My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, went out to Serbia towards the end of the First World War as a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. By the end of January 1919 she was stationed at a hospital in Sarajevo, and the urgent need for medical care in the area, brought on by a combination of the wartime fighting and the Spanish Flu epidemic was decreasing. She had started to make enquiries about being attached to another unit, but then she received some news which changed her plans. On the 28th of January she wrote to her father to tell him about it
Elsie Inglis Unit
Scottish Women’s Hospitals
? rcvd bf noon 11/2/19
? answered 16/2/19
My Dear Dad
Since last writing to you we have received a cable from England telling us to go home at the end of March & this is the most definite thing we have heard for a long time.
I think I shall be coming home too as I don’t think Dr Emslie is wanting anyone else now – she has accepted one of our sisters who sent her application before I did & as she did not mention me in her cable I don’t suppose she wants me.
The idea of going home in 2 months time nearly drives me mad with excitement. I feel as though I have been away for about 4 years, all the same I shall be frightfully sorry not to see the country in the early summer.
Dr Chesney is very ill – she has sciatica & has been almost unconscious with the pain.
We heard. before the cable came, that we were going to a small seaside place near Ragusa – to open a hospital. I would have been lovely as the countryside in that district is very beautiful but of course we shall not go now for a only 2 months. The Division of he army we belong to is going there.
At present we have plenty of work to do – only 40 patients altogether, but in 4 wards & 2 sisters & V.A.Ds – the Serb Orderlies are a rotten lot & refuse to work – they are supposed to do the cleaning etc of the wards, so of course it makes it much harder for us. I have the 2 biggest wards & all the bad cases. It is arranged like that because the other sister is such a balmy old thing!
The other day we were all invited out to a sort of ‘At Home’ given in a big hall by the ladies of Sarajevo in our honour. We arrived at 4 o’clock & went upstairs to take our coats off – at every corner & even on the pavement outside ladies were waiting to receive us & seize us & palaver over us etc. A great many of us got kissed & fondled but I managed to escape the former. At last we were ready to enter the hall – 2 double rows of ladies in native dresses were lined up as a guard of honour & we walked in 2 by 2 (like the animals of the zoo). The band struck up, we were led to a platform the other end & all sat down on royal red plush arm chairs, each with a swanky Serbian lady next to us, then all of them, hundreds, came along in single file, shook & kissed our hands & curtsied (I never felt such an ass in my life before).
Conversation with our neighbours was extremely difficult as it was all carried on in Zerbski, next thing we had liqueurs brought round on beautiful trays by ladies in trousers, then came a little cake each then coffee in tiny wee cups. They never have afternoon tea but always this arrangement instead & you offend them frightfully if you refuse anything.
After that a lady made a speech which I have not the least idea of the sense thereof. Then all sorts and conditions of national anthems were played & we kept on jumping up & down for them. ‘God save the King’ came out as a cheerful surprise & we sprang to our feet long before everyone else realized or recognised what it was.
After that we descended from our thrones & danced the ‘Kola’ the native dance, with everyone else. They have a very peculiar custom of walking round the room arm in arms about 4 deep between each dance & people rushed & snatched us away from each other. I nearly got torn to bits. One girl pinned an embroiders handkerchief on my noble chest – hand stitched in gold & after a while I saw that all our party had them. They were very interested in my short hair & snatched off my hat & shrieked with laughter at me. I know now what it feels like to be a monkey at the zoo. In fact I nearly scratched myself only nobody offered me nuts. Unfortunately I had to return early to relieve the other Sister. I was not allowed to go until I had more refreshments – delicious iced jam macaroon things – a spoonful of jam followed by a mouthful of cold water to wash it down & a big chunk of lovely sponge cake & a cup of coffee.
Several of the girls gave me their addresses & were coming to fetch me next day to go for a walk but they did not turn up. Possibly their mamas thought better of it.
The next day we all went to a concert & dance which began at 9p.m. and lasted until 6 A.M. I came home at 12 midnight when the concert part had finished. I remembered that I should have to work as usual next day.
We have had another fall of snow since I last wrote which has now nearly all gone. Yesterday afternoon 2 of us went into town. Most of the shops were shut & crowds of people dressed up like nothing you can imagine were dancing & shouting in the market place. It was to celebrate the proclamation that this part of the world is to be called ‘Serbia’ not ‘Jugoslavia’!
Two of the Transport party went home on Sunday & six more are going today & will take this letter for me. There is no post from here for us except when anyone we know goes to Belgrade or home. We have heard nothing of the six hospital party – Sturt and Drummond my friends amongst them – who went off at the beginning of this month but they must be home by now I think.
And I hope you have got your little cap & that it is big enough to stay on your little head – of which I am rather doubtful.
I hope everyone at home is quite well. I hope the ‘flu’ is dying out now, we seem to have finished with it here at last.
We are all eagerly looking out for a mail, we had the last one on Jan 17th & think it is time for another. I am longing to know what happened at Xmas & whether you had to put up tents on the lawn if everyone you expected turned up.
We have had potatoes the last few days, (talking of the lawn made me think of them !) & it has been such a treat, but the Germans & Austrians did not sow the land with cabbages as the Bulgars did in Macedonia & we get no fresh vegetables.
I have been on day duty since Jan 18th in some ways I am sorry because the only nice orderly is on nights. He is much more like an English Tommy & always ready to help you, also when you have the place to yourself you can do as you like.
Well, I must say Goodbye for the present – the home party will soon be off.
Very much love to all
Your loving Daughter
Dancing the ‘Kola’
I think this is probably the Kolo – a Serbian circle dance.
Known as Serbia, not Jugoslavia.
The creation of Yugoslavia had a complex history, as it was created from areas which had formerly been part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, who had been on the losing side (as the Allies saw it) of the First World War. The initial name of what would become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenets, and it was ruled by Peter I.