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Elsie Inglis
Chapter XII - "If You want us Home, Get them Out"


Through the summer months of 1917 Dr. Inglis had been working to get the Serbian division to which her Unit was attached out of Russia. They were in an unenviable position. The disorganization of the Russian Army made the authorities anxious to keep the Serbian division there "to stiffen the Russians." The Serb Command realized, on the other hand, that no effective stand at that time would be made by the Russians, and that to send the Serbs into action would be to expose them to another disaster such as had overtaken them in the Dobrudja. In the battle of the Dobrudja the Serb division had gone into the fight 14,000 strong; they were in the centre, with the Roumanians on the left and the Russians on the right. The Roumanians and Russians broke, and the Serbs, who had fought for twenty-four hours on two fronts, came out with only 4,000 men. Further slaughter such as this would have been the fate of the Serbian division if left in Russia.

"The men want to fight," said General Zivkovitch to Dr. Inglis; "they are not cowards, but it goes to my heart to send them to their death like this."

In July there had seemed to be a hope of the division being liberated and sent via Archangel to another front; however, later the decision of the Russian Headquarters was definitely stated. The Serbs were to be kept on the Roumanian front. "The Serb Staff were powerless in the matter, and entirely dependent on the good offices of the British Government for effecting their release."

Into this difficult situation Dr. Inglis descended, and brought to bear on it all the force of which she was capable. The whole story of her achievement is told in A History of the Scottish Women's Hospitals, in those chapters that are written by Miss Edith Palliser. Here we can only refer to the message Dr. Inglis sent to the Foreign Office through Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador at Petrograd, giving her own clear views on the position and affirming that "In any event the Scottish Women's Hospitals will stand by the Serbian division, and will accompany them if they go to Roumania."

At the end of the month of August the Unit, leaving Reni, rejoined the Serb division at Hadji-Abdul, a little village midway between Reni and Belgrade.

Dr. Inglis described it as a

"lovely place ... and we have a perfectly lovely camping-ground among the trees. The division is hidden away wonderfully under the trees, and at first they were very loath to let us pitch our big tents, that could not be so thoroughly hidden; but I was quite bent on letting them see what a nice hospital you had sent out, so I managed to get it pitched, and they are so pleased with us. They bring everybody—Russian Generals, Roumanian Military Attachés and Ministers—to see it, and they are quite content because our painted canvas looks like the roofs of ordinary houses."

"There was a constant rumour of a 'grand offensive' to be undertaken on the Roumanian front, which Dr. Inglis, though extremely sceptical of any offensive on a large scale, made every preparation to meet.

"The London Committee had cabled to Dr. Inglis in the month of August advising the withdrawal of the Unit, but leaving the decision in her hands, to which she replied:

"'I am grateful to you for leaving decision in my hands. I will come with the division.'

"Following upon this cable came a letter, in which she emphasized her reasons for remaining:

"'If there were a disaster we should none of us ever forgive ourselves if we had left. We must stand by. If you want us home, get them out.'"

Orders and counter-orders for the release of the division were incessant, and on their release depended, as we have seen, the home-coming of the Unit.

"The London Units Committee had feared greatly for the fate of the Unit if, as seemed probable, the Serb division was not able to leave Russia, and on November 9 approached the Hon. H. Nicholson at the War Department of the Foreign Office, who assured them that the Unit would be quite safe with the Serbs, who were well disciplined and devoted to Dr. Inglis. At that moment he thought it would be most unsafe for the Unit to leave the Serbs and to try to come home overland.

"Mr. Nicholson expressed the opinion that the Committee would never persuade Dr. Inglis to leave her Serbs, and added: 'I cannot express to you our admiration here for Dr. Inglis and the work your Units have done.'"

At last the release of the division was effected, and on November 14 a cable was received by the Committee from Dr. Inglis from Archangel announcing her departure:

"On our way home. Everything satisfactory, and all well except me."

This was the first intimation the London Committee had received that Dr. Inglis was ill.

She arrived at Newcastle on Friday, November 23, bringing her Unit and the Serbian division with her. A great gale was blowing in the river, and they were unable to land until Sunday. Dr. Inglis had been very ill during the whole voyage, but on the Sunday afternoon she came on deck, and stood for half an hour whilst the officers of the Serbian division took leave of her.

"It was a wonderful example of her courage and fortitude. She stood unsupported—a splendid figure of quiet dignity, her face ashen and drawn like a mask, dressed in her worn uniform coat, with the faded ribbons, that had seen such good service. As the officers kissed her hand, she said to each of them a few words, accompanied with her wonderful smile."

She had stood through the summer months in Russia, an indomitable little figure, refusing to leave, until she had got ships for the remnant of the Serbian division, and then, with her Serbs and her Unit around her, she landed on the shores of England, to die.


 


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