She was famously told by the war office to ‘‘go home and sit still’’ but, instead, Scottish doctor Elsie Inglis went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which played an invaluable role in the First World War.
Now her legacy is to be celebrated by her descendants next month in Serbia – 100 years after her death.
These hospitals were staffed almost entirely by female doctors, nurses and support staff from across Scotland – as well as other countries – and were funded by communities throughout the UK and beyond.
More than 1500 women worked in 14 makeshift medical units across war zones in Serbia, France, Greece, Macedonia and on the Russian front in Romania taking care of sick and wounded servicemen.
The hospitals were the brainchild of Edinburgh doctor Elsie Inglis, who was a leading member of the women’s suffrage movement.
Initially, she enquired if women doctors and surgeons would be permitted to serve in front line hospitals but her hopes were dashed when she submitted her idea to the War Office in Edinburgh. Famously, she was told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”
However, she did exactly the opposite.
Elsie offered all female medical units to Britain’s allies and their help was gratefully received.
Within a few months the first hospital was established in France and then SWH units were rolled out to other countries, including Serbia, treating soldiers who had been hurt with shrapnel injuries.
As the war progressed, the female medics dealt with more complicated fractures and head injuries.
Alan Cumming from Cumbernauld has spent the last five years researching the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and he has created a website with the aim of honouring the female medics and keeping their memory alive.
He explained why the Serbians feel so strongly about Elsie: “She headed to Serbia in 1915 to a nation in the grip of war and grappling with a typhus epidemic but she went on to save thousands of Serbian soldiers and civilians.” Her work in improving hygiene reduced the epidemic.
He continued: “The Serbs called her the mother of a nation because of what she did with the SWH and they built a fountain at Mladenovac for her in 1915.
“She became a POW during Serbia’s retreat against the Austrians, Germans and Bulgarians and in 1916 she headed to the Russian front to serve with two Serbian divisions.
“By the summer of 1917, the Russian revolution had exploded, Russia was in chaos and, with Russian troops leaving the fighting in their droves, it was time to leave. But Elsie refused to abandon her beloved Serbs. She felt so strongly about it that said to tell the war war office ‘if you want us home, get them out’. She effectively saved thousands of Serbian soldiers who would have been left behind to a certain death.”
Elsie was suffering with cancer throughout the war and when she was taken ill she was forced to travel back to Britain. She died on November 26, 1917.
Alan revealed what is planned to mark the centenary of her death: “For the last year I have been travelling to Serbia to help organise activities to celebrate her life. Next month we will be taking a party of 15 of Elsie’s descendants back to Serbia. None of these relatives have been before and the Serbians are planning a trip of a lifetime for them.
“The relatives will travel to all the cities and towns where Elsie and her units performed miracles. They are: Belgrade; Mladenovac, Lazarevac, Valjevo, Nis, Vranje, Krushevac and Kragujevac. There will be exhibitions, memorial events, dinners and ceremonies to mark the occasion. The events start in Belgrade on September 14 and these will then move around Serbia for the next seven days.”
The main organiser in Serbia is Velibor Vidic, head archivist at Valjevo Hospital. He said: “We organised all the cites where the SWH hospitals were and everyone wants to have Alan and the relatives as their guests. In every town there will be a programme dedicated to Elsie Inglis and members of the SWH.
“The Serbian people remember with great gratitude the undertakings of the Scottish women. We intend to build a monument of gratitude in Valjevo. All the SWH names of those who helped the Serbian people will be written on it.”
He added: “We’re already working on funding the Serbian-Scottish associations in several cities. This will see some restaurants opening up, with a Scottish flag hanging, where Scottish visitors will be able to eat for free. Thanks to Elsie Inglis, all Serbs think highly of the Scottish people.”
Clea Thomson, who is a relative of Elsie Inglis, said: “Elsie worked relentlessly with courage in traumatic circumstances to save lives. It is very meaningful to me personally and I find her courage inspiring. I am grateful to Alan Cumming for bringing the stories of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals into the public arena so they can be remembered.”
Women serving their country ...
Women across the country served in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.
They included Adeline Campbell from Kirkcaldy who was educated at St Andrews University. She served as a doctor in Kragujevac in Serbia. She went on to work at an infectious diseases ward in Belgrade. Adeline was awarded the Honour Red Cross, Military Cross and Order of St Salva 5th class from Serbia.
Margaret Cowie Crowe was from Falkirk. In 1915 she travelled with the SWH to Serbia. She nursed in Mladenovac, Kragujevac and Kraljevo. In November 1915 she joined the Serbia retreat. Jean Paton Gordon was born in Montrose. She studied medicine at Edinburgh University and qualified as a doctor. In May 1915 she took the post of doctor with the SWH at Troyes in France. Agnes Mann was from Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. Agnes worked at Kragujevac as a nurse from June 1915 to April 1916.
Louisa Jordan was born in Maryhill in Glasgow. She signed up with the SWH as a nurse in December 1914 and joined the 1st Serbian unit. She worked in Kragujevac and died of typhus. She is buried at Nis, Serbia. Further details can be found on Alan Cumming’s website at www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk
The early life of Elsie Inglis and her remarkable medical achievements
Elsie Inglis was born in Naini Tal, India. After a private education her decision to study medicine was delayed by her mother’s death in 1885, when she felt obliged to stay in Edinburgh with her father. After founding her own breakaway medical college, she completed her training at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
She qualified as a licentiate of both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1892. She was appalled by the lack of specialisation in the needs of female patients but obtained a post at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s pioneering New Hospital for Women in London and then at the Rotunda in Dublin, a leading maternity hospital. She returned to Edinburgh in 1894 where she set up a medical practice and opened a maternity hospital, a forerunner of the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital. She was a leading light at the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies and its most important initiative was founding the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. To get the ball rolling for the SWH, she opened a fund with £100 of her own money. By the next month, she had her first £1000 and by the time WW1 was over they had raised £500,000. It was her efforts in setting up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War that brought her fame.