by Dr Eric Webb, May 2005
This previously appeared in the WFA MK Branch Newsletter
Winston Churchill wrote:
The fame of Elsie Inglis will shine in history.
The Serbs said:
In Scotland she was a Doctor; in Serbia we would make her a Saint!
Who was this paragon of womanly virtue?
Elsie Inglis was a daughter of the Raj. Her father, from an old Inverness family, was an administrator in the Indian Civil Service and she was born in British India, where she spent her early years. After his retirement the family returned home, to Edinburgh where she completed her schooling.
She went on to train as a Doctor, at a time when there were still few women in the medical profession and the pioneers had still to combat much male prejudice in proving their worth. She established herself in Edinburgh, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and general surgeon, and over the years she became on of the city’s leading consultants, of either sex.
She also involved herself in the women’s suffrage movement and in this too she rose to a leading position, as honorary secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals
When the Great War broke out she offered her services to the RAMC but she was turned down. She was told: ‘My good lady, go home and sit still!’ Not to be thwarted, with the support of the Suffrage Societies she set out to create an organisation which would offer battlefield hospitals to Britain’s allies in the War: the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Despite its name it was a nationwide organisation drawing donations and volunteers from the entire country.
By 30th October 1914, less than three months into the War, the SWH had raised £1,000, enough to equip a 100 bed hospital. By early January 1915 that first hospital was operational, at Royaumont 25 miles north of Paris.
Royaumont was effectively a casualty clearing station; these were the lynch-pin of the whole military medical effort, standing mid-way between the Field Ambulance, on the battlefield itself, and the Base Hospitals, far behind the lines. It operated continuously until it finally closed in March 1919. At its peak it was the largest British voluntary hospital in France, with 600 beds.
Over that period, together with a later out-station, it treated over 10,000 patients, mostly French soldiers with a few of other nationalities and some local civilians. The results were excellent; among the soldiers, most of whom were ‘grands blessés’, seriously wounded, the death rate was only 1.82%. Nor were these men just treated and passed on so that deaths were statistically ‘lost’ elsewhere; they remained at Royaumont as convalescents and for rehabilitation. Some served as orderlies for a time; otherwise the whole place was staffed throughout by women, save that along the way they did acquire a first-class French chef.
At the same time the SWH was also sending hospitals to Serbia, to help cope with the massive Typhus epidemic which had followed on the earlier, failed Austrian invasion. In April 1915 Elsie went out to take charge of these. She took to the Serbs and she had a good summer, but that autumn in a fresh offensive the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians together overran the country. Elsie sent most of her people to safety but she and her remaining staff stayed put and eventually, in November 1915, they were captured. They were permitted to continue running a small hospital through the winter until February 1916, when they were repatriated.
Relations with the Germans were cool, but they remained scrupulously correct in their behaviour, until Elsie refused to sign a testimony to that effect when they became very threatening. She maintained her refusal, until eventually they backed down. She later learned that they had only recently shot Edith Cavell in Belgium. Doubtless she was at risk of the same fate. For the Germans a certificate of good behaviour signed by a British doctor would have had immense propaganda value. For Elsie herself and for her movement the effects would have been disastrous, and perhaps for the whole Allied cause. She did well to keep her head.
Back in the UK, over the early months of 1916 she tried strenuously but eventually failed to win official blessing for a hospital in support of Indian troops Mesopotamia. The Indian Government was keen enough but the War Office was not. It is tempting to lay blame for the refusal at the door of the Minister for War himself: the famously misogynist Lord Kitchener.
Later that year, Elsie returned to the Balkans, to Rumania, with two more hospitals. These had originally been intended for the benefit of Serb troops serving with the Russians, but in the event, as the fighting ebbed and flowed, they treated Russians and Rumanians too. Conditions were difficult and dangerous; they had several times to move at short notice to avoid being overrun by the enemy.
As Russia fell into revolutionary chaos in 1917, Elsie became increasingly involved in efforts to have the Serb units brought to England. She lobbied vigorously on their behalf by letter and telegram. Eventually that autumn her efforts bore fruit, but by now she was mortally ill with cancer. After a gruelling train journey across Russia to Archangel then by ship back to Newcastle she died there in the Station Hotel on 26th November, just three days after arriving home.
Her beloved Serbs, some of whom travelled with her, were later sent to join the British and French Armies in Salonica. There they played a key rôle in the campaign which finally liberated their country in 1918 and to which General Ludendorff ascribed the final collapse of the German war effort.
Elsie received a state funeral in Edinburgh, her body lies in Dean Cemetery and she has a fine memorial in St. Giles Cathedral. In Scotland and in Serbia she is still well-renowned, but alas all-but forgotten otherwise, and although she has had several biographers she has earned no place in any official history of the War.
Yet she was a key figure in the history both of the women’s movement and of modern Serbia: a true heroine. She deserves to be remembered both as a great individual, and as representing an ideal: of determination and of self-sacrifice.
The Scottish Women continued their work after Elsie’s death; in all, during the War they sent units to 13 countries, and over 1,000 personnel abroad. From first to last they raised contributions of £0.5M, perhaps £30M at today’s values. Post-war a special memorial fund was started in Elsie’s name and in 1925 the new Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital was opened in Edinburgh, replacing her old hospital, the Hospice. It closed in 1988 but it lives on as the Elsie Inglis Nursing Home for the elderly. The Hospice has meanwhile become a posh apartment block!
Eventually, although not until 1929, such was the continuing chaos in the Balkans, a new hospital, the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital, was also opened in her name in Belgrade.
Within the past few years there have been founded in Scotland:
Elsie’s Hidden Heroine Awards: a celebration of women’s unique contribution to the family, community and the wider world, celebrating acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s rights. The awards are named after well-known pioneering surgeon and medical reformer Elsie Inglis who founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals units during the First World War.
And as recently as 2nd February 2005, the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, Jack McConnell was in France with the Princess Royal planting a rowan tree at Royaumont in her honour.
The Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital in Belgrade survived and with later additions it grew, although in the 1990’s it was renamed: it became part of the Dr. Deagisa Misovic Hospital.
In May 1999 during the recent Balkans War, as reported in the New York Times:
A missile aimed at an empty military barracks 500 yards away struck the Hospital instead. Four people were killed and dozens wounded, including medical staff and two women struck by broken glass while giving birth.
The last people to bomb Belgrade had been the Luftwaffe.
As we are told by Dr. Anthony Daniels:
[Theodore Dalrymple] a British doctor and freelance writer, poking around the deserted building shortly afterwards, he found a still-intact plaque in the entrance hall:
‘The Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital for Women and Children erected by the United Work of British and Serbian Women in Thankfulness to God for the Memorie (sic) of Dr. Elsie Inglis who gave her life for Serbia and the Honour of her own Country.’
It’s pleasing to record that the hospital is now up and running again, thanks in part to donations from the Red Cross.
The proper purpose of historical studies is to improve our understanding of the human predicament, so as to try to amend the present and shape a better future. History does not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain observed, it rhymes. There are patterns which we can learn to recognise, so as to try to avoid past errors.
I am a optimist. I do not believe we merely go in circles, that nothing really improves, but genocide in the Balkans, part of Europe, even in the 1990’s, and a hospital accidentally trashed by the liberating forces suggest that we still have a lot to learn and a long way to go. Perhaps we need more Elsies and fewer generals?