Margaret Ada Box (1890-1986) trained as a nurse and midwife, and in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and travelled out to Serbia to nurse the sick and wounded. She was my Great Aunt, and many of the letters she wrote home have been preserved, and I am transcribing them here. In February 1919 the war has been over for some time, although its tragic consequences continue, but Margaret is starting to plan her return to England. In this letter to her father (my Great Grandfather) she describes Nellie Nathan’s kitchen, and some of the food they have been eating. She wrote on 17th February and he received it on the afternoon of 8th March (in the days when the post was delivered more than once per day!)
“Elsie Inglis Unit”
Scottish Women’s Hospitals
My dear Dad,
Two of the Transport Drivers are off to Belgrade tomorrow so I am taking the opportunity to send you another letter although I have not much news.
I forget whether I told you that Dr McIlroy – from the Unit at Salonica – stayed here 2 days last week on her way to Belgrade – to arrange about moving her hospital up from Salonica. So I asked her if she would want more Sisters & that if she did I might stay until the end of my year. She will let me know for certain later but I don’t think I can get an answer for about 4 weeks. She is going back to Salonica through Serbia & Miss Gwynn has gone with her to try & get some money to take us home. The journey through Serbia will be very difficult just now & they will possibly take ages – they may have to go to Sophia.
It is just a week since I got your letter & I have not yet received the duplicate from Salonica or the parcel which I am getting very excited about.
The frost has given at last & the snow is pouring away in every direction – you never saw such a sloppy mess.
Yesterday afternoon 4 of us went for a lovely walk. We followed the river round a very winding, mountainous gorge – the path we went on was very high up but not nearly at the top. Then we swarmed up a very snowy bank & after much slipping & rolling scrambled on the railway line & walked on a long way on that. I wish you could see that lovely view.
We got back about 5 p.m. . & went into Nathan’s kitchen (she was one of the 4) & had tea. In Nathan’s kitchen there is a little portable stove which has gone all round with us on our travels & on which Nathan very cleverly cooks all our food. There are 2 tables, a sort of next of pigeon holes where she keeps the tinned food as each case is opened, 3 folding chairs & several packing cases. It was my turn for the packing case which I turned up on end and sat on. We made toast & had a boiled egg each – which the father of the little boy with his hand blown off – on my ward – had given me. He is an old Serbian peasant & gave me some eggs from the country – they were lovely & such a treat.
The kitchen is in an outhouse right outside the hospital along a slippery little path. The fire was made of old packing cases chopped up. We sat talking til after six then dispersed. I went to get a bath – the bath is in the basement next door to the stokehole from where the central heating arises so it is always a very hot place. There is a boiler beside the bath heated by a fire underneath & the chimney goes up through the wall next to the stokehole.
I made up the fire & got in the bath when suddenly there was an awful bang & the place filled with smoke – so I quickly tumbled out & discovered that the chimney had a big hole burnt in it – so there was no bath that night. It has been mended now.
One day last week an army chaplain went through this place so he came here at 7 A.M. & held the Communion service for us.
We have run out of jam now & at present are having honey rations – but the honey is in hard cakes wrapped up in paper & you can cut it with a knife with much difficulty. If you try to melt it, it becomes like toffee. We have not had any fresh meat for more than a week. Meat is getting very scarce in this place. But we thrive on bully & beans – you have not idea how many different ways bully can be served.
Our chief theme of conversation these days is the good time we are going to have coming home – we have chosen our route – through Venice & then the Italian Lakes !! Unfortunately, though, these things are chosen for us. As soon as I know whether I am coming home in April or not I will let you know.
Please give my love to all the family when you write.
With lots of love to all of we
Your loving daughter
Dr McIlroy’s journey
Dr McIlroy did indeed face a long and difficult journey, the map below will show the distances she had to cover. (The map is a work in progress).
Civilian post war casualties.
Margaret does not say what happened to the boy, but it seems quite likely that he had set off some kind of explosive device, such as a hand grenade, left over from the war.
During the Second World War my mother, then a schoolgirl, carried a Butterfly Bomb in the basket of her bicycle, from where she had found it on Farley Heath, to the local police station. They were pleased to receive it, even though she had thrown rocks at it, and it had not gone off !