About to embark on S.S. Danube – 3rd December 1918


Many valiant men, on both sides of the conflict, left their homes to fight in the First World War. There were also valiant women who travelled from the safety and familiarity of their native land to fight, not against people but against the injuries of war, and the disease – particularly Spanish Flu – that followed in its wake. One of those women was my Great Aunt, Margaret Box. She trained as a nurse, and joined the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals to work in the Balkans. Her letters home give insights into the lives of these women. By December 1918 she had been nursing in the area around Skopje, and had travelled to Thessalonki (Salonica), where she is about to board a troop ship to take her unit to their next posting. She takes the opportunity to write to her Father, John Box.

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Dec 3rd 1918

My Dear Dad

Very many thanks for your letters dated Nov 3rd & 11th received on Nov 30th & Dec 1st. I look forward to your weekly letters with much joy. It is so nice to know for sure that one is coming every week – even tho’ I don’t get it every week.

I wish I had been home to hear the noise & excitement on Nov 11th. We tried to imagine what would happen & we made as much noise as we could ourselves. Well ! we have lived for a week in tents in the pouring rain at Dr McIlroy‘s. It was quite dry in the tent but so muddy going to meals etc. Today we have come on board & it is just fine. 1st class cabins, my bunk is next to the porthole. We have just had a course dinner with Egyptian waiters hovering round. It seems like a dream after our picnic life & we mean to make the most of it while it lasts.

I have written a letter to Mother & sent some post cards ‘by hand’. I think you ought to receive it about Sunday week, probably before you get this letter. If you get this letter in time will you ask Mother to get me another tartan tie, a silk one ‘Gordon’ Clan, to send me with the stockings.

You remember Miss Sinclair who came out with me ? She has had Malaria very badly but is better now. Miss Murdoch has had boils & abscesses etc & been off duty & Miss Powell-Jones the chauffeur has had influenza. I am the only one who has kept fit & I am getting so fat I shall soon have to get larger clothes & everyone remarks how well I look. Three Sisters in this unit who have been out a long time have not had Malaria at all.

Today while waiting at the dock I saw an Officer who travelled out part of the way with us. He has had exciting adventures since then & has only just come back to this place.

Please thank Mother for her letter & tell her I found my kitbag waiting for me when I joined my unit & I did not lose anything.

I am very glad to hear Norah has found something to do & hope it will prove satisfactory.

Tell Mother we are all busy eating at present ! It is so nice to get good English food again & real butter for tea. We are pigs are we not ?! Dr Chesney thinks we ought to store in as much as possible now to prepare for the future ! & so say all of us. This is a funny life & is made of extremes at present. But we are all very happy.

Please thank Rose for her p.c. am so pleased she is getting on well.

Heaps of love to all

Your loving Daughter Margaret.

You must take care of yourself & not go falling about. Am so glad you have coal for fires. How nice to get a hamper.

I will look out for anecdotes etc.

Notes

I think the note on the letter says ‘received around Feb 23rd’

Only one who has kept fit and well

Although Margaret tells her Father she had not been ill, her diary for her birthday on November 19th says she had a cough bad enough for her to spend her birthday in bed, except when she was on duty. I suspect the may have had the Spanish Flu, and the nurses also had to contend with Malaria, boils, as well as diseases such as typhus, cholera and typhoid.

Margaret’s Kitbag

Margaret said, in her letter of 14th of October that she arrived Bralos, but her kitbag did not. It was waiting for her on her arrival in Skopje on October 28th. By November 27th she was sitting on it in the train on the way back from the Field Hospital near Skopje.

Gordon Tartan Tie

Elsie Inglis not only organised the medical side of her units, she specified the colours of the uniform as ‘a hodden grey, with Gordon tartan facings’

SS Danube

SS Danube – from clydeships.co.uk

Although she does not say it in this letter, the boat Margaret was about to board was SS Danube.

Built in 1893 by James & George Thomson, Clydebank for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the SS Danube was requisitioned as a troopship in July 1917.

According to The Ships List, SS Danube was sold to C. Langton & Co and renamed to Mediterranean Star in 1920.

According to clydeships.co.uk she was used for Mediterranean cruising and then scrapped in 1923. She carried passengers 215 1st, 36 2nd, 350 3rd.

British Nurse writing from Serbia in November 1918

Dr. Elsie Inglis, already a distinguished doctor, seeing the need for the wounded of the First World War to be treated, offered the Royal Army Medical Corps a ready made of unit of qualified women. She was told to “go home and sit still“, but fortunately she did not, and ended up organising 14 units, staffed by women, and serving in several theatres of war. These were the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service.

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, serving in the Balkans. She wrote a diary, and letters home, which fortunately have been preserved. Here she writes to her Mother on the 29th of November 1918. This is two letters in one as she writes one to go by the normal route, and then adds effectively a second letter as the whole was carried by a nurse returning to Britain, rather than being sent in the post.

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Nov 19th 18

My dear Mother,

I shall be thinking of you tomorrow & wishing you all good things on your birthday, though I don’t know when you will be getting this letter. When I last wrote we were all packed up & “nowhere to go”, that is we were packed up for a week waiting for a train. We got off at last on Monday evening at 11 p.m. We arranged ourselves in cattle trucks at 9 p.m. Our orderlies went and swept out the trucks and arranged our valises all down one side, so we just unrolled them & got in & slept awfully well – much better than in crowded 1st class carriages in Italy. We had a very exciting & interesting journey down & arrived at 12′ o.c. on Tuesday midnight. We spent the rest of the night in the trucks as we had nowhere to go, & in the morning came up here to another S.W.H. unit, the one I thought I was coming out to. It is very strange to be back here again so soon.

I have been to the Bank & am arranging things there & Miss Gwynn has written to Mrs Laurie to have the money paid thro’ our Unit in the future as we travel about so much & possibly shall never be here again.

We expect to sail in a few days & they say the boat is a very comfortable one. It will take us 3 days. We land at a very lovely port then have a railway journey about one day long I think. If you write to the London Committee, 66, Victoria Street – they will be able to tell you the name of the place.

I am writing a letter to you with all news & sending it home by someone who is going soon, but I don’t quite know when, so you might get that one before this tho’ I don’t suppose you will.

The place we are going is further north & very cold tho’ ‘lovely scenery’. We have been given fur coats, they are goat skin & the smell nearly knocks you down. The sleeves I think are dog.

We have been out shopping & enjoying ourselves all day tho’ the weather is anything but nice & has rained nearly all the time we have been here & the mud is perfectly dreadful. You will be thinking I can not be doing much work ! & quite true too, but I suppose we shall make up for it when we settle down again. It’s very mild here & no snow to be seen – we left plenty behind us & the cold weather too.

I received a letter from Mary on Nov 25th, also one from Aunt Edie, such a nice long one. It is nice to get a lot of letters, but the mails are very rare.

Many thanks for all birthday wishes – did I tell you how 2 of the officers from an M.T. camp came through our town and bought me a box of chocolates ? On my birthday too!

I am getting a thin fur lining here that I can wear inside any coat or underneath my overall. It is white & grey squirrel, it is very light & nice & warm – cost £3 – 5 – 0. Some of the others who have been through Russia 2 year ago had theirs then & are wearing them now & have found them awfully good bargains. Our goat skins are terrific & long ??? ?be ??? not fit to wear inside.

I met a Guy yesterday but only spoke to her for a few minutes. We have been to the Red X Ordnance today for tea. So ?decadent – bread & butter, hot scones & fig cake. We are enjoying ourselves !

We have just had fresh instructions about letter writing. The censor is getting more particular so soon I shall only be writing “hope this finds you well as it does me at present ” but you can get particulars from London.

Very much love from your loving daughter Margaret.

We have had orders again today not to mention names of places in our letters & that the Censor is getting more particular than ever. We hoped now that the war is over we could say anything. I am glad to get this chance of sending news home by someone who is returning soon & hope you will get it safely.

Today we have been down in the town. Salonica is a very large place but I should not like to be stationed here. I should imagine it is very sniffy in hot weather. It is much warmer here now than in Skopje where it had been snowing quite a lot. They say it is colder still at Sarajevo. We are being provided with sheepskin coats & I have made myself a goatskin cap with a goat skin I got at Skopje.

The fire has done a lot of damage & the native quarters are all ruined & a horrible muddle. The streets are very narrow & full of holes. There is a very good Red X stores where you are supposed to be able to get anything you want, but unfortunately just now they are vey short of goods. We went there for tea this afternoon & had delicious bread & butter & cake with figs in. We did enjoy it. We have had enough to eat up in Serbia but only tinned stuff we took with us & for some time we had no milk at all & Serbian bread is very dry & dark & sour & dirty. We had only a very limited quantity of jam & no butter or other substitute, however conditions are improving rapidly & since the railway has been re-opened quite a lot of food & other things have appeared in the town & the shops were opening up again.

Dr Chesney says if you write to Miss Willis, London Committee, S.W.H. 66, Victoria St. she will tell you where we are at any time.

Going in & out to the town from here we rely on getting lifts on lorries or cars. Today coming back we got in a little van & just as I was getting out (it was nearly dark) an Army Sister from the inside corner called my name & she was a Guy ! She is the 1st I have seen.

I have been to the Bank of Athens & shall get it all put straight before I go on & Miss Gwynn (our Administrator) has written to Mrs Laurie for me to be paid directly thro the Unit which is really a much better plan as we travel about so much & probably shall not come back to Salonica again.

Dec 2nd

Yesterday I went to the 49th General Hospital & had tea with one of my Set at Guy’s & met another one also came in to tea. In the morning I met another one in the town. They are all at different hospitals.

We expect to sail on Wednesday on the ‘Danube’ a very comfortable boat. Our port destination is Ragusa.

I wanted to send a small parcel home but the girl who is going has no room for any parcels.

I hope you are all well and happy

Very best wishes for Xmas & New Year

& much love from

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

p.s. I got your letters dated Nov 11th last night & the night before 1 from Father (Nov 3rd), 1 from Norah, Aunty Fred & a P.C. from Rose.

I am getting steadily fatter & my skirt will scarcely fasten.

Notes

Birthday wishes

Margaret’s mother was born Ada Webster on 30th November 1861, so would have been celebrating her 57th birthday. 51 years earlier, in 1867, Ada’s sister – Margaret Webster, wrote to wish her a Happy Birthday, and the article about the letter is here.

Margaret’s money and The Bank of Athens

Margaret tried to get money out of ‘her’ bank, in Salonica on 19th October, as she described briefly in her letter of the 29th October. Now with the aid of Miss Gwynn and Mrs Laurie this seems to be sorted.

Mrs Jessie Laurie was Honorary Treasurer of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, based at Red House, Greenock. There is a copy of a letter she wrote linked from this website.

I met a Guy yesterday but only spoke to her for a few minutes

Margaret trained at Guy’s Hospital in London, hence the various Guys she meets.

49th General Hospital

As well as the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units there were a number of General Hospitals, run by the the Army. The 49th was on the Hortiach Plateau, about 8 miles east of Salonica.

Letter senders

As well as her sisters she records receiving letters from Aunt Edie and Aunt Fred.

Aunt Edie was probably Edith Alice Bryson Box (1868-1959). The Bryson in her name comes from the Robert Bryson who married Mary Ann Braund Box.

Aunt Fred was married to Margaret’s uncle Frederick Braund Box, and was born Edith Reitze Webster, sister of Ada Webster, Margaret’s mother.

Elsie Inglis Nursing Unit returning from Serbia – November 1918

The Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals was one of 14 Units of women who went abroad to provide medical care during the First World War. My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went to Serbia as a nurse with them. By the end of November 1918 the war had ended and Margaret had moved round Serbia with the Unit. During this time she wrote letters home telling her family some of what her life out there was like, and I am scanning and publishing them on this site.

On the 29th November 1918 the Scottish Women’s Hospitals wrote to my Great Grandfather, John Box, to tell him that the Elsie Inglis Unit has been recalled, so Margaret should be on her way home.

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Notes

Telephones

I think John Box’s note says “called up on ‘phone – Margaret at Uskub

Although the telephone had been invented in the 1870’s, with the UK’s first regular telephone service dating back to 1877, they were probably still quite rare in 1918, however John Box may well have found one useful in his business as a nurseryman.

Edith Palliser (Chairman)

An active campaigner for Women’s Suffrage, her war work was commemorated by a bed in the maternity unit of the Royal Free Hospital.

Viscountess Cowdray (hon Treasurer)

As well as her good works in supporting nursing, she and her husband donated Cowdray Hall (a concert venue) to the City of Aberdeen.

Hilda Petrie (Mrs Flinders Petrie) (Hon. Secretary)

She took a break from being a prominent Egyptologist to support the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War.