My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, trained as a nurse, and towards the end of the First World War, went out to join the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to serve in Serbia.
By January 1919 Margaret, after a busy time nursing near Skopje, had been posted to a hospital in Sarajevo and was finding there was not much work to do. She wrote to her parents on January 16th, to say that she had applied to join Dr Emslie’s unit, where she hoped her abilities could be put to better use.
Jan 16. 19
Received Feb 8 1919
My dear Mother & Father,
Such joy today ! a mail arrived, the first since New Year’s Day – altogether I had 13 letters – was it not a lovely haul ! And now I sit down to answer them straight away as mail goes out tomorrow. I had 3 from Father dated Dec 2nd, Dec 8th & Dec. 15 + 2 from Mother. I am sure they must take longer to come if you insist on putting on ‘Salonica’ – try ‘Sarajevo’ next time. We have not been allowed to say where we are so far but I can’t see why on earth we should not say anything we like. Six of our own staff set off home on New Year’s Eve, they managed to scrape enough money together somehow & we were hoping to get more in a week & for another six to go, but no more has arrived yet & we are still here.
We have got a hospital of 40 beds going but we are not needed here only Dr. C. does not want to go home. I have finished night shift duty & have a had a day off today. I stayed in bed till 10 A.M. One of the sisters brought me my breakfast then I had a bath & went out with Nathan the cook.
We climbed up the mountain up narrow stoney streets with funny little Turkish houses till we came to a little stream & a miniature gorge with a high rocky cliff on one side & an orchard the other side of the brook. We sat on a rock & ate our lunch & then walked on over some mountain & down another wild & rocky gorge into another part of the town. We are having an exceptionally mild winter here, usually there is snow here from Dec to April. We have had several falls of snow but is has all disappeared & it is not so cold as it was in Skopje when we left there.
I have asked to be transferred to Dr Emslie‘s unit (S.W.H) which is now in ‘Vranja‘ in Serbia. I believe they have a civil hospital now, Serbian of course & we heard they were very busy there. It would be a long journey to get there & we should go thro’ Brod to Belgrade then down south. I thought it would be rather a pity to come home so soon & I am longing to see this beautiful country in the Spring & Summer but I had not thought of going to another country it will be so much easier to transfer to another S.W.H. unit than to another hospital altogether such as the ‘army’ or Red X. You see the same uniform & kit would do to go on with. I should like to go to Egypt, but am not thinking of it at present. Italy is a rotten place & most unhealthy, in the south anyway & I think the north is all right. Taranto is the only place where I have been ill, true it was nothing much & it was while coming thro’ southern Italy that Sinclair contracted malaria.
I have been very fit in this country all the time & have got so fat that my clothes are uncomfortably tight & I was asked one day if my face was swollen – it was fat & they said they could see me getting fatter every day. My ?autrium is behaving itself better than it has for months & I assure you there is nothing to worry about my health. As for work – well ! I worked about 6 times as hard in London.
I am looking out for curios etc, but can’t get anything at present as no one has any money ! Don’t send me any because it would not arrive – money never does by post & the only sure way of sending parcels is by the letter post. Please will you address the next letter “Elsie Inglis Unit, S.W.H. Sarajevo” [Try this with one letter only, because if we did happen to move on the letter would not follow unless it had Serbian Army on it.] I am sure I should get it in less than half the time because it has been proved by someone else in the unit. I am sure I have received all your letters but I generally get 2 or 3 at once. I expect that we shall be here a good many weeks yet though one never knows for we are the most undecided, happy go lucky little concern on the face of the earth.
So far I have received on parcel from you with beautiful handkies & stationary etc. I had 2 letters from Mary today & the most lovely silk handky – please thank her very much. I find that the members of this unit use all the most brilliant coloured handkerchiefs they can get hold of, to relieve the grey monotony I suppose. I did not realize grey ones would be such an awful job to get. Many thanks to Rose & Norah too for their very welcome letters. Yes I did get a p.c. from Mary. How nice it must be to have Leonard home again coming in and out.
I have met a Captain Crickett who lives at Purley (he has white hair and is quite elderly, tell Rose !) he asked me to write & tell him my address in Croydon & after the war he would come & see me! But I have not written to him. Do you know him ? I don’t know his home address.
Please thank Ethel for her letter, it was good of her to write. I will write to her but have not time for this mail which goes tomorrow. I have written to Lena Caileton I am terrible sorry to hear what trouble she has been in. I also had a letter from Connie telling me of hospital doings & that Sister Mitchell’s husband is home.
I am very relieved to hear that Rose has recovered & that it (the ‘flu’) had not upset her Yabbing. Tell Mary that M.T. stands for “Military Transport” & it was an English camp & the best bit of work I have done out here. I am so glad to hear that Norah had something better in view & hope by now she is in full swing at the new place & liking it as much as the other.
I must say I wanted to come home badly when asked which I would do & often think of the family circle sitting round a warm fire eating a Christian tea. We have no fires here, the place is heated (or not heated) with radiators & before the Germans turned out a complaint was made about the radiators being cold & the German Doctor was overheard saying in German that “it did not matter but was good for young blood” he did not realize that some English talk German !
I wonder who spent Xmas with you in the end ! It sounded as though you ware going to have quite a large house party.
I hear that Mary is getting fat, it seems to be a family failing at present is ‘everybody doing it’ ?
I hope you received the little parcel safely & can squeeze your head into the wee felt cap. I think the views of Sarajevo are quite good. I am so sorry I did not get any views of Skopje & it was such a pretty place. I have just managed to get some sheets to sleep in – for the first time since the beginning of October !
I must really say Goodnight now. With very best love to all
Your loving daughter
Doctor Chesney not wanting to go home
Doctor Chesney had been serving with the Scottish Womens Hospitals for much longer than Margaret. She had been head of the Surgical Unit at Kragujevac since March 1915, and had been working hard ever since. She may have wanted to see the hospital properly established before moving on.
Nathan the cook
She is Nellie Nathan, who had served as a cook in medical units, starting with The Friends Ambulance Unit since November 1914.
He is a Doctor, Henry Hallingham Crickett, and would probably be elderly by 1919.
I think the word she used is autrium, which I can only find as an alternative spelling for Atrium, but I am not sure this is right.