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.
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
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 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.
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
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 Inglis 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.
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 !
She would be
GWYNN Miss Margaret Katherine, Secretary London Unit 2-Jul-17 24-Nov-17 and 20-Feb-18 1-Sep-18SWH Names G-M
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.
Thank you so much for taking the time to annotate and share Margaret’s letters and diaries. I was delighted to discover your blog as I am currently working on an extensive local history project on the family of Margaret’s friend Miss Danby, mentioned in several of the letters .
‘Elsie’ Danby lived in Seaford , East Sussex, where her grandfather, William Tyler Smith, had been an important figure in the mid-nineteenth century. After WW1, Elsie returned to Seaford, where she went on to play an active role in civic life; organising the WVS during WW2 (for which she was awarded the British Empire Medal) and serving as a councillor on both Seaford Urban District Council and East Sussex County Council during the late 1940s . She died aged 82 in 1960.
It has been fascinating reading Margaret’s account of the women’s journey and their work with the SWH. I admire their sense of adventure, and I’m sure this experience would later have proved invaluable to Miss Danby when she was running the Seaford WVS .
I think going out from what were possibly quite sheltered lives and seeing what happens when civilization breaks down, and the effects of war, not just on the soldiers but on the civilian population must have affected the women who went out there. I suspect the memories of disrupted medical, food and transport services she had seen would have inspired her to work hard to help protect and serve her community.