British Nurse writing from Serbia in November 1918

Dr. Elsie Inglis, already a distinguished doctor, seeing the need for the wounded of the First World War to be treated, offered the Royal Army Medical Corps a ready made of unit of qualified women. She was told to “go home and sit still“, but fortunately she did not, and ended up organising 14 units, staffed by women, and serving in several theatres of war. These were the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service.

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, serving in the Balkans. She wrote a diary, and letters home, which fortunately have been preserved. Here she writes to her Mother on the 29th of November 1918. This is two letters in one as she writes one to go by the normal route, and then adds effectively a second letter as the whole was carried by a nurse returning to Britain, rather than being sent in the post.

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Nov 19th 18

My dear Mother,

I shall be thinking of you tomorrow & wishing you all good things on your birthday, though I don’t know when you will be getting this letter. When I last wrote we were all packed up & “nowhere to go”, that is we were packed up for a week waiting for a train. We got off at last on Monday evening at 11 p.m. We arranged ourselves in cattle trucks at 9 p.m. Our orderlies went and swept out the trucks and arranged our valises all down one side, so we just unrolled them & got in & slept awfully well – much better than in crowded 1st class carriages in Italy. We had a very exciting & interesting journey down & arrived at 12′ o.c. on Tuesday midnight. We spent the rest of the night in the trucks as we had nowhere to go, & in the morning came up here to another S.W.H. unit, the one I thought I was coming out to. It is very strange to be back here again so soon.

I have been to the Bank & am arranging things there & Miss Gwynn has written to Mrs Laurie to have the money paid thro’ our Unit in the future as we travel about so much & possibly shall never be here again.

We expect to sail in a few days & they say the boat is a very comfortable one. It will take us 3 days. We land at a very lovely port then have a railway journey about one day long I think. If you write to the London Committee, 66, Victoria Street – they will be able to tell you the name of the place.

I am writing a letter to you with all news & sending it home by someone who is going soon, but I don’t quite know when, so you might get that one before this tho’ I don’t suppose you will.

The place we are going is further north & very cold tho’ ‘lovely scenery’. We have been given fur coats, they are goat skin & the smell nearly knocks you down. The sleeves I think are dog.

We have been out shopping & enjoying ourselves all day tho’ the weather is anything but nice & has rained nearly all the time we have been here & the mud is perfectly dreadful. You will be thinking I can not be doing much work ! & quite true too, but I suppose we shall make up for it when we settle down again. It’s very mild here & no snow to be seen – we left plenty behind us & the cold weather too.

I received a letter from Mary on Nov 25th, also one from Aunt Edie, such a nice long one. It is nice to get a lot of letters, but the mails are very rare.

Many thanks for all birthday wishes – did I tell you how 2 of the officers from an M.T. camp came through our town and bought me a box of chocolates ? On my birthday too!

I am getting a thin fur lining here that I can wear inside any coat or underneath my overall. It is white & grey squirrel, it is very light & nice & warm – cost £3 – 5 – 0. Some of the others who have been through Russia 2 year ago had theirs then & are wearing them now & have found them awfully good bargains. Our goat skins are terrific & long ??? ?be ??? not fit to wear inside.

I met a Guy yesterday but only spoke to her for a few minutes. We have been to the Red X Ordnance today for tea. So ?decadent – bread & butter, hot scones & fig cake. We are enjoying ourselves !

We have just had fresh instructions about letter writing. The censor is getting more particular so soon I shall only be writing “hope this finds you well as it does me at present ” but you can get particulars from London.

Very much love from your loving daughter Margaret.

We have had orders again today not to mention names of places in our letters & that the Censor is getting more particular than ever. We hoped now that the war is over we could say anything. I am glad to get this chance of sending news home by someone who is returning soon & hope you will get it safely.

Today we have been down in the town. Salonica is a very large place but I should not like to be stationed here. I should imagine it is very sniffy in hot weather. It is much warmer here now than in Skopje where it had been snowing quite a lot. They say it is colder still at Sarajevo. We are being provided with sheepskin coats & I have made myself a goatskin cap with a goat skin I got at Skopje.

The fire has done a lot of damage & the native quarters are all ruined & a horrible muddle. The streets are very narrow & full of holes. There is a very good Red X stores where you are supposed to be able to get anything you want, but unfortunately just now they are vey short of goods. We went there for tea this afternoon & had delicious bread & butter & cake with figs in. We did enjoy it. We have had enough to eat up in Serbia but only tinned stuff we took with us & for some time we had no milk at all & Serbian bread is very dry & dark & sour & dirty. We had only a very limited quantity of jam & no butter or other substitute, however conditions are improving rapidly & since the railway has been re-opened quite a lot of food & other things have appeared in the town & the shops were opening up again.

Dr Chesney says if you write to Miss Willis, London Committee, S.W.H. 66, Victoria St. she will tell you where we are at any time.

Going in & out to the town from here we rely on getting lifts on lorries or cars. Today coming back we got in a little van & just as I was getting out (it was nearly dark) an Army Sister from the inside corner called my name & she was a Guy ! She is the 1st I have seen.

I have been to the Bank of Athens & shall get it all put straight before I go on & Miss Gwynn (our Administrator) has written to Mrs Laurie for me to be paid directly thro the Unit which is really a much better plan as we travel about so much & probably shall not come back to Salonica again.

Dec 2nd

Yesterday I went to the 49th General Hospital & had tea with one of my Set at Guy’s & met another one also came in to tea. In the morning I met another one in the town. They are all at different hospitals.

We expect to sail on Wednesday on the ‘Danube’ a very comfortable boat. Our port destination is Ragusa.

I wanted to send a small parcel home but the girl who is going has no room for any parcels.

I hope you are all well and happy

Very best wishes for Xmas & New Year

& much love from

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

p.s. I got your letters dated Nov 11th last night & the night before 1 from Father (Nov 3rd), 1 from Norah, Aunty Fred & a P.C. from Rose.

I am getting steadily fatter & my skirt will scarcely fasten.

Notes

Birthday wishes

Margaret’s mother was born Ada Webster on 30th November 1861, so would have been celebrating her 57th birthday. 51 years earlier, in 1867, Ada’s sister – Margaret Webster, wrote to wish her a Happy Birthday, and the article about the letter is here.

Margaret’s money and The Bank of Athens

Margaret tried to get money out of ‘her’ bank, in Salonica on 19th October, as she described briefly in her letter of the 29th October. Now with the aid of Miss Gwynn and Mrs Laurie this seems to be sorted.

Mrs Jessie Laurie was Honorary Treasurer of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, based at Red House, Greenock. There is a copy of a letter she wrote linked from this website.

I met a Guy yesterday but only spoke to her for a few minutes

Margaret trained at Guy’s Hospital in London, hence the various Guys she meets.

49th General Hospital

As well as the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units there were a number of General Hospitals, run by the the Army. The 49th was on the Hortiach Plateau, about 8 miles east of Salonica.

Letter senders

As well as her sisters she records receiving letters from Aunt Edie and Aunt Fred.

Aunt Edie was probably Edith Alice Bryson Box (1868-1959). The Bryson in her name comes from the Robert Bryson who married Mary Ann Braund Box.

Aunt Fred was married to Margaret’s uncle Frederick Braund Box, and was born Edith Reitze Webster, sister of Ada Webster, Margaret’s mother.

2 thoughts on “British Nurse writing from Serbia in November 1918”

  1. Thanks John. It really is astonishing that they were able to send letters around at all, and attempt to use a bank too!
    What did Margaret do after she returned to Britain – did she do more nursing?

    1. In 1920 she was a Midwife at the General Lying In Hospital in London, as she trained and qualified as both. In 1923 she is on the Nurses Roll at Frensham in Surrey.

      In 1924 she married Sydney Curtis – who was part of the group, along with Leonard Box, who bought the land where Little Cucknells was built.

      She went to America without him in 1929, by which time she has gone back to being Box – there does not seem to be any record of a divorce.

      By the 1939 Census she was a Matron, State Registered Nurse, in Thanet, Kent.

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