Part five in our There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding Series
When war broke out in August 1914, the people of Britain clamoured to do what they could to support the war effort. Men volunteered for the army and others set about establishing relief units to help the army or provide assistance to civilians and refugees. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were one of those – yet they were also very different, because, right from the beginning, they were set up with two very specific aims: firstly, to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and secondly, and equally importantly, to promote the cause of women’s rights and by their involvement in the war, help win those rights.
The SWH’s original idea was set up a hospital in Edinburgh to help treat the war wounded. However this was soon abandoned in favour of setting up hospitals in the field, close to the fighting. Fundraising commenced and by the end of August 1914 more than five thousand pounds had been raised.
The SWH founder Dr Elsie Inglis approached the War Office with the idea of medical units being allowed to serve on the Western Front. The offer was turned down and she was told by an official “My good lady, go home and sit still”. Undeterred, the hospital was offered to Britain’s allies and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals operated in France, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica, Romania and Russia, but the majority of their work was to help Serbia, all staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers.
Conditions in Serbia were dire; the army had less than 300 doctors to serve more than half a million men. By the winter of 1915 Serbia could hold out no more, and were forced to retreat into Albania. The SWH had a choice to make, stay and go into captivity or go with the retreating army into Albania. Some stayed and several including Elsie Inglis were taken prisoner and later repatriated to Britain. The army retreated over the mountains with no food, shelter or help, suffering many casualties.
Following her repatriation to Britain in February 1916, Elsie Inglis set about equipping and staffing a hospital to serve in Russia. It served in southern Russia and in Romania, providing medical help to the Serbian Division of the Russian Army. This division was made up from Serbs and Yugoslavs who had been taken prisoner by the Russians but had volunteered to fight for the allies. The SWH once again had to retreat. The hospital was withdrawn and they sailed back from Archangel to the UK. The day after they returned back, Elsie Inglis who had been ill for some time, died.
Towards the end of the war the SWH in Serbia provided medical care to soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war. A new fixed hospital was established in Vranje and by early 1919 this was handed over to the Serbian authorities bringing to an end the SWH. Most SWH members returned home and resumed their pre-war lives, others stayed behind to continue to provide medical care in Serbia.
Over 1,000 women from many different backgrounds and many different countries served with the SWH. Only medical professionals such as doctors and nurses received a salary, all others were expected to pay their own way. Some women joined because it was one of the few opportunities open to women to actively help the war effort, for others it was the rare chance for adventure.
The women involved are known and revered in Serbia. There are statues, monuments and streets named after them, yet in their home countries they have been virtually overlooked.
In December 2015 the British Embassy teamed up with Serbian Post to celebrate the efforts of the SWH. The stamps are part of a wider campaign by the British Embassy in Belgrade aimed at highlighting more than 600 British women who contributed to the war effort in Serbia. Five Scots women who worked as doctors, nurses and drivers feature on the new stamps. A sixth English woman, Captain Flora Sandes, who was the only British female to bear arms during WW1, is also remembered.
The five Scots are:
- Evelina Haverfield – British suffragette and humanitarian worker. She was the chief administrator of Scottish Women Hospitals in Serbia and set up one of the first local orphanages.
- Dr Elsie Inglis – campaigner for women’s suffrage and the founder of the Scottish Women Hospitals in Serbia. Dr Inglis was one of the first female graduates at the University of Edinburgh.
- Dr Elizabeth Ross – one of the first women to obtain a medical degree at the University of Glasgow. She travelled to Serbia as a volunteer and tragically passed away during the typhoid epidemic in 1915.
- Dr Katherine MacPhail OBE – involved in humanitarian work in Serbia throughout WW1. She is remembered for opening the first paediatric ward in Belgrade in 1921.
- Dr Isabel Emslie Galloway Hutton – joined the Scottish Women Hospitals as a volunteer in 1915 after she was turned away by the War Office in London. She served in France, Greece and Serbia until 1920.
Read the previous installments in this series about Ethel Moir and the Scottish Women’s Hospital: