My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was nursing with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia during the First World War. Her diary and some of her letters home have been passed to me and I am reproducing them here. By February 1919 she was working in a hospital in Sarajevo which had been converted from a school, and had been run by Germany medical staff who had handed it over the the Elsie Inglis Unit after the Armistice. The members of the unit were now returning home as transport became available. My Great Aunt wrote to her mother to tell her the temperature and their hopes of returning were rising, and that they had had a famous visitor.
Elsie Inglis Unit
My dear Mummy,
We had such a lovely mail today & I received your parcel with the stockings & tie sent off on Jan 12th & Rose’s letter of Jan 20th. Thank you very much for the stockings, they are beautiful & as some of mine have been stolen very glad to have some more. Am sorry you had such a difficulty to get them & am afraid they were very expensive. Many thanks too for the tie, which I need badly. I have not yet received the parcel you sent to Salonica but hope I shall soon – you said there was a pudding in it I believe! also I have not got the duplicate letter of father’s that he sent to Salonica. This evening much to my joy & surprise I had another letter addressed to “Embassy Bag” 1 from Father & 1 from you dated Jan 26th & 1 enclosed. This is the quickest of any so far (23 days)
Am glad you have received the cap & views of Sarajevo, so I know the others must have got home in about a fortnight. Please tell Dad the note books are exceedingly useful, just what I needed.
I am so glad Norah is more comfortably settled now & hope she will be happy there. Am so sorry to hear Dad has been ill with bronchitis & hope he is taking care of himself now. I expect the weather as usual is very treacherous now.
Last night the snow all disappeared & today has been very warm & springlike -the river – 2 days ago a clear bubbling stream edged on either side with ice and snow – today is a roaring rushing muddy river about 4 times as big. The change in everything is extraordinary, one day everything deep in snow & the next day not a spot of snow to be seen.
Naturally we have all been feeling like soft wax candles in the sudden head & I am sorry to say the warmth is inviting out the beasties once more. I really don’t know how long they have been resident here but should imagine by the size of some of them that they have seen a good many moons.
I don’t think it is the fault of the home committee that we change about so, but I will explain it all to you when I come home, I could not possibly do so in a letter.
I don’t agree with Father’s idea about our noble work etc, the people of this country are a lazy lot who laugh at us for taking the trouble to clean up their dirty places & will be only too thankful to see the last of us. This does not apply to the Field Hospital when following up the army, but we ought to have come home when we were told to – when the war was over.
Our present staff consists of 2 Drs, 4 sisters, 4 V.A.D.s, 1 Laundry support, 2 Cooks, 1 Sanitary Inspectress, 1 Store Super & 1 Administrator. 6 went home in January & 2 have since gone to Belgrad. There were about 20 in the Transport section but nearly all of them have gone home now.
Flora Sandes, the Englishwoman who joined the Serbian Army as a tommy, is staying here tonight. I believe she is an officer by now. We have 2 English tommies in the wards – don’t know how they got here.
Please thank Rose for her nice long newsy letter – am glad she enjoyed herself at Worthing & felt better for the change. Please give my love to Ethel.
Thank you for the six photos – I have not received the 2 you sent before.
One of the Transport Drivers is going to Belgrad tomorrow & 2 are going home on Thursday.
Tell Father I don’t think that we shall get any medals here unless it is for bug hunting, and he can be quite sure you would never get anything out of a Turk they will “do you” in every direction.
We are hoping soon to go picnicing again & if this really is the Spring arriving we shall soon be seeing flowers. The mountains are lovely, I wish you could see them.
Well I must say Goodnight
Very best love to all
Your loving Daughter
p.s. The newspaper that you wrapped around my stockings was eagerly snatched up & went the rounds. By this time I suppose you are having ordinary train services again & a lot more funny pre war customs.
Margaret asked her mother to send two pairs of thick grey woollen stockings in her letter of 27th November, and again on December 3rd. These would have been needed for warmth, and wool would have been more affordable than the cashmere stockings being made by Margaret’s relative, George Braund.
It must have been very upsetting to have her stockings stolen when in, what must have been by then, a small close knit community.
The Tartan Tie saga, first mentioned in the letter of December 3rd, where Margaret first asks her Mother to try to obtain one, mentioned in the letter of December 6th, referred to in the letter of 5th January, where the office of Scottish Womens Hospitals do have some available, which they presumably did send to John Robert Box to forward, is finally successfully resolved.
Could not explain in a letter.
Although the war had been over for some time now the letters the nurses wrote were still being opened and read by the censors, so it might not have been wise to write anything critical of the authorities.
Flora Sandes started as a medical orderly but when all the other members of her ambulance unit were killed in action she joined the Serbian Army as a soldier, being the only British woman to officailly serve as a solider in World War One.
Her book, An Englishwoman Sergeant in the Serbian Army can be found here. It only goes up to 1916, finishing before Margaret met her.
Relationship between the SWH and the local people
The relationship between the Scottish Women’s Hospitals staff and the local people seems to have become worse since the times of being invited to into peoples houses for Serbian New Year, and to concerts and dances.
Part of this will have been that the thoughts of the British were turning towards home, and indeed quite a few have already left. The V.A.D.s who filled non-medical roles, such as Transport drivers and cooks, were unpaid, and came from middle and upper class backgrounds, so probably had the financial resources to arrange their own return to Britain when they wanted, while the professional nurses would have been more dependent on the SWH administration – themselves volunteers, to make their arrangements.
From the Serbian side, those who were not themselves in need of medical care would have been keen to put the crisis behind them and “return to normal”, in the same way that people people stopped applauding the NHS and started criticising waiting times once the Covid crisis had been supplanted by the next crisis, or like Kipling’s Tommy
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;Tommy by Rudyard Kipling
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play