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.
My Dear Father & Mother
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.
Fascinating, thanks John. The logistics of moving nurses (and anybody) around must have been incredible. How did they co-ordinate picking up 3 nurses to transport in meat lorries from the side of a road?! Also I was interested that French seemed to be the language used on the train. It must have been such a contrast for these young ladies, going from the maid at home, to having to check the bread for fleas!
My impression was that that use of the meat lorries was due to Margaret and her companions using their initiative, rather than being co-ordinated. There was presumably an unoccupied passenger seat in each lorry, so they rather bravely hitched a lift. Although the ‘Ferocious looking men’ were more likely to be Serbian, I think Margaret was using the traditional British technique of speaking your best foreign language to foreigners, and anyway they seem to have understood the meaning as ‘I know you are there and am not going to let you steal my stuff’ even if they did not understand her, rather polite, French. She does seem to have taken a lot of very different things in her stride.