Margaret Box arrived in Sarajevo – December 1918

Margaret Box was one of a number of women who joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, leaving their homes to deliver aid where it was needed during the First World War. She was my Great Aunt, and I inherited her diaries, and some of the letters she wrote home. By December 1918 the war was over, but the need for medical care, for disease as well as war wounds continued. Margaret had been nursing in Bralos in Greece and Skopje, and has now travelled to Sarajevo, from where she writes to her mother.

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Dec 19th 18

My dear Mother,

We actually arrived at our destination yesterday at 12 mid day. We had a very comfortable train journey, 1st class compartments not cattle trucks. The scenery was wonderful & most of the way we had an engine each end as we climbed such steep mountains. This is a big town with fine big buildings & very good shops.

We are taking over a hospital there are 80 patients in it now, it is a huge place & is really a boys college. There is a fine museum also laboratory & gymnasium. There are radiators in every room & all corridors & double windows – so they are evidently used to very cold weather.

It started to snow 2 hours after we arrived & everything was soon thick with it. Now it is melting & it is very wet & ‘slushy’ outside. On our arrival a tram was commandeered for us & took us to a Hotel for lunch. From there we drove on in cars.

We look out onto very fine mountains & a little river runs along the other side of the road. There is a garden belonging to us with a tennis court & summer house. We felt very desolate & miserable yesterday afternoon coming into this huge place quite empty (except for the wards where the patients are !). Our luggage is arriving tonight then tomorrow we hope to get our rooms straight & our beds put up, you see we have no furniture.

I am afraid we got horribly spoilt on the boat. We were on for a fortnight & had such a good time. Everyone was so kind to us. It all seems like a dream now. But I think we shall soon settle down when we have got things straight.

All the shops are showing Xmas goods & everywhere in the streets are people selling Xmas trees. They look so funny standing up along by the railings waiting to be sold.

This afternoon we went into a lovely mosque – at first we were told to take off our boots but then a man produced slippers which we put on over our boots. The floor was covered with the most beautiful carpets & the walls & ceiling were magnificently painted. Their women are not allowed in & they walk about in the streets with flowing robes & black masks on their faces. There of course are only the Turkish women. It is very strange to see so many well dressed women about. I think they are mostly Austrian & German & a few Serbs.

I am longing for the Spring to come as I am sure it will be lovely then.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter



‘Our destination’

Although instructions from the censor, still vigilant, even though the war is over, prevent her from saying so explicitly, Margaret has arrived in Sarajevo – where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdindand in 1914 had set into motion the events which would lead to the First World War.

The journey

Margaret’s previous letter, on December 3rd, had been as she was about to depart Salonica on the S.S. Danube. Her journey took her, I think, from Salonica to

There is a web page at which describes, with some pictures, and a map, a railway journey on this line in 1965, when it was still narrow gauge, and probably similar to the way it would have been in 1918.


Making Historical maps for WordPress with Viking and OSM Plugin

Maps are a great way to make some web sites about historical travels easier to understand. I have been enhancing some of parts of this blog, some of which is about family history, with maps and describe how I do it here, so you, if you wish, you can do the same. All the tools I use are Free, both in the sense that you do not have to pay for them, but more importantly they are developed by individuals or communities who believe that open sharing of information and helping others makes the world a better place.

I have maps created this way on (at least) the following pages


WordPress is a very popular choice for building web sites. You can host it on your own server, as I do, or try it by creating a basic – free – account at although to install plugins you will need to upgrade to a paid (Business) account, which costs (in October 2020) £20 per month. As I have my own server I have not investigated other options, but I know there are many places offering WordPress Hosting, but you need one which allows you to install plugins.

Plugins are the way a WordPress site can be extended beyond the standard functions. A huge range are available if you need something the basic version does not provide.


With more that two million contributors, OpenStreetMap is a not just a map of the world, but a resource of Geographic information used by researchers and charities (particularly in relation to mapping parts of the world which may not deliver a commercial return, but where maps are still needed such as the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Project).

The WordPress OpenStreetMap Plugin

Bringing two good things together, the WordPress OpenStreetMap plugin allows you add OpenSteetMap maps to your WordPress site. It is primarily aimed at people who want to show where they have been in recent or planned modern journeys, but can be used for showing historical maps. It displays a map with markers you can set when configuring the plugin, or for more complex use, a KML file.

A KML file is a way to describe, in a computer file, a group of Geographical features, such as places, or routes to pass them from one program to another. I generate these KML files with a program called Viking, described below.

I then need to copy the kml file to my WordPress server – for security reasons WordPress prevents unknown file types from being uploaded through its normal media upload, and although the plugin adds kml to the valid file types, and I have added it to the valid types in my WordPress settings the uploads are still refused (I will update this if I find a solution, and it may be particular to my setup).


Viking is really intended to be a GPS editor, but can be used to create the KML files for historic maps.

Viking being used to work with historic journeys

To generate the file I use with the OpenStreetMap Plugin I right click a Layer (journey) and select Export As…/Export as KML

As I said above this software is really aimed at people working with GPS in the present and the version I am using just now needs, for example, scrolling the date of a ‘way point’ back through many years to set it, but the developers are helpful and responsive, as you can see from the responses to my suggestions about updating dates and places.

If several people are working on the same set of journeys then they could collaborate by exchanging the .vik files used to record the places, dates etc, as the information held can be quite rich with images etc.

Is Covid-19 a Catastrophe ?

Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind at present, including mine at about half past 5 this morning, when my mobile phone made an alert sound, but I could not find any message. There was a quick flash of what looked like the NHS Covid-19 app, which I have recently installed. In the way that the brain does in mind-wandering mode (as described in The Organized Mind) a connection between the Covid-19 Pandemic and Catastrophe Theory came into my mind. I have not done any of the mathematical modelling needed to take demonstrate that Covid-19 is a Catastrophe in the mathematical sense, but, as it feels like one, wanted to explore some of the implications.

Catastrophe theory is used to model systems which can be in one of two semi stable states, and switch rapidly from one to another. Classic examples are the financial markets, which can switch from being a Bull Market to a Bear Market or house price booms and busts.

Feedback is an essential part of these systems. In the case of the financial markets the controlling factor is investor confidence. If people are confident about the future they will buy houses, or shares, the price will go up, others will see this rise and also want to buy shares, or houses. In an infectious disease case the controlling factor is the rate at which the disease is spreading.

If every person who has Covid-19 passes it on to more than one person then it will spread, becoming a epidemic, with a potential end point of being endemic, that is to say in a widespread stable state, like flu. In the case of Covid-19 there will be medical penalty to pay if this happens. Medical resources need to be spent dealing with patient treatment, both for acute patients in Intensive Care Units and for chronic cases – the Long Covid cases. This is one possible stable state.

On the other hand if Covid-19 can be brought under control, then there is an opportunity for it to eliminated at a national level, as may be feasible for China and New Zealand. Medical resources are focussed on rapid detection of cases and preventing transmission. This is another possible stable state, and has been reached worldwide for some diseases, such as smallpox.

If the world becomes divided between countries where Covid-19 is endemic and those where it is eliminated then this has major implications for tourism and international travel. Will tourists from a Covid-free country wish to visit one where there is a good chance they will catch a disease which may make them seriously ill. Even with the development of a vaccine it will be harder to avoid catching Covid-19 than, for example Typhoid or Yellow Fever due to the differences in the way these diseases are transmitted.

If you travel by train from London Marylebone to Oxford the announcements are in Chinese as well as English, as Bicester Village, which is served by that route, was very popular with Chinese tourists. If Britain becomes one of the countries where Covid-19 is widespread, and China becomes one where it is rare then I wonder if those tourists will return.

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.


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

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 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


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.


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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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.

Margaret Box to Mother – November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, braved the Serbian winter to work as a Red Cross Nurse with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at the tail end of the First World War in 1918. Here follows one of the letters she wrote home, describing her adventures as one of a number of brave young women, who were not content to sit at home while the men ‘did their bit’ – of course many of the men were also facing danger and death, and I suspect everybody who returned from the war was a different person from when they went out.

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Could you possibly send me 2 pairs of thick grey woollen stockings please. I can’t get any here. My address is.

‘Elsie Inglis Unit

Scottish Women’s Hospitals

4th Surgical Field Hosp.

Royal Serbian Army

Nov 27 18

My Dear Mother,

We have had a most exciting railway journey in cattle trucks from Uskub to Salonica. We started at 11 p.m. on Monday night. Our things had all been packed up for a week & we were expecting each day to go, but the railway is only just repaired & the trains very uncertain. There was supposed to be one each day, but it did not always arrive. Our Bonichars went down to the station & swept out the trucks & arranged our valises all along in a row. We had a table & 2 chairs & an acetylene lamp. So we went along about 9 p.m. & unrolled our beds & got in & went to sleep. We were very comfy , only unfortunately it rained hard & Dr. Rendel who was by the doorway got her bed soaked. I had a much better night than ever I had in a 1st class carriage.

We got up about 7.30 a.m. rolled up our beds, got a primus going & had breakfast. Then we sat by the open doorways either side & watched the scenery. We came all along by the Vardar River. The bridges were all very exciting affairs as they had been horribly damaged. There only seemed to be the rails left of 1 we crept over & when we looked out we looked straight down into the river. No bank or bridge to be seen. We had to get out at Strumitza as the bridge there had been completely destroyed & the line cut. We got out about 10 a.m. & guarded our luggage for about 3 hours, then we were taken by French lorries for about 2 miles where we joined the train again. Some English tommies gave us tea & a good warm up round their stove in their little wooden hut & we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon.

We packed into cattle trucks again about 5.30. Unfortunately ours was a very dirty one this time & we could not even unroll our valises. So we sat around on kitbags & cooked ourselves some supper on 3 ‘tommies cookers’. We got into Salonica at 12 midnight to find there was no where for us to go. Dr Chesney came down 2 or 3 days ago but did not expect us so late at night, so we got a brazier & some coal from the station. Had a midnight supper & tried to get some sleep.

We got up about 6 & cooked our breakfast on our fire. We had toast & fried sausages & sardines & ham & tea. After that we washed ourselves & now we are waiting for orders.

I only stayed one day in Salonica on the way up in October. We went on by train 10.45 p.m. to Monastri, where we arrived at 7 a.m. The place was horribly smashed up. From there we went on by French meat lorries across the plain on Monastir – all trenches & barbed wire & shell holes to Prilip. 2 miles north of Prilip I stayed in an English M.T. camp & nursed the men who were down with ‘flu’ . 2 others who were with me went on to Uskub & told Dr. Chesney where I was. She sent her car for me at the end of a week & we came over the famous Babouna Pass through Velez to Uskub or Skopje. We were going all day starting at 7.30 a.m. & arriving at 4 p.m. We thought we should be moving on to Belgrade but we are going to Sarajevo in Bosnia. The journey is supposed to be impossible by road this weather so we have come back to Salonica & shall go round by boat round Greece & up the Adriatic Sea

Nov 28. We left the station later yesterday morning & came up here to Dr. McIlroy‘s unit. S.W.H. it is a good 2 miles out of the town up the hills & is the hospital Father heard about from the tommy at Harwell. I stayed here coming out. We expect to go on on Sunday or Monday by a very comfortable mail boat & it will take 3 days. We expect to land at Ragusa, a beautiful spot they say. From there we proceed by train to Sarajevo. So if all goes well we ought to be there pretty soon. We imagined we might be here for Xmas as boats are rather few & far between.


The paragraph which starts ‘I only stayed one day in Salonica…’ refers to the journey in October, while the paragraphs before and after relate to her journey in November.


I am guessing from the context that these are locally recruited helpers, or orderlies.

Meals on the move

Margaret and her comrades seem able to rustle up quite tasty sounding meals under arduous circumstances.

Damaged bridges, trenches and barbed wire

I think these would have been the result of the Vardar Offensive, which took place in September 1918, about a month earlier.

Famous Babouna pass

I think this is the Babuna pass, referred to here.

Bridge destroyed at Strumitza

Looking at the area in more detail, I do not think the railway goes to Strumitza (Strumica), but that was probably the nearest town to the break in the line.

Musings in and on the garden

I have been spending more time in the garden this year, much of it doing simple little jobs which allow my mind to wander while my hands keep busy pulling up weeds, or pruning. I am often reflecting on a book I am reading and at the moment, as is normal for me, there are at least two. The fictional one is ‘Post Captain‘ by Patrick O’Brian and one of the non-fictions ones is ‘The Organized Mind‘ by Daniel Levitin. The book is a mixture of neuroscience, explaining how the brain works, and some practical applications to help us cope in a world which has outpaced the one our brain evolved for. We now expect to keep track of hugely more information than our hunter/gatherer ancestors would encounter, and one way we do this is to move information from our minds to external storage – and this blog post is moving garden musings from my brain to the external storage of the Internet. Another thing I learned from the book is that the brain has two basic modes, a mind wandering or daydreaming mode and the attentional mode, where your brain is focussed on a single thing. When I am musing in the garden my mind is in daydreaming mode, making connections between things, while automatic bits of my brain take care of the routine tasks.

Without my concious mind being aware of it, my attentional system is keeping track of my environment, making sure I do not get too spiked by the roses etc – and only demanding attention if there is something that might need attention. This morning it was courgettes. This spring I planted four courgette plants, fairly closely spaced, and they are being very productive.

I had been reflecting on the news, which for somebody who is shielding due to being highly vulnerable to the virus was a bit of a mixed bag. The hopeful news from the medical science side is balanced by the possibility of a second wave, and the way that, for some people who are not shielding, the measures to keep the spread of virus down are regarded as an annoyance to be evaded.

Suddenly I thought ‘I need only have two courgette plants next year, four really is too many for us’. Planning for the future is an inherently optimistic act, and this looking forward in hope is one of the benefits of gardening. I started to think about the all the good things that, for me – for us, about our garden and the blessings it brings.


Gardens bring us in touch with (or force us into awareness of) the seasons. As Ecclesiastes wrote “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” – so the simple act of being in the garden takes my thoughts in this direction. Of particular relevance to the response to Covid-19 is

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

Ecclesiastes 3:5

We are, much as we may feel otherwise, in a time to refrain from embracing, at least until we can be sure we will not inadvertently harm the person being embraced.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes

Several writers have used Ecclesiastes as a framework to weave into their stories. One of my favourite science fiction authors, Roger Zelazny, wrote ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes‘, featuring a Martian race, dying out as they see the no future, and presents them with a translation of Ecclesiastes into Martian, and a rose, as something new under the sun.

Some Science Fiction, Zelanys are bottom right


Wesley Memorial Church numbers some brilliant creative people amongst its membership, and one product of this are several musicals. One of these, Alternativity, commences

Vanity of vanities,
All of life is vanity;

It goes from here to become a great message of hope, complete with varied musical numbers, and pyrotechnics.

Turn, Turn

The Byrds turned the words of Ecclesiastes into a song, focussing on the need for a time of peace.

Compost heaps

I am pleased by our compost heaps, which use the 3 bin system. Like most bits of this blog the original idea was not mine, but nonetheless, seeing them working gives me pleasure. In many ways they are a metaphor for this blog, taking scraps from lots of different sources, trying to keep the right balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ material, which fits with my thoughts on the importance of diversity, and mixing them, to end up with something where ideas (or plants) can grow.

During the writing of this post, one of the Kindle Daily Deals was ‘Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom’, so that has joined the queue of books to be digested and added to the mulch.

Ironically, given that I have felt for some time that one of the threats to our society is the growing channelling of our view of the world through a shrinking number of corporations, a recent Kindle purchase was ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘ by Shoshana Zuboff (incidentally one of Barack Obama‘s Favourite Books of 2019). (I am a bit conflicted about whether I should buy so many books on Kindle)

Respect your opponent

One thing which does not go into the compost bins is bindweed – another is dandelions. As a Scot, I was brought up with Robert the Bruce and the Spider as a model of persistent endeavour, but anyone who has continued, like a magician pulling out endless streams of ribbon, to try to get bindweed out, must end up with a respect for its tenacity. I suspect musings on weeds covers such a range that they must be relegated to a whole new post, as yet unwritten.


Sometimes, when the world seems too full of stress, or conflict, the best solution is a bit of simple physical labour.


I shared with my mother and Mary’s mother an interest in Mythology. Mary’s mother, Annie Schofield, was particularly interested in, and a published essayist on Ted Hughes. Origin Myths are a key part of Mythology, and Ted Hughes imagined some in ‘How the Whale Became’. Kipling’s take on Origin Myths was the Just So Stories, of which ‘How the Camel got his Hump’ (which my father could quote to me), is particularly relevant.

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind.
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump— The hump that is black and blue!

Just So Stories


Garden’s crop up a lot in Voltaire’s novel Candide, which concludes

Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.

Candide (English translation)

Garden fences

Our garden has a fence, rather than a wall, but – as The Organized Mind explains, peoples brains lump things together at a conceptual level, hence I find myself musing on fence-like things, although with a reflection that we presumable have good fences, as “good fences make good neighbours“, and we have excellent neighbours. As usual the concept also reminds me of a book, in this case Divided, by Tim Marshall.

Paradise Lost

Although Eden had a ‘verduous wall’ – i.e. a hedge, this still acted as a divide Eden from ‘not Eden’ – and eventually Adam and Eve have to leave, and venture out into the world. The ending of Paradise Lost is one of the bits of poetry which sticks in my head, and I find it quite comforting.

Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Paradise Lost (book 12)

The Selfish Giant

Early on in lockdown, many kind friends and neighbours helped us by shopping for us, in many cases fitting this in with working from home and looking after young families. It was a great pleasure, later on, to be able to invite them and their children into our garden, where Mary has made a trail of things to find, and we could enjoy their excitement from a safe distance. The transformation our garden, and the joy of sharing it reminded me of The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde.

Connections and continuity

One of the joys of a garden can be be the way it connects to people and places. Of the vegetables we are growing, some were grown by Mary while the rest came from friends and neighbours, so they all connect to people.

Several of the plants in our garden came from our parent’s gardens.

Snowdrops from my parents garden, planted by my father
This fuchsia came from my parents house in Somerset

Both of my parents, and my grandparents were keen gardeners, although I appreciate gardening more now that when I was younger, when my siblings and I were used as unskilled garden labour – ‘Pick a punnet of raspberries before tea’.

This fuchsia came from a cutting of one grown by Mary’s mother

Mary’s mother was a keen gardener, and grew a wide range of fuchsias in her compact, but well tended garden. Mary has followed in her footsteps.

Or centre bed, being dug by our friend Trevor, who Mary has known all his life

Mary’s father commanded a Motor Launch (M.L. 121) during WW2, and had many exciting adventures, including carrying Gracie Fields through a storm off Italy. He also made several life-long friends. The son of one of those friends dug our centre bed, thus all our parents have connections in the garden.

This owl, one of several in the garden, was a present from my brother.

Several of the plants and sculptures in the garden are presents from my siblings – so many that this owl must act as representative for them all.

This Cherry Tree was a wedding present from Buckland School, where Mary taught.
Plaque given to my mother by Juniper Green Ranger Guide

My mother was a Guider in many places, including running the 74th City of Edinburgh for many years, and starting the Juniper Green Ranger Guides. This plaque was given to her when she ‘retired’ from guiding in Edinburgh – although she ended up running a guide company in Somerset, having only planned to be a helper.

Rosemary from Fountain House, from Juniper Green

The house in Edinburgh where I spent most of my childhood, had a rosemary bush growing outside the front door. When my parents moved to Somerset they took a cutting of that rosemary with them, planting it outside the front door, and this is a cutting from that. On significant departures, such as going off to University, my mother would give us a sprig of this rosemary, quoting Ophelia “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”.

Check by Vital Peeters

The chick is a resin cast sculpture by Vital Peeters, who made the Amazing Love stained glass window in Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford.

There are far too many special things in the garden to describe here, so like Candide I should conclude il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Margaret Box to Norah – November 1918

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.

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Nov 18th – 18

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 dinner

Margarets 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.

Margaret Box to Leonard – November 1918

Margaret Ada Box, my Great Aunt, was a Red Cross Nurse who went, with the Scottish Womens Hospitals, to serve in Serbia in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, although most of her patients were victims of spanish flu, rather than war casualties. She wrote several letters home, including writing this letter to her brother, Leonard Box, my Grandfather, on the 24th November 1918.

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Nov 24th 18

My dear Leonard

I am wondering whether you will be leading a City life again by the time you receive this letter. I think it is quite probably as we seem to be stuck here & there is no way of sending a mail. The mountains are impassable as we have had so much snow & the railway is recovering from the rough treatment just lately received. A train did run this morning & our own chief, Dr Chesney, has gone on but our unit & all our baggage is still sitting here. We were to have followed this evening but the engine has not arrived & we are living in hope that it will tomorrow. We have been in this condition for a week & we spend most of our time roaming around the town in rubber top boots & mackintoshes bargaining with shopkeepers. We are getting quite good at it & they like to exchange goods much better than receiving money. Some of the girls who are soon going home have made some awfully good bargains with their old shoes & clothes. One day we got some white kid skins to make warm socks for our boots & gloves & I have made a cap, but the stink is so awful we don’t know what to do with them. No doubt father would love them – being goats – but I wish he could smell them. Anyway we shall get our carriage to ourselves – but I believe we are travelling in cattle trucks when we do go. So we shall not get the blame for the unpleasant odours.

This country is lovely. I wish you could see this old town. This afternoon we have been in the Serbian church. It dates 400 & is supposed to be one of the oldest in Serbia. We got there just in time to see a wedding party coming out & were very fed up not to have seen the whole ceremony. They have a most exciting custom which is as follows. A large mat is spread in the middle of the church and whichever one (bride or bridegroom) gets a foot on it first is ‘boss’! So we naturally were sorry to have missed the rush for the mat. Their clothes were very picturesque & they marched round the town accompanied by tom toms & pipes making an awful din.

We have been for some lovely walks all round – along the valley by the river – also up the mountains a bit to some little villages. We don’t know where we shall be for Xmas – probably in the town ‘where my bank is’ ! After that we are going for a sea voyage & goodness knows when we shall do any work again. We hear there is heaps of work waiting for us. All sorts of diseases raging in the town where we are going but it will have all died down before we get there !

I expect you heard that I have met Miss Fooks. She is the only one out of all the people I was to look up. She was my V.A.D. on night duty. I like her very much & she is very keen on walking & ‘Nature’. We had some fine walks together. She departed a week ago to collect some of our luggage which was left behind. It seems to me we have ‘dumps’ all over the country & I am sure we shall never collect all our stuff again.

An M.T. company has taken possession of our yard today & we can hardly move for lorries. It is strange to see so many Tommies about. We have not seen many of our own nationality lately – it makes you want to greet them all like old friends. The other day 2 of the officers from the M.T. company where I stayed a week nursing the influenza came in on their way through the town. They had both been ill but recovered – it was so nice to see them again.. They gave me a lovely box of chocolates & it happened to be my birthday ! I was awfully fortunate to get a mail 2 days before my birthday & had a nice lot of letters, tho’ most of them were dated the 1st to 2nd week in October. You have no idea what a great event a mail is & how we count up our letters & read & re-read them. I did not get any until Nov 8th except 2 from hospital friends while at Taranto.

I heard that you got your week’s leave to relieve Mr Wolten & hope he looked better for his holiday. I seem to be having more holiday than work tho’ I expect we shall make up for it when we get settled again. That air cushion you gave me has been a blessing – in the trains & boats coming & specially when sleeping on the ground at a camp on the way. I think it will be very useful too in the cattle trucks on our next journey.

I hope to write more fully later & tell you where we are going.

With much love to you & all good wishes for Xmas & the New Year

Your loving sister

Margaret Box


Leading a city life again

I think Leonard was probably in the Army during the war, and by 1918 would have been a Serjeant in the Machine Gun Corps. Before and after that he was a solicitor in the firm of W.W.Box & Co. I have mentioned him in the Daddy, what did you do in the war post.

The Serbian Church

I can’t find a church in Skopje which dates back to 400 AD, and the church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Ras, which does, seems to be in the wrong place, and not in a town. It is possible that the age of the church was exaggerated. I did like the custom of the large mat, even though is does not appear to be part of current Eastern Orthodox Wedding ceremonies.

Miss Fookes

I have written a little more about her in her entry in the Dramatis Personae article. Like many of the other nurses and V.A.D.s Margaret met, she can be found in the list of Scottish Womens Hospital Nurses at Scarletfinders. Like most of the V.A.D.s she turns out to be easy to find in pedigree lists, in her case at