Many valiant men, on both sides of the conflict, left their homes to fight in the First World War. There were also valiant women who travelled from the safety and familiarity of their native land to fight, not against people but against the injuries of war, and the disease – particularly Spanish Flu – that followed in its wake. One of those women was my Great Aunt, Margaret Box. She trained as a nurse, and joined the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to work in the Balkans. Her letters home give insights into the lives of these women. By December 1918 she had been nursing in the area around Skopje, and had travelled to Thessalonki (Salonica), where she is about to board a troop ship to take her unit to their next posting. She takes the opportunity to write to her Father, John Box.
My Dear Dad
Very many thanks for your letters dated Nov 3rd & 11th received on Nov 30th & Dec 1st. I look forward to your weekly letters with much joy. It is so nice to know for sure that one is coming every week – even tho’ I don’t get it every week.
I wish I had been home to hear the noise & excitement on Nov 11th. We tried to imagine what would happen & we made as much noise as we could ourselves. Well ! we have lived for a week in tents in the pouring rain at Dr McIlroy‘s. It was quite dry in the tent but so muddy going to meals etc. Today we have come on board & it is just fine. 1st class cabins, my bunk is next to the porthole. We have just had a course dinner with Egyptian waiters hovering round. It seems like a dream after our picnic life & we mean to make the most of it while it lasts.
I have written a letter to Mother & sent some post cards ‘by hand’. I think you ought to receive it about Sunday week, probably before you get this letter. If you get this letter in time will you ask Mother to get me another tartan tie, a silk one ‘Gordon’ Clan, to send me with the stockings.
You remember Miss Sinclair who came out with me ? She has had Malaria very badly but is better now. Miss Murdoch has had boils & abscesses etc & been off duty & Miss Powell-Jones the chauffeur has had influenza. I am the only one who has kept fit & I am getting so fat I shall soon have to get larger clothes & everyone remarks how well I look. Three Sisters in this unit who have been out a long time have not had Malaria at all.
Today while waiting at the dock I saw an Officer who travelled out part of the way with us. He has had exciting adventures since then & has only just come back to this place.
Please thank Mother for her letter & tell her I found my kitbag waiting for me when I joined my unit & I did not lose anything.
I am very glad to hear Norah has found something to do & hope it will prove satisfactory.
Tell Mother we are all busy eating at present ! It is so nice to get good English food again & real butter for tea. We are pigs are we not ?! Dr Chesney thinks we ought to store in as much as possible now to prepare for the future ! & so say all of us. This is a funny life & is made of extremes at present. But we are all very happy.
Please thank Rose for her p.c. am so pleased she is getting on well.
Heaps of love to all
Your loving Daughter Margaret.
You must take care of yourself & not go falling about. Am so glad you have coal for fires. How nice to get a hamper.
I will look out for anecdotes etc.
I think the note on the letter says ‘received around Feb 23rd’
Only one who has kept fit and well
Although Margaret tells her Father she had not been ill, her diary for her birthday on November 19th says she had a cough bad enough for her to spend her birthday in bed, except when she was on duty. I suspect the may have had the Spanish Flu, and the nurses also had to contend with Malaria, boils, as well as diseases such as typhus, cholera and typhoid.
Margaret said, in her letter of 14th of October that she arrived Bralos, but her kitbag did not. It was waiting for her on her arrival in Skopje on October 28th. By November 27th she was sitting on it in the train on the way back from the Field Hospital near Skopje.
Gordon Tartan Tie
Elsie Inglis not only organised the medical side of her units, she specified the colours of the uniform as ‘a hodden grey, with Gordon tartan facings’
Although she does not say it in this letter, the boat Margaret was about to board was SS Danube.
Built in 1893 by James & George Thomson, Clydebank for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the SS Danube was requisitioned as a troopship in July 1917.
According to The Ships List, SS Danube was sold to C. Langton & Co and renamed to Mediterranean Star in 1920.
According to clydeships.co.uk she was used for Mediterranean cruising and then scrapped in 1923. She carried passengers 215 1st, 36 2nd, 350 3rd.