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British Women on the Serbian Front in 1915

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 5 October 2015

Alexandra Tomic tells the remarkable story of volunteer female medical staff who travelled to Serbia in 1915 at the height of the worst typhus epidemic in history.

Transcript

Alexandra Tomic:

This group of women I will be talking about are fairly well known in Serbia, but they are not usually very well known in Britain.

I am going to go back to the year 1915. And I think we all know what happened in 1915 on the Western Front - that was the Second Battle of Ypres; German U-boats struck the 'Lusitania'. On the Eastern Front, Russia was driven out of Poland and Galicia; and the Gallipoli campaign failed.

Now, in Serbia, 1915 is considered to be probably the hardest year of the First World War. And the reason for that is that in early 1915, starting in late 1914, an enormous typhus epidemic started. And then, in the second half of the year, starting at the end of November after a triple offensive by Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, the Serbian Army had to embark on a retreat across Albania and was joined by a large number of civilians.

Now, in both these events - very important in Serbian history - a group of British women played an important role. And this year, a number of events commemorated this contribution.

There was a series of exhibitions that were opened, as well as a whole series of newspaper editions of 'Belgrade Daily'. This was published jointly by the UK Embassy in Belgrade, in Serbia, and the Serbian government under the title, 'Our Great British Women'.

They also commemorated a number of places in Serbia that still exist and that still remember the women. And many places have towns... have streets named after them, for instance, and they are totally unknown in Britain, which is interesting.

Now, in World War One, there were approximately 3,000 foreign medical workers in Serbia and most of them were women. There were doctors, surgeons, nurses, hospital orderlies, ambulance drivers. One of the most famous institutions that gave the staff was the Scottish Women's Hospitals. And it is estimated that about 700 women from Scottish Women's Hospitals served in Serbia.

Now, the question that I wondered - and I am sure some of you do, too - is who were they and what made them go. What made them leave lives of comparative luxury... in fact, we also have London Society debutants who went to the Serbian Front. They left for a completely unknown country, unknown culture, unknown language. It was a dangerous journey and, of course, the actual task that they set out to do, which was to help Serbian soldiers, was also very difficult.

Their motivations varied a great deal. Some of them, I think, did long for adventure. Some of them wanted to use the skills they had, because they were doctors and, as we will see, they were not really accepted by the British Army at the time to serve as doctors or surgeons. They also wanted to be useful. This transpires quite clearly. And some of them wanted to do war just like men. In fact, a lot of them had links to the suffragette movement.

In 1914, women's professional efforts were not recognised, to say the least, and one of the women that we will be talking about, Elsie Inglis, one of the first British women doctors, she was the founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. And she set up... it started quite modestly, she wanted to set up hospitals staffed only by women. And she set up a fund and she offered her services to the Royal Army Medical Corps. The reaction she received was very negative and this has come down in history. The reaction to her was, 'My good lady, go home and sit still.'

So, of course, she was not having any of that. And when they actually did set up in northern France, they set up a hospital staffed with... because other governments, the British government did not accept, other governments accepted.

In northern France, they set up a hospital staffed only by women and women surgeons. And the local press became very interested. How could there be such as a thing as women surgeons?

So, one of the journalists from the French press wanted to be present at an operation to see how that looked. And so, for I guess PR purposes, that was accepted. And the journalist emerged a little bit later, a little bit paler, and shouted to the assembled... presumably crowd, 'C'est vrai, elle coupe!' (It's true, she is cutting!) So that was the atmosphere generally to professions done by women.

Now, just very briefly, the background. I am not going to go back to the origins of the First World War, you'll be happy to know.

Serbia in 1914, after the assassination that I am sure you have heard plenty about last year at the anniversary... after the assassination, the preparations for war began in Serbia. I think it is fair to say that Serbia did not want war after the two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. It really wanted to consolidate its territories, not to make more war. And it looked pretty dire for Serbia.

In 1914, it's estimated about 90 million people... that's how large the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was. And Serbia was 4.5 million. Even after Serbia expanded about one third of its territory and the population, it still really could not face the Austro-Hungarian Empire on equal terms.

Now, the Entente powers did send some military missions, but that was fairly limited because they had their own battles to fight. And let's just get who was who to begin with.

This was Field Marshal Oskar Potiorek on the Austro-Hungarian side, the chief of staff. Some of you may remember that he was the survivor of the Sarajevo assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Some people say that he suffered from a survivor's guilt because he was also responsible for the archduke's safety in Sarajevo, so that did not go down very well. However, he was a personal friend of Franz Joseph, the emperor, so he was not actually removed from duty.

He was a governor of Bosnia Herzegovina, which is why he was on the official visit. His troops had a difficult time in 1914 in Serbia because they not only faced very motivated Serbian troops, but also a very hostile population. One of the survivors from the Austro-Hungarian troops left a diary saying, 'I feel the whole country, the whole land, is against us, not just the soldiers.' And that was probably true.

On the Serbian side, this is Field Marshal Radomir Putnik who was a veteran of the Turkish Wars and the Balkan Wars, extremely competent. Although in his later years, he was quite ill with asthma at the time and to make things more interesting, he was actually in a spa taking the waters at Bad Gleichenberg in Austria at the time of the declaration of the war. So, when the war was declared, apparently he was the only one who had the combination of the safe in the headquarters where the plans of what to do if the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacks. So, they actually had to blow up the safe before he could get back.

But get back he did, which was quite extraordinary because at the time... well, it was a gentlemanly war, so he was detained at the Hungarian border on his way back from Austria by the Hungarian customs, I believe. And then at the intervention of the Austrian foreign minister, he was actually released and he returned to Belgrade to find the safe blown up.

So, of course, if they had known what a terrible time they would have in Serbia, I think they would have been a lot less chivalrous. Because, the first Entente victory in World War One was the Mountain Cer battle in August 1914 when the Austro-Hungarian troops were routed. And that was followed... there was another offensive in November, the Kolubara River victory again against Austro-Hungarian troops.

So, despite the great optimism that started the war in terms of they will get rid of Serbia very easily, Count von Hötzendorf, who was the Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, he sent 19 divisions to face Serbia's 11 divisions. Although to the Russian Front he sent 30 to face Russia's 50. So there was a lack of balance.

There's a lot that's been written - certainly in Serbia - about how come the Serbian military was this brilliant. Well, they certainly... they defended their soil. They also had a lot of skills, they had a lot of experience and they hadn't stopped fighting for years. They also had French-made artillery, which was quite important.

Now, the victories in the summer and autumn of 1914, they were not decisive, but they were pretty impressive. Then we had a series of articles written about gallant little Serbia facing up to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was in the same vein of plucky little Belgium facing the Germans.

But the casualties were pretty horrendous. To begin with there were... estimated Serbian troops were about 250,000 combatants out of which, after several offensives, this was 160,000 dead or wounded. Of that, 2,000 were officers. In fact, about 70,000 men died of wounds or disease. And the medical system was completely stretched. There was a very poor road network and there was a lack of transport.

It was horrendous. It was quite... although one of the generals sent a victorious telegram after the last, the Kolubara battle in November: 'No enemy soldier remains on Serbian soil.' But in fact the casualties were very, very heavy. And this was just the beginning.

And this is when typhus happened. So, how did that happen?

Well, it was the prisoners of war. Serbs took a very large number of Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. It's estimated - although figures vary - about 40,000. And Valjevo, which is a town about 50 miles south-west of Belgrade, in December 1914 it's considered to be the epicentre of the epidemic.

Returning Serb troops from the front found 3,000 prisoners of war, who were all sick and kept in the worst sanitary conditions. Then, because they couldn't be kept in one place, or in several places, some of them - of course, people didn't know they were infected - they were actually sent out throughout Serbia to work as farmhands, which was the worst possible thing. So they spread the infection.

And so who's to blame?

The body louse, pediculus humanus humanus. This was known... this was work done by a French doctor Charles Nicolle in 1909-11. He worked in Tunisia. He worked out that it was this louse which spread the disease. And if you had somebody who was infected with this creature, it would just be a matter of time until it spread.

Now, this was not known, or not sufficiently well known, certainly not by the Serbian medical authorities. It is estimated that between January and March 1915 there was about 500,000 people who were infected. At the height of the epidemic there was a 40 per cent mortality [rate], which was awful.

Now, normally typhus... and I just have a very brief explanation which I only learned about this myself. There is a difference between typhus and typhoid. Typhus is the actual disease and typhoid... well, it is a disease but it's just mirroring the symptoms of typhus. It can be equally bad. Normally, they both can be treated if conditions are alright. But, of course, in lack of sanitation, lack of food, lack of heat, this just became terrible.

Now, this is when the Serbian government appealed for help from Allied governments and from neutral countries too. And this is when the Red Cross sent missions, the Scottish Women's Hospitals sent three missions, there was a Berry Mission, Stobart Field Hospital, Lady Paget's Mission. And this is when so many women doctors in Britain, the first women doctors in Britain went to Serbia.

So, I'll just give you some names. As I've already mentioned, Elsie Inglis; Dr Alice Hutchinson, she was one of the first ones to go; Dr Isabel Emslie, later Lady Hutton; Dr Mary Philips; Katherine Stuart MacPhail and some others. And one of them was also Dr Elizabeth Ross.

Now, she was one of the first women to qualify. She studied medicine in Glasgow and, although she first worked locally in Scotland, she quite extraordinarily went to work in Persia. She studied tropical diseases and she worked with an Armenian doctor and there is also - I don't know whether this is a legend, but I've read it in several places - she was also a doctor to a harem of the powerful Bakhtiari tribe in Persia.

So, she was quite an extraordinary person. To make it more extraordinary, she was actually the first woman ship surgeon on a ship that sailed between Japan and India.

Now, she found out from the appeal of the Russian government that there was a need for doctors in Serbia. And she arrived, went to the Serbian Fever Hospital in Kragujevac, which is about 90 miles south of Belgrade. Almost everything is south of Belgrade because Belgrade at the time was right on the border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She arrived in Kragujevac and the situation was horrendous. There were no skilled nurses. And she worked for several people.

She was devoted, she was skilled. The conditions were horrible, roads unpaved, clean water, dirty water not properly separated. Not only was there typhus, but also recurring fever, dysentery, there was a shortage of wood, shortage of food. Because it was cold, frostbite occurred very easily. Because it was dirty, there was a lot of gangrene, so amputations were rife.

She was adored by patients. And I was trying to put myself at that time to imagine what it was like. There's no food, there's no clean conditions, several patients to a bed, and Serbia feels very much left alone. And there is this group of foreigners, doctors, very well dressed because they all brought their own uniforms and kept different standards of hygiene that they tried to impose on the Serbian medical staff with different levels of success.

They were called angels and saints and completely trusted. There was absolutely never any doubt in their medical skills. In fact, the women doctors and women surgeons were preferred to ordinary army doctors. So, this was hugely successful.

However, what is very sad is that Dr Ross got sick from exhaustion. And, despite a lot of care she received, she died on 14 February 1915 and this was the day of her 37th birthday.

There was a full military funeral that was held in Kragujevac. And there is a street to this day in Kragujevac named after her. And the Kragujevac Red Cross field team also bears her name.

'Here lies Dr Elizabeth Ross of the military fever hospital who died at Kragujevac in the spring...'

And she's not the only one who died in Kragujevac at that time. These three tombs have a special place in the Kragujevac cemetery. What is interesting is that a service is held every year on 14 February, still today, to honour the sacrifices.

One of the others named on the tomb is Mabel Dearmer. Now, I've only chosen several to introduce to you. Each life is very special and very different.

Now, Mabel Dearmer... I told you earlier that, what was quite surprising is, why did they leave? They didn't have to leave and Mabel Dearmer was not a doctor. Actually, she was a very gifted illustrator, dramatist, author of children's books and she had a successful career. Her two sons enlisted and she was a wife of Reverend Percy Dearmer.

What is quite interesting with Mabel Dearmer is that she was a pacifist, she absolutely hated war. Now, how did she end up giving her life for Serbian soldiers?

She went to a farewell service for the Stobart Third Relief Fund led by Mrs Stobart and the service was held in St Martin-in-the-Fields. And so she attended with Percy, her husband, who there and then informed her that he would be going to Serbia to serve as chaplain to the small British military mission.

At that time, she decided she had to go, too. So, she immediately went to speak to Mrs Stobart and said, 'Can I go to Serbia, please?' And so, Mrs Stobart said - I'm improvising the dialogue - 'What are you trained for?' And Mabel Dearmer said, 'Nothing, but I have common sense, I can learn things quickly.' Mrs Stobart looked at her jewellery and furs and said, 'You will have to leave that here.' So she said, 'Yes, I will.' Three weeks later, she was in Kragujevac.

Now, she wrote letters and there are several... actually all of them wrote a lot of letters and diaries. And after the war, those that survived published memoirs. There's a whole treasure-trove of memoirs that can be found, a lot of them online that you can find. We can see that she was very proud of her work. And what is quite interesting is that, you read her letters and they are very poetic, which is why I chose to introduce her to you. She wrote in one of her letters to a friend, 'The only way to see war is from a hospital.'

She engaged with her patients and I think she also tried to convince them that peace was better than war. She couldn't get that across, it wasn't going anywhere, but she enjoyed her work, she liked being a hospital orderly being in charge of laundry, looking after things, looking after people. She also liked that Percy sat with officers and she was with the ordinary people. She felt that that was also good.

She felt very sorry for her patients, not just because they were wounded and sick, but because she felt they couldn't be turned into pacifists. She said, even when they were wounded, all they wanted was to get up, get better, go back to war. I think she found it hard to relate to that. She actually wrote, she said, what I feel is that, 'they are human beings wasted'.

This is another passage she wrote, 'This war will not bring peace. No war will bring peace. Only love and mercy and terrific things, such as loving one's enemy, can bring a terrific thing like peace.'

She wasn't afraid of dying. She wrote also to her friend that we all have to stop somewhere, 'so if I have to stop here, that's fine'. She felt... she saw the way people died from typhus was not terrible - she said you only 'drifted away to sleep'.

And, unfortunately, she too got sick. She got typhoid and double pneumonia and died on 11 July 1915.

There was again a very large funeral. Wreaths were sent by the Serbian government officials. There were British, French, Belgian, Serbian military officers at the funeral. And one of the French officers said, quite wrongly but beautifully, that she died 'avec la noblesse d'un soldat' (she died nobly as a soldier). Of course, that was totally wrong. That's not at all how she felt.

It's interesting to mention too that three months later on 6 October 1915 - which is actually 100 years ago tomorrow - Percy and Mabel's youngest son, Christopher, died at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.

Now, I mentioned Mrs Stobart. Here's another unconventional woman.

She was married to Colonel Stobart who died, and then she remarried but kept her name. She spent about ten years farming in a remote area of Transvaal in South Africa. And then, when the first Balkan War broke out, she took a whole hospital relief fund to Bulgaria in 1912. So she had some experience and she had funds, she had equipment.

But when the First World War started, her services were refused by the British Red Cross, but were accepted by the Belgian Red Cross. And she worked in Belgium until it was occupied by the Germans.

And then, she very nearly suffered the same fate as Edith Cavell, because she was arrested and accused of treason. She was brought before a judge and - sometimes one has to be lucky - he didn't find there were grounds for detaining her further and she was allowed to go free.

So, she worked in Cherbourg in northern France for a while and then joined the Third Serbian Relief Fund to lead them to the Kragujevac Hospital. And one of the orderlies was Mabel Dearmer.

Now, this was generally a well-run hospital. Kragujevac was the headquarters of the Serbian Army at that time. There were also Austrian prisoners of war who were working there. And Mrs Stobart was very practical. She thought, 'Yes, we have to help the soldiers,' but she also wanted to help the civilians. And there were also other diseases: diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis.

She did her job very well. In a lot of different diaries and letters there are... we get a different sense of what it was like. She was a fairly determined woman, and did not take to criticism lightly - I think that's probably a euphemism. But she ran it well, she was a good leader.

And when the Central Powers - Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and German - started massing on the borders of Serbia in October 1915, she was put in charge of a Serbian flying field hospital. And she was actually given a rank by the Serbs of major. But she preferred to be known as 'majka', which means 'mother' in Serbian.

Now, she was... actually Sir Ralph Paget, he was in charge of the Serbian Relief. And she, according to some sources, she should have consulted with him before going off with the Serbian Army on a retreat. But she didn't, she actually willingly put herself under the orders of the Serbian Army.

And just like this particular mission, there were others, and they all had to decide - foreign missions - whether they would stay in Serbia and allow themselves to be imprisoned and have their equipment confiscated by the arriving enemy, or whether they would continue on the retreat with the Serbian Army. I think about half of them did one thing, and half of them did the other.

She chose the retreat, took her column, which consisted of equipment, cars, carts, oxen... And this is something that is quite hard to imagine, because the retreat went in the direction of... south, escaping... if you remember, Greece was still neutral and Greece was cut off by the Bulgarians. So, the Germans were coming, the Austro-Hungarian troops were coming, the Bulgarians... and the Serbian Army had to retreat. So they retreated via Kosovo on to Albania.

And her account, Mabel Stobart's account, echoes all the others: 'Men by the hundred lay dead from the cold and hunger and no one could stop to bury them. But worse still, men lay dying from the cold and hunger and no one could stay to tend to them.'

Now, she was 53 at the time. And the whole retreat she spent on horseback, which is very impressive.

The retreat was ordered by the Serbian General Staff along several routes to Montenegro and Albania to reach the Adriatic coast and then be evacuated by the Allies. That was the idea. Some units took a shorter time, but most of the units took a very long time to get to the coast.

Just to give you an idea, this was considered a seminal event in Serbian history, about 78,000 Serbian soldiers died on the retreat. About the same number estimated went missing, and estimated 150,000 arrived on the Albanian coast and were evacuated to Corfu.

Civilians also joined the retreat because they were very worried about the atrocities that would be perpetrated by the arriving enemy. The numbers are even worse, there were 220,000 civilians estimated to have joined the retreat, but only about 60,000 survived.

There were about 60 Scottish Women's Hospital staff, women, who looked after the Serbian military medical service, they crossed Albania as well.

And there was an American who also was there as part of an American mission. His name is Fortier Jones. He wrote a wonderful account called 'With Serbia Into Exile: An American's Adventures With The Army That Cannot Die'. Some of the pages are dedicated to the women that he met, the British women that he met.

What he was particularly impressed by is that he said the practicality of these women was amazing because when they were told they were going on the retreat they managed to get rid of all the things they didn't need. But not only did they keep the really important secret weapon, hot water bottles, but they actually had extra hot water bottles, so that was something worth remembering.

Now the Stobart column went on very, very slowly. There were so many soldiers, so many civilians. Some people decided to turn back in the middle of awful, difficult passes, muddy terrain, frozen. People were dying of cold and hunger and there were desertions.

And in fact in Mrs Stobart's column two people tried to desert, but she managed to talk them back to continue with her. Her flying field hospital journey was 800 miles long and lasted ten weeks. Now, she lost nobody. No loss of life, no desertions, which was pretty extraordinary. She arrived in Scutari and then was evacuated on an Italian ship with her column and arrived in Brindisi on Christmas Day in 1915.

She was criticised and reprimanded for taking the equipment without consultation. There is a little sad epilogue. She was never really recognised for what she did. She went on a speaking tour afterwards of the US and all the proceeds went to the Serbian relief.

Dr Elsie Inglis, I mentioned her before, she started modestly collecting for the Scottish Women's Hospitals, first with £1,000 and then a little bit later she had half a million. And she actually managed to equip 14 hospitals.

Just a little word about the name. She was a bit ambivalent about the name because it was started in Scotland, but a lot of other women served - also English and Welsh and Irish, Australian, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians. But when it started, then it was too late to change.

Dr Inglis arrived in Serbia in May 1915, so the typhus epidemic was nearing the end. And, largely due to the British medical mission measures, they stopped railway traffic - that was apparently the most useful - they stopped all army leave, they insisted on disinfection, quarantine, sanitation, sewage management. And in medical history the Serbian typhus epidemic is known to have been the one with the most sudden occurrence and the most rapid decline. So, it lasted six months and there was a peak of two months.

Now, after that there was a lull in fighting, and Dr Inglis used this time to travel, look at other medical facilities around Serbia. She was particularly interested in helping civilians, especially children. Because of the availability of weapons everywhere, there were also incidental woundings of children with weapons. She planned more field hospitals and she was also very insistent about sanitation. So she tried to educate Serbs she met, all the Serbs she met, about clean running water, clean running water, this was her mantra.

I think some of it stuck because the Serbs built her a memorial drinking fountain in Mladenovac, about 20 miles south of Belgrade, in memory of the Scottish Women's Hospitals and their founder, Dr Elsie Inglis.

She was there at the commemoration, which was done with Serbian Orthodox rites. There were British and Serbian officers. And the mayor of Mladenovac said, 'Well, Serbs are a poor nation, we can't give you much, but we can give you a guarantee that the Serbian people will remember you.' So, this is how they repaid her. And it works - certainly everybody knows about the fountain.

Now, when the offensive started, the triple offensive, Inglis was going to leave with her staff, but she got delayed and she was taken prisoner by the Austrians. Still, she managed to stay in Krusevac, which wasn't too far away, and some of her staff, they were allowed to have some freedom of movement and look after their patients. But then the conditions worsened so badly that eventually they were all repatriated back to England.

Now, Inglis did not stop here. She immediately organised the Scottish Women's Hospital unit to help a Serbian unit with the Russian Army in Odessa. That's where they served, she and several other doctors. By then, when the revolution came, they had to be evacuated by the Royal Navy in November 1917. Inglis was already ill for quite some time and she died one day after docking in Newcastle.

A hospital in Edinburgh had been named after her. It has since closed. And a Belgrade hospital was also named after her, and was renamed because it became part of a larger complex. Most recently, the British Residence in Belgrade was named after her. And the UK ambassador to Belgrade, Denis Keefe, said, 'In Scotland she became a doctor. In Serbia she became a saint.'

Now, I would just like to briefly tell you something about possibly the most famous one, because no story about British women in Serbia in the First World War is complete without her: Flora Sandes.

Flora Sandes was a textbook tomboy, a vicar's daughter. She loved growing up with war stories, and she loved to write, to shoot, later drive a car. She smoked, which was frowned upon. She also trained as a typist, worked in Cairo. She was trained with the St John's Ambulance. She raced cars and even put one of her suitors in hospital, after which he was no longer interested in her.

She longed for adventure, that's all she wanted. And she was 38 when the war started and she volunteered immediately. She found herself in Kragujevac in August 1914.

When one reads about her - and there are a number of texts about her, including her own memoirs, also online - she was extremely adaptable. She was enthusiastic, she was able to take anything. And she also was quite gifted in languages. She spoke French and German and she learnt a few words of Serbian.

Being a smoker herself, she understood that the way to get Serbs to like you was to offer them cigarettes. So she would say, 'If I give you cigarettes, then please let me know if you need to have your wound dressed,' and so on. So she was very popular.

She was just a nurse, but she improvised things as a surgeon as well. She carried out amputations - not squeamish at all. When she realised that the funds were lacking, she travelled back in 1914 to collect more funds, and then travelled back to Serbia with an American doctor, Emily Simmonds, to Valjevo in the middle of the epidemic, because that's where she could do something.

And they met an American doctor along the way, who knew what the situation in Valjevo was, and who told them, 'You won't last a month.' Well, the reaction of Flora Sandes - in her memoirs, at least - was, 'Well, a man can only die once anyhow.' So, incredibly they both got typhus and survived.

Now, the intrepid Sandes continued to work and then got hepatitis A, went home to recover. But then, when she heard the offensive was starting in October, she decided to return to Serbia.

Now, if you imagine Europe in 1915. So, they had to take a ship from Cardiff, go all the way round to Malta and then, in the middle of unrestricted German submarine warfare, to actually take a ship to go to Salonika and then to try to get up to Serbia, which was already being cut off by the Bulgarian troops. She was told this was impossible, in Salonika, impossible to join the Serbian Army. And this was the famous quote: 'People do love to tell you you can't do things,' she said.

Of course, she got through, eventually joining a military hospital and then, when that closed, joining an ambulance unit. Then the retreat order came and she had to either decide... she was given an opportunity to be evacuated. A British consul was nearby and he said, 'Well, you can come with me.' She refused. She wanted to stay in the army. And so that's what she did.

She was made a private in the Serbian Army. She was the only British woman to have served in uniform in World War One. And Colonel Vasovic, who was the commander, he said, 'Your presence will encourage the soldiers, since you will represent our ally, England.'

She was given a mare called Diana to ride, she fought Bulgarians, she travelled through mountainous terrain. She endured everything - hunger, cold - and she absolutely loved every minute of it. She would be one of these people who actually, actively missed the war when it was over.

She actually made it through the retreat, arrived in Durazzo on the Albanian coast with her violin. She went on to Corfu, where the Serbian Army was recovering, and she got through more military training and then took part in the breakthrough of the Salonika front, was wounded by the Bulgarians and decorated.

It would take several lectures to cover just Flora Sandes' story. There's a street named after her in Belgrade. She lived on, she died in 1956 in Suffolk.

Now, British women are remembered in Serbia as Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English... and it doesn't really matter because they are remembered.

I think just to conclude, very briefly, is that most of us would like to think that we choose to remember pieces of history so that we can take with us the valuable lessons of the past to build into the future. But what did not happen opens windows to historical alternatives.

Now, the women doctors, nurses, orderlies, surgeons that we remember today, worked alongside almost every Allied Army and Red Cross except the British. So, I hope you'll allow me to conclude that by being here today we are acknowledging a place in history for these exceptional women, who served elsewhere because the British society at the time did not offer them the opportunity to contribute to the war effort closer to home.

Thank you.

2 comments

John Ralston
22 October 2015, 11.04pm

Great work Alex - a very

Great work Alex - a very interesting history. JR

Peter Feek
24 November 2015, 5.07pm

The Rotherham Advertiser of

The Rotherham Advertiser of June 8th 1938 recounts the contribution of Bertha Louise Mould nee Madan who was captured along with Dr Inglis and describes the conditions.

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