New Year 1919 in Sarajevo

Margaret Ada Box started the year 1919 far from home (Croydon), in a hospital in Sarajevo, where she was a Red Cross Nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Although the First World War was over, sickness and disease – particularly the Spanish Flu, meant there was a great need for medical attention. The Armistice had been signed, but many of the causalities of war needed treatment for their injuries.

Margaret was my Great Aunt, and I have inherited many of the letters she wrote home. Here she writes to her father, my Great Grandfather, on the first of January 1919.

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Jan 1st 1919

My dear Father

We had a pleasant surprise today in the shape of a mail. Thank you for your letter of the 25th (Nov) just received & the parcel from Mother arrived at the same time. Please thank her very much for all the things, the handkerchiefs are lovely, am sorry she had such a bother to get them. The gloves too I am needing badly.

We are lucky to get more letters again so soon, it being only Xmas Eve when we received the last. Dr Chesney returned on Sunday last with the news that we were to remain here & open the hospital – or rather take it over from the Germans. So since then we have actually been nursing again & I am continuing on night duty. I shall only do 1 month altogether on nights.

We have not many patients yet, but they are a strange collection – five different nationalities in one ward! Today we received more orders from home. The unit is to return home as soon as possible & the London Committee has resigned. The difficulty is that we cant’ go home as the Unit has no money here at present. So we shall just have to sit & wait till it comes. I have asked to be transferred to another Unit out here & so finish my year. It will mean some more travelling round to join one of the other hospitals. The one I want is farther north than the place where I first joined this hospital.

I am awfully sorry to hear Rose had the ‘flu’ & do hope she soon recovered & that Mother did not take it too. What a good thing she was in a place where she could get good attention. I hope by now all is serene once more. You must have been terribly lonely all by yourself. I wonder if Leonard is home yet & how he will like the office again.

The money we are using at the moment is the column marked (by me) the value alters very frequently at present 1 kr is only worth 5d & someone yesterday got 115 kr for a golden sovereign. The money has altered in almost every place we have been, the French not being the usual & in some places even refused. All native souvenirs of any sort, clothes or anything else are very expensive now since the war & doubly so to us who they know are English but I hope to bring a few things back with me. I am sending you a white felt cap, as worn by the Macedonians, usually by itself tho’ often with a bright handkerchief round forming a broad band similar to a turban. They look very funny, little white patches on top of a black head. This one fits on the back of my head beautifully & I hope will be large enough for you. Am sure it will be nice & warm for you to wear indoors. I shall ask someone who is going home to take & post it.

On Tuesday afternoon several of us went out to see a Turkish gentleman, his house & his family. It was a wonderful arrangement. They had beautiful carpets & embroidered cushions & covers of all descriptions made by his wife. Then they had very valuable cups, plates etc & all kinds of treasures, they must be rolling in wealth. The wife was very beautiful & dressed in pale blue silk trousers, very full. Her hair was in 2 long plaits & covered with a little scarf edged with artificial flowers. The little sister age 9 – called “Xuda” pronounced “Heba” was very pretty, also dressed in baggy trousers, but not nearly so full. The Mother was dressed in bright orange. They all wore their hair the same way. “Xuda” brought us raspberry syrup in marvellous red fancy glasses with gold rims, on a lovely silver filigree tray. After that we had coffee in tiny china cups. The Turkish women when out of doors wear black silk or material veils hanging over their faces & a great many of them wear white flowing robes, all over heads too. You can imagine how ghostly they look. You can never see their features & they stand still & stare at us through their masks.

We had a lot of snow last week which froze & the sleighs have been out on the streets, but today it has been thawing fast.

Very many thanks for all the Xmas wishes. We certainly had a strange Xmas here. I hope all the others were able to get home for it.

Very best love to all & all good wishes for the New Year to all

Your loving Daughter



The Parcel

Connecting across a century, sending parcels to Europe was associated with a requirement for a customs declaration, which, from a historical point of view generated some interesting documentation, even if it was probably a nuisance at the time. I don’t have the customs declaration, but there is an itemised list of the contents of this parcel.

Christmas Presents for Margaret
  • 1 pair (something)
  • 9 (something) Hankerchief
  • 2 (something)
  • 4 Cotton ?socks
  • Total for clothes
  • Something
  • Writing (something )

  • 7/11 ½
  • 1/4
  • 2/6
  • /10
  • ——–
  • 14/7 ½
  • 2/9
  • 2/6

I hope to return to decoding John Box’s handwriting, to complete the list, but I am sure Margaret was very glad to replenish her supplies of stationary and socks, handkerchiefs etc.


The exchange rate table, which Margaret presumably enclosed with this letter is interesting.

This appears to have been cut from a newspaper, which Margaret must have had access to in Serbia – she was, by now, in a major city (Sarajevo). Most of the other currencies, such as the French Franc have gone, but interesting to see that £1 was worth $4.87 – as opposed to $1.39 when I wrote this.

The reverse of the cutting is also interesting.

My mother used a Boots Scribbling Diary, which was always one of her requested presents, but it is interesting to see that they date back at least as far as 1919.

The white felt cap

From the description this sounds like a Plis, though that is more often associated with Albanian national costume than Macedonian.

Albanian wearing a plisi – not my Great Grandfather

How do we decide ?

This is very much a work in progress, which I intend to refine, but published in this incomplete form to link other posts into a wider context.

Choices can be tricky – important ones always are, and for each choice we (as individuals, groups, societies and humanity as whole) make there will be an alternative which we did not take.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost


With great power comes great responsibility

Peter Parker

Ethics, as I am using it here, is a huge field, containing philosophy, religion and politics.

Individuals, Groups, Nations, Humanity

Finding the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group has always been hard, and is becoming harder as the world grows more complex.


Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is Power)

Francis Bacon (attributed)

Any decision which is incompatible with science will ultimately go wrong, because the science tells us about the world as it is, rather than the world as we might like it to be.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science

Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.

It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.


The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

Abraham Lincoln

Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)

To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.

Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.

How do They decide ?

If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.

If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.

All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?

This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.

Do we decide ?

I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.

A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.

This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.

In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.