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.
The central character and main letter writer, she had trained as a nurse. After the war she returned to nursing, apart from a brief marriage to Colonel Curtis. He was one of a group of people, including her brother, Leonard Box who bought land outside the village of Shamley Green. Leonard built Little Cucknells, the house where my mother lived until she left home, on that land, but Colonel Curtis seems to disappear from the story, and Margaret went back to being Box.
Box, Edith Mary (1894-1959)
Margarets younger sister
Box, Norah Constance (1898-1987)
Margaret’s youngest sister.
She was a housekeeper in San Francisco for the Leale family from 1926 to 1932.
Box, Rosina (Rose) (1884-1969)
Margaret’s eldest sister.
Margaret writes to her on
6 Nov 1918 – to wish her a Happy Birthday (on 5th December)
Chesney, Lilian (1869-1935)
Dr Chesney was the head of the hospital Margaret was attached to, where she did most of her nursing in Serbia. As the hospital moved around many of the letters simply use the address “c/o Dr Chesney”
29 Oct 1918 – where she is in Skopje when Margaret arrives there.
6th Nov 1918 – where she goes for a walk round town with Margaret
From a comment by Lynn Lawson attached to the 29th October post referenced above, on her return she took an active part in life in Seaford, East Sussex, where she was awarded the British Empire Medal for her service with the WVS in WW2, and served as a councillor.
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.
On the 28th October 1918 my Great Aunt, Margaret Box, arrived at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals unit near Skopje. She was a Red Cross Nurse working in the Elsie Inglis unit at the end of the First World War and fortunately her letters home and diaries have been preserved.
You will be pleased to hear that I reached my destination yesterday – not bad for a 12 day’s journey eh !
I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful & I shall tell you the details when I see you. I started work this morning & am expecting to like it all very much. Twice – on the way out I have done a weeks nursing – both British.
This afternoon I have been out for a walk in the town with Danby. I believe it is a market day and we jostled through a very interesting and picturesque crowd. The sun is out & it is very nice & warm now, but at night & in the morning it is very cold. There is snow on the mountains today they they look lovely in the sun. The people wear such quaint clothes – a lot wear white serge big coats edged & decorated with black braid & no sleeves – they are very fond of red – aprons, sashes, gaiters, sleeves etc. (& patches !).
We went into a (deserted) mosque this afternoon – it was very interesting & was decorated – that is – walls & ceiling – with a pretty blue pattern. This place is miles from where I expected to be. I wonder if you have any idea where it is. We expect to be here for a few months – luckily we are in a building which will be warmer for the winter.
30.x.18. Today it is very wet & so cold – but I am glad to say I found my kit bag here on my arrival (I parted from it a long time ago) & so am able to get into thick clothes.
I did not find any letters waiting here for me – which was a great disappointment, but I know they take ages to get through so suppose they will come one day.
I was very surprised to find Miss Jones here – I left her more than a week ago – she was going farther on but is ill in bed with the flu. There is such a lot of flu about & it has kept me very busy ! I have not had it myself.
Please tell Leonard that Miss Ffoulkes is nursing here. She is on night duty just now – I told her how we had lunch with Captain Whitaker the day before I came away. I don’t know anybody here & all the people I was to look up & give messages to are hundreds of miles from here.
There are 4 other sisters – 1 on night & 1 ill and there are 4 V.A.Ds – 1 girl looks after the laundry – 1 cooks for us – 1 (Danby) is sanitary inspection. We have 2 doctors & 1 Administrator & no Matron. They are all exceedingly nice & we are a very happy crowd.
I am longing to hear what you are all doing & hope you will be able to get ?fining for the winter. I am very glad I brought my eiderdown – it is decidedly cold here. My hands & arms are still very brown from being out in the sun but expect it will soon wear off now.
I think you ought to get this in time for your birthday so will wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish I could fly across & give you a good big birthday kiss – but shall have to save them up for when I come back.
I have 30 beds in my ward – all medical cases at present – the patients are very nice & very amused at my efforts to talk to them. I am picking up a few words already & hope to get better at it.
When I was at the town where my bank is I wanted to get a cheque book so that I could write for money when I wanted it. Unfortunately we arrived there on Sat. afternoon & left on Sunday evening & the bank was not open – so I have not got my cheque book. I explained it all to the administrator of the S.W.H. & she advised me to write a letter to the bank authorizing her to draw the money (£5) so I did it & she gave me the £5. I shall now talk to the administrator here & see what is to be done next. There is not much chance of spending money here – except in the way of curios & everything is fearfully expensive. I tried to by a little note book (not made in England !!) the price was 2 francs so I went without. I saw some lovely wooden spoons which I have my eye on but don’t suppose I shall get. They all eat their soup & vegetables with these wooden spoons & they are awfully nice. Apples cost 1 franc each – also little cakes which we should think dear at 2d
Nov 1st – I am very glad to say that we had only one wet day. Yesterday afternoon 4 of us went for a walk a little way up the mountain to a little village. The people wear most extraordinary clothes – a long white woollen shirt – a sheepskin coat (fur inside) & a woven red stripe apron, a handkerchief or cloth of some sort, red preferred, tied round the head & red embroidered stuff on their legs which is bound on by string. They don’t wear boots but skin tied on with string.
I have spoken to Miss Gwynn about the money & she is going to the town tomorrow & will see what can be done. She takes our letters with her to post – they have to wait until someone is going down – so I don’t suppose you will often get a letter. I only hope she will bring some back with her! I think I had better wish Rose a happy birthday too as I don’t suppose we shall be posting for some time. I shall think of you especially on your birthdays (Norah too) & shall send good wishes on the ‘wings of the wind’.
When you are sending out anything please will you send 2 or 3 little note books about 3 or 4 inches long. It is impossible to get them here & I am wanting one to jot down ‘words’. What would be useful is 3 or 4 dark grey silk handkerchiefs, white gets dirty so quickly – but am afraid they would be rather expensive. Euthymol toothpaste is impossible to get – or toothpaste of any description. I am finding my flannel pyjamas very comfy – also the jaeger bed socks. They say it is not usually so cold as early as this & they think it will turn warmer again. There is a little less snow on the mountains today – they do look lovely with the sun shining on them.
Some say we shall be moving on quite soon – at present our beds are full with ‘flu’ patients. I think that I shall specialize in this disease on my return! It is exactly the same here as at home & in every other place I have been in.
It is bedtime so I must think of saying Goodbye. I am going to wish you all a happy Xmas as probably we shan’t get another lot of letters off in time – anyway you will know I am thinking of you all even if the letter does not bring the news. I don’t know where we shall be for Xmas, perhaps here but most likely much further on. There is a lot of rejoicing in the streets tonight at the news.
I would like to go on writing heaps but have no time now. I have not written to any of the family so will you send them my best wishes for Xmas if my letters don’t get through in time.
Very much love to you all hoping you are all well.
Your loving Daughter
I was on this boat for part of my journey – there is not so much paint on the boat now & the sea was not so rocky – it was a very uneventful though very enjoyable trip.
Dr Lilian Chesney (1869-1935) was at Girton from 1890 to 1894, and was also involved in campaign for Women’s Votes.
She has an entry in the Lives of the First World War here.
The was the lead doctor of the unit, hence the unit could be reached by sending letters care of her.
The V.A.D.s were the Voluntary Aid Detachment – civilian volunteers who were not under the control of military units. As well as Margaret’s friend Danby, several famous people, including Agatha Christie were V.A.D.s
Margaret’s diary, which more sketchy than her letters tells a little more of how she spent the time between Salonica and the field hospital near Skopje.
At 10:50 p.m. on the 20th Margaret, Danby and 3 others travel on the Salonica to Monasteri (Bitola) railway, having a carriage to themselves and arrive at 7 a.m. Then travel by French meat lorries 35km to Prilip.
On the 21st she stays at 708 M.T. where “nearly all the men down with flu and 2 sisters in to nurse them”
On 22nd “Howard & I help in the tents. Plenty of work to do and no convenience for ?revisiting or food except bully and tinned milk”
23rd “Howard & Danby get a lift to Valiz. I stay behind to help. 6 men brought back from French hosp. in an awful condition. Work fast and furious.”
24th ” 2 men died early morn. 1 in afternoon. Letters from Howard & Danby who arrived on eve 23rd at Uskut. Letter from Dr. Chesney. Pleased with my actions. to stay as long as necessary.
Howard would be “HOWARD Miss Lilian Maud, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 6-Feb-19 “
27th “North arrived in a touring car to take me on…”
North would be “NORTH Miss Augusta Louisa, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 2-Dec-18”
Her letters home do not alarm her parents with the details of patients dying, and make the whole trip seem rather like a jolly holiday, but the diary shows she, and the other nurses, were out there doing a difficult job, sometimes under arduous conditions.
Her diary shows that ‘The hospital was opened in an old school a week before I arrived. I take ward 3 – 30 beds medical cases’
The Book “A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes” says (p225) that the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who had moved from their malodorous former base, “Dead Horse Camp” to set up a hospital in a former school. This implies, though I don’t think she is mentioned in the letters, that Margaret was in the area at the same time as Flora Sanders – The only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WW1.
Picking up a few words
Margaret had a notebook in which she wrote what what I think is Serbian, although several of the words seem to be different from modern Serbian (or at least Serbo-Croat from 1983) and the script is more like Greek than Cyrillic . The language notebook deserves a post (or posts) to itself.
Getting and spending money
£5 in 1918 would be worth between £239 and £2126 today, according to MeasuringWorth, so this would have been sufficient to cover her expenses for some time.
It is interesting that Margaret was provided with a names and addresses for people in Salonica, which she did not get a chance to use, but social networks are clearly not as new as we might think !
She would be
GWYNN Miss Margaret Katherine, Secretary London Unit 2-Jul-17 24-Nov-17 and 20-Feb-18 1-Sep-18
Margaret’s mother, Ada Box (nee Webster), born on 30th November 1861, was sent sixth birthday wishes from her big sister, Margaret Webster – who died 4 months later. The letter is at ‘Birthday wishes from Margaret Webster to Ada Webster‘. Margaret Box was probably named after Margaret Webster.
Margaret’s sister, Rose (Rosina) Box was born on 5th December 1884.
My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a civilian Red Cross nurse, serving in Serbia, towards the end of the First World War. On the 20th of October 1918 she wrote to her Mother from Salonica. As this had been the first major city she had been in for a while she also sent a telegram to say she had arrived safely.
At last we have moved on & we had a comfy night here last night. We went to bed early & slept ‘double quick’ to make up for the night before – which we spent looking at the scenery. There was a lovely moon to light us on our way. We stopt at 9.30 p.m. & got out to have dinner, then went on again. I sent a cable off to you this morning from the place I promised & I hope you will get it soon. We are not staying here long & we are going much further than was intended when we started – the address you have holds good or course – where ever we go.
I say Goodbye to Miss Sinclair & Miss Murdoch today – they are both going to work here for the time being. Miss Powell-Jones, the chauffeur (Taffy – I will call her – she is Welsh) is going on with me – some of the way we go together – also 2 other chauffeurs & Miss Danby who caught us up at the last place. Miss Danby is going to the same place as I am.
Salonica is a very large place – it is awfully hot even now – so can’t imaging what it is like in summer.
When you are writing & it is convenient please will you send me a reel or two of grey cotton, I did not bring any & as you know my clothes are all grey & I have only black or white to sew them up.
My hair has grown about 2 inches since I left home. I was hoping to go to a barber while staying here, but today is Sunday so I have had no chance – however Taffy has kindly cut it for me & I am thankful to be feeling a little cooler in the upper regions.
Everybody is very nice & kind & we seem to have been feeding ever since we arrived. There is no one here that I know and am afraid I have forgotten all the people I was meant to look up. I ought to have put all their names down. But I have no time to visit anyone.
I must get a bath & pack my clothes before we move on so had better say Goodbye.
With much love to all
Your loving Daughter
Written on the letter is also says ‘3 copies typed’ and ‘sent to Norah’, and something else I can’t read.
As is happening during the lockdown people who are not professional hairdressers were extending their skill sets, as Taffy kindly cuts Margaret’s hair.
The journey from Bralos to Salonica was by a train on the Piraeus–Platy railway – which runs through spectacular scenery and, having been built between 1908 and 1916, would have been quite new when Margaret used it.
This video shows the type of scenery the train travelled through, no wonder Margaret spent the trip looking out of the window !
I think she is probably
JONES Miss Gladys Margaret Powell, Chauffeur America Unit 19-Sep-18 1-Mar-19
Only the medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and x-ray operators received a salary and expenses while non-medical staff such as orderlies, administrators, drivers, cooks and others received no pay at all (and were in fact expected to pay their way)
So as a chauffeur Taffy would not have been being paid, but would have been having an opportunity for experiences not generally available to women during those times.