By Annie Brown
November 1, 2014
Flo and Mary Mackenzie from the Highlands were among many Scots nurses who travelled 18,000 miles to tend to the injured and dying.
Sisters Mary and Flo Mackenzie as young nurses
Sisters Flo and Mary Mackenzie were among the pioneering Scottish women who journeyed 1800 miles to care for soldiers on the hellish frontline in Serbia.
Their tremendous humanity and valour is still honoured each year in Serbia – though it has been forgotten in Britain.
Now a TV documentary is to tell the story of the women including the Mackenzie sisters.
Alan Cumming, a landscape gardener from Cumbernauld, learned about the women’s sacrifice after travelling to Serbia for a football match.
He became fascinated by their tale and is determined to log the contributions of each of the 1500 women during World War I.
Mary and Flo Mackenzie
Short of staff and equipment, they carried out amputations and dressed wounds.
Serbia was on its knees, battling Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, and was in the grip of a typhus epidemic which was to claim 150,000 lives. The Serbs had few medical staff of their own. Their only hope lay with the women of Scottish Women’s Hospitals, founded in Edinburgh that year by Dr Elsie Inglis, the country’s first female surgeon.
Alan said: “Elsie Inglis’s units came out with all these fresh ideas. They were in uniform. They whitewashed the buildings.
“Everything was scrubbed down. Quickly the Serbs all wanted to be in those hospitals.”
Flo and Mary, from Lochinver in Sutherland, were among the first nurses to arrive in Serbia, in separate units. Their story is told through their nephew Colin and niece Marigold, who describes them as “fearless and strong-willed”.
Many of the women, including Elsie, were ardent suffragettes but the Mackenzies didn’t discuss their part in the movement, which would have been frowned on in a crofting community.
Dr. Elsie Inglis
One War Office official told Elsie: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
Undeterred, she sent female staff to the French, Russian and Serbian fronts.
Mary and Flo told their family of life in wretched battlefields.
Marigold said: “Mary said when she went out, conditions were horrific. The first thing they had to do was burn mattresses, burn nearly everything and set up some form of hygiene and cleanliness.
“She really felt for the Serbian people and never considered walking away from it because they were in such need.”
The women found themselves dealing not just with war casualties but a typhus epidemic, spread by lice. Some of the nurses were themselves struck down by typhus, despite taking every precaution.
Marigold said: “There was no form of sanitation. There were dead dying, recovering and very badly wounded people in filthy conditions.”
Flo’s unit was based first in France, then Greece and Malta and she later joined an allied Serbian hospital.
In September 1915, Mary was in Serbia when Austro-Hungarians surrounded the country.
Marigold Hunter and Colin MacKenzie, niece and nephew of Flo and Mary MacKenzie.
She was among many who fled across the snowy Albanian mountains for 500 miles, past the bodies of soldiers, women and children for five weeks.
Some like Elsie stayed until the siege made it impossible.
Marigold said: “The path was extremely slippery because there were so many people walking on it. It was packed into ice. They had normal shoes and they were worn because they had been walking for weeks. Mary said that was really scary. They were terrified and sometimes the people slipped. She said the screams were terrible.”
In December 1915, many of the women arrived back in Britain.
Hailed as heroes, they were greeted by Queen Mary. They had proved their point.
Marigold said: “When Mary arrived in London she had a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, neither being hers. She looked like a vagabond.”
Some of the women were still being held as prisoners of war and they returned in February 1916.
Mary and Flo travelled back to Serbia that year but Mary caught TB and returned home.
Flo was one of the last of the women to leave Serbia in 1920. The women were awarded bravery medals.
Marigold said: ”Flo had a shoebox full of medals. Mary had two, that was all, although she had a much harder war.
“I think all of the women did a tremendous amount in proving they were able to hold responsible positions and that they were every bit as good as the men.”
After living in Paris and America, unmarried Flo came home to the Highlands and lived with Mary, who had been widowed.
They both died in 1970.
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