The Elsie Ingliss 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 Ingliss Unit has been recalled, so Margaret should be on her way home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have been spending more time in the garden this year, much of it doing simple little jobs which allow my mind to wander while my hands keep busy pulling up weeds, or pruning. I am often reflecting on a book I am reading and at the moment, as is normal for me, there are at least two. The fictional one is ‘Post Captain‘ by Patrick O’Brian and one of the non-fictions ones is ‘The Organized Mind‘ by Daniel Levitin. The book is a mixture of neuroscience, explaining how the brain works, and some practical applications to help us cope in a world which has outpaced the one our brain evolved for. We now expect to keep track of hugely more information than our hunter/gatherer ancestors would encounter, and one way we do this is to move information from our minds to external storage – and this blog post is moving garden musings from my brain to the external storage of the Internet. Another thing I learned from the book is that the brain has two basic modes, a mind wandering or daydreaming mode and the attentional mode, where your brain is focussed on a single thing. When I am musing in the garden my mind is in daydreaming mode, making connections between things, while automatic bits of my brain take care of the routine tasks.
Without my concious mind being aware of it, my attentional system is keeping track of my environment, making sure I do not get too spiked by the roses etc – and only demanding attention if there is something that might need attention. This morning it was courgettes. This spring I planted four courgette plants, fairly closely spaced, and they are being very productive.
I had been reflecting on the news, which for somebody who is shielding due to being highly vulnerable to the virus was a bit of a mixed bag. The hopeful news from the medical science side is balanced by the possibility of a second wave, and the way that, for some people who are not shielding, the measures to keep the spread of virus down are regarded as an annoyance to be evaded.
Suddenly I thought ‘I need only have two courgette plants next year, four really is too many for us’. Planning for the future is an inherently optimistic act, and this looking forward in hope is one of the benefits of gardening. I started to think about the all the good things that, for me – for us, about our garden and the blessings it brings.
Several writers have used Ecclesiastes as a framework to weave into their stories. One of my favourite science fiction authors, Roger Zelazny, wrote ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes‘, featuring a Martian race, dying out as they see the no future, and presents them with a translation of Ecclesiastes into Martian, and a rose, as something new under the sun.
Wesley Memorial Church numbers some brilliant creative people amongst its membership, and one product of this are several musicals. One of these, Alternativity, commences
Vanity of vanities, All of life is vanity;
It goes from here to become a great message of hope, complete with varied musical numbers, and pyrotechnics.
The Byrds turned the words of Ecclesiastes into a song, focussing on the need for a time of peace.
I am pleased by our compost heaps, which use the 3 bin system. Like most bits of this blog the original idea was not mine, but nonetheless, seeing them working gives me pleasure. In many ways they are a metaphor for this blog, taking scraps from lots of different sources, trying to keep the right balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material, which fits with my thoughts on the importance of diversity, and mixing them, to end up with something where ideas (or plants) can grow.
During the writing of this post, one of the Kindle Daily Deals was ‘Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom’, so that has joined the queue of books to be digested and added to the mulch.
One thing which does not go into the compost bins is bindweed – another is dandelions. As a Scot, I was brought up with Robert the Bruce and the Spider as a model of persistent endeavour, but anyone who has continued, like a magician pulling out endless streams of ribbon, to try to get bindweed out, must end up with a respect for its tenacity. I suspect musings on weeds covers such a range that they must be relegated to a whole new post, as yet unwritten.
Sometimes, when the world seems too full of stress, or conflict, the best solution is a bit of simple physical labour.
I shared with my mother and Mary’s mother an interest in Mythology. Mary’s mother, Annie Schofield, was particularly interested in, and a published essayist on Ted Hughes. Origin Myths are a key part of Mythology, and Ted Hughes imagined some in ‘How the Whale Became’. Kipling’s take on Origin Myths was the Just So Stories, of which ‘How the Camel got his Hump’ (which my father could quote to me), is particularly relevant.
The cure for this ill is not to sit still, Or frowst with a book by the fire; But to take a large hoe and a shovel also, And dig till you gently perspire;
And then you will find that the sun and the wind. And the Djinn of the Garden too, Have lifted the hump— The horrible hump— The hump that is black and blue!
Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.
Candide (English translation)
Our garden has a fence, rather than a wall, but – as The Organized Mind explains, peoples brains lump things together at a conceptual level, hence I find myself musing on fence-like things, although with a reflection that we presumable have good fences, as “good fences make good neighbours“, and we have excellent neighbours. As usual the concept also reminds me of a book, in this case Divided, by Tim Marshall.
Although Eden had a ‘verduous wall’ – i.e. a hedge, this still acted as a divide Eden from ‘not Eden’ – and eventually Adam and Eve have to leave, and venture out into the world. The ending of Paradise Lost is one of the bits of poetry which sticks in my head, and I find it quite comforting.
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon; The World was all before them, where to choose Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide: They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow, Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
Early on in lockdown, many kind friends and neighbours helped us by shopping for us, in many cases fitting this in with working from home and looking after young families. It was a great pleasure, later on, to be able to invite them and their children into our garden, where Mary has made a trail of things to find, and we could enjoy their excitement from a safe distance. The transformation our garden, and the joy of sharing it reminded me of The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde.
Connections and continuity
One of the joys of a garden can be be the way it connects to people and places. Of the vegetables we are growing, some were grown by Mary while the rest came from friends and neighbours, so they all connect to people.
Several of the plants in our garden came from our parent’s gardens.
Both of my parents, and my grandparents were keen gardeners, although I appreciate gardening more now that when I was younger, when my siblings and I were used as unskilled garden labour – ‘Pick a punnet of raspberries before tea’.
Mary’s mother was a keen gardener, and grew a wide range of fuchsias in her compact, but well tended garden. Mary has followed in her footsteps.
Mary’s father commanded a Motor Launch (M.L. 121) during WW2, and had many exciting adventures, including carrying Gracie Fields through a storm off Italy. He also made several life-long friends. The son of one of those friends dug our centre bed, thus all our parents have connections in the garden.
Several of the plants and sculptures in the garden are presents from my siblings – so many that this owl must act as representative for them all.
The house in Edinburgh where I spent most of my childhood, had a rosemary bush growing outside the front door. When my parents moved to Somerset they took a cutting of that rosemary with them, planting it outside the front door, and this is a cutting from that. On significant departures, such as going off to University, my mother would give us a sprig of this rosemary, quoting Ophelia “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, worked as a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia towards the end of the First World War. I am fortunate to have inherited many of the letters she wrote home, which give an insight into a less well known area of the war, and the world as it was over one hundred years ago. By 18th November 1918 when she writes this letter to her sister, Norah, the war is over, but nurses are still needed due to the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Very many thanks for your letter which I was exceedingly pleased to have. Am very glad to notice you have brains & that you imagine a Field Hosp. must follow the army to which it is attached. Unfortunately we got left behind in the hurry & in 10 days time are going a very long way round to join up again. The place you mentioned was a jolly good shot. We intended going through there to a bigger place farther on but another S.W.H. Unit is now going there, to the big place. We are not so far on as your guess. You might try a few more shots next time. We are going farther north & round to the left but all round “the world” to get there ! And please tell me if any of my letters have been censored – we are dying to know when we can write letters fully.
I am sorry to hear you missed all the foul jobs but hope you will like the ‘Land’ equally as well. Tell Father that a lot of tobacco is grown, maize, shells, hand grenades (I saw a field full the other day), old German helmets & wrecked lorries etc – but always cabbages & leeks. We have cabbage every day, twice except when we have leeks. This plain looks very fertile. The earth is being ploughed (rather a dangerous job in places) & is a lovely dark red colour. The ploughing is very superficial & done by oxen. There are patches of green grass about, in fact much more grass here than I have seen since the South of France but then there has been rain.
I have also seen wheat growing
They say the flowers in Spring & Summer are a lovely sight. Fields full of madonna lilies & Love-in-the-Mist growing ever so high. The other day I found some blue larkspur growing in the snow. There are no hedges. I think a good many apple trees, no end of poplars in this particular town but no other big trees. The mountains are mostly grassy, smooth & undulating not rocky like the Parnassus lot. A lot of wild thyme grows on them & wild dogs roam all round. Also wild looking men in weird clothes – coats with monks’ hoods come down from the mountains with their loaded donkeys. The donkeys walk first & in single file & the men walk after in single file. They walk with folded arms & silent tread. They wear goat skin sandals. The Turkish women in town wear baggy trousers, socks if they are lucky & clogs & clatter along just behind their man (they also wear quilted jackets & little black shawls over their heads & faces). The Serbian women wear long white shirts, red aprons, sheep skin jackets on white serge coats edged with black braid & always wide red sashes round their waists. They are very picturesque. They wear fancy red stockings, thick things like carpets & leather sandals.
I certainly wish you were here. There are most lovely walks all round & life is one huge picnic tho’ it certainly would be nice to come home to tea sometimes with cake & soft bread. But I am enjoying it all quite as much as I expected. The soldiers, both officers & men have been very good to us all the way along & are quite different from the ones at home who used to annoy me so much. It was awfully good getting such a nice lot of letters just at birthday time. I have managed to get some tinned cake, toffee & ginger biscuits at the canteen today so we will have a birthday feast tonight. It cost 10 drachmas altogether !
Please thank Rose for her nice long letter. I am glad she is liking the work so much.
10 a.m. We have just heard the most exciting news that we are to evacuate immediately. All patients are to be moved this afternoon & we are to clear out the day after tomorrow so I must pack up my things while i have time.
As to where Norah’s guess about the place she was going, and the big place Margaret was going to go to through this other place, the guess could have been Pristina, and the big place Belgrade, but Margaret’s next destination is Sarajevo.
Life is one huge picnic
Margaret’s diary for the week show she is on night duty alone on the wards, that Cooper from 708 M.T. company is brought in ill again, and that on Nov 19th
Cough pretty rotten – to bed directly after breakfast. get up at 5 p.m. see Captain Johnston & Mr Watson who are staying for the present in Skopje. All patients but 1 evacuated. to bed again after dinner
Margarets diary entry for November 19th 1918
Margaret was born on the 19th November 1890, so her birthday would have been the following day. It looks as if her celebration plans were disrupted by the news that the Hospital was on the move, indeed as the diary entry above shows she did not seem to have had a very jolly birthday.
Margaret Ada Box, my Great Aunt, was a Red Cross Nurse who went, with the Scottish Womens Hospitals, to serve in Serbia in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, although most of her patients were victims of spanish flu, rather than war casualties. She wrote several letters home, including writing this letter to her brother, Leonard Box, my Grandfather, on the 24th November 1918.
I am wondering whether you will be leading a City life again by the time you receive this letter. I think it is quite probably as we seem to be stuck here & there is no way of sending a mail. The mountains are impassable as we have had so much snow & the railway is recovering from the rough treatment just lately received. A train did run this morning & our own chief, Dr Chesney, has gone on but our unit & all our baggage is still sitting here. We were to have followed this evening but the engine has not arrived & we are living in hope that it will tomorrow. We have been in this condition for a week & we spend most of our time roaming around the town in rubber top boots & mackintoshes bargaining with shopkeepers. We are getting quite good at it & they like to exchange goods much better than receiving money. Some of the girls who are soon going home have made some awfully good bargains with their old shoes & clothes. One day we got some white kid skins to make warm socks for our boots & gloves & I have made a cap, but the stink is so awful we don’t know what to do with them. No doubt father would love them – being goats – but I wish he could smell them. Anyway we shall get our carriage to ourselves – but I believe we are travelling in cattle trucks when we do go. So we shall not get the blame for the unpleasant odours.
This country is lovely. I wish you could see this old town. This afternoon we have been in the Serbian church. It dates 400 & is supposed to be one of the oldest in Serbia. We got there just in time to see a wedding party coming out & were very fed up not to have seen the whole ceremony. They have a most exciting custom which is as follows. A large mat is spread in the middle of the church and whichever one (bride or bridegroom) gets a foot on it first is ‘boss’! So we naturally were sorry to have missed the rush for the mat. Their clothes were very picturesque & they marched round the town accompanied by tom toms & pipes making an awful din.
We have been for some lovely walks all round – along the valley by the river – also up the mountains a bit to some little villages. We don’t know where we shall be for Xmas – probably in the town ‘where my bank is’ ! After that we are going for a sea voyage & goodness knows when we shall do any work again. We hear there is heaps of work waiting for us. All sorts of diseases raging in the town where we are going but it will have all died down before we get there !
I expect you heard that I have met Miss Fooks. She is the only one out of all the people I was to look up. She was my V.A.D. on night duty. I like her very much & she is very keen on walking & ‘Nature’. We had some fine walks together. She departed a week ago to collect some of our luggage which was left behind. It seems to me we have ‘dumps’ all over the country & I am sure we shall never collect all our stuff again.
An M.T. company has taken possession of our yard today & we can hardly move for lorries. It is strange to see so many Tommies about. We have not seen many of our own nationality lately – it makes you want to greet them all like old friends. The other day 2 of the officers from the M.T. company where I stayed a week nursing the influenza came in on their way through the town. They had both been ill but recovered – it was so nice to see them again.. They gave me a lovely box of chocolates & it happened to be my birthday ! I was awfully fortunate to get a mail 2 days before my birthday & had a nice lot of letters, tho’ most of them were dated the 1st to 2nd week in October. You have no idea what a great event a mail is & how we count up our letters & read & re-read them. I did not get any until Nov 8th except 2 from hospital friends while at Taranto.
I heard that you got your week’s leave to relieve Mr Wolten & hope he looked better for his holiday. I seem to be having more holiday than work tho’ I expect we shall make up for it when we get settled again. That air cushion you gave me has been a blessing – in the trains & boats coming & specially when sleeping on the ground at a camp on the way. I think it will be very useful too in the cattle trucks on our next journey.
I hope to write more fully later & tell you where we are going.
With much love to you & all good wishes for Xmas & the New Year
Your loving sister
Leading a city life again
I think Leonard was probably in the Army during the war, and by 1918 would have been a Serjeant in the Machine Gun Corps. Before and after that he was a solicitor in the firm of W.W.Box & Co. I have mentioned him in the Daddy, what did you do in the war post.
The Serbian Church
I can’t find a church in Skopje which dates back to 400 AD, and the church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Ras, which does, seems to be in the wrong place, and not in a town. It is possible that the age of the church was exaggerated. I did like the custom of the large mat, even though is does not appear to be part of current Eastern Orthodox Wedding ceremonies.
My Great Aunt Margaret Box was a nurse with the Scottish Womens Hospitals serving in Serbia in 1918. She wrote a diary and a number of letters home, which provide some insights into her adventures and some of the remarkable women she encountered. On 16th November 1918 she was at the field hospital run by Dr Chesney, near Skopje, and wrote a long letter to her parents. She wrote it in pencil, and I suspect some parts were difficult to read when it arrived, on the 8th of December according to a note added by my Great Grandfather, as he went over some of it in pen to make those parts more legible.
We had another mail tonight that makes the 3rd since I got here. I had 3 letters from you dated Oct. 14th, 21st & 27th – it is very amusing to read all your conjectures for everything is so entirely different from what you are thinking – but you will be getting my letters telling you as much as I can. I specially like the bit about seeing news in the papers – the others get papers from home when we have a mail so that will tell you what news we get.
We were frightfully excited to hear on Nov:11th that Peace had been declared. We had a “party” that evening – champagne for dinner followed by musical chairs. It was very dangerous for the chairs as the only ones we have are camp chairs which have a habit of collapsing when you sit in them. We can’t believe yet that the war is over. What joy & excitement there must be in England. We have heard today that we are moving in a week or a fortnight. We are going back to the place from where I sent the cable & then we are going a good long way by sea to quite a new place. It would really not be far by land from here but there are no trains or transport. I shall be glad to do some shopping also shall be able to settle the Bank problem. I am awfully glad to have come to this place ! It is lovely – huge mountains covered in snow & the river winding across a mountain plane. We climbed a mountain path yesterday morning & got up to a little village in the snow. We had a wonderful view. This last bit of the journey about 160 to 200 miles I think was by far the most exciting. The 1st bit we did in a train by night. The heat was stifling & mosquitoes bit us all over. Ferocious looking men kept on looking in & trying to steal our goods. Luckily I did not sleep & every time a man looked in I shouted “departez vous”! I was far too sleepy to think what I was saying but my words had the desired effect.
We got out of the train at 7 a.m. at a noted place (what remains of it) got a cup of coffee from a Y.M.C.A. tent then took some of our own luggage (not kit bags) & sat on it at the corner of a very dusty road until we could get a lift!
After about 1 hour we set off in 3 french meat lorries. 3 of us, 1 beside each driver. The lorries were full of meat – whole carcases and millions of flies. We tore along in true french recklessness along a road (too holey for words) across a very big plain 38 kilometres to another noted place the other side. We unload there with the meat & flies – all jostled up, smothered in dust, but no bones broken. 2 miles outside we stopped at a British M.T. camp where they all had ‘flu’. I stayed a week nursing them. The other 2 went on a lorry after 1 day. Then the chief sent her car for me & we travelled from 7.30 a.m. till 4 p.m. stopping 15 minutes for a picnic lunch. We came over a famous supposed to be impregnable path & saw the litter & remains of the great push. Shells lying all over the place & a number of ??very ?? desertion.
Skopje is a very quaint but picturesque old town. It is a shame that so much is becoming . The shops are very interesting and it is ?not strange to see the shopkeeper sitting on his counter amongst his goods.
We have been for some lovely walks in the mornings since I have been on night duty. 2 days at the beginning of the week were very hot – one morning we went along by the river & picked a lot of mushrooms – there
(line I can’t read on the fold of the letter)
there was no bridge so we paddled across. This was a side stream, not the main river. It was not very deep, just below our knees. The last 3 days the cold has been intense – the mountains are covered in snow & today there was a very hard frost.
Am glad we have a few stoves in now but wish the huns had not smashed most of the windows. We burn wood in the stoves. Did I tell you my address is “Elsie Inglis Unit” Scottish Womens Hospitals, 4th Surgical Field Hospital, Royal Serbian Army – not Salonica.
This has not made any difference to the delay of letters. Only the home folk ought not to have told me such a lengthy address – we move about so much (naturally being a field hosp.) that Salonica has been off the map & will be again. Also Dr Chesney is due home soon. There have been very strict ?rules about what we write that is why I have not been able to tell you as much as I should like. I don’t know now how much we can say – but don’t want to risk my letters being destroyed.
I am very glad Mary is getting on all right & hope by now that Norah is settled. I can quite understand how fed up she has been all this time.
I have been meaning to write a long letter to each one but somehow the time goes very quickly.
The Turks seem to be having a fine old time tonight, and are making no end of a row with Tom Toms & bagpipes. They are quite near the hospital & I wish they would finish up – the time is 2 a.m.
There are a great number of poplar trees here & a lot of little trees – no big ones at all. The autumn colours are brilliant – red & orange but the leaves are falling fast now, in fact the poplars have only a little bunch on top left. They look so funny – like huge crows’ nests. I wish you could see & taste a Serbian loaf – we are not allowed to eat the crust ! & you always examine each mouthful before eating as you often find a flea or something worse – it is very dark & dry & has a peculiar sour taste. We never see margarine or butter & we have had dripping once. Milk is almost an unknown article. We have very good soups & plenty of fresh meat. I am fat, as ever. The country abounds in cabbages & garlic & you always know when a native is coming – without looking
What do you think – a lorry turned up from somewhere tonight at 9 p.m. & bought another mail. I had 3 letters. 1 from Mary dated Oct 12th, one from Norah – Oct 10th & 1 from ?Coni Oct. 8th so I got the later letters from you first. It is very nice to get such a budget just in time for my birthday – many thanks for all birthday wishes.
I hope I shall be able to do some shopping soon – when we move off. I received 2 position photos from Norah – I think the full face is the better. I will enclose a list of people & please will you send me 6 more. What do you think of them ? Did I tell you we are all to be provided with fur coats ? I told Dr Chesney we should be a ‘bear-y’ crowd & she said “yes 0 a proper bear garden”! I hear they are on the way but have been “dumped” somewhere.
My ‘get up’ at night on duty is not much like a hospital sister. I wear a white army cap, a grey cotton overcoat, a thick grey wool jacket, a long leather wool lined coat (lent to my by one of the sisters), long mosquito boots (for warmth – no mosquitoes now) & over them white canvas bathing shoes.
There is one V.A.D. with me & we sit in a little dusty room & keep the stove warm. When I do the rounds I carry an oil hurricane lantern. I have 3 Serbian Orderlies who stay in the wards all the time.
One night an old Albanian patient had a sore throat & I gave him a hot gargle. I managed to make him understand not to drink it but he had not the ghost of a notion what to do with it so he dipped his fingers in & rubbed his neck ! I then demonstrated the whole process of gargling & at last he understood.
Tonight one of the men from the M.T. company where I nursed has been brought in. He is very ill again. He is just glorying in a camp bed & pyjamas & blankets & a warm room. Rather better than the sloping ground in a bell tent & pouring rain – a kit bag for a pillow & only your clothes to lie down in. Mr Watson – one of the officers – brought him. I shall be seeing him in the morning. He was very ill too but looks much better now. Most of these men have been out here 3 years without leave & doing very heavy work on short rations. They are just worn out & have not a chance to fight against the influenza.
We are all looking forward to our journey tho’ expect it will be a very cold one. I wonder where we shall be for Xmas. When you send my photos round the family for Xmas please will you give them my love & good wishes.
Please thank Rose for her long letter. I am so glad she likes her work & is getting on all right. Fancy seeing old Mrs. Hoare – I wonder what she looked like ! I hope the new maid is proving a success. I wonder if they will be easier to get when the men come home.
Please give my love to the Walkleys & best Xmas wishes. I am sorry to hear about old Mr Walkley.
I want to write to all my sisters & also Leonard. I get so mixed up with my news & what I have written and what not. I believe someon3 is going down country on Tuesday next if so she will take the post bag.
I must say Goodbye for the present & write some other letters. Very much love to all
Your loving Daughter
It is very funny to write Xmas letters so soon one can’t get up a Xmasy feeling – tho’ the last few days with the snow on the mountains & such sharp frosts it does feel more seasonable & I have been thinking of those days when we all sat round the fire with the old washing basket full of parcels – they seem so long ago.
Note from John Box
A note from John Box is in the file of letters, dated 10th December – 2 days after Margaret’s letter arrived.
Clearly he too was trying to work out where Margaret might have been, although this gives more places to track down. I think Nish might be Niš, which was liberated from Bulgaria on 12th October 1918. A National Geographic map of Europe is with Margaret’s letters, but it is dated December 1929, so would not be the reference John Box was using, I have not idea where ?albouteneges is.
I think this is the first mention of censorship of letters home, which is interesting as the main part of the war is over. It may be simply that the instructions, or rumours, about what should be in letters home had arrived with the inbound letters the nurses received. The letters from my Grandfather (on my father’s side of the family), George Lines, who wrote from the front, for example from Armentières do not mention any need to avoid the censor.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, was a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, tending patients in what was then Serbia. She recorded her activities in diaries, and a number of letters home which give some insight into the world of that time. She wrote this one on the 7th of November from a Field Hospital near Skopje, run by Dr. Lilian Chesney.
I have just received 2 more letters from you. The 2nd one, written Oct 7th.
Some more people arrived tonight & we were lucky to get another post in – just fancy – only 2 days since the last ! We nearly shouted the house down (what there is left of it).
No, we have not electric light. Candles are rationed out to us each week & we have an oil lamp in the mess room. I am sorry to hear Mother has had a cold & sincerely hope it was not the ‘flu’. I have seen enough of that disease coming out & I hope you have not been working too hard & got the rheumatism. I have got a most lovely wool cap for you to wear indoors but dont know how to get it home. You say you had no letter from me between Paris & Rome, well I don’t suppose I wrote one. We were in the train for 2 nights & days & changed trains at Modane waiting about an hour for a much needed meal & then we changed again at Turin where we did not have time for a meal. Mother’s biscsuits & chocolate came in useful in those days. When we did arrive in Rome we were rather dusty. I shall never forget the state of the bath after I got out of it ! The Italian trains are about the dirtiest I have ever come across. I can’t tell you what Salonica is like as I only stayed there one night, but I know it was very hot & we slept under mosquito nets in tents.
I am awfully sorry to hear about Uncle Arthur’s burglars. It is what you might call ‘tiresome’ to lose your belongings like that. I must try to write to some of the relatives for Xmas – but we have just heard that a post is going out tomorrow & I want to write so many letters.
The weather was bitterly cold here last week & the snow was right down the mountains – but now it is quite warm again & very hot out in the sun this afternoon. It is not usually very cold till after Xmas.
I hope you are sending me some of my photos. I wonder if they are any good.
Very best love to all
Your loving Daughter
A p.c. from Mary & Norah – jolly nice too. Many thanks to them.
Transit time for post
John Box wrote “Arrived 22 Nov” on the letter, so it took 15 days to get from (near) Skopje to Croydon – a distance of about 1935 miles, so the letter was travelling at slightly over 5 miles per hour – if it went on the direct route.
This would be Arthur Williams Box (1853-1940). He lived both in Brondesbury, London which was his address in the 1912 Census and in Launceston, where he owned the Iron Foundry. He did sell the Foundry in 1912, so the burglary was presumably in London.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, went to be Red Cross Nurse in Serbia and Salonica in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, leaving her parents, brother (my Grandfather) and sisters back in England. She kept and diary, and wrote a number of letters home, which I am transcribing and commenting on for this blog. On 6th November she wrote to her elder sister, Rosina Janet Braund Box, known as Rose, whose birthday was the 5th of December.
Very many happy returns of your birthday (1918) a happy xmas & a jolly good New Year. I hope you will get this this year !
Yesterday was a red letter day – a mail bag arrived & what a rejoicing & a shouting there was. I had 7 letters – counting all the home ones that is 4 sent off on the 23rd Sept. one from Father, one from Mother & 2 from a ‘Pro’ at York Rd. Please thank them very much indeed. I also had one from Dingle & one from Cora & one from somebody else I met on the way. I don’t know how many times I have read them already. The post is a very uncertain affair as it has to wait both ways until somebody can take & that depends on the weather, the state of the road & whether there is anyone to go. I am writing a lot of letters now so that they will be ready when we hear there is going to be a post. I am glad to hear you are getting into the swing of your new work & hope you will like it all right. Of course by the time you get this you will be quite an old hand at the job ! I should not be surprised if peace is declared before them.
Today I have had a 1/2 day – if it had been a fine day I was going to take my tea & picnic up the mountain – but there has been a nasty thick damp mist the last 2 days – very unpleasant. So I went out for a walk & came in for tea. After tea I went round the town with Danby. I wish you could see these quaint shops & the people. They make you feel that you are at a theatre or show of some sort. We passed a cobbler’s shop. The cobblers, 3 of them, sat in a row in the window-way making the most curious shoes – sandals really. I bought a baby pair they are so funny. We came back very soon & I have been writing letters since then & having supper. Now I must hurry up & get ready for bed.
Jones is still here. She is not much better though getting up & I think she still ought to be in bed.
One day she & I went out a little way & looked inside a Turkish Mosque which is being used as a garage by the French. We did not know it was private & a French Officer spoke to us. 2 more Officers arrived & one I recognised having met him some time ago in my travels. He was in charge of some French meat lorries & superintended the unloading of them at their destination & three of us (not Jones) had travelled 38 kilometres in 3 these lorries – accompanied by the meat ! & a great many flies !! I shall never forget that ride. We were white with dust when we got off. Well anyway on the strength of that acquaintance they took us out to tea. You would have been very amused to hear me trying to talk French & the poor man – one of them could not understand a word of English, but the funny part of it is that French seems quite a familiar language to me these days. When I get a new patient in I say “Can you speak English” – answer “ne ne”. I say “Parlez vous Francais” still with some hope & I generally get answer “ne ne”. So I am using a few native words & use them for every occasion & I manage to my myself understood. Even Italian seems rather familiar (having lived a week in Rome) & once we were on a mountain pass in a touring car (a lady chauffeur, not Jones, & I together alone) one side on a high cliff up the other side a huge precipice down & we were held up by the traffic & almost expected to see a policeman at crossroads (the Bank or Picadilly) but it was a French lorry with its hind wheel over the precipice in the mud that was causing the block & a stream of bullock carts was coming one way & a stream of Italian pack mules the other way, not to mention French & English lorries going both ways. So we settled down to biscuits & chocolate & talked to an Italian ‘multo pericoloso’ said I ‘si, si’ said he but my companion could say more than that – so she said it & then he said more still. You may like to know that the French lorry was pulled up again & we all went on our ways happily.
I think I had better shut up. I wish I could tell you the whole of my travels – but I will one day.
I expect Norah is settled by now & hope she has got something nice. Please ask her why cocks crow in the middle of the night. One started here about 12 o’c & it was answered down the line for (fowl) yards until the answers were lost in the distance, then it started again. They all yelled for about 1/2 an hour then went to sleep again. I hope Norah will get her letter in time. I wrote it a long time before I got here.
Much love to all & good wishes & all kind thoughts,
Your loving sister
I shall write whenever there is a post but I think you will understand what an uncertain arrangement it is. You see we are a long way off.
Letter from ‘Pro’ at York Road
Margaret trained as a Nurse at Guy’s Hospital from 1914 to 1917, and then qualified as a midwife in February 1918. She worked as a midwife at the General Lying in Hospital at York Road, Lambeth in 1920, after she returned from Serbia, and I suspect that is where she was training and working before she went off to ‘do her bit’. Presumably her former colleagues were keeping in touch.
Travelling in meat lorries
This fills in some of the details of her travel on 21st October from Monasteri to Prilip, on meat lorries. I think the ‘3 of us’ would be Margarget, Danby and Howard.
We live in a world where almost everybody we meet has had some exposure to English, often through films, television, and the Internet, as well as probably learning some at school. People who might encounter any form of foreign visitor, such as hotel receptionists or train conductors will often have some essential English for their job. I don’t know how much
Margaret probably learnt French at school. I think she went to a Boarding School, possibly run by Miss M. Walton in a school called Gelston, in Bexhill, Sussex in the 1901 Census, when she was aged 10. She would not have learned Italian, but might have done Latin.
Amy Margaret Webster (1844-?) daughter of Arthur Reuben Webster, was at the same school, also a boarder, aged 16, and was Margaret’s cousin.
Margaret’s Italian would probably be limited to what she picked up in Rome, so it is interesting that, 28 years before the launch of the Vespa, a key Italian phrase to learn in Rome was ‘multo pericoloso’ (very perilous) !
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went, via France, Italy and Greece to what was then Serbia, in 1918/19 towards the end of the First World War. She was a nurse, working for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and wrote a number of letters and diaries describing her her experiences, indexed here.
During her travels she encounters a number of people, some more more frequently than others, and this article is intended to help keep track of them, and also, in some cases, add some extra information, as many of them were women, and in 1918, during a war, it was only people of an adventurous spirit who would travel to a remote part of the world (as it was in those days) to help people close to where a war was being fought.
Probably born in Ipwich, Suffolk on 8th October 1878, to Thomas William Danby and Gertrude Elizabeth Mary Tyler Smith.
She joined as a VAD on 25h September 1918. Her VAD record is here.
Fooks, Idaberga Mabel. (1880 – )
Her father, Edward John Fooks, was born in Langton House, which was apparently the childhood home of Robert Baden-Powell. I thinks Idaberaga was also born there. Mr Fooks was a partner in the London law firm, Messrs Fooks, Chadwick, Arnold & Chadwick, and clearly spoke good French as he provided for the Courier newspaper the translation of an account of the experiences of one of the Belgian refugees from Herent, near Louvain. He was for 20 years Legal Adviser to the R.C. Diocese of Southwark. This is from https://belgiansrtw.wordpress.com/claytons-farmhouse/ which also says that “Their daughter Idaberga Mabel FOOKS was a VAD nurse for the duration of the war, at Bidborough Court (Kent 74) and for two years on secondment to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Russia and Serbia.”
My Great Aunt Norah Constance Box was 20 on 11th November 1918. Her sister, Margaret Ada Box who was nursing in Salonica and Serbia wrote to her on the 24th October, from a camp of the 708 Motor Transport Company to wish her a Happy Birthday. Although Margaret’s letter does not mention it, her diary shows she had stopped off at M.T. camp because many of them were sick with Spanish Flu, and three of her patients died that day. Margaret’s next letter, written to her parents when she rejoins her unit, describes her journey as ‘I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful’ – I suspect she is dissembling about the enjoyment, as the entry about that letter has some extracts from Margaret’s diary.
This is to wish you very many happy returns of the day & I hope you will get it in time – though I think it is rather doubtful. I hope you will get something for your birthday as I suggested before I came away.
I have been very busy all this week, although I have not reached my destination ! I have had a very nice letter from my ‘Chief’ – Miss Danby went on & has arrived & I have heard from her. She told the Chief where I was staying & they are going to fetch me when the work here slackens down. I am very fit, I think this outdoor life suits me & I get so hungry – we have heaps to eat & any amount of jam. I am much fatter than when I started ! There is a most fascinating view from here & I wish I had time to explore – you would love it I know. Blue crocuses & pale yellow scabious grow up the mountain side & any amount of mushrooms.
I wonder where you are and what you are doing ? I hope that it has all turned out well & that you are in comfy quarters.
I hope there will be a big budget of letters waiting for me, but I don’t think they will be thro’ yet – they take such an age. I am dying for home news. I wish you could see me now. Sitting up in bed ! My valise is having good wear now – also the wretched tin basin – but it has got horribly bent & chipped all over.
It is very late & I must go to sleep, am sorry I have no time to write more.
Much love to the family & yourself & all best wishes
Douglas Walshe was an officer in the 708 Company M T, ASC, a Light Supply and Ammunition Column of Ford vans attached to the Serbian Army. His book With the Serbs in Macedonia is available online at archive.org. His book mentions several encounters with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, but I did not find anything which could be pin pointed as this particular camp.