbles or not, Inglis's steely reserve got results. The SWH saved the lives of thousands, starkly disproving the Royal Army Medical Corps at Edinburgh Castle, who declined Inglis's offer of her services when war broke out, saying: 'Good lady, go home and sit still.'

A new book published this month commemorates the efforts of Inglis, her staff and others like them – who refused to sit still at home – by vividly bringing to life the astonishing challenges they faced. Anne Powell's Women In The War Zone: Hospital Service In The First World War gathers together letters, diaries and other first-hand accounts written by British women who saw active service as nurses, doctors or orderlies. Among them are letters written by Inglis herself in 1915, when she was setting up a Scottish Women's Hospital in Serbia, believed to be published in their entirety for the first time in almost a century. There are also numerous accounts from women who worked for the Red Cross, ambulance units and on hospital ships, and even front-line reports from the likes of acclaimed writer Vera Brittain and the legendary adventurer Freya Stark.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we greatly underestimated these women," says Powell, a 74-year-old historian from Hampshire whose past works include Shadows of War: British Women's Poetry of the Second World War and The Fierce Light: the Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916.

Powell first became interested in the role of women in the First World War when researching her book on the Somme. "I began to realise that everywhere there was a battle, there were nurses not far away, yet their stories had never been told. I contacted the Imperial War Museum and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, then started going through all these remarkable first-person accounts.

"Many people are amazed to (learn] that British women served in Russia, Romania, Serbia, Basra and beyond. Most were just good-hearted young women; they might not have had a huge amount of experience, but they went to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of early 20th-century family life."

Inglis was 50 when the war broke out. "She was an eminent Edinburgh doctor with her own hospital," says Powell. "She could have continued with that but she chose not to; she chose to put herself into this position and lead women into these extraordinary countries no-one knew anything about. There is much still to be admired about her today."

Although there is no permanent memorial to her, Inglis is not forgotten. In January this year, Clydesdale Bank issued a range of commemorative banknotes featuring great figures from Scottish history, including Alexander Fleming and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to mark the Homecoming year. On the 50 note is a picture of Inglis. For a woman who devoted her life to others – and who chose to sail to Russia in 1916 despite the knowledge that she was dying of cancer (she died the following year, one day after her return to Britain) – it is, one might say, a small price to pay.

&#149 Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War is published by The History Press, priced 25.

&149 This edited extract from Inglis's letters to her family covers the time during which she was chief medical officer of all the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Serbia. She travelled between the hospitals supervising their progress, but when the Austro-German army started an intensive artillery bombardment of Belgrade in October 1915, many of the hospitals were forced to retreat, picking up entire operations and moving them south. Although the Foreign Office wanted the women evacuated, most of them, including Inglis, chose to remain for several more months.


We have had a busy time since we arrived. The Unit is nursing 550 beds, in three hospitals, having been sent out to nurse 300 beds. The conglomeration of languages is too funny for words – Serbian, German, French, English. Sometimes, you have to get an orderly to translate Serbian into German, and another to translate the German into French before you can get at what is wanted. Two words we have all learnt, 'dotra', which means 'good', and which these grateful people use at once if they feel a little better, or are pleased about anything, and the other is 'boli', pain.


There were 70 patients in yesterday morning at Mladanovatz when I left, and they are coming in at the rate of 15 to 20 a day – medical cases entirely. Some of them seem to be cases of pure fatigue. They arrive with a temperature of 103 or 104, they are put to bed, given milk and some light supper, and the next morning the temperature is normal. Then after a day or two they begin to rouse up. There are two bad pneumonias in, a case of rheumatic fever, and a man who might possibly be enteric (suffering from typhoid]. When the move comes, and I suppose that will be when Constantinople falls, or the Russians gain a decisive victory, there will be a tremendous need for us!

The whole army is massed on the frontier, 250,000 men. We see them streaming past at Mladanovatz, and they have only about 300 Serbian doctors altogether. One hundred and twenty-five of their doctors died during the typhus outbreak: so you will see how short-handed they must be.


The Serbs are a strikingly handsome race. Our patients are delightful. The other day Dr Chesney got up a gymkhana for them in the Hospital yard – a very simple affair – and they did enjoy it so. A good many things had to be done by the Austrian orderlies – for instance, a stretcher race, where I thought it distinctly safer to have a well man in the stretcher. But there were several events for the patients: an egg-and-spoon race, and a crutch race, and a needle-threading race – when the Sisters threaded the needles. I went into the wards in the middle to give some tobacco to the men who could not come out, and heard the laughter and cheers, and I could not help thinking, there we all were – Turks and British and Serbs and Austrians, all playing together as happy as possible. Perhaps if we played more together and knew one another better, such awful things as this war would not happen.


The Hospital at Lazoravatz is housed in various houses in the village, private houses, and inns. We are expected to be ready for 600 beds there.

One day a division passed through and left 100 sick behind them. This more than filled every bed we had ready. So you can imagine our feelings the next evening when we suddenly heard that 50 more were coming down the line. It was really like war work, as one imagines it! We went and turned out a gast house, people who had been sitting there in the caf helping to clear out the tables and chairs, the proprietors helping too, and showing us where extra wood was to be had, and so on.

We swept the whole place out to the light of storm lanterns, made a roaring fire, got on some boiling water, in the little kitchen place, and then down on us came the patients, beds, bedding all together.

Some of the men were really ill, and all of them were dead tired. We packed that house as no English Hospital would ever dare to pack! But we got a bed for each man. There was no question of bathing, of course! We just tore off their uniforms and their heavy muddy boots.


The last week has been full of rumours. What seems to be certain is that Bulgaria is mobilising – probably to attack Serbia; that Greece and Romania are also mobilising – object unknown; and that an Austrian – some say German – force is massing on the frontier, and that there is certain to be an attack on Belgrade.

As to how this affects us. As long as the Serbians fight we'll stick to them – retreat if necessary, burning all our stores. If they are overwhelmed we must escape – probably via Montenegro. Don't worry about us. We won't do anything rash or foolish; and if you will trust us to decide, as we must know most about the situation out here, we'll act rationally …


We are in the very centre of the storm, and it is anything but pleasant to be part of a beaten and retreating army.

Just now one can think of nothing but these poor little people in this awful hole – with the country they have fought so hard for overrun from end to end. They can hardly speak to one without breaking down – even strong men among them. They look at one so eagerly, and say, 'When will your men be up?' When?

The road to Kralievo today was crowded with refugees in their shaky bullock carts full of all their household things. And there were groups of stragglers from the army. As we came back these men were being gathered up by officers. The whole of Serbia has been thrown back on this Western Morava valley, and now there is nothing left but a further retreat south, and then – surrender?