Margaret Ada Box started the year 1919 far from home (Croydon), in a hospital in Sarajevo, where she was a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Although the First World War was over, sickness and disease – particularly the Spanish Flu, meant there was a great need for medical attention. The Armistice had been signed, but many of the causalities of war needed treatment for their injuries.
Margaret was my Great Aunt, and I have inherited many of the letters she wrote home. Here she writes to her father, my Great Grandfather, on the first of January 1919.
We had a pleasant surprise today in the shape of a mail. Thank you for your letter of the 25th (Nov) just received & the parcel from Mother arrived at the same time. Please thank her very much for all the things, the handkerchiefs are lovely, am sorry she had such a bother to get them. The gloves too I am needing badly.
We are lucky to get more letters again so soon, it being only Xmas Eve when we received the last. Dr Chesney returned on Sunday last with the news that we were to remain here & open the hospital – or rather take it over from the Germans. So since then we have actually been nursing again & I am continuing on night duty. I shall only do 1 month altogether on nights.
We have not many patients yet, but they are a strange collection – five different nationalities in one ward! Today we received more orders from home. The unit is to return home as soon as possible & the London Committee has resigned. The difficulty is that we cant’ go home as the Unit has no money here at present. So we shall just have to sit & wait till it comes. I have asked to be transferred to another Unit out here & so finish my year. It will mean some more travelling round to join one of the other hospitals. The one I want is farther north than the place where I first joined this hospital.
I am awfully sorry to hear Rose had the ‘flu’ & do hope she soon recovered & that Mother did not take it too. What a good thing she was in a place where she could get good attention. I hope by now all is serene once more. You must have been terribly lonely all by yourself. I wonder if Leonard is home yet & how he will like the office again.
The money we are using at the moment is the column marked (by me) the value alters very frequently at present 1 kr is only worth 5d & someone yesterday got 115 kr for a golden sovereign. The money has altered in almost every place we have been, the French not being the usual & in some places even refused. All native souvenirs of any sort, clothes or anything else are very expensive now since the war & doubly so to us who they know are English but I hope to bring a few things back with me. I am sending you a white felt cap, as worn by the Macedonians, usually by itself tho’ often with a bright handkerchief round forming a broad band similar to a turban. They look very funny, little white patches on top of a black head. This one fits on the back of my head beautifully & I hope will be large enough for you. Am sure it will be nice & warm for you to wear indoors. I shall ask someone who is going home to take & post it.
On Tuesday afternoon several of us went out to see a Turkish gentleman, his house & his family. It was a wonderful arrangement. They had beautiful carpets & embroidered cushions & covers of all descriptions made by his wife. Then they had very valuable cups, plates etc & all kinds of treasures, they must be rolling in wealth. The wife was very beautiful & dressed in pale blue silk trousers, very full. Her hair was in 2 long plaits & covered with a little scarf edged with artificial flowers. The little sister age 9 – called “Xuda” pronounced “Heba” was very pretty, also dressed in baggy trousers, but not nearly so full. The Mother was dressed in bright orange. They all wore their hair the same way. “Xuda” brought us raspberry syrup in marvellous red fancy glasses with gold rims, on a lovely silver filigree tray. After that we had coffee in tiny china cups. The Turkish women when out of doors wear black silk or material veils hanging over their faces & a great many of them wear white flowing robes, all over heads too. You can imagine how ghostly they look. You can never see their features & they stand still & stare at us through their masks.
We had a lot of snow last week which froze & the sleighs have been out on the streets, but today it has been thawing fast.
Very many thanks for all the Xmas wishes. We certainly had a strange Xmas here. I hope all the others were able to get home for it.
Very best love to all & all good wishes for the New Year to all
Your loving Daughter
Connecting across a century, sending parcels to Europe was associated with a requirement for a customs declaration, which, from a historical point of view generated some interesting documentation, even if it was probably a nuisance at the time. I don’t have the customs declaration, but there is an itemised list of the contents of this parcel.
1 pair (something)
9 (something) Hankerchief
4 Cotton ?socks
Total for clothes
Writing (something )
I hope to return to decoding John Box’s handwriting, to complete the list, but I am sure Margaret was very glad to replenish her supplies of stationary and socks, handkerchiefs etc.
The exchange rate table, which Margaret presumably enclosed with this letter is interesting.
This appears to have been cut from a newspaper, which Margaret must have had access to in Serbia – she was, by now, in a major city (Sarajevo). Most of the other currencies, such as the French Franc have gone, but interesting to see that £1 was worth $4.87 – as opposed to $1.39 when I wrote this.
The reverse of the cutting is also interesting.
My mother used a Boots Scribbling Diary, which was always one of her requested presents, but it is interesting to see that they date back at least as far as 1919.
The white felt cap
From the description this sounds like a Plis, though that is more often associated with Albanian national costume than Macedonian.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box trained as a nurse and, towards the end of the First World War went as a Red Cross Volunteer with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to join their life-saving work in Serbia. She had been working in Skopje, but the unit was no longer needed there, and they had been sent, via Salonica to Sarajevo. She wrote this letter on 30th December 1918, telling her Father about her voyage.
This post covers a lot of ground and I plan to revise it to fill in more details, but posting it as a draft.
I will try to continue the story of my travels from Salonica. We went on board on the Sunday morning & we set sail on Sunday morning about 8 A.M. It was a lovely fine day, but a very cold wind & the sea was quite choppy.
All the mountains round were snow capped & Olympus of course was very conspicuous. We wrapped ourselves up & sat in hammocks on deck at the end of the ship. We had a big 6″ gun which was uncovered as soon as we got out of the harbour & the sailor on watch showed it to us & we looked through it & had a ride on it. It was fixed on a swivel. Next day it was much warmer & we were amongst the Greek islands. We passed Anti Milo, an island where they found a statue of Venus of Anti Milo which is now in the Louvre at Paris. We passed Crete later in the morning – by this time the weather was very mild.
Next day the engines broke down. The weather was frightfully hot & we were somewhere in the Mediterranean south of Greece. There was only one point of land very faintly visible on the horizon. We started again next day at 11 A.M. & arrived at Gallipoli in italy at 8:30 in the morning. A submarine came out of the harbour & a whole string of destroyers. We left Gallipoli on Dec 11th at 1 p.m. and proceeded to Taranto arriving there at 5:30 p.m. We anchored outside the gates.
Next day 4 huge coal barges came out to coal us & the whole ship & everyone on it got smothered in coal dust. We bought oranges from natives who came out with huge baskets full in rowing boats. We put our watches back an hour.
There were a lot of old Austrian ships anchored there. We started off again at 5 p.m. & next morning anchored outside the Bay of Velona. A pilot came out at 11 a.m. to take us into the harbour. There were mine fields all across the mouth of the Bay & only a very narrow channel in near the coast. We all had to wear life vests & line up near our life boats. It took half an hour to reach the boom & then we were safe. They bay was marvellously beautiful & great huge mountains all round. Velona was in the hands of the Italians.
This is Velona Bay & the little pilot which guided us round the corner into the harbour. We left Velona at 4.30 p.m. & came out as we went in.
Next morning we came up on deck at 8 A.M. in lifebelts. Ragusa was in sight but we could not land there so a pilot came out and took us to Toplis Bay. There were any amount of mine fields. We went along by the coast crossed the mouth of the Bay – a huge fort was on a little island in the centre & went in by the south shore. We passed Castellnuovo & anchored in Joede Bay (the 2nd one) at 12.30 p.m. In the afternoon some of the crew from the ‘Glasgow’ came on board. The Glasgow is the only destroyer that escaped in a big battle at the beginning of the war, near South America I believe. They took us in their steam launch across the Bay – 4 miles to see the remains of the Austrian fleet, 4 battleships, 2 cruisers & about 40 submarines and destroyers. Then we went to tea with the Captain on the Glasgow & looked all over the boat. He had lovely rooms, very cosy & even luxurious. He gave us a delicious tea & we returned to the Danube by moonlight.
After dinner we had a dance on deck . A good number of the ‘Glasgow’ officers were there, also 2 from the ‘Luce‘ an American destroyer also in port. Next day the Americans asked us to lunch so we all went on board & then to our joy we steamed off to Cattaro, thro a narrow channel into Cattaro Bay. The scenery was very beautiful.
We had lunch then went ashore. The town is very quaint, the streets are paved passages winding about & every now & again leading into large paved squares. We climbed up the hill which springs straight up at the back of the town. There is a fort on top built by Franz Joseph & a very strong wall up either side of the hill (see p.c. enclosed). We found huge snowdrops & all sorts of ferns & campanulas. We returned to the ‘Luce’ & had tea there on the way back to our Bay & then returned to the Danube.
The next afternoon some of us went to Zelenika with some of the American officers & had a lovely country walk thro’ woods & footpaths to Castellnuova. This is a most beautiful place where oranges grow & roses were in full bloom. The Serbs were having a ‘Slava’ & dancing in the market place & carrying about oranges on branches. We walked thro’ the town & down to the quay where the American steam launch was waiting. The Serbs all marched in a long procession down the Quay carrying their flags in front & a man & a woman in most wonderful clothes leading them. They were all beside themselves with joy at getting back to their country. Most of our passengers on the Danube were Serbian Officers returning to their country & as we came into the Bay they all clapped & shouted. On this day they had gone ashore for a feast. They all went on by boat to Fuime & so to Belgrade. The other nurses who did not come with us went to the Glasgow to tea again.
On Tuesday morning we had to get up very early & leave the Danube at 6 o’clock- just after we landed on the quay at Zelenika a destroyer came in to escort the Danube out & they departed together. They had exciting news that a mine had been sighted & not destroyed, but we have heard since that they, the Danube, did not see it. Our train left Zelenika Quay at 9 A.M. We had very comfy carriages, an engine at each end of the train & a most exciting journey as it was mountain climbing & very rocky. We arrived at Sarajevo at 12 noon the next day in the pouring rain which soon turned to snow. A Serb Doctor was at the station, commandeered a tram & took us off to the Hotel Europe for refreshment, rolls, butter, raw ham (! filthy !!) & tea with rum in it which warmed us up nicely & fortified us for what was to come. We were then driven off 8 at a time in 2 cars to this building. It is very big & is a boys college but used by the Germans as a hospital.
The Germans were still in possession under the Serbs & said that they were not moving out till the New Year. The Serbs had made a horrible muddle of everything & the Sarajevo Serbs did not know till the last minute that we were coming here & as they had no official notice from the War Minister they could not turn the Germans out. Consequently we were stowed away in empty rooms on the top floor. Every room that had been used as a ward (& most of them had at some time) was swarming with bugs. I have never seen such a crowd even on Lambeth District. The floors are infected with them & at night they come out & crawl up the walls.
Dr Chesney & Miss Gwynn went off to Belgrade to see the War Minister & ask for our passports home as apparently they did not need us any more in spite of the urgent message to depart to Sarajevo. They came back in a week & said that the Serbs were very humble & wished us to stay in Sarajevo & take over the Hospital on the 1st. So the Germans got their way. The patients & wards were in the filthiest mess imaginable. I came on night duty on Dec 30th.
To complicate matters more a letter arrived from the London Committee on Jan 1st saying that they had all resigned & the Unit must disband. We had heard at Salonica that the Unit was to go home in a month. Now the Unit has no money & can’t go home yet!
They can scrape enough together to send home six (who have finished their year) & they are leaving on Monday. Sisters Drummond & Stuart are both going & are taking this letter.
I am very sorry they are going as we are very good friends. They don’t know what route they will take, possibly from Fiume to Trieste & overland thro’ Venice & north Italy.
I have asked to be transferred to Dr Emslie’s Unit which at present is running a very good hospital at Vrania south of Nick. I expect I should go to Belgrade & then down, but we are sure to be here a good many more weeks yet. We are the first English in the town, except of course Army Officers going thro’ to Belgrade. The place is chiefly German & German is the usual language. It is a fairly big town & the buildings are huge white stone affairs. The mountains round are very lovely.
We were very lucky to get another mail on New Year’s day. I had a letter from you dated Nov 25th & a parcel from Mother with beautiful handkies, just what I wanted & all the other things too. I am sorry to hear Rose has been ill & do hope that she is all right now also the rest of the family.
The Transport Drivers belonging to our Unit have all joined use here. Most of them came thro’ Nick & touched Montenegro, then on to Belgrade & then down here. They have had a very exciting & adventurous time. They were all presented with gold medals by the Crown Prince. The others, 5 of them, came round with us by boat & then went on to Fiume. They could not land the cars before Fiume.
The Serbs & Italians are not at all pleased with each other. We heard the other day that they had had a ‘scrap’ & we proceeded to get read for the ‘wounded’! But it was a false alarm. Our patients are a terribly mixed crew – Serbs, Australians, Germans, a Russian, a Pole, an Italian & Turks & a Greek. There are a few languages about. I am still struggling with the Serb language. It is much like Russian but the Grammar is like the Latin & the arrangement of verbs at the last minute of a sentence a la German.
I am getting frightfully good at dumb charades. The alphabet is such a trial as nearly all the letters are entirely different from the latin. This is my name written in Serbian letters.
I hope Mother received my letter with list of people for photos. In case she did not please will she send to –
Miss Saville – 1
Dorothy Nevett – 1
Miss Dingle – Woolverstone Park Hospital, Ipswich – 1
Miss H Ribler – Nurses’ Home, Guy’s Hosp. 1
Miss G. Butler – G.L.I. Hospital, York Rd. Lambeth – 1
Miss K.V. Coni – ” ” ” 1 & 1 for Sister Mitchell & 1 for Sister Fourdrinian – enclosed Coni’s if you will ask her to give them.
Then please will you send me 6 our here.
The snow has been melting fast & the sleighs have disappeared again – we miss their jingling bells. The Serbs Xmas is on Monday next so there will be great rejoicings. We hope to be invited to a ‘Slava’. They are 13 days later than we are, the same as the Russians.
One peculiar custom of the people out here, more especially, I think, the Greeks & Macedonians is that all their horses and donkeys wear necklaces of big blue beads – sort of lucky charms I believe to keep away the devils.
The soldiers don’t have any ?diaums to my knowledge, but they are first rate spitters. I should not think that there can be another race on earth that spits so much.
I am sending you a little felt cap “to keep the draught off” & hope you will find it nice & cosy – it just fits the back of my head. It is a Macedonian cap & all the country peasants wear them, sometimes they wind a bright handkerchief round their heads below the cap, turban style. I got it at Uskub, they make them there from the sheeps wool.
We have had very little work to to at night as we only have a very few patients.
Much love to all the family & all good wishes for a Happy New Year.
She is not in the Red Cross list, and may have been a non-nursing friend.
She was Janet Dingle, Matron at the Wolverstone Park Hospital – this site has much interesting information about the Hospital, and British Home Hospitals in general, including information about Janet Dingle, and a link to her Red Cross Card.
Timeline and map of the journey
Although in her letter of December 2nd, Margaret expects to be setting off the next day, (Wednesday 4th, as her letter continues to be written on the 3rd), the Danube does not leave Salonica until December 6th. These bits of timeline are taken partly from the letters and partly from her diary – I will revisit this to fill them in better.
Tuesday 3rd December
8 am. Board the Danube, but do not sent sail
Wednesday 4th December
Went on land, had lunch at Red Corss
Thursday 5th December
Had a Serbian lesson, and swarms of people came on board.
Friday 6th December
Set sail from Saloncia at 8.30 am, view the guns. Pass Mount Olympus
Saturday 7th December
Pass Anti Milo or possibly Milos as the island the Venus de Milos was discovered on, and Crete, later that morning.
Sunday 8th December
Engines Break down
Monday 9th December
Engines start again and then break down again
Tuesday 10th December
Arrive at Gallipoli
Wednesday 11th December
Leave Gallipoli at 1 p.m.
See Austrian boats, Guided past the mines
Anchor off Bay of Velona
Enter Teode bay. On Glasgow in the evening
Lunch with Americans on Luce
Walk to Castlenuova, Serbs having a Slava
Ashore on Glasgow’s launch, then on the train through Ragusa, Mostar
On train, through Podoratec, Rastelisa, Pagaire, arrive at Sarajevo at 12 noon
Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, spent the Christmas of 1918 far from the rest of her family, working as a nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. On the 28th of December 1918 the unit, including Margaret, were assigned to the hospital in Sarajevo, from where she wrote to her mother.
I received Father’s letter of the 17th Nov on Christmas Eve – please thank him very much. We are still here doing nothing, but in a horribly awkward position with Germans running the Hospital. I hope we move on soon, probably the unit is returning home shortly but I have asked to be transferred to another unit.
We had a very jolly Xmas on the whole & managed to make a Xmas pudding. also had a fancy dress dinner.
Someone just going to take a mail very soon – terrible haste.
Hope you had a happy X.
It seems as if, for Margaret and her friends, Christmas 1918 had similarities to many people’s experience of Christmas 2020, unable to spend it with their families, in a state of enforced idleness, but doing their best to celebrate as normal.
With letters from England taking over a month, and, according to John Box (Margaret’s Father) note, letters from Sarajevo sent via a returning nurse, still taking until January 18 to arrive there would be no Christmas Day family catch-ups by telephone or video chat for them.
Germans running the Hospital
I think the Elsie Inglis Unit had been sent to Sarajevo because the Germans were due to withdraw, but when they arrived the Germans were still in charge, but did not really seem enthusiastic about running the hospital, which was not very clean. There will be more about this in Margaret’s next letter.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Robert Box, on the 12th of December 1918, sympathising with his frustration that he had to communicate with his daughter, my Great Aunt, Margaret Box by way of Salonica (Thessalonica) in Greece, when she was working as a Red Cross Nurse in Sarajevo, over 300 miles away. This is one of many letters which cover the time Margaret was nursing in the Balkans at the tail end of the First World War.
The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s hospitals was based, for administrative purposes in Salonica, but the medical staff moved to where they were needed
I suspect this was Edith Durham who had written ‘Through the Lands of the Serb’ in 1904. She seems to have been another determined British woman who roamed the Balkans fearlessly in the early years of the 20th century.
During the First World War Elsie Inglis, a Scottish Doctor, realised the urgent need for medical assistance to treat the wounded, but as a woman, her offer of assistance was declined by the War Office. Undeterred she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and recruited women to go and and tend the casualties of war. My great aunt, Margaret Box, a trained nurse, was one of those women. In December 1918 she had been nursing near Skopje, but was now en-route to Sarajevo to join a hospital there. The war was over, but it had left many sick and wounded in its wake. This letter, one of many I have inherited from my Great Aunt, is from the London office of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to my Great Grandmother to inform her of Margaret’s move. I think Margaret’s mother wanted to send her a Christmas present.
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.
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
Her father’s notes say ‘arrived 24/12/18’ and ‘answered 29/12/18’
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Very many thanks for your letters dated Nov 3rd & 11th received on Nov 30th & Dec 1st. I look forward to your weekly letters with much joy. It is so nice to know for sure that one is coming every week – even tho’ I don’t get it every week.
I wish I had been home to hear the noise & excitement on Nov 11th. We tried to imagine what would happen & we made as much noise as we could ourselves. Well ! we have lived for a week in tents in the pouring rain at Dr McIlroy‘s. It was quite dry in the tent but so muddy going to meals etc. Today we have come on board & it is just fine. 1st class cabins, my bunk is next to the porthole. We have just had a course dinner with Egyptian waiters hovering round. It seems like a dream after our picnic life & we mean to make the most of it while it lasts.
I have written a letter to Mother & sent some post cards ‘by hand’. I think you ought to receive it about Sunday week, probably before you get this letter. If you get this letter in time will you ask Mother to get me another tartan tie, a silk one ‘Gordon’ Clan, to send me with the stockings.
You remember Miss Sinclair who came out with me ? She has had Malaria very badly but is better now. Miss Murdoch has had boils & abscesses etc & been off duty & Miss Powell-Jones the chauffeur has had influenza. I am the only one who has kept fit & I am getting so fat I shall soon have to get larger clothes & everyone remarks how well I look. Three Sisters in this unit who have been out a long time have not had Malaria at all.
Today while waiting at the dock I saw an Officer who travelled out part of the way with us. He has had exciting adventures since then & has only just come back to this place.
Please thank Mother for her letter & tell her I found my kitbag waiting for me when I joined my unit & I did not lose anything.
I am very glad to hear Norah has found something to do & hope it will prove satisfactory.
Tell Mother we are all busy eating at present ! It is so nice to get good English food again & real butter for tea. We are pigs are we not ?! Dr Chesney thinks we ought to store in as much as possible now to prepare for the future ! & so say all of us. This is a funny life & is made of extremes at present. But we are all very happy.
Please thank Rose for her p.c. am so pleased she is getting on well.
Heaps of love to all
Your loving Daughter Margaret.
You must take care of yourself & not go falling about. Am so glad you have coal for fires. How nice to get a hamper.
I will look out for anecdotes etc.
I think the note on the letter says ‘received around Feb 23rd’
Only one who has kept fit and well
Although Margaret tells her Father she had not been ill, her diary for her birthday on November 19th says she had a cough bad enough for her to spend her birthday in bed, except when she was on duty. I suspect the may have had the Spanish Flu, and the nurses also had to contend with Malaria, boils, as well as diseases such as typhus, cholera and typhoid.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.