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

Margaret

Notes

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

Birthday

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

Notes

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 http://www.townsley.info/Strangeway/GedSite/g5/p4293.htm.

Massive Missive from Margaret – November 1918

My Great Aunt Margaret Box was a nurse with the Scottish Womens Hospitals serving in Serbia in 1918. She wrote a diary and a number of letters home, which provide some insights into her adventures and some of the remarkable women she encountered. On 16th November 1918 she was at the field hospital run by Dr Chesney, near Skopje, and wrote a long letter to her parents. She wrote it in pencil, and I suspect some parts were difficult to read when it arrived, on the 8th of December according to a note added by my Great Grandfather, as he went over some of it in pen to make those parts more legible.

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Nov 16th 1918

My Dear Father & Mother

We had another mail tonight that makes the 3rd since I got here. I had 3 letters from you dated Oct. 14th, 21st & 27th – it is very amusing to read all your conjectures for everything is so entirely different from what you are thinking – but you will be getting my letters telling you as much as I can. I specially like the bit about seeing news in the papers – the others get papers from home when we have a mail so that will tell you what news we get.

We were frightfully excited to hear on Nov:11th that Peace had been declared. We had a “party” that evening – champagne for dinner followed by musical chairs. It was very dangerous for the chairs as the only ones we have are camp chairs which have a habit of collapsing when you sit in them. We can’t believe yet that the war is over. What joy & excitement there must be in England. We have heard today that we are moving in a week or a fortnight. We are going back to the place from where I sent the cable & then we are going a good long way by sea to quite a new place. It would really not be far by land from here but there are no trains or transport. I shall be glad to do some shopping also shall be able to settle the Bank problem. I am awfully glad to have come to this place ! It is lovely – huge mountains covered in snow & the river winding across a mountain plane. We climbed a mountain path yesterday morning & got up to a little village in the snow. We had a wonderful view. This last bit of the journey about 160 to 200 miles I think was by far the most exciting. The 1st bit we did in a train by night. The heat was stifling & mosquitoes bit us all over. Ferocious looking men kept on looking in & trying to steal our goods. Luckily I did not sleep & every time a man looked in I shouted “departez vous”! I was far too sleepy to think what I was saying but my words had the desired effect.

We got out of the train at 7 a.m. at a noted place (what remains of it) got a cup of coffee from a Y.M.C.A. tent then took some of our own luggage (not kit bags) & sat on it at the corner of a very dusty road until we could get a lift!

After about 1 hour we set off in 3 french meat lorries. 3 of us, 1 beside each driver. The lorries were full of meat – whole carcases and millions of flies. We tore along in true french recklessness along a road (too holey for words) across a very big plain 38 kilometres to another noted place the other side. We unload there with the meat & flies – all jostled up, smothered in dust, but no bones broken. 2 miles outside we stopped at a British M.T. camp where they all had ‘flu’. I stayed a week nursing them. The other 2 went on a lorry after 1 day. Then the chief sent her car for me & we travelled from 7.30 a.m. till 4 p.m. stopping 15 minutes for a picnic lunch. We came over a famous supposed to be impregnable path & saw the litter & remains of the great push. Shells lying all over the place & a number of ??very ?? desertion.

Skopje is a very quaint but picturesque old town. It is a shame that so much is becoming . The shops are very interesting and it is ?not strange to see the shopkeeper sitting on his counter amongst his goods.

We have been for some lovely walks in the mornings since I have been on night duty. 2 days at the beginning of the week were very hot – one morning we went along by the river & picked a lot of mushrooms – there

(line I can’t read on the fold of the letter)

there was no bridge so we paddled across. This was a side stream, not the main river. It was not very deep, just below our knees. The last 3 days the cold has been intense – the mountains are covered in snow & today there was a very hard frost.

Am glad we have a few stoves in now but wish the huns had not smashed most of the windows. We burn wood in the stoves. Did I tell you my address is “Elsie Inglis Unit” Scottish Womens Hospitals, 4th Surgical Field Hospital, Royal Serbian Army – not Salonica.

3.

This has not made any difference to the delay of letters. Only the home folk ought not to have told me such a lengthy address – we move about so much (naturally being a field hosp.) that Salonica has been off the map & will be again. Also Dr Chesney is due home soon. There have been very strict ?rules about what we write that is why I have not been able to tell you as much as I should like. I don’t know now how much we can say – but don’t want to risk my letters being destroyed.

I am very glad Mary is getting on all right & hope by now that Norah is settled. I can quite understand how fed up she has been all this time.

I have been meaning to write a long letter to each one but somehow the time goes very quickly.

The Turks seem to be having a fine old time tonight, and are making no end of a row with Tom Toms & bagpipes. They are quite near the hospital & I wish they would finish up – the time is 2 a.m.

There are a great number of poplar trees here & a lot of little trees – no big ones at all. The autumn colours are brilliant – red & orange but the leaves are falling fast now, in fact the poplars have only a little bunch on top left. They look so funny – like huge crows’ nests. I wish you could see & taste a Serbian loaf – we are not allowed to eat the crust ! & you always examine each mouthful before eating as you often find a flea or something worse – it is very dark & dry & has a peculiar sour taste. We never see margarine or butter & we have had dripping once. Milk is almost an unknown article. We have very good soups & plenty of fresh meat. I am fat, as ever. The country abounds in cabbages & garlic & you always know when a native is coming – without looking

Nov 17th

What do you think – a lorry turned up from somewhere tonight at 9 p.m. & bought another mail. I had 3 letters. 1 from Mary dated Oct 12th, one from Norah – Oct 10th & 1 from ?Coni Oct. 8th so I got the later letters from you first. It is very nice to get such a budget just in time for my birthday – many thanks for all birthday wishes.

4

I hope I shall be able to do some shopping soon – when we move off. I received 2 position photos from Norah – I think the full face is the better. I will enclose a list of people & please will you send me 6 more. What do you think of them ? Did I tell you we are all to be provided with fur coats ? I told Dr Chesney we should be a ‘bear-y’ crowd & she said “yes 0 a proper bear garden”! I hear they are on the way but have been “dumped” somewhere.

My ‘get up’ at night on duty is not much like a hospital sister. I wear a white army cap, a grey cotton overcoat, a thick grey wool jacket, a long leather wool lined coat (lent to my by one of the sisters), long mosquito boots (for warmth – no mosquitoes now) & over them white canvas bathing shoes.

There is one V.A.D. with me & we sit in a little dusty room & keep the stove warm. When I do the rounds I carry an oil hurricane lantern. I have 3 Serbian Orderlies who stay in the wards all the time.

One night an old Albanian patient had a sore throat & I gave him a hot gargle. I managed to make him understand not to drink it but he had not the ghost of a notion what to do with it so he dipped his fingers in & rubbed his neck ! I then demonstrated the whole process of gargling & at last he understood.

Tonight one of the men from the M.T. company where I nursed has been brought in. He is very ill again. He is just glorying in a camp bed & pyjamas & blankets & a warm room. Rather better than the sloping ground in a bell tent & pouring rain – a kit bag for a pillow & only your clothes to lie down in. Mr Watson – one of the officers – brought him. I shall be seeing him in the morning. He was very ill too but looks much better now. Most of these men have been out here 3 years without leave & doing very heavy work on short rations. They are just worn out & have not a chance to fight against the influenza.

We are all looking forward to our journey tho’ expect it will be a very cold one. I wonder where we shall be for Xmas. When you send my photos round the family for Xmas please will you give them my love & good wishes.

Please thank Rose for her long letter. I am so glad she likes her work & is getting on all right. Fancy seeing old Mrs. Hoare – I wonder what she looked like ! I hope the new maid is proving a success. I wonder if they will be easier to get when the men come home.

Please give my love to the Walkleys & best Xmas wishes. I am sorry to hear about old Mr Walkley.

I want to write to all my sisters & also Leonard. I get so mixed up with my news & what I have written and what not. I believe someon3 is going down country on Tuesday next if so she will take the post bag.

I must say Goodbye for the present & write some other letters. Very much love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

It is very funny to write Xmas letters so soon one can’t get up a Xmasy feeling – tho’ the last few days with the snow on the mountains & such sharp frosts it does feel more seasonable & I have been thinking of those days when we all sat round the fire with the old washing basket full of parcels – they seem so long ago.


Notes

Note from John Box

A note from John Box is in the file of letters, dated 10th December – 2 days after Margaret’s letter arrived.


John Box note.

Clearly he too was trying to work out where Margaret might have been, although this gives more places to track down. I think Nish might be Niš, which was liberated from Bulgaria on 12th October 1918. A National Geographic map of Europe is with Margaret’s letters, but it is dated December 1929, so would not be the reference John Box was using, I have not idea where ?albouteneges is.

Censorship

I think this is the first mention of censorship of letters home, which is interesting as the main part of the war is over. It may be simply that the instructions, or rumours, about what should be in letters home had arrived with the inbound letters the nurses received. The letters from my Grandfather (on my father’s side of the family), George Lines, who wrote from the front, for example from Armentières do not mention any need to avoid the censor.

Margaret Box -Dear Dad, November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Ada Box, was a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, tending patients in what was then Serbia. She recorded her activities in diaries, and a number of letters home which give some insight into the world of that time. She wrote this one on the 7th of November from a Field Hospital near Skopje, run by Dr. Lilian Chesney.

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c/o Dr. Chesney, etc

Nov 7th 9.30 p.m.

My Dear Dad,

I have just received 2 more letters from you. The 2nd one, written Oct 7th.

Some more people arrived tonight & we were lucky to get another post in – just fancy – only 2 days since the last ! We nearly shouted the house down (what there is left of it).

No, we have not electric light. Candles are rationed out to us each week & we have an oil lamp in the mess room. I am sorry to hear Mother has had a cold & sincerely hope it was not the ‘flu’. I have seen enough of that disease coming out & I hope you have not been working too hard & got the rheumatism. I have got a most lovely wool cap for you to wear indoors but dont know how to get it home. You say you had no letter from me between Paris & Rome, well I don’t suppose I wrote one. We were in the train for 2 nights & days & changed trains at Modane waiting about an hour for a much needed meal & then we changed again at Turin where we did not have time for a meal. Mother’s biscsuits & chocolate came in useful in those days. When we did arrive in Rome we were rather dusty. I shall never forget the state of the bath after I got out of it ! The Italian trains are about the dirtiest I have ever come across. I can’t tell you what Salonica is like as I only stayed there one night, but I know it was very hot & we slept under mosquito nets in tents.

I am awfully sorry to hear about Uncle Arthur’s burglars. It is what you might call ‘tiresome’ to lose your belongings like that. I must try to write to some of the relatives for Xmas – but we have just heard that a post is going out tomorrow & I want to write so many letters.

The weather was bitterly cold here last week & the snow was right down the mountains – but now it is quite warm again & very hot out in the sun this afternoon. It is not usually very cold till after Xmas.

I hope you are sending me some of my photos. I wonder if they are any good.

Very best love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

A p.c. from Mary & Norah – jolly nice too. Many thanks to them.

Notes

Transit time for post

John Box wrote “Arrived 22 Nov” on the letter, so it took 15 days to get from (near) Skopje to Croydon – a distance of about 1935 miles, so the letter was travelling at slightly over 5 miles per hour – if it went on the direct route.

The journey from Rome

Margaret would have changed trains at Modane Station, and taken the Modane-Turin railway through the Fréjus Rail Tunnel. Yet another spectacular railway journey !

Uncle Arthur (who was burgled)

This would be Arthur Williams Box (1853-1940). He lived both in Brondesbury, London which was his address in the 1912 Census and in Launceston, where he owned the Iron Foundry. He did sell the Foundry in 1912, so the burglary was presumably in London.

Happy Birthday Rose Box, November 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, went to be Red Cross Nurse in Serbia and Salonica in 1918, towards the end of the First World War, leaving her parents, brother (my Grandfather) and sisters back in England. She kept and diary, and wrote a number of letters home, which I am transcribing and commenting on for this blog. On 6th November she wrote to her elder sister, Rosina Janet Braund Box, known as Rose, whose birthday was the 5th of December.

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Nov 6th

c/o Dr. Chesney, etc.

My Dear Rose,

Very many happy returns of your birthday (1918) a happy xmas & a jolly good New Year. I hope you will get this this year !

Yesterday was a red letter day – a mail bag arrived & what a rejoicing & a shouting there was. I had 7 letters – counting all the home ones that is 4 sent off on the 23rd Sept. one from Father, one from Mother & 2 from a ‘Pro’ at York Rd. Please thank them very much indeed. I also had one from Dingle & one from Cora & one from somebody else I met on the way. I don’t know how many times I have read them already. The post is a very uncertain affair as it has to wait both ways until somebody can take & that depends on the weather, the state of the road & whether there is anyone to go. I am writing a lot of letters now so that they will be ready when we hear there is going to be a post. I am glad to hear you are getting into the swing of your new work & hope you will like it all right. Of course by the time you get this you will be quite an old hand at the job ! I should not be surprised if peace is declared before them.

Today I have had a 1/2 day – if it had been a fine day I was going to take my tea & picnic up the mountain – but there has been a nasty thick damp mist the last 2 days – very unpleasant. So I went out for a walk & came in for tea. After tea I went round the town with Danby. I wish you could see these quaint shops & the people. They make you feel that you are at a theatre or show of some sort. We passed a cobbler’s shop. The cobblers, 3 of them, sat in a row in the window-way making the most curious shoes – sandals really. I bought a baby pair they are so funny. We came back very soon & I have been writing letters since then & having supper. Now I must hurry up & get ready for bed.

Jones is still here. She is not much better though getting up & I think she still ought to be in bed.

One day she & I went out a little way & looked inside a Turkish Mosque which is being used as a garage by the French. We did not know it was private & a French Officer spoke to us. 2 more Officers arrived & one I recognised having met him some time ago in my travels. He was in charge of some French meat lorries & superintended the unloading of them at their destination & three of us (not Jones) had travelled 38 kilometres in 3 these lorries – accompanied by the meat ! & a great many flies !! I shall never forget that ride. We were white with dust when we got off. Well anyway on the strength of that acquaintance they took us out to tea. You would have been very amused to hear me trying to talk French & the poor man – one of them could not understand a word of English, but the funny part of it is that French seems quite a familiar language to me these days. When I get a new patient in I say “Can you speak English” – answer “ne ne”. I say “Parlez vous Francais” still with some hope & I generally get answer “ne ne”. So I am using a few native words & use them for every occasion & I manage to my myself understood. Even Italian seems rather familiar (having lived a week in Rome) & once we were on a mountain pass in a touring car (a lady chauffeur, not Jones, & I together alone) one side on a high cliff up the other side a huge precipice down & we were held up by the traffic & almost expected to see a policeman at crossroads (the Bank or Picadilly) but it was a French lorry with its hind wheel over the precipice in the mud that was causing the block & a stream of bullock carts was coming one way & a stream of Italian pack mules the other way, not to mention French & English lorries going both ways. So we settled down to biscuits & chocolate & talked to an Italian ‘multo pericoloso’ said I ‘si, si’ said he but my companion could say more than that – so she said it & then he said more still. You may like to know that the French lorry was pulled up again & we all went on our ways happily.

I think I had better shut up. I wish I could tell you the whole of my travels – but I will one day.

I expect Norah is settled by now & hope she has got something nice. Please ask her why cocks crow in the middle of the night. One started here about 12 o’c & it was answered down the line for (fowl) yards until the answers were lost in the distance, then it started again. They all yelled for about 1/2 an hour then went to sleep again. I hope Norah will get her letter in time. I wrote it a long time before I got here.

Much love to all & good wishes & all kind thoughts,

Your loving sister

Margaret Box.

I shall write whenever there is a post but I think you will understand what an uncertain arrangement it is. You see we are a long way off.

Notes

Letter from ‘Pro’ at York Road

Margaret trained as a Nurse at Guy’s Hospital from 1914 to 1917, and then qualified as a midwife in February 1918. She worked as a midwife at the General Lying in Hospital at York Road, Lambeth in 1920, after she returned from Serbia, and I suspect that is where she was training and working before she went off to ‘do her bit’. Presumably her former colleagues were keeping in touch.

Travelling in meat lorries

This fills in some of the details of her travel on 21st October from Monasteri to Prilip, on meat lorries. I think the ‘3 of us’ would be Margarget, Danby and Howard.

Languages

We live in a world where almost everybody we meet has had some exposure to English, often through films, television, and the Internet, as well as probably learning some at school. People who might encounter any form of foreign visitor, such as hotel receptionists or train conductors will often have some essential English for their job. I don’t know how much

Margaret probably learnt French at school. I think she went to a Boarding School, possibly run by Miss M. Walton in a school called Gelston, in Bexhill, Sussex in the 1901 Census, when she was aged 10. She would not have learned Italian, but might have done Latin.

Amy Margaret Webster (1844-?) daughter of Arthur Reuben Webster, was at the same school, also a boarder, aged 16, and was Margaret’s cousin.

Margaret’s Italian would probably be limited to what she picked up in Rome, so it is interesting that, 28 years before the launch of the Vespa, a key Italian phrase to learn in Rome was ‘multo pericoloso’ (very perilous) !

Margaret Box Nursing – Dramatis Personae

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box went, via France, Italy and Greece to what was then Serbia, in 1918/19 towards the end of the First World War. She was a nurse, working for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and wrote a number of letters and diaries describing her her experiences, indexed here.

During her travels she encounters a number of people, some more more frequently than others, and this article is intended to help keep track of them, and also, in some cases, add some extra information, as many of them were women, and in 1918, during a war, it was only people of an adventurous spirit who would travel to a remote part of the world (as it was in those days) to help people close to where a war was being fought.

Bailey (Colonel)

Gave Margaret a ride in his car on 14th October 1918. I am not sure which of the various Colonel Baileys he might have been

He was not Frederick Marshman Bailey, who forged the documents of a Serbian Colonel in 1918, but was a temporary Lieutenant-Colonel, in Taskent at the time (as a British spy)

Box, John Robert

Margaret’s father, my Great Grandfather, he was a nurseryman, and has his own page here.

Box, Leonard Arthur (1886-1967)

My Grandfather, and Margaret’s brother. He was a solicitor, possibly working for his uncle – William Williams Box.

Box, Margaret Ada (1890-1986)

Box, Edith Mary (1894-1959)

Box, Norah Constance (1898-1987)

Box, Rosina (Rose)

Chesney, Lilian (1869-1935)

Dr Chesney was the head of the hospital Margaret was attached to, where she did most of her nursing in Serbia. As the hospital moved around many of the letters simply use the address “c/o Dr Chesney”

She studied Natural Sciences at Girton from 1890 to 1894, and went to study medicine in Newcastle, who mention her in their article on graduates who served in WW1.

She was awarded the Order of St Sava by the King of Yugoslavia, recorded in the Edinburgh Gazette in 1921.

She had served in the Serbia and London units of the SWH, and then moved to the Elsie Inglis Unit in early 1918. She was inspected with that unit by the King and Queen at Buckingham palace on 18th February 1918.

She is mentioned in the books

Apart from being the address where Margaret can be reached she appears in the letters of

  • 29th Oct 1918 – where (in the notes), she commends Margaret’s initiative in staying to nurse the M.T. unit on 21st October, and sends North in a car to fetch Margaret on 27th October.
  • 16th Nov 1918 – where she is away from the unit but due back soon. She had joked with Margaret about fur coats.
  • 24th Nov 1918 – where she has gone on ahead of her unit

Danby, Gertrude Elizabeth (1878 – 1960)

She was a Sanitary Orderly

Probably born in Ipwich, Suffolk on 8th October 1878, to Thomas William Danby and Gertrude Elizabeth Mary Tyler Smith.

She joined as a VAD on 25h September 1918. Her VAD record is here.

Fooks, Idaberga Mabel. (1880 – )

Her father, Edward John Fooks, was born in Langton House, which was apparently the childhood home of Robert Baden-Powell. I thinks Idaberaga was also born there. Mr Fooks was a partner in the London law firm, Messrs Fooks, Chadwick, Arnold & Chadwick, and clearly spoke good French as he provided for the Courier newspaper the translation of an account of the experiences of one of the Belgian refugees from Herent, near Louvain. He was for 20 years Legal Adviser to the R.C. Diocese of Southwark. This is from https://belgiansrtw.wordpress.com/claytons-farmhouse/ which also says that “Their daughter Idaberga Mabel FOOKS  was a VAD nurse for the duration of the war, at Bidborough Court (Kent 74) and for two years on secondment to the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Russia and Serbia.”

She has two VAD records, here and here.

I suspect that Idaberga was known to the Box family through her father knowing William Williams or Leonard Box.

She is mentioned in the letters of

Gwynn, Margaret Katherine

Secretary to the unit. There is a reference to a letter from her

Howard, Lilian Maud

She is a chauffeur in the London Unit

Jones, Gladys Margaret Powell

Known as ‘Taffy’ as she is Welsh, she is a chauffeur.

She appears in the letter of 20th October 1918, 29th October 1918

Murdoch, Bessie Bannerman

North, Augusta Louisa

I think she may be been Dr. Chesney’s driver.

She appears in the letter of

  • 29th October 1918 – where on 27th October she fetches Margaret from the M.T. Camp, where Margaret has, on her own initiative, been nursing flu patients.

Sinclair, Louise Esson


Happy Birthday Norah Box October 1918

My Great Aunt Norah Constance Box was 20 on 11th November 1918. Her sister, Margaret Ada Box who was nursing in Salonica and Serbia wrote to her on the 24th October, from a camp of the 708 Motor Transport Company to wish her a Happy Birthday. Although Margaret’s letter does not mention it, her diary shows she had stopped off at M.T. camp because many of them were sick with Spanish Flu, and three of her patients died that day. Margaret’s next letter, written to her parents when she rejoins her unit, describes her journey as ‘I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful’ – I suspect she is dissembling about the enjoyment, as the entry about that letter has some extracts from Margaret’s diary.

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24.x.18

My dear Norah

This is to wish you very many happy returns of the day & I hope you will get it in time – though I think it is rather doubtful. I hope you will get something for your birthday as I suggested before I came away.

I have been very busy all this week, although I have not reached my destination ! I have had a very nice letter from my ‘Chief’ – Miss Danby went on & has arrived & I have heard from her. She told the Chief where I was staying & they are going to fetch me when the work here slackens down. I am very fit, I think this outdoor life suits me & I get so hungry – we have heaps to eat & any amount of jam. I am much fatter than when I started ! There is a most fascinating view from here & I wish I had time to explore – you would love it I know. Blue crocuses & pale yellow scabious grow up the mountain side & any amount of mushrooms.

I wonder where you are and what you are doing ? I hope that it has all turned out well & that you are in comfy quarters.

I hope there will be a big budget of letters waiting for me, but I don’t think they will be thro’ yet – they take such an age. I am dying for home news. I wish you could see me now. Sitting up in bed ! My valise is having good wear now – also the wretched tin basin – but it has got horribly bent & chipped all over.

It is very late & I must go to sleep, am sorry I have no time to write more.

Much love to the family & yourself & all best wishes

Your loving sister

Margaret Box

Notes

708 Motor Transport Company

BRITISH FORCES IN THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 BRITISH FORCES IN THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 © IWM (Q 32741)

The picture above is the 689 Motor Transport Company, rather than the 708, but I assume they would have been similar. Both have very similar entries on the list of Army Service Corps Units on the Salonica Campain Society website.

Douglas Walshe was an officer in the 708 Company M T, ASC, a Light Supply and Ammunition Column of Ford vans attached to the Serbian Army. His book With the Serbs in Macedonia is available online at archive.org. His book mentions several encounters with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, but I did not find anything which could be pin pointed as this particular camp.

Margaret Box arrived in Skopje – 29th October 1918

On the 28th October 1918 my Great Aunt, Margaret Box, arrived at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals unit near Skopje. She was a Red Cross Nurse working in the Elsie Inglis unit at the end of the First World War and fortunately her letters home and diaries have been preserved.

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S.W.H.

c/o Dr Chesney etc

29.x.18

My Dear Mother

You will be pleased to hear that I reached my destination yesterday – not bad for a 12 day’s journey eh !

I have enjoyed every bit of it – it was very eventful & I shall tell you the details when I see you. I started work this morning & am expecting to like it all very much. Twice – on the way out I have done a weeks nursing – both British.

This afternoon I have been out for a walk in the town with Danby. I believe it is a market day and we jostled through a very interesting and picturesque crowd. The sun is out & it is very nice & warm now, but at night & in the morning it is very cold. There is snow on the mountains today they they look lovely in the sun. The people wear such quaint clothes – a lot wear white serge big coats edged & decorated with black braid & no sleeves – they are very fond of red – aprons, sashes, gaiters, sleeves etc. (& patches !).

We went into a (deserted) mosque this afternoon – it was very interesting & was decorated – that is – walls & ceiling – with a pretty blue pattern. This place is miles from where I expected to be. I wonder if you have any idea where it is. We expect to be here for a few months – luckily we are in a building which will be warmer for the winter.

30.x.18. Today it is very wet & so cold – but I am glad to say I found my kit bag here on my arrival (I parted from it a long time ago) & so am able to get into thick clothes.

I did not find any letters waiting here for me – which was a great disappointment, but I know they take ages to get through so suppose they will come one day.

I was very surprised to find Miss Jones here – I left her more than a week ago – she was going farther on but is ill in bed with the flu. There is such a lot of flu about & it has kept me very busy ! I have not had it myself.

Please tell Leonard that Miss Ffoulkes is nursing here. She is on night duty just now – I told her how we had lunch with Captain Whitaker the day before I came away. I don’t know anybody here & all the people I was to look up & give messages to are hundreds of miles from here.

There are 4 other sisters – 1 on night & 1 ill and there are 4 V.A.Ds – 1 girl looks after the laundry – 1 cooks for us – 1 (Danby) is sanitary inspection. We have 2 doctors & 1 Administrator & no Matron. They are all exceedingly nice & we are a very happy crowd.

I am longing to hear what you are all doing & hope you will be able to get ?fining for the winter. I am very glad I brought my eiderdown – it is decidedly cold here. My hands & arms are still very brown from being out in the sun but expect it will soon wear off now.

I think you ought to get this in time for your birthday so will wish you very many happy returns of the day. I wish I could fly across & give you a good big birthday kiss – but shall have to save them up for when I come back.

I have 30 beds in my ward – all medical cases at present – the patients are very nice & very amused at my efforts to talk to them. I am picking up a few words already & hope to get better at it.

When I was at the town where my bank is I wanted to get a cheque book so that I could write for money when I wanted it. Unfortunately we arrived there on Sat. afternoon & left on Sunday evening & the bank was not open – so I have not got my cheque book. I explained it all to the administrator of the S.W.H. & she advised me to write a letter to the bank authorizing her to draw the money (£5) so I did it & she gave me the £5. I shall now talk to the administrator here & see what is to be done next. There is not much chance of spending money here – except in the way of curios & everything is fearfully expensive. I tried to by a little note book (not made in England !!) the price was 2 francs so I went without. I saw some lovely wooden spoons which I have my eye on but don’t suppose I shall get. They all eat their soup & vegetables with these wooden spoons & they are awfully nice. Apples cost 1 franc each – also little cakes which we should think dear at 2d

Nov 1st – I am very glad to say that we had only one wet day. Yesterday afternoon 4 of us went for a walk a little way up the mountain to a little village. The people wear most extraordinary clothes – a long white woollen shirt – a sheepskin coat (fur inside) & a woven red stripe apron, a handkerchief or cloth of some sort, red preferred, tied round the head & red embroidered stuff on their legs which is bound on by string. They don’t wear boots but skin tied on with string.

I have spoken to Miss Gwynn about the money & she is going to the town tomorrow & will see what can be done. She takes our letters with her to post – they have to wait until someone is going down – so I don’t suppose you will often get a letter. I only hope she will bring some back with her! I think I had better wish Rose a happy birthday too as I don’t suppose we shall be posting for some time. I shall think of you especially on your birthdays (Norah too) & shall send good wishes on the ‘wings of the wind’.

When you are sending out anything please will you send 2 or 3 little note books about 3 or 4 inches long. It is impossible to get them here & I am wanting one to jot down ‘words’. What would be useful is 3 or 4 dark grey silk handkerchiefs, white gets dirty so quickly – but am afraid they would be rather expensive. Euthymol toothpaste is impossible to get – or toothpaste of any description. I am finding my flannel pyjamas very comfy – also the jaeger bed socks. They say it is not usually so cold as early as this & they think it will turn warmer again. There is a little less snow on the mountains today – they do look lovely with the sun shining on them.

Some say we shall be moving on quite soon – at present our beds are full with ‘flu’ patients. I think that I shall specialize in this disease on my return! It is exactly the same here as at home & in every other place I have been in.

It is bedtime so I must think of saying Goodbye. I am going to wish you all a happy Xmas as probably we shan’t get another lot of letters off in time – anyway you will know I am thinking of you all even if the letter does not bring the news. I don’t know where we shall be for Xmas, perhaps here but most likely much further on. There is a lot of rejoicing in the streets tonight at the news.

I would like to go on writing heaps but have no time now. I have not written to any of the family so will you send them my best wishes for Xmas if my letters don’t get through in time.

Very much love to you all hoping you are all well.

Your loving Daughter

Margaret Box.

I was on this boat for part of my journey – there is not so much paint on the boat now & the sea was not so rocky – it was a very uneventful though very enjoyable trip.


Notes

Dr Chesney

Dr Lilian Chesney (1869-1935) was at Girton from 1890 to 1894, and was also involved in campaign for Women’s Votes.

She has an entry in the Lives of the First World War here.

The was the lead doctor of the unit, hence the unit could be reached by sending letters care of her.

S.S. Amazone

The boat which carried Margaret from Taranto to Iteo, was probably S.S. Amazone (1903-1932), belonging to La Compagnie des messageries maritimes which was requisitioned for postal services between 1914 and 1918.

V.A.D.s

The V.A.D.s were the Voluntary Aid Detachment – civilian volunteers who were not under the control of military units. As well as Margaret’s friend Danby, several famous people, including Agatha Christie were V.A.D.s

The journey

Margaret’s diary, which more sketchy than her letters tells a little more of how she spent the time between Salonica and the field hospital near Skopje.

At 10:50 p.m. on the 20th Margaret, Danby and 3 others travel on the Salonica to Monasteri (Bitola) railway, having a carriage to themselves and arrive at 7 a.m. Then travel by French meat lorries 35km to Prilip.

On the 21st she stays at 708 M.T. where “nearly all the men down with flu and 2 sisters in to nurse them”

On 22nd “Howard & I help in the tents. Plenty of work to do and no convenience for ?revisiting or food except bully and tinned milk”

23rd “Howard & Danby get a lift to Valiz. I stay behind to help. 6 men brought back from French hosp. in an awful condition. Work fast and furious.”

24th ” 2 men died early morn. 1 in afternoon. Letters from Howard & Danby who arrived on eve 23rd at Uskut. Letter from Dr. Chesney. Pleased with my actions. to stay as long as necessary.

Howard would be “HOWARD Miss Lilian Maud, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 6-Feb-19 “

Margaret also finds the time to write a birthday letter to her sister Norah.

25th “A little improvement in the patients”

26th “same as yesterday”

27th “North arrived in a touring car to take me on…”

North would be “NORTH Miss Augusta Louisa, Chauffeur London Unit 20-Feb-18 2-Dec-18”

Her letters home do not alarm her parents with the details of patients dying, and make the whole trip seem rather like a jolly holiday, but the diary shows she, and the other nurses, were out there doing a difficult job, sometimes under arduous conditions.

Her diary shows that ‘The hospital was opened in an old school a week before I arrived. I take ward 3 – 30 beds medical cases’

The Book “A Fine Brother: The Life of Captain Flora Sandes” says (p225) that the Elsie Ingliss Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals who had moved from their malodorous former base, “Dead Horse Camp” to set up a hospital in a former school. This implies, though I don’t think she is mentioned in the letters, that Margaret was in the area at the same time as Flora Sanders – The only British woman to officially serve as a soldier in WW1.

Picking up a few words

Margaret had a notebook in which she wrote what what I think is Serbian, although several of the words seem to be different from modern Serbian (or at least Serbo-Croat from 1983) and the script is more like Greek than Cyrillic . The language notebook deserves a post (or posts) to itself.

Getting and spending money

£5 in 1918 would be worth between £239 and £2126 today, according to MeasuringWorth, so this would have been sufficient to cover her expenses for some time.

Social Networking

It is interesting that Margaret was provided with a names and addresses for people in Salonica, which she did not get a chance to use, but social networks are clearly not as new as we might think !

Miss Gwynn

She would be

GWYNN Miss Margaret Katherine, Secretary London Unit 2-Jul-17 24-Nov-17 and 20-Feb-18 1-Sep-18

SWH Names G-M

Birthday wishes

Margaret’s mother, Ada Box (nee Webster), born on 30th November 1861, was sent sixth birthday wishes from her big sister, Margaret Webster – who died 4 months later. The letter is at ‘Birthday wishes from Margaret Webster to Ada Webster‘. Margaret Box was probably named after Margaret Webster.

Margaret’s sister, Rose (Rosina) Box was born on 5th December 1884.

Rejoicing in the streets

The news would have been the Liberation of Serbia, Albania and Montenegro – at this stage the end of the war for the Axis powers was definitely in sight.


Margaret Box letter from Salonica – October 20th 1918

My Great Aunt, Margaret Box, was a civilian Red Cross nurse, serving in Serbia, towards the end of the First World War. On the 20th of October 1918 she wrote to her Mother from Salonica. As this had been the first major city she had been in for a while she also sent a telegram to say she had arrived safely.

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20.x.18

My Dear Mother

At last we have moved on & we had a comfy night here last night. We went to bed early & slept ‘double quick’ to make up for the night before – which we spent looking at the scenery. There was a lovely moon to light us on our way. We stopt at 9.30 p.m. & got out to have dinner, then went on again. I sent a cable off to you this morning from the place I promised & I hope you will get it soon. We are not staying here long & we are going much further than was intended when we started – the address you have holds good or course – where ever we go.

I say Goodbye to Miss Sinclair & Miss Murdoch today – they are both going to work here for the time being. Miss Powell-Jones, the chauffeur (Taffy – I will call her – she is Welsh) is going on with me – some of the way we go together – also 2 other chauffeurs & Miss Danby who caught us up at the last place. Miss Danby is going to the same place as I am.

Salonica is a very large place – it is awfully hot even now – so can’t imaging what it is like in summer.

When you are writing & it is convenient please will you send me a reel or two of grey cotton, I did not bring any & as you know my clothes are all grey & I have only black or white to sew them up.

My hair has grown about 2 inches since I left home. I was hoping to go to a barber while staying here, but today is Sunday so I have had no chance – however Taffy has kindly cut it for me & I am thankful to be feeling a little cooler in the upper regions.

Everybody is very nice & kind & we seem to have been feeding ever since we arrived. There is no one here that I know and am afraid I have forgotten all the people I was meant to look up. I ought to have put all their names down. But I have no time to visit anyone.

I must get a bath & pack my clothes before we move on so had better say Goodbye.

With much love to all

Your loving Daughter

Margaret Box.

Notes

Written on the letter is also says ‘3 copies typed’ and ‘sent to Norah’, and something else I can’t read.

As is happening during the lockdown people who are not professional hairdressers were extending their skill sets, as Taffy kindly cuts Margaret’s hair.

The journey

The journey from Bralos to Salonica was by a train on the Piraeus–Platy railway – which runs through spectacular scenery and, having been built between 1908 and 1916, would have been quite new when Margaret used it.

This video shows the type of scenery the train travelled through, no wonder Margaret spent the trip looking out of the window !

Miss Powell-Jones

I think she is probably


JONES Miss Gladys Margaret Powell, Chauffeur America Unit 19-Sep-18 1-Mar-19

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Names G-M

Note that the American Unit, also known as the Ostrovo Unit was largely funded by money from America, although the women came from all over the world. Note that according to the Wikipedia article on ‘Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Only the medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and x-ray operators received a salary and expenses while non-medical staff such as orderlies, administrators, drivers, cooks and others received no pay at all (and were in fact expected to pay their way)

So as a chauffeur Taffy would not have been being paid, but would have been having an opportunity for experiences not generally available to women during those times.

“I am half sick of shadows” said

the Lady of Shalott

Very loosely, in Tennyson’s poem, the main character is isolated in a castle on an island, where she can observe the world through a magic mirror, and occupy herself by weaving a magic web, but may not leave the tower or she will be struck by a mysterious curse.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

From The Lady of Shalott

Compared to many, I am in a very fortunate position in this lockdown. From my office window I see, just beyond a quiet (especially at the moment) lane there flows a small stream, flanked by willow trees. Beyond that are fields, and the dreaming towers of Oxford.

And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;

By the margin, willow-veiled,

Selected lines from The Lady of Shalott


I have plenty to keep my occupied, with the garden, software development, plenty of books, and the endless resources of the internet. The ability to have video chats with friends is an amazing development, which would not have been feasible a short while ago, and yet, seeing a young family walk past the titular phrase came into my mind, with many memories and connections.

Arthurian romance

Like many children I read the various stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and these acted as a springboard for many later interests.

Some of my Arthurian Romance collection

The stories act as a framework to discuss good and evil, loyalty and treachery, and even the permanence of defeat and death, as Arthur sleeps in some secret location, to be awakened at the time of greatest need.

The following are a tiny fraction of the books which have been written about King Arthur. They show the diversity of the themes which can be woven from the basic stories.

The once and Future King

This begins with the light-hearted ‘The Sword in the Stone‘, which features Merlin turning they boy Arthur into various animals as part of his education. People being transformed in to animals is also a major theme in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion which I mention below.

The Last Defender of Camelot

A short story by Roger Zelazny, this features Lancelot, who has remained alive until the present day, being summoned to awaken a sleeping Merlin, whose ideas on Kingship are incompatible with the modern world. Zelanzy’s novels are complex and many have relations to shadows. In The Chronicles of Amber the world we live in is a shadow of the ‘real’ world of Amber, and in ‘Jack of Shadows‘ the main character exerts his magic through shadow.

The Mabinogion

One of the earliest mentions of Arthur occurs in The Mabinigion, and reading that, in search of Arthur took me into a fascinating world of feuding princes, giants and magical transformations.

Blodeuwedd by Jackie Morris

The story of Blodeuwedd, like that of The Lady of Shalott, is driven by a mysterious curse. Lleu Llaw Gyffes is under a curse that he may not have a human wife, so Math and Gwydion (the king, and his uncle – the relationships are quite complex), make a woman out of flowers to be his wife, and call her Blodeuwedd, which means flower faced.

Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw, and would like to be rid of LLeu, but he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. Most adulterous spouses would give up at this point but the resourceful Blodeuwedd wheedles the secret out of her husband, in a conversation which I imagine went something like this:

Blodeuwedd: I am really worried about your safety, despite all that, so I can watch out, is there any way you can be killed ?

LLeu: I can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass.

Blodeuwedd: Let me make some notes…

A year later, another conversation

Blodeuwedd: I am still worried about your safety, and seem to have lost my notebook – silly me, it must be from being made of flowers – would it be easier if you showed me the standing on a riverbank, wrapped in a net and so on bit, maybe at dusk tonight.

LLeu (standing on the riverbank at dusk etc) : OK – like this

Gronw (having spent the last year forging a spear): Gotcha !

Struck by the spear Lleu, rather than dying, transforms into an eagle and flies away. Gwydion tracks down LLeu, and transforms him back, and then pursues the fleeing Blodeuwedd, and transforming her into an owl. The picture, with elements of flowers in her dress, and her hand starting to turn into a wing tip, combines the elements of flowers and owls, reminiscent of the story The Owl Service.

Lleu tells Gronw it is only fair that he (LLeu) should have a turn at throwing a spear, and Gronw ask if he can hide behind a rock, Lleu agrees and throws the spear though the rock anyway, killing Gronw.

Llech Ronw – The slate of Gronw

One moral from this story is that someone can be incredibly powerful, but not necessarily as smart as they think they are (back in those days, naturally – I am sure there are no current parallels !) – or

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

Against stupidity, the gods themselves battle in vain

Friedrich Schiller Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans)

The Historical Arthur

The historical Arthur may not even exist (as ‘1066 and All That‘ points out, it is important not to get him mixed by with King Alfred, who did exist), and as the sources of stories of Arthur are so diverse, it is not surprising to find sites all over the country associated with him. This does, however lead to a lot of interesting places to visit, from Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh – city of my birth, through Tintagel – legendary site of Arthur’s conception, to Glastonbury, sometimes associated with Avalon, where Arthur was taken after his last battle.

Seeking out these places gave me many interesting places to visit, and now provide memories.

Glastonbury – and High Ham

When my father retired from the Forestry Commission, in Edinburgh my parents moved to High Ham, in Somerset, and you could see Glastonbury Tor from their garden. According to some clever marketing by the monks at Glastonbury the tomb of King Arthur is in the grounds of the Abbey.

Music

I was listening to ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rick Wakeman while writing this, although the legends have inspired other works, such as Parsifal.

The world of imagination

One of the reasons The Lady of Shalott sticks in my head is that it paints a picture, and in my mind’s eye I envisage the scene unfolding as the poem is narrated, similar to the way Narnia is created through Aslan’s singing in The Magician’s Nephew. A project I have had in my head for a long time – from long before it was technically feasible – was to turn my mental view of the poem into a video. I have started to look at Blender – I do not know if the movie will come to completion, but it does remind me of two things.

A benefit of enforced isolation has been an outpouring of creativity, as people find themselves with time on their hands an chance to try something new – the poem does not tell if the Lady of Shalott knew weaving prior to the curse. An old boss of mine was fond of saying ‘There are no problems, just opportunities’ – resulting a a certain amount of soto voce mutterings about insurmountable opportunities – but there is at least an element of truth in the saying.

The other is that the world of the imagination is even larger and more amazing than the real world. Examples include Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic ‘Click and Drag‘ (you need to click and drag to see what I mean)

(as an aside his comics on ‘The common cold‘,’Everyone’s an epidemiologist‘, ‘Sourdough Starter‘ , ‘Homemade Masks‘ and more are relevant to the Coronavirus crisis)

The quotation which had come to mind to sum up had been ‘To sail beyond the sunset’, which is again Tennyson, from his poem Ulysses, but although another favourite poem, it is not exactly upbeat. (‘To Sail Beyond the Sunsetis also the title of a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein – in his most fantastic phase).

On the theme of journeys of the mind I turn to Hassan by James Elroy Flecker.



                        ISHAK
        We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
          Always a little further; it may be
        Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
          Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

        White on a throne or guarded in a cave
          There lies a prophet who can understand
        Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
          Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        HASSAN
        Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
          When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
        And softly through the silence beat the bells
          Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

                        ISHAK
        We travel not for trafficking alone;
          By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
        For lust of knowing what should not be known,
          We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.