My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, braved the Serbian winter to work as a Red Cross Nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at the tail end of the First World War in 1918. Here follows one of the letters she wrote home, describing her adventures as one of a number of brave young women, who were not content to sit at home while the men ‘did their bit’ – of course many of the men were also facing danger and death, and I suspect everybody who returned from the war was a different person from when they went out.
We have had a most exciting railway journey in cattle trucks from Uskub to Salonica. We started at 11 p.m. on Monday night. Our things had all been packed up for a week & we were expecting each day to go, but the railway is only just repaired & the trains very uncertain. There was supposed to be one each day, but it did not always arrive. Our Bonichars went down to the station & swept out the trucks & arranged our valises all along in a row. We had a table & 2 chairs & an acetylene lamp. So we went along about 9 p.m. & unrolled our beds & got in & went to sleep. We were very comfy , only unfortunately it rained hard & Dr. Rendel who was by the doorway got her bed soaked. I had a much better night than ever I had in a 1st class carriage.
We got up about 7.30 a.m. rolled up our beds, got a primus going & had breakfast. Then we sat by the open doorways either side & watched the scenery. We came all along by the Vardar River. The bridges were all very exciting affairs as they had been horribly damaged. There only seemed to be the rails left of 1 we crept over & when we looked out we looked straight down into the river. No bank or bridge to be seen. We had to get out at Strumitza as the bridge there had been completely destroyed & the line cut. We got out about 10 a.m. & guarded our luggage for about 3 hours, then we were taken by French lorries for about 2 miles where we joined the train again. Some English tommies gave us tea & a good warm up round their stove in their little wooden hut & we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon.
We packed into cattle trucks again about 5.30. Unfortunately ours was a very dirty one this time & we could not even unroll our valises. So we sat around on kitbags & cooked ourselves some supper on 3 ‘tommies cookers’. We got into Salonica at 12 midnight to find there was no where for us to go. Dr Chesney came down 2 or 3 days ago but did not expect us so late at night, so we got a brazier & some coal from the station. Had a midnight supper & tried to get some sleep.
We got up about 6 & cooked our breakfast on our fire. We had toast & fried sausages & sardines & ham & tea. After that we washed ourselves & now we are waiting for orders.
I only stayed one day in Salonica on the way up in October. We went on by train 10.45 p.m. to Monastri, where we arrived at 7 a.m. The place was horribly smashed up. From there we went on by French meat lorries across the plain on Monastir – all trenches & barbed wire & shell holes to Prilip. 2 miles north of Prilip I stayed in an English M.T. camp & nursed the men who were down with ‘flu’ . 2 others who were with me went on to Uskub & told Dr. Chesney where I was. She sent her car for me at the end of a week & we came over the famous Babouna Pass through Velez to Uskub or Skopje. We were going all day starting at 7.30 a.m. & arriving at 4 p.m. We thought we should be moving on to Belgrade but we are going to Sarajevo in Bosnia. The journey is supposed to be impossible by road this weather so we have come back to Salonica & shall go round by boat round Greece & up the Adriatic Sea
Nov 28. We left the station later yesterday morning & came up here to Dr. McIlroy‘s unit. S.W.H. it is a good 2 miles out of the town up the hills & is the hospital Father heard about from the tommy at Harwell. I stayed here coming out. We expect to go on on Sunday or Monday by a very comfortable mail boat & it will take 3 days. We expect to land at Ragusa, a beautiful spot they say. From there we proceed by train to Sarajevo. So if all goes well we ought to be there pretty soon. We imagined we might be here for Xmas as boats are rather few & far between.
The paragraph which starts ‘I only stayed one day in Salonica…’ refers to the journey in October, while the paragraphs before and after relate to her journey in November.
I am guessing from the context that these are locally recruited helpers, or orderlies.
Meals on the move
Margaret and her comrades seem able to rustle up quite tasty sounding meals under arduous circumstances.
Damaged bridges, trenches and barbed wire
I think these would have been the result of the Vardar Offensive, which took place in September 1918, about a month earlier.
Famous Babouna pass
I think this is the Babuna pass, referred to here.
I have been spending more time in the garden this year, much of it doing simple little jobs which allow my mind to wander while my hands keep busy pulling up weeds, or pruning. I am often reflecting on a book I am reading and at the moment, as is normal for me, there are at least two. The fictional one is ‘Post Captain‘ by Patrick O’Brian and one of the non-fictions ones is ‘The Organized Mind‘ by Daniel Levitin. The book is a mixture of neuroscience, explaining how the brain works, and some practical applications to help us cope in a world which has outpaced the one our brain evolved for. We now expect to keep track of hugely more information than our hunter/gatherer ancestors would encounter, and one way we do this is to move information from our minds to external storage – and this blog post is moving garden musings from my brain to the external storage of the Internet. Another thing I learned from the book is that the brain has two basic modes, a mind wandering or daydreaming mode and the attentional mode, where your brain is focussed on a single thing. When I am musing in the garden my mind is in daydreaming mode, making connections between things, while automatic bits of my brain take care of the routine tasks.
Without my concious mind being aware of it, my attentional system is keeping track of my environment, making sure I do not get too spiked by the roses etc – and only demanding attention if there is something that might need attention. This morning it was courgettes. This spring I planted four courgette plants, fairly closely spaced, and they are being very productive.
I had been reflecting on the news, which for somebody who is shielding due to being highly vulnerable to the virus was a bit of a mixed bag. The hopeful news from the medical science side is balanced by the possibility of a second wave, and the way that, for some people who are not shielding, the measures to keep the spread of virus down are regarded as an annoyance to be evaded.
Suddenly I thought ‘I need only have two courgette plants next year, four really is too many for us’. Planning for the future is an inherently optimistic act, and this looking forward in hope is one of the benefits of gardening. I started to think about the all the good things that, for me – for us, about our garden and the blessings it brings.
Several writers have used Ecclesiastes as a framework to weave into their stories. One of my favourite science fiction authors, Roger Zelazny, wrote ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes‘, featuring a Martian race, dying out as they see the no future, and presents them with a translation of Ecclesiastes into Martian, and a rose, as something new under the sun.
Wesley Memorial Church numbers some brilliant creative people amongst its membership, and one product of this are several musicals. One of these, Alternativity, commences
Vanity of vanities, All of life is vanity;
It goes from here to become a great message of hope, complete with varied musical numbers, and pyrotechnics.
The Byrds turned the words of Ecclesiastes into a song, focussing on the need for a time of peace.
I am pleased by our compost heaps, which use the 3 bin system. Like most bits of this blog the original idea was not mine, but nonetheless, seeing them working gives me pleasure. In many ways they are a metaphor for this blog, taking scraps from lots of different sources, trying to keep the right balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material, which fits with my thoughts on the importance of diversity, and mixing them, to end up with something where ideas (or plants) can grow.
During the writing of this post, one of the Kindle Daily Deals was ‘Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom’, so that has joined the queue of books to be digested and added to the mulch.
One thing which does not go into the compost bins is bindweed – another is dandelions. As a Scot, I was brought up with Robert the Bruce and the Spider as a model of persistent endeavour, but anyone who has continued, like a magician pulling out endless streams of ribbon, to try to get bindweed out, must end up with a respect for its tenacity. I suspect musings on weeds covers such a range that they must be relegated to a whole new post, as yet unwritten.
Sometimes, when the world seems too full of stress, or conflict, the best solution is a bit of simple physical labour.
I shared with my mother and Mary’s mother an interest in Mythology. Mary’s mother, Annie Schofield, was particularly interested in, and a published essayist on Ted Hughes. Origin Myths are a key part of Mythology, and Ted Hughes imagined some in ‘How the Whale Became’. Kipling’s take on Origin Myths was the Just So Stories, of which ‘How the Camel got his Hump’ (which my father could quote to me), is particularly relevant.
The cure for this ill is not to sit still, Or frowst with a book by the fire; But to take a large hoe and a shovel also, And dig till you gently perspire;
And then you will find that the sun and the wind. And the Djinn of the Garden too, Have lifted the hump— The horrible hump— The hump that is black and blue!
Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.
Candide (English translation)
Our garden has a fence, rather than a wall, but – as The Organized Mind explains, peoples brains lump things together at a conceptual level, hence I find myself musing on fence-like things, although with a reflection that we presumable have good fences, as “good fences make good neighbours“, and we have excellent neighbours. As usual the concept also reminds me of a book, in this case Divided, by Tim Marshall.
Although Eden had a ‘verduous wall’ – i.e. a hedge, this still acted as a divide Eden from ‘not Eden’ – and eventually Adam and Eve have to leave, and venture out into the world. The ending of Paradise Lost is one of the bits of poetry which sticks in my head, and I find it quite comforting.
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon; The World was all before them, where to choose Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide: They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow, Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
Early on in lockdown, many kind friends and neighbours helped us by shopping for us, in many cases fitting this in with working from home and looking after young families. It was a great pleasure, later on, to be able to invite them and their children into our garden, where Mary has made a trail of things to find, and we could enjoy their excitement from a safe distance. The transformation our garden, and the joy of sharing it reminded me of The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde.
Connections and continuity
One of the joys of a garden can be be the way it connects to people and places. Of the vegetables we are growing, some were grown by Mary while the rest came from friends and neighbours, so they all connect to people.
Several of the plants in our garden came from our parent’s gardens.
Both of my parents, and my grandparents were keen gardeners, although I appreciate gardening more now that when I was younger, when my siblings and I were used as unskilled garden labour – ‘Pick a punnet of raspberries before tea’.
Mary’s mother was a keen gardener, and grew a wide range of fuchsias in her compact, but well tended garden. Mary has followed in her footsteps.
Mary’s father commanded a Motor Launch (M.L. 121) during WW2, and had many exciting adventures, including carrying Gracie Fields through a storm off Italy. He also made several life-long friends. The son of one of those friends dug our centre bed, thus all our parents have connections in the garden.
Several of the plants and sculptures in the garden are presents from my siblings – so many that this owl must act as representative for them all.
The house in Edinburgh where I spent most of my childhood, had a rosemary bush growing outside the front door. When my parents moved to Somerset they took a cutting of that rosemary with them, planting it outside the front door, and this is a cutting from that. On significant departures, such as going off to University, my mother would give us a sprig of this rosemary, quoting Ophelia “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, worked as a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia towards the end of the First World War. I am fortunate to have inherited many of the letters she wrote home, which give an insight into a less well known area of the war, and the world as it was over one hundred years ago. By 18th November 1918 when she writes this letter to her sister, Norah, the war is over, but nurses are still needed due to the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Very many thanks for your letter which I was exceedingly pleased to have. Am very glad to notice you have brains & that you imagine a Field Hosp. must follow the army to which it is attached. Unfortunately we got left behind in the hurry & in 10 days time are going a very long way round to join up again. The place you mentioned was a jolly good shot. We intended going through there to a bigger place farther on but another S.W.H. Unit is now going there, to the big place. We are not so far on as your guess. You might try a few more shots next time. We are going farther north & round to the left but all round “the world” to get there ! And please tell me if any of my letters have been censored – we are dying to know when we can write letters fully.
I am sorry to hear you missed all the foul jobs but hope you will like the ‘Land’ equally as well. Tell Father that a lot of tobacco is grown, maize, shells, hand grenades (I saw a field full the other day), old German helmets & wrecked lorries etc – but always cabbages & leeks. We have cabbage every day, twice except when we have leeks. This plain looks very fertile. The earth is being ploughed (rather a dangerous job in places) & is a lovely dark red colour. The ploughing is very superficial & done by oxen. There are patches of green grass about, in fact much more grass here than I have seen since the South of France but then there has been rain.
I have also seen wheat growing
They say the flowers in Spring & Summer are a lovely sight. Fields full of madonna lilies & Love-in-the-Mist growing ever so high. The other day I found some blue larkspur growing in the snow. There are no hedges. I think a good many apple trees, no end of poplars in this particular town but no other big trees. The mountains are mostly grassy, smooth & undulating not rocky like the Parnassus lot. A lot of wild thyme grows on them & wild dogs roam all round. Also wild looking men in weird clothes – coats with monks’ hoods come down from the mountains with their loaded donkeys. The donkeys walk first & in single file & the men walk after in single file. They walk with folded arms & silent tread. They wear goat skin sandals. The Turkish women in town wear baggy trousers, socks if they are lucky & clogs & clatter along just behind their man (they also wear quilted jackets & little black shawls over their heads & faces). The Serbian women wear long white shirts, red aprons, sheep skin jackets on white serge coats edged with black braid & always wide red sashes round their waists. They are very picturesque. They wear fancy red stockings, thick things like carpets & leather sandals.
I certainly wish you were here. There are most lovely walks all round & life is one huge picnic tho’ it certainly would be nice to come home to tea sometimes with cake & soft bread. But I am enjoying it all quite as much as I expected. The soldiers, both officers & men have been very good to us all the way along & are quite different from the ones at home who used to annoy me so much. It was awfully good getting such a nice lot of letters just at birthday time. I have managed to get some tinned cake, toffee & ginger biscuits at the canteen today so we will have a birthday feast tonight. It cost 10 drachmas altogether !
Please thank Rose for her nice long letter. I am glad she is liking the work so much.
10 a.m. We have just heard the most exciting news that we are to evacuate immediately. All patients are to be moved this afternoon & we are to clear out the day after tomorrow so I must pack up my things while i have time.
As to where Norah’s guess about the place she was going, and the big place Margaret was going to go to through this other place, the guess could have been Pristina, and the big place Belgrade, but Margaret’s next destination is Sarajevo.
Life is one huge picnic
Margaret’s diary for the week show she is on night duty alone on the wards, that Cooper from 708 M.T. company is brought in ill again, and that on Nov 19th
Cough pretty rotten – to bed directly after breakfast. get up at 5 p.m. see Captain Johnston & Mr Watson who are staying for the present in Skopje. All patients but 1 evacuated. to bed again after dinner
Margarets diary entry for November 19th 1918
Margaret was born on the 19th November 1890, so her birthday would have been the following day. It looks as if her celebration plans were disrupted by the news that the Hospital was on the move, indeed as the diary entry above shows she did not seem to have had a very jolly birthday.