As long as the Serbians fight, we’ll stick to them

Elsie Inglis"As long as the Serbians fight, we'll stick to them," Dr Elsie Inglis wrote in her uncensored letter to the Scottish Women's Hospitals Committee in autumn 1916. Lady Paget hoped that Serbs would not forget her, nothing else mattered to her. Mabel Stobart, Lady Hutton, Flora Sandes, Katharine MacPhail, Evelina Haverfield and hundreds of women – Scottish, English, Welsh, Canadian, American and Australian - risked their lives in Serbia during the First World War and after, shared the pain and horrors of the war with the Serbian army and civilians, and loved Serbs, loved being there and being able to help "little gallant Serbia".

Today we stumble across their grave stones in Bajina Bašta, in Kragujevac or Valjevo; a street that carries their name, like Dr Katherine MacPhail's in Sremska Kamenica, a medical school in Vranje named after Dr Emslie Hutton, a memorial fountain in Mladenovac and a plaque at Dragiša Mišović Hospital at Dedinje remember the name of Dr Elsie Inglis.

In the years that mark the Centenary of the Great War, the world is remembering those who gave their lives, commemorating the events, great battles, victories and sacrifices. We live in a time of information, although sometimes it would be more appropriate to call it – disinformation. It is up to us to get the right information through, to be alerted and react to the constant attempts to revise history, to be interested in our own history and not to forget. Very often my friends comment on how they had never been taught this and that, never heard about... Well, it is time to learn and time to teach our children as well.

ZvezdanaSince 2005 I have been researching the roles of women in the Great War (in Women's Library, Wellcome Library, British Library, museums and archives), I gathered a great amount of documents and created an exhibition in March this year at Kensington and Chelsea Central Library and in Embassy of Republic of Serbia. The exhibition was part of a bigger event with a panel discussion. The main panellist was Louise Miller who talked about her book "A Fine Brother – The Life of Captain Flora Sandes". (Her book is translated in Serbian "Naš brat", published by Laguna. Louise is a frequent guest in Serbia and she worked on several projects in Serbia, such as "Women of true grit".) The extended exhibition was part of the events organized by our church earlier in June.

It is not a coincidence that both - women's role and the role of Serbia in WWI – have been scandalously neglected and simplified. My aim is to change that and with a collection of short texts to shed some light on these heroines.

Scottish Women's Hospitals for foreign serviceDuring World War I hundreds of thousands of women participated on the home front supporting the men who had gone out to fight - either working as nurses, teachers, tram drivers, land workers or in the munitions factories. This is what we generally know about women's role in the Great War. Images of these women can be found on propaganda posters, tales of their acts of heroism accounted in books available in libraries across the country and students at schools will learn these basic facts in their history lessons.

Thousands of women were recorded as being on the Western Front and Eastern Front as nurses, doctors, orderlies, drivers, cooks, administrators:

  • in Royal Army Medical Corps
  • British Red Cross Society
  • Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps
  • YMCA
  • The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY)
  • Church Army
  • St John's Ambulance Units
  • Salvation Army
  • General Service Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD drivers)
  • Scottish Women's Hospitals and many other organizations

To better understand women's roles in the Great War, I particularly recommend two books:
- Lucinda Hawksley's "March, Women, March" and
- Kate Adie's "Fighting on the Home Front. The Legacy of Women in World War One" to start with.

So, what do we know about these women?

The only monument in London that honours women in that war is for nurse Edith Cavell, accused of being a spy and shot by German firing squad in Belgium. Another brave woman, Mabel Stobart, was arrested in Belgium, but escaped a similar fate. Lady Dorothie Feilding, the first British woman to receive the Military Medal for her actions under enemy fire during the Great War in Belgium.

The novelist Agatha Christie was once a VAD Nurse. During the First World War some 126,000 VADs took an active part in the war effort, assisting in hospitals at home and in all the major theatres of war. Perhaps the most famous VAD nurse was Flora Sandes who became a soldier and officer in Serbian army, who fought together with Milunka Savić in 'Gvozdeni puk'.

Women's Suffrage society meetingDr Elsie Inglis and Dr Alice Hutchinson with their two hospital units were taken by the Germans as prisoners of war in Serbia 1915 and released a few months later as a result of a major diplomatic intervention. Sir Ralph Paget, British ambassador in Serbia, was outshone by his brave wife, Lady Paget and her hospital work during the Balkan wars and the Great War. She refused to leave her hospital in Skopje in late autumn 1915 and was taken by the Bulgarians as a prisoner of war. All newspapers wrote about them. Katherine Harley was the only woman buried in the Military graveyard in Thessaloniki. Her beautiful tomb stone puzzles the visitors today. And visitors in Dorchester wonder why does Dorset County Museum show the exhibition about Mabel Stobart?


Who were the women of the Scottish Women's Hospitals? Why were they called Scottish? And who was Dr Elsie Inglis?

  • Over a thousand women served in the SWH during the Great War and, according to their records, half of the women were Scottish, the other half mainly English, some Irish and Welsh, and from all over the British Empire.
  • For example - Dr Inglis' Unit in 1917, before her death, consisted of 46 women (Reference - Women's Library, 2 SWH/ 3/ 5)
  • The women came from every part of Great Britain (Gateshead on Tyne, Swansea, Dundee, Warrington, Beverley in Yorks (x2), Latchford in Warrington, Ditchling in Sussex, London (x8), Hounslow, Manchester, India, France, York, Salisbury (x2), Montrose, County Louth in Ireland, Bury St. Edmunds, Rome, Liverpool, Swansea Valley, Edinburgh (x2), Blackpool(x2), Aberberg, Hildenborough in Kent, Bolton in Lancaster, Aberdeen, Herne Bay in Kent, Tyrone in Ireland, Glasgow, Inverness, County Clare in Ireland, Surrey, Monmouth Oxford.
  • Reading their names, their Next of Kin names, addresses, it is difficult not to feel sad, even bitterly disappointed that they are not mentioned anywhere. Miss FitzRoy lived at Lower Belgrave Street; Dr Potter, lived at Addison Road, Kensington, and Miss Rendall, at Courtfield Rd, South Kensington. Miss Murphy, from Transport column lived at Onslow Gardens, and Miss Hodges, at Mornington Avenue, West Kensington, also from Transport Column, 28 women strong under Mrs Haverfield, Scottish baroness who founded the orphanage at Bajina Bašta and died there in 1920.


Dr ELSIE Maude INGLIS (1864-1917)

A member of her London unit wrote about Dr Inglis saying – "There was a driving power in her fragile body which would have put a Rolls-Royce to shame, a genius for getting miracles to happen, and administrative gifts hardly distinguishable from statesmanship ..."

Elsie Inglis was one of the first Scottish female doctors.

She established a maternity hospital in Edinburgh that was staffed entirely by women. She was also an active suffragist who advocated for women's political freedom and played an important role in setting up the Scottish Women's Suffrage Federation. Nevertheless, she did not agree with the suffragettes' methods, that "women should throw tantrums to show how they deserve right to vote." (Margot Lawrence, Shadow of Swords, A Biography of Elsie Inglis, 1971, p.88)

Fountain in Mladenovac, SerbiaHowever important, her medical achievements in Scotland were not the reasons that Elsie Inglis's plaque was put up in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and in the hospital 'Dragiša Mišović' in Belgrade and on the Memorial fountain in Mladenovac; and that she was commemorated by Clydesdale Bank on a £50 heritage note in 2009; and that she was voted second in one hundred most famous Scots – '100 Edinburgh's Greatest.

Her death in November 1917 caused national shock and grief. Her body lay in state in St Giles Cathedral. The Queen sent a message of condolence to her sister. She was buried in Dean Cemetery, in Edinburgh. At her burial, the flags of Great Britain and Serbia were placed on her coffin, and the lilies of France were placed around her body. Historic Scottish banners were placed over her head. Her pallbearers were Serbian officers.

Her funeral was followed by a memorial service in Westminster where members of parliament, government ministers, British diplomats, heads of Red Cross and Army Medical Services, representatives of French, Italian and Russian embassies and Serbian, Belgian and Romanian legations, lords, ladies, suffragists, army and navy officers and many others came to pay homage to this 'truly glorious woman'.

Winston Churchill wrote, after her death, that Inglis and her doctors and nurses "would shine forever in history."

At that time everyone involved in the Scottish Women's Hospitals was certain that what Florence Nightingale previously achieved for nurses, Dr Elsie Inglis had now done for women in medicine.

When the First World War started, women doctors and nurses wanted to help. Dr Inglis was too late to join Louisa Garrett Anderson's Women's Hospital Corps as they already had enough volunteers and left for France.

Elsie Inglis now applied to the War Office and suggested that women's medical units should be allowed to serve on the Western Front. She was rejected with the words, "My good lady, go home and sit still."

This is exactly what Elsie Inglis did not do. The Scottish Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies took her idea, agreed to form a hospitals committee, published a plea for funds and she was able to establish the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH).

As her biographer, Leah Leneman, pointed out: "The War Office may have spurned the idea of all-women medical units, but other allies were desperate for help, and both the French and the Serbs accepted the offer. The first unit left for France in November 1914 and a second unit went to Serbia in January 1915. Inglis was torn between her desire to oversee the fund-raising and organizational side of the SWH and her desire to serve in the field, but in mid-April the chief medical officer of the first Serbian unit in Kragujevac, Dr Soltau, fell ill, and Inglis went out to replace her. During the summer she set up two further hospital units."


During the First World War there were fourteen Scottish Women's Hospitals to serve in:

  • France – at Royaumont Abbey (from January 1915 to 1919)
    - at Villers Cotterets
    - Sallanches – for Serbian boys suffering from tuberculosis – 1918
  • Serbia – Valjevo, Kragujevac, Kruševac, Mladenovac, Lazarevac, Vranje, Niš
  • Macedonia - Ostrovo (American Unit – 1917/18), Skopje (Elsie Inglis Unit - 1918)
  • Greece – Salonika, Corfu (after the Great Retreat)
  • Malta – summer 1915
  • Corsica – from spring 1916 – The French Government transported Serbian refugees to Corsica and SWH was started for them on the island
  • Romania and Russia – Dobrudja (1916/17)

Apart from two SWHs at Royaumont Abbey and Villers Cotterets, mainly for French, Belgian and British soldiers, all other units were part of French Red Cross and / or Serbian Relief Fund with Serbian army and French army and Serbian civilians.

Late in 1915, during a major Austrian and German offensive, two of the hospital units in Kragujevac and Kruševac with Dr Inglis and Dr Hutchinson and their staff, were captured as they refused to leave wounded Serbian soldiers. Eventually, with the help of American diplomats, British authorities were able to negotiate the release of Inglis and her medical staff. The women of Scottish Women's Hospitals were the most famous prisoners of war at that time.

Elsie Inglis' last post was in the Dobrudja (Rumania, that time Russia) with the Serbian Division (SerbianVolunteer Corps) until October 1917. The London Committee did not know that Elsie Inglis was gravely ill. The situation in Russia was very difficult and the future of the Serbian division very unsecure. With her last efforts Dr Inglis did everything to influence and secure their movement from Russia to Macedonia towards the Salonika front. Elsie Inglis' biographer believes that she was responsible for saving the Serb Division.

Last message from Dr Elsie InglisIt took her unit three weeks to reach Newcastle. On 25th November 1917 Dr Ingles dictated the last letter to the London Committee and stood nearly 20 minutes while the entire Serbian staff and her SWH staff said goodbye. Elsie Inglis died the next day.

As Leah Leneman wrote, Elsie Inglis captured the public's imagination. She was a heroine of a very British kind, her virtues of those of devotion to duty, and a keen sense of responsibility. She had endured hardship and deprivation in pursuit of her mission to aid sick and wounded – most notably the Serbs, who had been so badly let down by their allies – and she sacrificed her life in doing so. She was pragmatic, with a real can-do attitude.

Above all, Elsie Inglis had received no recognition, but considerable obstruction, from her own government.

It is hard to believe that today almost nobody knows the name of Dr Ingles.

Zvezdana Popovic

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