Sept 5th 1916
“We are supposed to reach Archangel in a couple of days, so I will start a letter, in hopes of getting it posted there. You will want to hear everything from the beginning; so here goes!”
So starts the diaries of Ethel Mary Moir, a real gem from Edinburgh Libraries’ Special Collections.
The diaries were kept by Ethel during her time with The Scottish Womens Hospital (SWH) during World War One. In the first volume, covered with purple cloth and bearing large letters E M embroidered in black, Ethel records in very precise, neat handwriting her “adventures” serving with the hospital in Roumania (Romania) and Russia. Inside the pages are her own drawings, postcards collected and photographs taken, all documenting the time she spent with the SWH unit.
This was a very different life from which she had been used to. Born in 1885, in British Honduras, the daughter of a doctor, she spent most of her life in Inverness. Not much is known of Ethel’s early life. The 1901 Census return finds her aged 19, a scholar, and her four siblings at Ardross Leas with their parents and three servants. By the 1911 census the family are still residing there. It doesn’t give the profession of 27 year old Ethel, but seems to suggest she lived at home helping the family.
We don’t know how Ethel came to be involved in the SWH, but it’s possible that she was drawn to it from an interest in the emerging women’s suffrage movement. As a young, single middle-class woman in the early 1900s she may have been involved in several organisations and societies. When Elsie Inglis returned to Britain after her initial trip to Serbia during 1914-15, she embarked on a tour of cities to gain additional funds for equipping a hospital in Russia, meeting and inspiring women to her cause along the way. In August 1916, the London Suffrage Society financed Inglis and eighty women to support Serbian soldiers fighting the allies.
We do know that Ethel, together with her friend Lilias Grant enlisted with the SWH in 1916. They set sail for war-torn Serbia on the troopship “Hanspiel” from Liverpool heading for Archangel in Russia, via Ireland and Lapland describing the boat as …”quite a small boat, & a fiend of a tub, very narrow in her bottom & in consequence rolls like fun! She’s filthy too; at present, I hate her like nothing on earth!” The ship had been escorted part of the way by a D70 destroyer, but this was unable to weather the storm and so The Hanspiel continued onwards to Archangel alone. In the end the journey took 5 days.
Once they arrived at Archangel, they were moved 5 miles further up the river to Bacheridza. Here they were visited on board by dignitaries from the British Consul and the Russian Governor of Archangel who “all displayed an extraordinary amount of interest in us & they seemed highly amused at us!”On snatched hours off Ethel and Lilias Grant had the chance to visit a local village where she describes how to get along with the locals…”There are two words, which will cover a lot of other deficiencies in “the lingo”- the one is, “pozháluista” -“please”; the other, “spacibo” [spasibo] – “thank you”!
“I have discovered here in Russia, the national equivalent for the American “institution” of chewing-gum. At all the street corners are hawkers offering sunflower-seeds for sale. ..folk everywhere persistently engaged in the not over-picturesque occupation of splitting up these seeds with their teeth, munching the soft kernels within, & spitting out the empty husks”
Just over 2 weeks after her departure from Liverpool Ethel is writing in her diary –
“..we’ve been 2 days on the train & it has been terrifically hot….but are we downhearted? No! ….soldiers & civilians cheered and cheered. Russian & English alike have been simply splendid to us & never will we forget all the kindness we received ….Dr Inglis has just been telling me that we are to be in the very thick of things, as we are to be with the 1st Serbian Division which is right up at The Front. “
Once there, a makeshift hospital was made from a barn which was converted into 2 wards each holding 100 patients on each side, the only bedding, straw mattresses on the floor.
“ we have no water, lighting or any such luxuries – all the water we have to fetch from a pump up on the hill, some considerable distance away, then after it has been carted down it has to be boiled, so you see the conveniences are not great – but it’s wonderful how soon we’ve got it to look like a hospital”.
After moving camp to Boul-boul-mic [Bulbul Mic, now Ciocârlia] the candid entries in the diary continue to tell of the harsh realities of life in a field hospital –
” I fear the life of our present dressing-tent will be very short, as the news is very bad. There is a certain sense of strain about the life up here – uncertainty. The booming of the guns goes on day & night. There seems to be no panic among the inhabitants (the few who are left in the village) but certainly a very fixed determination to get away. The ceaseless stream of motor ambulances tearing along the dusty road never stops, the tooting of horns never ceases, while the sense of hurry & stress goes on all the time”.
Food, or lack of it was obviously never far away in her thoughts, when writing about the distribution of food “we take round the rations in a sack first thing in the morning – 6 different people every day- a chunk of black bread for each, a hard boiled egg & a slice of jam…I mean – ham – everyone is talking & someone at the moment mentioned how she would like some jam – so down went jam on paper!! ……and later –
“ We “looted” a goose en route the other day & it afforded us no end of amusement preparing it “for table” & no end of joy consuming it. It lasted us for 3 days! The soldiers assisted with the plucking – but I wish you could have seen us severing the brute with the aid of one pen knife – it was “some” work of art I assure you”.
By the end of 1916 Ethel’s unit had been moved to Odessa to set up a hospital there she writes –
“We have been very busy all week getting our Hospital in order & getting in patients. It all looks so nice now & quite professional! I’m in the theatre, it is topping. I’m most awfully pleased I’ve got that job & am quite happy & in my element. The theatre is perfectly ripping; it might just have been specially designed for an operating theatre. I hope we get plenty of “ops” – just heaps & heaps! Blood thirsty? Yes.”
The diary entry for 5th January 1917 says that, “Since writing last, everything is changed & after the cable I talked things over with Dr. Chesney & am going home as soon as Mrs. Bagge can secure a place on the train”. We know that Ethel’s mother died on 31st December 1916, and that she started her journey back home to Scotland with her good friend Lilias Grant for company, a journey that she hoped would take 12-14 days. In fact things were changing in Russia and it was to be nearly 3 months before she arrived back in Scotland. Her first stop was Petrograd where –
“there are rumours of a Revolution on all sides …. things are becoming very serious – thanks to the Tsarina & her party. They seem to be doing their best to starve the people & the troops in to making peace. The people in Petrograd are dying of starvation… They can’t get bread & the prices are simple [simply] impossible. It can’t go on. Of course Rasputin’s death is still the talk. It’s a blessing they’ve got rid of him”.
By 22nd March they have finally made it to Scotland, although this was not their intended destination. The boat that they were on had been headed for Liverpool, but because its cargo, 600 tons of valuable zinc-spelter for munitions, the Germans were aware of their movements and so were detoured to the Shetland Isles arriving at Lerwick Harbour – the diary proclaims….“ “Scotland for ever!” – so near & yet so far! We’ve got so far, but can’t get no further!! We’re “interned” here. The 31st March entry… “It’s “Ireland for ever” this time & I don’t think!! I wonder if we will ever reach home!? I hae ma doots!”
The last entry in the diary, dated 1st April is headed N.B [North British] Hotel, Edinburgh. It starts with “Three cheers for “Auld Reekie” and ends with “we simply cannot believe that we are really back in Scotland! Our excitement is beyond words! Good old Scotland!! So long!!! (not long now!)
Cheers!! (from 4 “Scottish Widows!)
You can read full transcripts of the pages from the first volume of the diaries and see all the pictures and clippings from it, on Capital Collections.
Read the further installments in this series about Ethel Moir and the Scottish Women’s Hospital