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.
c/o Dr. Chesney, etc.
My Dear Rose,
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) !