My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, worked as a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia towards the end of the First World War. I am fortunate to have inherited many of the letters she wrote home, which give an insight into a less well known area of the war, and the world as it was over one hundred years ago. By 18th November 1918 when she writes this letter to her sister, Norah, the war is over, but nurses are still needed due to the Spanish Flu pandemic.
4. A. H.
My dear Norah
Very many thanks for your letter which I was exceedingly pleased to have. Am very glad to notice you have brains & that you imagine a Field Hosp. must follow the army to which it is attached. Unfortunately we got left behind in the hurry & in 10 days time are going a very long way round to join up again. The place you mentioned was a jolly good shot. We intended going through there to a bigger place farther on but another S.W.H. Unit is now going there, to the big place. We are not so far on as your guess. You might try a few more shots next time. We are going farther north & round to the left but all round “the world” to get there ! And please tell me if any of my letters have been censored – we are dying to know when we can write letters fully.
I am sorry to hear you missed all the foul jobs but hope you will like the ‘Land’ equally as well. Tell Father that a lot of tobacco is grown, maize, shells, hand grenades (I saw a field full the other day), old German helmets & wrecked lorries etc – but always cabbages & leeks. We have cabbage every day, twice except when we have leeks. This plain looks very fertile. The earth is being ploughed (rather a dangerous job in places) & is a lovely dark red colour. The ploughing is very superficial & done by oxen. There are patches of green grass about, in fact much more grass here than I have seen since the South of France but then there has been rain.
I have also seen wheat growing
They say the flowers in Spring & Summer are a lovely sight. Fields full of madonna lilies & Love-in-the-Mist growing ever so high. The other day I found some blue larkspur growing in the snow. There are no hedges. I think a good many apple trees, no end of poplars in this particular town but no other big trees. The mountains are mostly grassy, smooth & undulating not rocky like the Parnassus lot. A lot of wild thyme grows on them & wild dogs roam all round. Also wild looking men in weird clothes – coats with monks’ hoods come down from the mountains with their loaded donkeys. The donkeys walk first & in single file & the men walk after in single file. They walk with folded arms & silent tread. They wear goat skin sandals. The Turkish women in town wear baggy trousers, socks if they are lucky & clogs & clatter along just behind their man (they also wear quilted jackets & little black shawls over their heads & faces). The Serbian women wear long white shirts, red aprons, sheep skin jackets on white serge coats edged with black braid & always wide red sashes round their waists. They are very picturesque. They wear fancy red stockings, thick things like carpets & leather sandals.
I certainly wish you were here. There are most lovely walks all round & life is one huge picnic tho’ it certainly would be nice to come home to tea sometimes with cake & soft bread. But I am enjoying it all quite as much as I expected. The soldiers, both officers & men have been very good to us all the way along & are quite different from the ones at home who used to annoy me so much. It was awfully good getting such a nice lot of letters just at birthday time. I have managed to get some tinned cake, toffee & ginger biscuits at the canteen today so we will have a birthday feast tonight. It cost 10 drachmas altogether !
Please thank Rose for her nice long letter. I am glad she is liking the work so much.
10 a.m. We have just heard the most exciting news that we are to evacuate immediately. All patients are to be moved this afternoon & we are to clear out the day after tomorrow so I must pack up my things while i have time.
Heaps of love to all
Your loving sister
Missed out on all the foul jobs
A note in the letter to Rose on 6th November suggests that Norah had been looking for a job working with chickens, which would have been a fowl job.
Another S.W.H unit going there
Margaret was attached to the ‘London’ Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which was later renamed to the Elsie Inglis Unit, in honour of the doctor who founded the hospital. It was one of 14 units of the Hospital, which was active in all theatres of the war. Three of the units were active in Macedonia, the other two were the Girton and Newnam Unit and the American Unit.
As to where Norah’s guess about the place she was going, and the big place Margaret was going to go to through this other place, the guess could have been Pristina, and the big place Belgrade, but Margaret’s next destination is Sarajevo.
Life is one huge picnic
Margaret’s diary for the week show she is on night duty alone on the wards, that Cooper from 708 M.T. company is brought in ill again, and that on Nov 19th
Cough pretty rotten – to bed directly after breakfast. get up at 5 p.m. see Captain Johnston & Mr Watson who are staying for the present in Skopje. All patients but 1 evacuated. to bed again after dinnerMargarets diary entry for November 19th 1918
Margaret was born on the 19th November 1890, so her birthday would have been the following day. It looks as if her celebration plans were disrupted by the news that the Hospital was on the move, indeed as the diary entry above shows she did not seem to have had a very jolly birthday.