Margaret Box to her Dad – December 16th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, trained as a nurse, and went out to serve in Serbia with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She had been working near Skopje, but at the time of writing this letter she was on her way to Sarajevo.

Previous Index Next

Dec 16th 18

My Dear Dad,

Our 3 days trip has lasted 10 days & have have had a most enjoyable voyage. The weather has been & still is perfect & so warm. We have appreciated the complete change of living too for a little while &now we are going back to our old style ! The last 2 days have been very gay. I think we have had our Xmas festivities. We have been out to tea & lunch on other boats & yesterday we went ashore & climbed a bit of mountain.

We expect to leave by train tomorrow morning & I suppose we shall soon arrive at our destination & it will be quite strange to start nursing again & I wonder how long we shall stay there !

This country is wonderfully beautiful. We picked huge snowdrops yesterday & ferns of all varieties. I saw lots of different leaves such as cyclamen, columbine etc & in the spring the flowers must be lovely.

I hope you got my letter with post cards safely. We reckoned it ought to take about 10 days to get home. We have not the least idea how or where we shall get letters here. I should think it will be a good many weeks. I hope in about 2 months to send you another newsy letter as I think some of the Sisters are going home then. Their time will be up & they have promised to take anything home for me.

This afternoon we have been ashore & had a glorious walk thro’ orchards & woods to such a pretty town. Oranges grow there now & roses & large blue campanulas wild . It has been a perfect day, very warm & the water is like a pond. It was very windy when we arrived on Saturday morning & the sea was quite choppy.

We are to get up at about 5 o’clock tomorrow morning & start off on our travels again. They say we are going through gorgeous scenery, but I have seen so much already my brain is overflowing with it, and the sunrises & sunsets are so brilliant & so many colours you would not believe it was possible. I will write later & tell you about some of the people we have met on board, their departures & destination we mentioned in one of the daily papers, but they did not mention us !

Please tell mother not to bother about the tartan tie as I hear they are very difficult to get so I will write to Miss Willis for one.

I am wondering what you will be doing at Xmas. I suppose the family will be very scattered. It is most unXmaslike out here. We were told it would be frightfully cold & snowy, but evidently it has not begun yet. I find I like the sea so much & we find the Navy life so well that several of us are thinking of joining it !!

It is very strange that the ships Dr. on one ship we visited here was a student at Guy’s when I was there. I did not recognise him as he has shaved his moustache off, but he remembered me. Of course we talked Guy’s but neither of us had much news of the old place.

Very much love to all

Your loving daugher

Margaret

Notes

Her father’s notes say ‘arrived 24/12/18’ and ‘answered 29/12/18’

Margaret had asked her mother for a Gordon Tartan Tie on her letter of the 3rd of December.

How do we decide ?

This is very much a work in progress, which I intend to refine, but published in this incomplete form to link other posts into a wider context.

Choices can be tricky – important ones always are, and for each choice we (as individuals, groups, societies and humanity as whole) make there will be an alternative which we did not take.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

Ethics

With great power comes great responsibility

Peter Parker

Ethics, as I am using it here, is a huge field, containing philosophy, religion and politics.

Individuals, Groups, Nations, Humanity

Finding the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group has always been hard, and is becoming harder as the world grows more complex.

Science

Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is Power)

Francis Bacon (attributed)

Any decision which is incompatible with science will ultimately go wrong, because the science tells us about the world as it is, rather than the world as we might like it to be.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science

Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.

It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.

Economics

The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

Abraham Lincoln

Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)

To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.

Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.

How do They decide ?

If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.

If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.

All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?

This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.

Do we decide ?

I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.

A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.

This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.

In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.

The reasoned feedback loop

The reasoned feedback loop is central to human progress. Feedback loops are everywhere, but the key element introduced by people is the Reason step. It is core to the way that science works, and engineering, and good (I wish I could think of a better word here), legal, moral and political systems.

In such loops things are in some state, which is examined, and reasoning is applied to do something, to get to a new – intended to be better – state. This seems very abstract, so I will supply some examples to show what I mean. I will also point out where access to information is important in this.

Science

To many non-scientists, the role of a scientist is to know things, but real science starts with not knowing something, but wanting to find out. Scientists start off not knowing, for example if there is a connection between smoking and cancer, or where the energy that powers the sun comes from. They perform experiments, or apply statistical tests, and reasoning, and the end state is an increase in human knowledge.

The success of this process depends on open sharing of the information and reasoning used make the new discovery. Usually these are published in scientific journals, for fellow scientists to see if they can reproduce the results, and examine the reasoning.

This process is international, as spreading good knowledge helps everybody, thus Chinese scientists published an article on ‘A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin‘ in the scientific journal Nature on 3rd February 2020, which is available to anyone to read (note that Nature is normally a subscription publication – that is how they make their money, but they make some articles Open Access). The link to the article came from the excellent Medical Student COVID-19 Curriculum which itself is being improved regularly.

Accurate measurement and good data is essential to all science, and in medicine this is particularly the case, which is why I support the Cochrane foundation – which promoted evidence based medicine, and the All Trials campaign, which pushes for the results of all drug trials, not only the favourable ones, to be made available.

Applying the Reasoning stage is particularly important in the face of a global pandemic. Denying it exists, or humanizing it leads to worse outcomes. An epidemic is the bad kind of a positive feedback loop leading to the bad outcomes, and rationally applied strategies can push towards the good outcomes, as described in ‘Is Coronavirus a Catastrophe


The Law

I shall use the British system here, as it is the one I am most familiar with, and because – despite it’s flaws – it is the result of many people over a long time trying to do The Right Thing.

The Law is not perfect, change can be frustratingly slow, and implementation often fails to match the ideal, but potentially it uses the same process of a reasoned feedback loop as science does.

British Law is made by Acts of Parliament, proposed, discussed and voted on by elected MPs. These discussions are publicly available in Hansard. They are not the most exciting reading, but these parts at least are public.

When there is doubt about the meaning of a law, this is decided by the Court system, refining this through the appeals system until a final judgement is reached. To make these judgements the lawyers use Hansard to try to work out what Parliament intended by the law, and the judgement of previous courts (precedent), to try to make the law as fair as possible. Most of the body of ‘case law‘ is in legal libraries, not published on the Internet, but, for example the British and Irish Legal Information Institute does make many cases available.

Parliament should (and usually does) take existing case law into account when passing Acts which replace previous laws.

Systems where knowledge important to bits of this process are hidden from wider view tend to work less well, as there is more chance that some key information will be missed. If the information is not available to decision makers (for example if their primary source of information are biased lobbyists – and there is no way to review the accuracy of what they have been told) they will make poorer decisions.

The Internet

The Internet, the core part, which should be distinguished from the things which run on top of it, is another example of the effectiveness of open decision making and transparency being used to drive progress. The ‘laws’ of the Internet are a set of documents called Requests for Comments, and they most important of these are published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The final versions of these can be found on the web site of the RFC Editor. Those which are Standards are produced by IETF Working Groups, and the discussions which lead to the final documents are openly available (and open to public contribution).

In general for something to be a Standard there must be at least two interoperable implementations.

The guiding principles of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) an guiding committee of the IETF, is that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ making the ethical framework explicit.

Feedback

This article reflects on and in some cases restates some of the points in Diversity and Regulation.

In the spirit of the article I welcome thoughtful feedback, either through comments, or via Federated Social Media to @JohnLines@mstdn.io

Margaret Box arrived in Sarajevo – December 1918

Margaret Box was one of a number of women who joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, leaving their homes to deliver aid where it was needed during the First World War. She was my Great Aunt, and I inherited her diaries, and some of the letters she wrote home. By December 1918 the war was over, but the need for medical care, for disease as well as war wounds continued. Margaret had been nursing in Bralos in Greece and Skopje, and has now travelled to Sarajevo, from where she writes to her mother.

Previous Index Next

Dec 19th 18

My dear Mother,

We actually arrived at our destination yesterday at 12 mid day. We had a very comfortable train journey, 1st class compartments not cattle trucks. The scenery was wonderful & most of the way we had an engine each end as we climbed such steep mountains. This is a big town with fine big buildings & very good shops.

We are taking over a hospital there are 80 patients in it now, it is a huge place & is really a boys college. There is a fine museum also laboratory & gymnasium. There are radiators in every room & all corridors & double windows – so they are evidently used to very cold weather.

It started to snow 2 hours after we arrived & everything was soon thick with it. Now it is melting & it is very wet & ‘slushy’ outside. On our arrival a tram was commandeered for us & took us to a Hotel for lunch. From there we drove on in cars.

We look out onto very fine mountains & a little river runs along the other side of the road. There is a garden belonging to us with a tennis court & summer house. We felt very desolate & miserable yesterday afternoon coming into this huge place quite empty (except for the wards where the patients are !). Our luggage is arriving tonight then tomorrow we hope to get our rooms straight & our beds put up, you see we have no furniture.

I am afraid we got horribly spoilt on the boat. We were on for a fortnight & had such a good time. Everyone was so kind to us. It all seems like a dream now. But I think we shall soon settle down when we have got things straight.

All the shops are showing Xmas goods & everywhere in the streets are people selling Xmas trees. They look so funny standing up along by the railings waiting to be sold.

This afternoon we went into a lovely mosque – at first we were told to take off our boots but then a man produced slippers which we put on over our boots. The floor was covered with the most beautiful carpets & the walls & ceiling were magnificently painted. Their women are not allowed in & they walk about in the streets with flowing robes & black masks on their faces. There of course are only the Turkish women. It is very strange to see so many well dressed women about. I think they are mostly Austrian & German & a few Serbs.

I am longing for the Spring to come as I am sure it will be lovely then.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

Notes

‘Our destination’

Although instructions from the censor, still vigilant, even though the war is over, prevent her from saying so explicitly, Margaret has arrived in Sarajevo – where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdindand in 1914 had set into motion the events which would lead to the First World War.

The journey

Margaret’s previous letter, on December 3rd, had been as she was about to depart Salonica on the S.S. Danube. Her journey took her, I think, from Salonica to

There is a web page at http://www.penmorfa.com/JZ/dubrovnik2.html which describes, with some pictures, and a map, a railway journey on this line in 1965, when it was still narrow gauge, and probably similar to the way it would have been in 1918.

Map

Making Historical maps for WordPress with Viking and OSM Plugin

Maps are a great way to make some web sites about historical travels easier to understand. I have been enhancing some of parts of this blog, some of which is about family history, with maps and describe how I do it here, so you, if you wish, you can do the same. All the tools I use are Free, both in the sense that you do not have to pay for them, but more importantly they are developed by individuals or communities who believe that open sharing of information and helping others makes the world a better place.

I have maps created this way on (at least) the following pages

WordPress

WordPress is a very popular choice for building web sites. You can host it on your own server, as I do, or try it by creating a basic – free – account at https://wordpress.com/ although to install plugins you will need to upgrade to a paid (Business) account, which costs (in October 2020) £20 per month. As I have my own server I have not investigated other options, but I know there are many places offering WordPress Hosting, but you need one which allows you to install plugins.

Plugins are the way a WordPress site can be extended beyond the standard functions. A huge range are available if you need something the basic version does not provide.

OpenStreetMap

With more that two million contributors, OpenStreetMap is a not just a map of the world, but a resource of Geographic information used by researchers and charities (particularly in relation to mapping parts of the world which may not deliver a commercial return, but where maps are still needed such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Project).

The WordPress OpenStreetMap Plugin

Bringing two good things together, the WordPress OpenStreetMap plugin allows you add OpenSteetMap maps to your WordPress site. It is primarily aimed at people who want to show where they have been in recent or planned modern journeys, but can be used for showing historical maps. It displays a map with markers you can set when configuring the plugin, or for more complex use, a KML file.

A KML file is a way to describe, in a computer file, a group of Geographical features, such as places, or routes to pass them from one program to another. I generate these KML files with a program called Viking, described below.

I then need to copy the kml file to my WordPress server – for security reasons WordPress prevents unknown file types from being uploaded through its normal media upload, and although the plugin adds kml to the valid file types, and I have added it to the valid types in my WordPress settings the uploads are still refused (I will update this if I find a solution, and it may be particular to my setup).

Viking

Viking is really intended to be a GPS editor, but can be used to create the KML files for historic maps.

Viking being used to work with historic journeys

To generate the file I use with the OpenStreetMap Plugin I right click a Layer (journey) and select Export As…/Export as KML

As I said above this software is really aimed at people working with GPS in the present and the version I am using just now needs, for example, scrolling the date of a ‘way point’ back through many years to set it, but the developers are helpful and responsive, as you can see from the responses to my suggestions about updating dates and places.

If several people are working on the same set of journeys then they could collaborate by exchanging the .vik files used to record the places, dates etc, as the information held can be quite rich with images etc.


Is Covid-19 a Catastrophe ?

Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind at present, including mine at about half past 5 this morning, when my mobile phone made an alert sound, but I could not find any message. There was a quick flash of what looked like the NHS Covid-19 app, which I have recently installed. In the way that the brain does in mind-wandering mode (as described in The Organized Mind) a connection between the Covid-19 Pandemic and Catastrophe Theory came into my mind. I have not done any of the mathematical modelling needed to take demonstrate that Covid-19 is a Catastrophe in the mathematical sense, but, as it feels like one, wanted to explore some of the implications.

Catastrophe theory is used to model systems which can be in one of two semi stable states, and switch rapidly from one to another. Classic examples are the financial markets, which can switch from being a Bull Market to a Bear Market or house price booms and busts.

Feedback is an essential part of these systems. In the case of the financial markets the controlling factor is investor confidence. If people are confident about the future they will buy houses, or shares, the price will go up, others will see this rise and also want to buy shares, or houses. In an infectious disease case the controlling factor is the rate at which the disease is spreading.

If every person who has Covid-19 passes it on to more than one person then it will spread, becoming a epidemic, with a potential end point of being endemic, that is to say in a widespread stable state, like flu. In the case of Covid-19 there will be medical penalty to pay if this happens. Medical resources need to be spent dealing with patient treatment, both for acute patients in Intensive Care Units and for chronic cases – the Long Covid cases. This is one possible stable state.

On the other hand if Covid-19 can be brought under control, then there is an opportunity for it to eliminated at a national level, as may be feasible for China and New Zealand. Medical resources are focussed on rapid detection of cases and preventing transmission. This is another possible stable state, and has been reached worldwide for some diseases, such as smallpox. This requires good data, and a rational plan of action, an example of the situations I describe in ‘The reasoned feedback loop‘.

If the world becomes divided between countries where Covid-19 is endemic and those where it is eliminated then this has major implications for tourism and international travel. Will tourists from a Covid-free country wish to visit one where there is a good chance they will catch a disease which may make them seriously ill. Even with the development of a vaccine it will be harder to avoid catching Covid-19 than, for example Typhoid or Yellow Fever due to the differences in the way these diseases are transmitted.

If you travel by train from London Marylebone to Oxford the announcements are in Chinese as well as English, as Bicester Village, which is served by that route, was very popular with Chinese tourists. If Britain becomes one of the countries where Covid-19 is widespread, and China becomes one where it is rare then I wonder if those tourists will return.


About to embark on S.S. Danube – 3rd December 1918


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.

Previous Index Next

Dec 3rd 1918

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.

Notes

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’s Kitbag

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’

SS Danube

SS Danube – from clydeships.co.uk

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.

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.

Previous Index Next

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.

Elsie Inglis Nursing Unit returning from Serbia – November 1918

The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals was one of 14 Units of women who went abroad to provide medical care during the First World War. My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went to Serbia as a nurse with them. By the end of November 1918 the war had ended and Margaret had moved round Serbia with the Unit. During this time she wrote letters home telling her family some of what her life out there was like, and I am scanning and publishing them on this site.

On the 29th November 1918 the Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Box, to tell him that the Elsie Inglis Unit has been recalled, so Margaret should be on her way home.

Previous Index Next


Notes

Telephones

I think John Box’s note says “called up on ‘phone – Margaret at Uskub

Although the telephone had been invented in the 1870’s, with the UK’s first regular telephone service dating back to 1877, they were probably still quite rare in 1918, however John Box may well have found one useful in his business as a nurseryman.

Edith Palliser (Chairman)

An active campaigner for Women’s Suffrage, her war work was commemorated by a bed in the maternity unit of the Royal Free Hospital.

Viscountess Cowdray (hon Treasurer)

As well as her good works in supporting nursing, she and her husband donated Cowdray Hall (a concert venue) to the City of Aberdeen.

Hilda Petrie (Mrs Flinders Petrie) (Hon. Secretary)

She took a break from being a prominent Egyptologist to support the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War.

Margaret Box to Mother – November 1918

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.

Previous Index Next

Could you possibly send me 2 pairs of thick grey woollen stockings please. I can’t get any here. My address is.

‘Elsie Inglis Unit

Scottish Women’s Hospitals

4th Surgical Field Hosp.

Royal Serbian Army

Nov 27 18

My Dear Mother,

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.

Notes

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.

Bonichars

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.

Bridge destroyed at Strumitza

Looking at the area in more detail, I do not think the railway goes to Strumitza (Strumica), but that was probably the nearest town to the break in the line.