Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, was nursing in Salonica and Serbia at the end of the First World War. She wrote many letters home, which I am transcribing here. This one, to her father, follows the one she wrote she wrote to her mother, from Bralo on 11th/12th October 1918.
c/o 49th Stationary Hospital
My Dear Dad
We are still here & still expect to be ! The work in the hospital now is much lighter so we are not helping any more. We generally go out for a walk in the mornings & come in for lunch at 12.30 – in the afternoon we stay inside & read – it is much too hot out then to be pleasant – we have to be in camp by 6 p.m. so there is no time for an evening walk. Yesterday morning Miss Sinclair & I set out together – we walked thro’ the vinyards by a winding footpath then across a Tobacco field & down to the river bed – just now there is only a little brook running & we easily crossed by stepping stones. We climbed the bank the other side & went thro’ a farmyard into the village street – now more than a rough cart track, the cottages are mostly made of mud (I believe I said stone before) & mostly all have a wooden stairway leading up to a veranda. I believe the family lives upstairs & the donkeys, pigs, goats & chickens downstairs.
Under the eaves & in every available hanging place are strings of tobacco leaves hanging up to dry. The wooden shutters are all bright blue. Everyone greeted us as we went along & the women & girls love to shake hands. This village was at the foot of a mountain & we thought of climbing up a little but we had no time & the mountains are all very rough & rocky with an awful lot of dwarf holly about – so we wandered on & came back again to the river. We climbed down the bank & sat on a stone under the shadow of a bridge. Some pretty little birds came down to drink. They looked like glorified yellow wagtails – there are lots of pretty birds about but they don’t sing – only twitter. Further down the river under shelter of a bridge a crowd of greek women were talking – presently ‘Whiskey’ – our dog – a huge black & white animal with red eyes jumped up & barked furiously at a woman who came to wash some clothes in the brook. Altho’ he is a Greek dog – he hates the Greeks – we had to hold him in & talk severely to him. Just then 2 pretty girls came along carrying wine barrels on their backs – they stopped & stared at us & I believe they thought we were lost – anyway they made signs for us to go with them – so we did.
We patted each other & admired each others clothes & then set off together – one took my hand & we all jabbered as we went along – as you may imagine we were all very much amused & they laughed as much as we did. We passed a church with a whole crowd of men discoursing outside in the yard. Then we went on til we came to the next village where we said Goodbye to our friends.
We saw a woman carrying her baby all wrapped up in a blue bundle & tied on her back with string ! The babies look very pale & wizzened tho’ the children look bonny enough. We left the village behind us & followed a track across a bare field towards our camp which was a good way off – but as there are no hedges or other obstacles about we could make a bee line for our tents. We were back in good time for lunch. We rested in the afternoon & at 5.30 went to church in the camp. The service is very simple & nice & the Chaplain preached a very good sermon. We miss the church bells – tho’ all thro’ the service we could hear the goat bells as the herds were being driven home. This morning we set out with the intention of climbing a mountain ! To begin with we are quite a long way from the foot of a mountain when your time is limited (we always have to be in for lunch) so we looked longingly at the 1st motor lorry that came along & the tommy stopped & up we climbed. That took us along the very dusty, uninteresting road to the village of Gravia – at the foot of the Pass we came thro’ from Itea so we walked thro’ the village & started up the mountain along a donkey track – it was very rough & prickly – you see we left the donkey track & made a bee line for the sharp edge of a ridge. I picked crowds of little pink cyclamen on the way. A little Greek girl with bare feet came with us – her feet must have been harder than shoe leather for they did not seem to get scratched & our own shoes did!
We eventually got to the top of the ridge after climbing a long time & sat on jagged rocks. We looked down on Gravia nestling below us on one side & the winding road & rocky ravine of the Pass on the other side & up behind us towards the mountain we’re going to climb! We rested there 1/2 an hour or more & discussed the nearest way home & whether we would chance getting a lift back along the road. We intended climbing down the other side into the village but it was too steep & prickly so we came down the same way. Luck was with us for just as we reached the road a lorry came along & we all climbed up in front with the driver. We had just got thro’ the village when the Colonel came along in his car – it was much nicer than the lorry. How we flew along !
This afternoon being very hot I seized the opportunity to wash my clothes & hung them out to dry while I rested on my bed ! Your clothes dry very quickly in this sun & as I don’t know where my kitbag is I can’t get any clothes out of it – so that is a great reason for washing to proceed. The clothes I am wearing will be worn out before I see the kitbag again.
After tea we walked up to the canteen to get soap & a few other things. Soap was an unknown quantity so we got Turkish delight instead & very nice too.
Coming back we watched the sun go down behind the mountains, the light on Mt Parnassus is beautiful & as it is the highest mountain the light is on it the longest. It is a lovely mountain & I never get tired of watching it – it is quite different from the others. As soon as the sun has gone it gets very cold & we rush for coats – just now there is a moon & the stars are grand – they seem to be so much bigger & nearer. I watch them every night from my tent door.
Still no word of moving on & we are trying to practice patience. This morning we strolled thro’ the vinyards & down to the brook. We sat under the shadow of a tree & read our books for some time – but we saw rain coming over the mountains so thought we had better return. On the way back we found some mushrooms & have given them to the cook for breakfast. We got in before the rain which is coming down this afternoon in torrents. We had planned to take our tea to a mountain & search for an old monastery but that of course is out of the question now. No doubt we shall get a chance of going one day later as there seems to be no hope of marching orders yet.
This afternoon the sisters have all gone on duty in top boots & oilskins. The mountains have all disappeared behind the clouds & the whole camp looks a completely different place.
I enclose a leaf of some pretty green stuff we found on the mountain – it grows about 8″ to 1 ft high & looks so pretty in with the pink cyclamen.
I think I will say Goodnight now – am glad to say the rain has stopped.
Very much love to all
Your loving daughter
Work in the hospital much lighter
When Margaret wrote on October 11th, the sisters on the wards at the hospital had not been off duty for a month, as they were at the peak of the Spanish Flu epidemic. As I write this, we have been in isolation for over a month in response to the Corvid 19 pandemic, and it is encouraging to remember that too came to an end.
Bralo, Gravia and Itea
Bralo, is the small village below the 49th Field Hospital, which is the village Margaret and Miss Sinclair visited on the first morning.
Gravia is a larger village, down the valley from Bralo – the very dusty, uninteresting road on which they had lifts from lorries and the Colonel’s car is now part of European Route E65.
Itea will be where they disembarked from the troop ship on 3rd October, before catching a train to Bralo on 6th October.
Shopping in the Canteen
The substitution of Turkish Delight for Soap may seem like an early example of supermarket home delivery substitutions, but when you look this does not seem so silly, and according to Wikipedia ” soapwort may be used as an emulsifying additive. ” in the production of Turkish Delight, as well as having been used to make soap.
From Margaret’s diary, which I also have, the Colonel was Colonel Bailey – I don’t know who he was beyond that.
Convoy of Indians
The diary entry for the 14th also says “We saw a convoy of Indians come in”, which is a reminder that people from all over the Empire fought in the war. The Fibis web site, about life in British India, has a page full of useful links about Saloncia and the Balkans in the First World War.
Map showing Bralo and Gravia, Itea is at the south end of the valley