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

Margaret

Notes

‘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 http://www.penmorfa.com/JZ/dubrovnik2.html 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.

Map

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

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 https://wordpress.com/ 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.

OpenStreetMap

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

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.


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


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

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Dec 3rd 1918

My Dear Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaps of love to all

Your loving Daughter Margaret.

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

I will look out for anecdotes etc.

Notes

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

Only one who has kept fit and well

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

Margaret’s Kitbag

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

Gordon Tartan Tie

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

SS Danube

SS Danube – from clydeships.co.uk

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

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

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

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

British Nurse writing from Serbia in November 1918

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

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

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Nov 19th 18

My dear Mother,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very much love from your loving daughter Margaret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 2nd

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

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

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

I hope you are all well and happy

Very best wishes for Xmas & New Year

& much love from

Your loving Daughter

Margaret

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

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

Notes

Birthday wishes

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

Margaret’s money and The Bank of Athens

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

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

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

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

49th General Hospital

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

Letter senders

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

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

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

Elsie Inglis Nursing Unit returning from Serbia – November 1918

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

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

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Notes

Telephones

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

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

Edith Palliser (Chairman)

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

Viscountess Cowdray (hon Treasurer)

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

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

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

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.

Notes

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.

Bonichars

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.


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.