Margaret Box -Dear Dad, November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, was a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, tending patients in what was then Serbia. She recorded her activities in diaries, and a number of letters home which give some insight into the world of that time. She wrote this one on the 7th of November from a Field Hospital near Skopje, run by Dr. Lilian Chesney.

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c/o Dr. Chesney, etc

Nov 7th 9.30 p.m.

My Dear Dad,

I have just received 2 more letters from you. The 2nd one, written Oct 7th.

Some more people arrived tonight & we were lucky to get another post in – just fancy – only 2 days since the last ! We nearly shouted the house down (what there is left of it).

No, we have not electric light. Candles are rationed out to us each week & we have an oil lamp in the mess room. I am sorry to hear Mother has had a cold & sincerely hope it was not the ‘flu’. I have seen enough of that disease coming out & I hope you have not been working too hard & got the rheumatism. I have got a most lovely wool cap for you to wear indoors but dont know how to get it home. You say you had no letter from me between Paris & Rome, well I don’t suppose I wrote one. We were in the train for 2 nights & days & changed trains at Modane waiting about an hour for a much needed meal & then we changed again at Turin where we did not have time for a meal. Mother’s biscsuits & chocolate came in useful in those days. When we did arrive in Rome we were rather dusty. I shall never forget the state of the bath after I got out of it ! The Italian trains are about the dirtiest I have ever come across. I can’t tell you what Salonica is like as I only stayed there one night, but I know it was very hot & we slept under mosquito nets in tents.

I am awfully sorry to hear about Uncle Arthur’s burglars. It is what you might call ‘tiresome’ to lose your belongings like that. I must try to write to some of the relatives for Xmas – but we have just heard that a post is going out tomorrow & I want to write so many letters.

The weather was bitterly cold here last week & the snow was right down the mountains – but now it is quite warm again & very hot out in the sun this afternoon. It is not usually very cold till after Xmas.

I hope you are sending me some of my photos. I wonder if they are any good.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter


A p.c. from Mary & Norah – jolly nice too. Many thanks to them.


Transit time for post

John Box wrote “Arrived 22 Nov” on the letter, so it took 15 days to get from (near) Skopje to Croydon – a distance of about 1935 miles, so the letter was travelling at slightly over 5 miles per hour – if it went on the direct route.

The journey from Rome

Margaret would have changed trains at Modane Station, and taken the Modane-Turin railway through the Fréjus Rail Tunnel. Yet another spectacular railway journey !

Uncle Arthur (who was burgled)

This would be Arthur Williams Box (1853-1940). He lived both in Brondesbury, London which was his address in the 1912 Census and in Launceston, where he owned the Iron Foundry. He did sell the Foundry in 1912, so the burglary was presumably in London.

Happy Birthday Rose Box, November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, went to be Red Cross Nurse in Serbia and Salonica in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, leaving her parents, brother (my Grandfather) and sisters back in England. She kept and diary, and wrote a number of letters home, which I am transcribing and commenting on for this blog. On 6th November she wrote to her elder sister, Rosina Janet Braund Box, known as Rose, whose birthday was the 5th of December.

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Nov 6th

c/o Dr. Chesney, etc.

My Dear Rose,

Very many happy returns of your birthday (1918) a happy xmas & a jolly good New Year. I hope you will get this this year !

Yesterday was a red letter day – a mail bag arrived & what a rejoicing & a shouting there was. I had 7 letters – counting all the home ones that is 4 sent off on the 23rd Sept. one from Father, one from Mother & 2 from a ‘Pro’ at York Rd. Please thank them very much indeed. I also had one from Dingle & one from Cora & one from somebody else I met on the way. I don’t know how many times I have read them already. The post is a very uncertain affair as it has to wait both ways until somebody can take & that depends on the weather, the state of the road & whether there is anyone to go. I am writing a lot of letters now so that they will be ready when we hear there is going to be a post. I am glad to hear you are getting into the swing of your new work & hope you will like it all right. Of course by the time you get this you will be quite an old hand at the job ! I should not be surprised if peace is declared before them.

Today I have had a 1/2 day – if it had been a fine day I was going to take my tea & picnic up the mountain – but there has been a nasty thick damp mist the last 2 days – very unpleasant. So I went out for a walk & came in for tea. After tea I went round the town with Danby. I wish you could see these quaint shops & the people. They make you feel that you are at a theatre or show of some sort. We passed a cobbler’s shop. The cobblers, 3 of them, sat in a row in the window-way making the most curious shoes – sandals really. I bought a baby pair they are so funny. We came back very soon & I have been writing letters since then & having supper. Now I must hurry up & get ready for bed.

Jones is still here. She is not much better though getting up & I think she still ought to be in bed.

One day she & I went out a little way & looked inside a Turkish Mosque which is being used as a garage by the French. We did not know it was private & a French Officer spoke to us. 2 more Officers arrived & one I recognised having met him some time ago in my travels. He was in charge of some French meat lorries & superintended the unloading of them at their destination & three of us (not Jones) had travelled 38 kilometres in 3 these lorries – accompanied by the meat ! & a great many flies !! I shall never forget that ride. We were white with dust when we got off. Well anyway on the strength of that acquaintance they took us out to tea. You would have been very amused to hear me trying to talk French & the poor man – one of them could not understand a word of English, but the funny part of it is that French seems quite a familiar language to me these days. When I get a new patient in I say “Can you speak English” – answer “ne ne”. I say “Parlez vous Francais” still with some hope & I generally get answer “ne ne”. So I am using a few native words & use them for every occasion & I manage to my myself understood. Even Italian seems rather familiar (having lived a week in Rome) & once we were on a mountain pass in a touring car (a lady chauffeur, not Jones, & I together alone) one side on a high cliff up the other side a huge precipice down & we were held up by the traffic & almost expected to see a policeman at crossroads (the Bank or Picadilly) but it was a French lorry with its hind wheel over the precipice in the mud that was causing the block & a stream of bullock carts was coming one way & a stream of Italian pack mules the other way, not to mention French & English lorries going both ways. So we settled down to biscuits & chocolate & talked to an Italian ‘multo pericoloso’ said I ‘si, si’ said he but my companion could say more than that – so she said it & then he said more still. You may like to know that the French lorry was pulled up again & we all went on our ways happily.

I think I had better shut up. I wish I could tell you the whole of my travels – but I will one day.

I expect Norah is settled by now & hope she has got something nice. Please ask her why cocks crow in the middle of the night. One started here about 12 o’c & it was answered down the line for (fowl) yards until the answers were lost in the distance, then it started again. They all yelled for about 1/2 an hour then went to sleep again. I hope Norah will get her letter in time. I wrote it a long time before I got here.

Much love to all & good wishes & all kind thoughts,

Your loving sister

Margaret Box.

I shall write whenever there is a post but I think you will understand what an uncertain arrangement it is. You see we are a long way off.


Letter from ‘Pro’ at York Road

Margaret trained as a Nurse at Guy’s Hospital from 1914 to 1917, and then qualified as a midwife in February 1918. She worked as a midwife at the General Lying in Hospital at York Road, Lambeth in 1920, after she returned from Serbia, and I suspect that is where she was training and working before she went off to ‘do her bit’. Presumably her former colleagues were keeping in touch.

Travelling in meat lorries

This fills in some of the details of her travel on 21st October from Monasteri to Prilip, on meat lorries. I think the ‘3 of us’ would be Margarget, Danby and Howard.


We live in a world where almost everybody we meet has had some exposure to English, often through films, television, and the Internet, as well as probably learning some at school. People who might encounter any form of foreign visitor, such as hotel receptionists or train conductors will often have some essential English for their job. I don’t know how much

Margaret probably learnt French at school. I think she went to a Boarding School, possibly run by Miss M. Walton in a school called Gelston, in Bexhill, Sussex in the 1901 Census, when she was aged 10. She would not have learned Italian, but might have done Latin.

Amy Margaret Webster (1844-?) daughter of Arthur Reuben Webster, was at the same school, also a boarder, aged 16, and was Margaret’s cousin.

Margaret’s Italian would probably be limited to what she picked up in Rome, so it is interesting that, 28 years before the launch of the Vespa, a key Italian phrase to learn in Rome was ‘multo pericoloso’ (very perilous) !

Margaret Box Nursing – Dramatis Personae

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went, via France, Italy and Greece to what was then Serbia, in 1918/19 towards the end of the First World War. She was a nurse, working for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and wrote a number of letters and diaries describing her her experiences, indexed here.

During her travels she encounters a number of people, some more more frequently than others, and this article is intended to help keep track of them, and also, in some cases, add some extra information, as many of them were women, and in 1918, during a war, it was only people of an adventurous spirit who would travel to a remote part of the world (as it was in those days) to help people close to where a war was being fought.

Bailey (Colonel)

Gave Margaret a ride in his car on 14th October 1918. I am not sure which of the various Colonel Baileys he might have been

He was not Frederick Marshman Bailey, who forged the documents of a Serbian Colonel in 1918, but was a temporary Lieutenant-Colonel, in Taskent at the time (as a British spy)

Box, John Robert

Margaret’s father, my Great Grandfather

Box, Leonard Arthur (1886-1967)

Box, Margaret Ada (1890-1986)

Box, Edith Mary (1894-1959)

Box, Norah Constance (1898-1987)

Box, Rosina (Rose)

Chesney, Lilian (1869-1935)

Dr Chesney was the head of the hospital Margaret was attached to, where she did most of her nursing in Serbia.

Danby, Gertrude Elizabeth

Howard, Lilian Maud

She is a chauffeur in the London Unit

Jones, Gladys Margaret Powell

Known as ‘Taffy’ as she is Welsh, she is a chauffeur.

She appears in the letter of 20th October 1918, 29th October 1918

North, Augusta Louisa

Murdoch, Bessie Bannerman

Sinclair, Louise Esson

Happy Birthday Norah Box October 1918

My Great Aunt Norah Constance Box was 20 on 11th November 1918. Her sister, Margaret Ada Box who was nursing in Salonica and Serbia wrote to her on the 24th October, from a camp of the 708 Motor Transport Company to wish her a Happy Birthday. Although Margaret’s letter does not mention it, her diary shows she had stopped off at M.T. camp because many of them were sick with Spanish Flu, and three of her patients died that day. Margaret’s next letter, written to her parents when she rejoins her unit, describes her journey as ‘I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful’ – I suspect she is dissembling about the enjoyment, as the entry about that letter has some extracts from Margaret’s diary.

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My dear Norah

This is to wish you very many happy returns of the day & I hope you will get it in time – though I think it is rather doubtful. I hope you will get something for your birthday as I suggested before I came away.

I have been very busy all this week, although I have not reached my destination ! I have had a very nice letter from my ‘Chief’ – Miss Danby went on & has arrived & I have heard from her. She told the Chief where I was staying & they are going to fetch me when the work here slackens down. I am very fit, I think this outdoor life suits me & I get so hungry – we have heaps to eat & any amount of jam. I am much fatter than when I started ! There is a most fascinating view from here & I wish I had time to explore – you would love it I know. Blue crocuses & pale yellow scabious grow up the mountain side & any amount of mushrooms.

I wonder where you are and what you are doing ? I hope that it has all turned out well & that you are in comfy quarters.

I hope there will be a big budget of letters waiting for me, but I don’t think they will be thro’ yet – they take such an age. I am dying for home news. I wish you could see me now. Sitting up in bed ! My valise is having good wear now – also the wretched tin basin – but it has got horribly bent & chipped all over.

It is very late & I must go to sleep, am sorry I have no time to write more.

Much love to the family & yourself & all best wishes

Your loving sister

Margaret Box


708 Motor Transport Company


The picture above is the 689 Motor Transport Company, rather than the 708, but I assume they would have been similar. Both have very similar entries on the list of Army Service Corps Units on the Salonica Campain Society website.

Douglas Walshe was an officer in the 708 Company M T, ASC, a Light Supply and Ammunition Column of Ford vans attached to the Serbian Army. His book With the Serbs in Macedonia is available online at His book mentions several encounters with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, but I did not find anything which could be pin pointed as this particular camp.

Margaret Box arrived in Skopje – 29th October 1918

On the 28th October 1918 my Great Aunt, Margaret Box, arrived at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals unit near Skopje. She was a Red Cross Nurse working in the Elsie Inglis unit at the end of the First World War and fortunately her letters home and diaries have been preserved.

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c/o Dr Chesney etc


My Dear Mother

You will be pleased to hear that I reached my destination yesterday – not bad for a 12 day’s journey eh !

I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful & I shall tell you the details when I see you. I started work this morning & am expecting to like it all very much. Twice – on the way out I have done a weeks nursing – both British.

This afternoon I have been out for a walk in the town with Danby. I believe it is a market day and we jostled through a very interesting and picturesque crowd. The sun is out & it is very nice & warm now, but at night & in the morning it is very cold. There is snow on the mountains today they they look lovely in the sun. The people wear such quaint clothes – a lot wear white serge big coats edged & decorated with black braid & no sleeves – they are very fond of red – aprons, sashes, gaiters, sleeves etc. (& patches !).

We went into a (deserted) mosque this afternoon – it was very interesting & was decorated – that is – walls & ceiling – with a pretty blue pattern. This place is miles from where I expected to be. I wonder if you have any idea where it is. We expect to be here for a few months – luckily we are in a building which will be warmer for the winter.

30.x.18. Today it is very wet & so cold – but I am glad to say I found my kit bag here on my arrival (I parted from it a long time ago) & so am able to get into thick clothes.

I did not find any letters waiting here for me – which was a great disappointment, but I know they take ages to get through so suppose they will come one day.

I was very surprised to find Miss Jones here – I left her more than a week ago – she was going farther on but is ill in bed with the flu. There is such a lot of flu about & it has kept me very busy ! I have not had it myself.

Please tell Leonard that Miss Ffoulkes is nursing here. She is on night duty just now – I told her how we had lunch with Captain Whitaker the day before I came away. I don’t know anybody here & all the people I was to look up & give messages to are hundreds of miles from here.

There are 4 other sisters – 1 on night & 1 ill and there are 4 V.A.Ds – 1 girl looks after the laundry – 1 cooks for us – 1 (Danby) is sanitary inspection. We have 2 doctors & 1 Administrator & no Matron. They are all exceedingly nice & we are a very happy crowd.

I am longing to hear what you are all doing & hope you will be able to get ?fining for the winter. I am very glad I brought my eiderdown – it is decidedly cold here. My hands & arms are still very brown from being out in the sun but expect it will soon wear off now.

I think you ought to get this in time for your birthday so will wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish I could fly across & give you a good big birthday kiss – but shall have to save them up for when I come back.

I have 30 beds in my ward – all medical cases at present – the patients are very nice & very amused at my efforts to talk to them. I am picking up a few words already & hope to get better at it.

When I was at the town where my bank is I wanted to get a cheque book so that I could write for money when I wanted it. Unfortunately we arrived there on Sat. afternoon & left on Sunday evening & the bank was not open – so I have not got my cheque book. I explained it all to the administrator of the S.W.H. & she advised me to write a letter to the bank authorizing her to draw the money (£5) so I did it & she gave me the £5. I shall now talk to the administrator here & see what is to be done next. There is not much chance of spending money here – except in the way of curios & everything is fearfully expensive. I tried to by a little note book (not made in England !!) the price was 2 francs so I went without. I saw some lovely wooden spoons which I have my eye on but don’t suppose I shall get. They all eat their soup & vegetables with these wooden spoons & they are awfully nice. Apples cost 1 franc each – also little cakes which we should think dear at 2d

Nov 1st – I am very glad to say that we had only one wet day. Yesterday afternoon 4 of us went for a walk a little way up the mountain to a little village. The people wear most extraordinary clothes – a long white woollen shirt – a sheepskin coat (fur inside) & a woven red stripe apron, a handkerchief or cloth of some sort, red preferred, tied round the head & red embroidered stuff on their legs which is bound on by string. They don’t wear boots but skin tied on with string.

I have spoken to Miss Gwynn about the money & she is going to the town tomorrow & will see what can be done. She takes our letters with her to post – they have to wait until someone is going down – so I don’t suppose you will often get a letter. I only hope she will bring some back with her! I think I had better wish Rose a happy birthday too as I don’t suppose we shall be posting for some time. I shall think of you especially on your birthdays (Norah too) & shall send good wishes on the ‘wings of the wind’.

When you are sending out anything please will you send 2 or 3 little note books about 3 or 4 inches long. It is impossible to get them here & I am wanting one to jot down ‘words’. What would be useful is 3 or 4 dark grey silk handkerchiefs, white gets dirty so quickly – but am afraid they would be rather expensive. Euthymol toothpaste is impossible to get – or toothpaste of any description. I am finding my flannel pyjamas very comfy – also the jaeger bed socks. They say it is not usually so cold as early as this & they think it will turn warmer again. There is a little less snow on the mountains today – they do look lovely with the sun shining on them.

Some say we shall be moving on quite soon – at present our beds are full with ‘flu’ patients. I think that I shall specialize in this disease on my return! It is exactly the same here as at home & in every other place I have been in.

It is bedtime so I must think of saying Goodbye. I am going to wish you all a happy Xmas as probably we shan’t get another lot of letters off in time – anyway you will know I am thinking of you all even if the letter does not bring the news. I don’t know where we shall be for Xmas, perhaps here but most likely much further on. There is a lot of rejoicing in the streets tonight at the news.

I would like to go on writing heaps but have no time now. I have not written to any of the family so will you send them my best wishes for Xmas if my letters don’t get through in time.

Very much love to you all hoping you are all well.

Your loving Daughter

Margaret Box.

I was on this boat for part of my journey – there is not so much paint on the boat now & the sea was not so rocky – it was a very uneventful though very enjoyable trip.


Dr Chesney

Dr Lilian Chesney (1869-1935) was at Girton from 1890 to 1894, and was also involved in campaign for Women’s Votes.

She has an entry in the Lives of the First World War here.

The was the lead doctor of the unit, hence the unit could be reached by sending letters care of her.

S.S. Amazone

The boat which carried Margaret from Taranto to Iteo, was probably S.S. Amazone (1903-1932), belonging to La Compagnie des messageries maritimes which was requisitioned for postal services between 1914 and 1918.


The V.A.D.s were the Voluntary Aid Detachment – civilian volunteers who were not under the control of military units. As well as Margaret’s friend Danby, several famous people, including Agatha Christie were V.A.D.s

The journey

Margaret’s diary, which more sketchy than her letters tells a little more of how she spent the time between Salonica and the field hospital near Skopje.

At 10:50 p.m. on the 20th Margaret, Danby and 3 others travel on the Salonica to Monasteri (Bitola) railway, having a carriage to themselves and arrive at 7 a.m. Then travel by French meat lorries 35km to Prilip.

On the 21st she stays at 708 M.T. where “nearly all the men down with flu and 2 sisters in to nurse them”

On 22nd “Howard & I help in the tents. Plenty of work to do and no convenience for ?revisiting or food except bully and tinned milk”

23rd “Howard & Danby get a lift to Valiz. I stay behind to help. 6 men brought back from French hosp. in an awful condition. Work fast and furious.”

24th ” 2 men died early morn. 1 in afternoon. Letters from Howard & Danby who arrived on eve 23rd at Uskut. Letter from Dr. Chesney. Pleased with my actions. to stay as long as necessary.

Howard would be “HOWARD Miss Lilian Maud, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 6-Feb-19 “

Margaret also finds the time to write a birthday letter to her sister Norah.

25th “A little improvement in the patients”

26th “same as yesterday”

27th “North arrived in a touring car to take me on…”

North would be “NORTH Miss Augusta Louisa, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 2-Dec-18”

Her letters home do not alarm her parents with the details of patients dying, and make the whole trip seem rather like a jolly holiday, but the diary shows she, and the other nurses, were out there doing a difficult job, sometimes under arduous conditions.

Her diary shows that ‘The hospital was opened in an old school a week before I arrived. I take ward 3 – 30 beds medical cases’

The Book “A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes” says (p225) that the Elsie Ingliss Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who had moved from their malodorous former base, “Dead Horse Camp” to set up a hospital in a former school. This implies, though I don’t think she is mentioned in the letters, that Margaret was in the area at the same time as Flora Sanders – The only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WW1.

Picking up a few words

Margaret had a notebook in which she wrote what what I think is Serbian, although several of the words seem to be different from modern Serbian (or at least Serbo-Croat from 1983) and the script is more like Greek than Cyrillic . The language notebook deserves a post (or posts) to itself.

Getting and spending money

£5 in 1918 would be worth between £239 and £2126 today, according to MeasuringWorth, so this would have been sufficient to cover her expenses for some time.

Social Networking

It is interesting that Margaret was provided with a names and addresses for people in Salonica, which she did not get a chance to use, but social networks are clearly not as new as we might think !

Miss Gwynn

She would be

GWYNN Miss Margaret Katherine, Secretary London Unit 2-Jul-17 24-Nov-17 and 20-Feb-18 1-Sep-18

SWH Names G-M

Birthday wishes

Margaret’s mother, Ada Box (nee Webster), born on 30th November 1861, was sent sixth birthday wishes from her big sister, Margaret Webster – who died 4 months later. The letter is at ‘Birthday wishes from Margaret Webster to Ada Webster‘. Margaret Box was probably named after Margaret Webster.

Margaret’s sister, Rose (Rosina) Box was born on 5th December 1884.

Rejoicing in the streets

The news would have been the Liberation of Serbia, Albania and Montenegro – at this stage the end of the war for the Axis powers was definitely in sight.

Margaret Box letter from Salonica – October 20th 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a civilian Red Cross nurse, serving in Serbia, towards the end of the First World War. On the 20th of October 1918 she wrote to her Mother from Salonica. As this had been the first major city she had been in for a while she also sent a telegram to say she had arrived safely.

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My Dear Mother

At last we have moved on & we had a comfy night here last night. We went to bed early & slept ‘double quick’ to make up for the night before – which we spent looking at the scenery. There was a lovely moon to light us on our way. We stopt at 9.30 p.m. & got out to have dinner, then went on again. I sent a cable off to you this morning from the place I promised & I hope you will get it soon. We are not staying here long & we are going much further than was intended when we started – the address you have holds good or course – where ever we go.

I say Goodbye to Miss Sinclair & Miss Murdoch today – they are both going to work here for the time being. Miss Powell-Jones, the chauffeur (Taffy – I will call her – she is Welsh) is going on with me – some of the way we go together – also 2 other chauffeurs & Miss Danby who caught us up at the last place. Miss Danby is going to the same place as I am.

Salonica is a very large place – it is awfully hot even now – so can’t imaging what it is like in summer.

When you are writing & it is convenient please will you send me a reel or two of grey cotton, I did not bring any & as you know my clothes are all grey & I have only black or white to sew them up.

My hair has grown about 2 inches since I left home. I was hoping to go to a barber while staying here, but today is Sunday so I have had no chance – however Taffy has kindly cut it for me & I am thankful to be feeling a little cooler in the upper regions.

Everybody is very nice & kind & we seem to have been feeding ever since we arrived. There is no one here that I know and am afraid I have forgotten all the people I was meant to look up. I ought to have put all their names down. But I have no time to visit anyone.

I must get a bath & pack my clothes before we move on so had better say Goodbye.

With much love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret Box.


Written on the letter is also says ‘3 copies typed’ and ‘sent to Norah’, and something else I can’t read.

As is happening during the lockdown people who are not professional hairdressers were extending their skill sets, as Taffy kindly cuts Margaret’s hair.

The journey

The journey from Bralos to Salonica was by a train on the Piraeus–Platy railway – which runs through spectacular scenery and, having been built between 1908 and 1916, would have been quite new when Margaret used it.

This video shows the type of scenery the train travelled through, no wonder Margaret spent the trip looking out of the window !

Miss Powell-Jones

I think she is probably

JONES Miss Gladys Margaret Powell, Chauffeur America Unit 19-Sep-18 1-Mar-19

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Names G-M

Note that the American Unit, also known as the Ostrovo Unit was largely funded by money from America, although the women came from all over the world. Note that according to the Wikipedia article on ‘Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Only the medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and x-ray operators received a salary and expenses while non-medical staff such as orderlies, administrators, drivers, cooks and others received no pay at all (and were in fact expected to pay their way)

So as a chauffeur Taffy would not have been being paid, but would have been having an opportunity for experiences not generally available to women during those times.

“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott

I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.


I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.

        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

The Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Today would be the two hundredth birthday of Florence Nigthtingale, and the World Health Organisation designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife in her honour. Although the Coronavirus crisis may have taken some of the attention which might have otherwise been paid to this remarkable woman, it has also emphasised the importance of nurses.

One of the results of the Corvid-19 crisis, has been the release for anybody to read, of all the Scientific American Coronavirus related articles, at


A particularly relevant recent Scientific American article is “Nurses Are Playing a Crucial Role in this Pandemic—as Always” – interesting to see the similarities and differences between nursing in the USA and here in the UK, as well as an acknowledgement of the shared history, leading back to the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – not only for her care for her patients, but for her putting nursing on a professional basis, with an emphasis on hygiene, infection control, statistics and training.

I am particularly grateful for the kindness and professionalism of the nurses of the Oxford Churchill Hospital, both the Peritoneal Dialysis team and the Renal Transplant team.


Everybody who is reading this article has been born, which is a minor miracle in itself, which we take for granted nowadays. I have already written, in ‘On being born‘ about historically high mortality rates for both infants and mothers, and it is due to improvements in midwifery that we all benefit from this.

Florence Nightingale

A side effect of writing this blog is finding out about subjects of which I had no significant previous knowledge. Reading, mostly from the Wikipedia article, I found several items that had a particular resonance

My Methodist friends would, I hope be pleased to learn of the Wesleyan influences on her theology.

Margaret Box, nurse and midwife

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, left me much correspondence relating to her time nursing in Salonica and Serbia, but little of that actually relates to nursing. I do have some information from Census and other records which give a skeletal framework to her career.

She trained as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital between 1914 and 1917

I know from the Midwives Roll of 1931 that she qualified as a Midwife on 9th February 1918, by Central Midwives Board Examination.

From September 1918 to April 1919 she was nursing in Salonica and Serbia.

The 1923 Nursing Register shows her living in Frensham, Surrey, with her nursing qualification being from Guy’s Hospital in 1917.

In 1931 and 1935 Midwives Rolls she was a Midwife at the General Lying-in-Hospital in Lambeth.

In 1937, the Register of Nurses shows her living in Broadstairs, Kent, with a date of registration as a Nurse of 17th February 1922 – this gives her 1914-1917 training dates and nursing certification.

The 1939 Census shows her as a Matron, State Registered Nurse, in Broadstairs, Kent.

I still have several family history related letters I have not read, but as far as I know, that is all I can discover about her nursing career.

Margaret Box still in Bralo, October 14th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, was nursing in Salonica and Serbia at the end of the First World War. She wrote many letters home, which I am transcribing here. This one, to her father, follows the one she wrote she wrote to her mother, from Bralo on 11th/12th October 1918.

Previous Index Next

c/o 49th Stationary Hospital


14 x 18

& 15th

My Dear Dad

We are still here & still expect to be ! The work in the hospital now is much lighter so we are not helping any more. We generally go out for a walk in the mornings & come in for lunch at 12.30 – in the afternoon we stay inside & read – it is much too hot out then to be pleasant – we have to be in camp by 6 p.m. so there is no time for an evening walk. Yesterday morning Miss Sinclair & I set out together – we walked thro’ the vinyards by a winding footpath then across a Tobacco field & down to the river bed – just now there is only a little brook running & we easily crossed by stepping stones. We climbed the bank the other side & went thro’ a farmyard into the village street – now more than a rough cart track, the cottages are mostly made of mud (I believe I said stone before) & mostly all have a wooden stairway leading up to a veranda. I believe the family lives upstairs & the donkeys, pigs, goats & chickens downstairs.

Under the eaves & in every available hanging place are strings of tobacco leaves hanging up to dry. The wooden shutters are all bright blue. Everyone greeted us as we went along & the women & girls love to shake hands. This village was at the foot of a mountain & we thought of climbing up a little but we had no time & the mountains are all very rough & rocky with an awful lot of dwarf holly about – so we wandered on & came back again to the river. We climbed down the bank & sat on a stone under the shadow of a bridge. Some pretty little birds came down to drink. They looked like glorified yellow wagtails – there are lots of pretty birds about but they don’t sing – only twitter. Further down the river under shelter of a bridge a crowd of greek women were talking – presently ‘Whiskey’ – our dog – a huge black & white animal with red eyes jumped up & barked furiously at a woman who came to wash some clothes in the brook. Altho’ he is a Greek dog – he hates the Greeks – we had to hold him in & talk severely to him. Just then 2 pretty girls came along carrying wine barrels on their backs – they stopped & stared at us & I believe they thought we were lost – anyway they made signs for us to go with them – so we did.

We patted each other & admired each others clothes & then set off together – one took my hand & we all jabbered as we went along – as you may imagine we were all very much amused & they laughed as much as we did. We passed a church with a whole crowd of men discoursing outside in the yard. Then we went on til we came to the next village where we said Goodbye to our friends.

We saw a woman carrying her baby all wrapped up in a blue bundle & tied on her back with string ! The babies look very pale & wizzened tho’ the children look bonny enough. We left the village behind us & followed a track across a bare field towards our camp which was a good way off – but as there are no hedges or other obstacles about we could make a bee line for our tents. We were back in good time for lunch. We rested in the afternoon & at 5.30 went to church in the camp. The service is very simple & nice & the Chaplain preached a very good sermon. We miss the church bells – tho’ all thro’ the service we could hear the goat bells as the herds were being driven home. This morning we set out with the intention of climbing a mountain ! To begin with we are quite a long way from the foot of a mountain when your time is limited (we always have to be in for lunch) so we looked longingly at the 1st motor lorry that came along & the tommy stopped & up we climbed. That took us along the very dusty, uninteresting road to the village of Gravia – at the foot of the Pass we came thro’ from Itea so we walked thro’ the village & started up the mountain along a donkey track – it was very rough & prickly – you see we left the donkey track & made a bee line for the sharp edge of a ridge. I picked crowds of little pink cyclamen on the way. A little Greek girl with bare feet came with us – her feet must have been harder than shoe leather for they did not seem to get scratched & our own shoes did!

We eventually got to the top of the ridge after climbing a long time & sat on jagged rocks. We looked down on Gravia nestling below us on one side & the winding road & rocky ravine of the Pass on the other side & up behind us towards the mountain we’re going to climb! We rested there 1/2 an hour or more & discussed the nearest way home & whether we would chance getting a lift back along the road. We intended climbing down the other side into the village but it was too steep & prickly so we came down the same way. Luck was with us for just as we reached the road a lorry came along & we all climbed up in front with the driver. We had just got thro’ the village when the Colonel came along in his car – it was much nicer than the lorry. How we flew along !

This afternoon being very hot I seized the opportunity to wash my clothes & hung them out to dry while I rested on my bed ! Your clothes dry very quickly in this sun & as I don’t know where my kitbag is I can’t get any clothes out of it – so that is a great reason for washing to proceed. The clothes I am wearing will be worn out before I see the kitbag again.

After tea we walked up to the canteen to get soap & a few other things. Soap was an unknown quantity so we got Turkish delight instead & very nice too.

Coming back we watched the sun go down behind the mountains, the light on Mt Parnassus is beautiful & as it is the highest mountain the light is on it the longest. It is a lovely mountain & I never get tired of watching it – it is quite different from the others. As soon as the sun has gone it gets very cold & we rush for coats – just now there is a moon & the stars are grand – they seem to be so much bigger & nearer. I watch them every night from my tent door.

15. x. 18

Still no word of moving on & we are trying to practice patience. This morning we strolled thro’ the vinyards & down to the brook. We sat under the shadow of a tree & read our books for some time – but we saw rain coming over the mountains so thought we had better return. On the way back we found some mushrooms & have given them to the cook for breakfast. We got in before the rain which is coming down this afternoon in torrents. We had planned to take our tea to a mountain & search for an old monastery but that of course is out of the question now. No doubt we shall get a chance of going one day later as there seems to be no hope of marching orders yet.

This afternoon the sisters have all gone on duty in top boots & oilskins. The mountains have all disappeared behind the clouds & the whole camp looks a completely different place.

I enclose a leaf of some pretty green stuff we found on the mountain – it grows about 8″ to 1 ft high & looks so pretty in with the pink cyclamen.

I think I will say Goodnight now – am glad to say the rain has stopped.

Very much love to all

Your loving daughter

Margaret Box.


Work in the hospital much lighter

When Margaret wrote on October 11th, the sisters on the wards at the hospital had not been off duty for a month, as they were at the peak of the Spanish Flu epidemic. As I write this, we have been in isolation for over a month in response to the Corvid 19 pandemic, and it is encouraging to remember that too came to an end.

Bralo, Gravia and Itea

Bralo, is the small village below the 49th Field Hospital, which is the village Margaret and Miss Sinclair visited on the first morning.

Gravia is a larger village, down the valley from Bralo – the very dusty, uninteresting road on which they had lifts from lorries and the Colonel’s car is now part of European Route E65.

Itea will be where they disembarked from the troop ship on 3rd October, before catching a train to Bralo on 6th October.

Shopping in the Canteen

The substitution of Turkish Delight for Soap may seem like an early example of supermarket home delivery substitutions, but when you look this does not seem so silly, and according to Wikipedia ” soapwort may be used as an emulsifying additive. ” in the production of Turkish Delight, as well as having been used to make soap.

The Colonel

From Margaret’s diary, which I also have, the Colonel was Colonel Bailey – I don’t know who he was beyond that.

Convoy of Indians

The diary entry for the 14th also says “We saw a convoy of Indians come in”, which is a reminder that people from all over the Empire fought in the war. The Fibis web site, about life in British India, has a page full of useful links about Saloncia and the Balkans in the First World War.

Map showing Bralo and Gravia, Itea is at the south end of the valley

Say not the struggle naught availeth

I started this post a couple of years ago and never published it, but this has been a favourite poem of mine for many years, and the idea of a hyperlinked version must date back to before 2009, as that is when Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle.
The poem can be seen as being about several times when we seem to be in the losing side of some battle. When I originally started the post it represented, for me, the struggle between the general idea that knowledge should be shared, in particular Free (Libre or Open Source) Software,  as against the concept that knowledge should be a commodity to be owned by the powerful and used as a tool to maintain and increase their power.


The poem has been used as a message of hope in inspiration in several contexts, generally from the side who appear at the time to be the underdog.

Software and Internet Freedom

The context I originally thought of. Quite a lot has happened over the past decade or more. Linux, a computer operating system written by a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, and offered freely to the world, now runs not only the computer I am writing this on, but those used by Google, Amazon, Facebook  – almost every big Internet facing website which is not owned by Microsoft. Android phones, set top boxes and cheap (£5) computers capable of running as a web server, such as the Raspberry Pi also run Linux.

On the down side, the way we communicate has largely moved from standards based, open email and openly published web pages to a small set of proprietary systems, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Churchill and the Second World War

Winston Churchill famously quoted the poem in a speech of February 1941, when the outlook for Britain – and democracy in Europe looked bleak.

The war was won, even though at the time of the speech the outcome was very much in doubt.

In the same way that the self isolation needed to tackle Coronavirus, is making this a difficult time for many of us, Churchill struggled with what he called his Black Dog – his term for depression – but he overcame it to give inspiring leadership when it was most needed.

Chartism – the original context

The poem was probably written in 1849, in the wake of the dramatic revolutions of 1848, and the defeat of the Chartist Movement. Although some think it relates to the collapse of the 1848 Italian rising, I think the Chartist cause resonated more strongly with Clough, and in either case today’s situation brings hope. Britain, and much of the rest of the world now has universal suffrage, while Italy is an independent country.


Although the death toll continues to climb, health services all over the world are under immense pressure, and an economic depression looks likely, there are signs of hope.

Scientific American has made all its Coronavirus coverage available for free, and for anyone who really wants to know more about the disease a group at Harvard Medical School have made a Corvid-19 Curriculum available. Reading that reveals the importance of the international free sharing of information about the disease, particularly from Chinese doctors who first encountered it.

It is spurring fundamental medical research, and boosting systems of testing, such as the nanopore RNA sequencing, being done by Oxford Nanopore, whose preferred analysis programme runs on Linux, and whose software is available for community review and enhancement.

I hope it is boosting open Epidemiological models, such as STEM, although I have resisted the temptation to dive deeper into this area I hope a diverse range of models are being openly developed, and tested against the real data to work out which best matches reality. (I intend to write a bit more about that when I get round to writing about Diversity and Regulation in Science)

We are recognising those, from NHS staff and carers to refuse collectors, who really are ‘essential workers’ needed to keep our society working, and I hope, post Coronavirus we will remember the part they played, and that it will not be like Kipling’s Tommy

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? “
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll

The crisis has unlocked creativity all over the world, and people are coming together in creative ways, almost too many to mention here.

The sharp reduction in international air travel has been good for the environment, and I hope unnecessary travel for meetings will continue be be replaced by Video Conferencing,

Bringing me back to the origins of this article, I hope the world will end up using some kind of solution which will be based on standards and openness, such as Jitsi, rather than a closed system which aims to lock people in.