Monday, November 14, 2011

Remembrance Sunday: the sacrifice Scottish Women made to Serbia / "Britić – The British Serb magazine" November 12, 2011

By Alan Cumming
Britić – The British Serb magazine
November 12, 2011


When the First World War broke out in August 1914, and Serbia with the rest of Europe was plunged into carnage. A group of Scottish woman led by Dr. Elsie Inglis got together and formed the Scottish Womans Hospitals (SWH). The aim was to form medical units of doctors, nurses, drivers, cooks, and administrators, and all woman to go to the front line and help save the lives of the troops. The authorities scoffed and obstacles were put in their way, but, by October 1914 the money was rolling in. Appeals were sent all over Scotland and Elsie Inglis was all over London rallying support. Britain saw Serbia as a David facing the Goliath of Austria/Hungry and Serbian flags were sold on the street to raise money. By 1915 the SWH had units in Veljevo, Kragujevac and Mladenovac, these were the worst of times for Serbia not only has tens of thousands of Serbs been killed or wounded but a typhus epidemic was ravaging the country, food was scarce and Serbia was on the verge of collapse yet these woman from all over the UK were and often did give their lives for Serbia. Dr Elsie Inglis herself described the situation as beyond misery and terror, the woman worked in appalling conditions. Dr McGregor wrote “Two of our sisters have died, and two have gone home with dysentery, others are ill but still we work on, the hospital is full 280-300 men and never a minute to stop, staff are scarcely able to drag on” shortly after writing this letter DR McGregor herself became serious ill with malaria and was sent home. Nurse Alice Hutchinson wrote at night “We are glad to loose consciousness and each day is a lifetime”.

As I’ve found on my trips to Serbia, Serbs like Scots have a common ground. In their love all humour, strong alcohol and song, it seems the despite all the hardships all 3 were in plentiful supply. Many of the women enjoyed special occasions, like Christmas with the Serb soldiers, drinking brandy and dancing the kolo.

I don’t know how many women from the SWH served in Serbia during WW1 but it has got to be hundreds. Some of the women going way beyond the call of duty. Dr Elizabeth Ross, a Scottish surgeon borrowed money to get to Serbia on arrival volunteered to go to a typhus ravage Kragujevac knowing the chances of survival were very slim. She survived less than 3 weeks. She is buried at Kragujevac along with two other woman, Mable Dreamer and Lorna Ferris. Under the headstone reads “They gave their hearts to the people of Serbia”. Each year the people of the town hold a ceremony and there is even an Elizabeth Ross street other woman like Katherine McPhail stayed in Serbia after the war, setting up Serbia’s first children’s hospital in Belgrade. She was commemorated with the Serbian order of St Sava and the Serbian Red Cross.


Flora Sandes has to be my favourite though. During Serbia’s retreat many of the woman refused to come home and were dismissed by the organisation, many worked on as nurses during Serbia’s retreat. Flora Sandes, however, became the first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army, and the only British woman to officially enrol as a soldier during WW1. She quickly moved up the ranks, subsequently she was decorated with the order of the Karađorđe star and promoted to sergeant major. She married a fellow officer and settled down to life in Belgrade. During WW2 she was imprisoned with her husband by the Gestapo in Belgrade. He never made it out. If ever anyone gets the chance to read “Flora Sandes -Sergeant in the Serbian Army” do. God knows why there has never been a film made as it is a fantastic story. As for Elsie Inglis she returned home on 26th November 1917 and died 3 days later. She was buried in Edinburgh, her coffin covered with the flags of Britain and Serbia. Serbian officers lowered her into the grave.


For me the saddest part of the whole story is that today Scots do not know of these brave women. History has not been kind to them, a nation should rejoice at such valour. Thankfully there are towns in Serbia where monuments and headstones remain. The plan for me would be to visit as many of these as possible, sometime in the future.


Alan Cumming




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If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at heroesofsebia@yahoo.com.

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