name of Florence Nightingale is linked with the history of the Crimea,
so is that of Dr. Elsie Inglis with the tragedy of Serbia. The names of
these two women are inseparable from the story of the countries which
they served, and in the days to come, when our grandchildren study the
history of the two great wars, it will be very hard to say who was the
greater heroine of the two.
Mr. John Inglis,
her father, had a brilliant career as an Indian civil servant, and her
mother, Harriet Thompson, was the daughter of an Indian civilian, so,
though she was Scottish by descent, all the early associations of Elsie
Maud Inglis were of the Orient. It was in 1863, after the Mutiny, when
conditions in India were becoming settled once more, that Mrs. Inglis
rejoined her husband in the East, following a separation of seven years,
leaving behind her in England a family of six children.
In the following year, at Naini Tal, one of the
most beautiful hill stations in the Himalayas, a dark blue-eyed baby
girl was born. The baby was named Elsie, and almost from the day of her
birth she was a splendid little traveller, who accommodated herself to
the trials of Indian camping and travelling life with the utmost ease.
Later another daughter, Eva, was born, and it is
from the correspondence of this companion sister that some glimpses of
Elsie Inglis’s happy childhood in India are obtained. Even in nursery
days her future profession seems to have had an attraction for Elsie.
She painted little red spots all over the faces and bodies of her family
of forty dolls, for an epidemic of measles had been decreed by the
embryo doctor. As they slowly recovered, so many spots were wiped off
each day until the epidemic was over.
It was a happy, uneventful life that Elsie Ingils
had as a child. The year was divided between the plains in the winter
and the Indian hill stations in the summer. From the earliest days there
was a very special friendship between Elsie and her father, and it was
his wise comprehension and understanding love that was destined to be
the chief guide and help in his daughter’s career.
In 1876, John Inglis retired from his arduous
service, and the family, before returning to Scotland, visited Tasmania,
where two of the elder sons had settled.
It was Elsie Inglis who instituted "school
colours" at the college she attended. They were not the pretty hatbands
so dear to the modem school-girl, but two inches of blue and white
ribbon sewn on to a safety pin and worn on the lapel of the coat.
After passing two years in Tasmania the Inglis
family returned to Scotland, and settled in Edinburgh, where Elsie
continued her education until 1882, when her father sent her to Paris
for a year. Elsie returned from Paris, her school-days ended, and
already she had a sense of latent powers. Shortly after her arrival home
her mother died of scarlet fever, and from that day the daughter
shouldered the household burdens, and remained her father’s stay and
comfort until he died.
It was at the Edinburgh School of Medicine that
Elsie Inglis received her first medical teaching. Everything was in its
initial stages, and women medical students acquired the knowledge
necessary to enable them to take their degree under extremely difficult
circumstances. In 1891 she went to Glasgow, where the conditions for
studying clinical work were more favourable than in Edinburgh. After
passing the examination for the Triple Qualification in 1892, she went
to London and took up the position as house-surgeon in the new hospital
for women in Euston Road.
In the years that followed, Dr.
Elsie Inglis led a life crowded with activity of some form or other. Not
content with her profession— or, perhaps, rather because her profession
brought her into contact with conditions with which she could not be
content—she took a prominent part in the struggle which women were then
having for political freedom. She organized meetings all over the
country, she delivered lectures on the suffrage question, and she was
always to be found where the fight was hardest, strengthening the weak
and encouraging the faint-hearted.
Later Dr. Elsie Inglis began to
practise in Edinburgh, where she worked in partnership with the late Dr.
Jessie MacGregor. When the University of Edinburgh admitted women to the
examinations for medical degrees, she graduated M.B.,
C.M. in 1899. From
that date her life was completely occupied with her practice, her
suffrage work, and the founding of a nursing home and maternity centre.
Her father’s death deprived her of what had been the mainspring of her
existence, but, in her personal sorrow, her labours for others were
When, in 1914, the war broke like a thundercloud
upon the world, Dr. Elsie Inglis was one of those whom it found calm,
courageous, and fully equipped for the part she was play among the
armies of the allied nations.
But in those early days of August, 1914, when most
people thought that the war would be over in three months, and every one
was certain that the peace celebrations would be held within six,
enterprising women were looked on a little coldly in official quarters.
It was on the occasion of Dr. Elsie Inglis visit to the War Office to
place her professional services at the disposal of her country that the
historic remark, "My good lady, go home and sit still," was uttered by a
doubtless overworked departmental chief.
A Remark that Lived
Later, that War Office official was destined to
become anonymously famous, for, during the grim days that followed, when
the wornen of Britain fought the battle of typhus fever in Serbia, his
remark became almost a classic. Women, half dead with fatigue, would
stagger into their quarters after a hard night in the wards, or a trying
day on the march. "What's the next job?" somebody would ask, and the
reply, "My good lady, go home and sit still," never failed to raise a
laugh, even in the dark days when the Germans held the country and Dr.
Inglis and the members of her unit were prisoners of war.
It was after the official refusal of her services
by the War Office that Dr. Elsie Inglis evolved the plan of forming a
hospital unit of her own in Edinburgh. So the Edinburgh suffrage offices
(no longer needed for propaganda, owing to the suspension of political
hostilities between the sexes as a result of the war) became the
headquarters of the Scottish Women's Hospitals.
When Dr. Inglis announced that funds to the extent
of £50,000 must be advertised for even her greatest admirers gasped, and
doubted the possibility of raising such a sum. Ultimately, however, not
£50,000, but £200, was the amount subscribed for the Scottish Women’s
Scheme Finally Adopted
It was in October, 1914, that the scheme was
finally adopted by the Scottish Federation, and Dr. Elsie Inglis was
asked to go to London to explain the plan to the National Union and to
speak at a meeting in the Kingsway Hall. The meeting was an enormous
success, and the National Union adopted the plan of campaign and
immediately set to work to procure the money to send Dr. Inglis out on
what was to be her great enterprise, with a unit fully equipped to work
with the Serbian army.
It is not possible here to give a
complete history of the work done by Dr. Elsie Inglis’s unit in
Serbia—though that is a history which ought to be written. During the
early days of the existence of the Scottish Women’s Hospital units, Dr.
Elsie Inglis remained at home, organizing and directing the many
operations necessary to ensure their adequate equipment, and their safe
transport overseas. There were still many difficulties and objections to
be overcome before those in authority in Government circles accepted the
scheme for hospitals, staffed entirely by women, to serve abroad with
the allied armies in the various theatres of war.
Combating Deadly Disease
It was in the spring of 1915, when
the acting head of the first Serbian unit went down with diphtheria,
that Dr. Elsie Inglis went out to Serbia to take charge of the unit
herself. The hospital was situated at Kraguievatz, and was primarily
established as a "typhus hospital," to combat the dread disease which
ravaged the whole of Serbia in 1915; but, in addition, there were two
subsidiary buildings, one for the treatment of relapsing fever and
general diseases and the other for surgical cases.
When Dr. Elsie Inglis arrived at
Kraguievatz in May, 1915, she found that her unit, which had been sent
out to take charge of 300 beds, was attending 550. This is typical of
the difficulties with which British women found themselves perpetually
faced. The Serbs were tremendously enthusiastic about the British units,
and almost pathetically anxious to help in any possible way, but typhus
had so great a hold on the country, and the daily death roll rose to
such fantastic figures, that they were entirely unable to deal with the
situation without assistance.
Conditions in Serbian Hospitals
When the British doctors and
nurses arrived, the conditions in some of the Serbian hospitals were
beyond description. Long rows of straw beds, with no space between, two
patients to each bed (heads and feet alternately to save space), closed
windows, insufficient and unsuitable diet, coupled with a complete lack
of disinfectants and sanitation—these were among the difficulties with
which they had to contend.
A strict rule had to be made in
regard to the number of patients to be admitted, and it was sometimes
very hard to convince the Serbian officials that a hospital of 300 beds
could not accommodate 450 patients. Fever-stricken men, sometimes
already in the last stages of the disease, would arrive at the hospital
in filthy bullock wagons, and it was the heartbreaking duty of the
doctor in charge to explain that the beds were full and that it was
impossible to admit additional patients, as the only chance of stemming
the tide of the epidemic was to prevent contact between the patients.
It was in such circumstances as
these that Dr. Elsie Inglis stood out as a heroine. Steadfastly she
faced the Serbian officials, and firmly refused to endanger the lives of
both patients and nurses by overcrowding. Then, having won the battle,
she would hurry back to the hospital and hastily improvise additional
accommodation by putting up camp beds in tents in the grounds adjoining
the hospital building, so that the superfluous patients should not be
untended by the roadside.
Whenever Dr. Inglis was
complimented on the efficiency of her hospital organization or
congratulated upon the skill with which the patients were tended, she
would reply, "It is not I, it is the unit," and it was this happy
facility for so closely associating herself with her colleagues that won
for Elsie Inglis that honest and wholehearted admiration of every
Englishwoman in Serbia, which was not infrequently withheld from the
heads of other of the hospital units.
When the Kraguievatz unit had been
established for some months, Dr. Inglis was asked to organize an
additional hospital at Milanovatz, under canvas. This was done, and it
was here, close to the camp hospital, that the Serbians built a
beautiful fountain dedicated to the memory of the work of Dr. Elsie
Inglis and her unit.
The work achieved by Dr. Inglis in
Serbia, and its political importance to her country, is now a matter of
history, but it is only those who worked with her who know the full
story of the terrible conditions under which that work was done and can
appreciate exactly what her unfailing courage and unflinching bravery
and self-sacrifice did to help and cheer all those with whom she came
A whole book might be written on
the minor horrors of war as seen by the British Women’s units in Serbia,
and then not the half would be told. Through the summer of 1915 typhus
raged, and it was a long-drawn-out battle between this dread disease and
the determination of the doctors and nurses. In the end Dr. Inglis and
her colleagues triumphed, but not before death had taken its toll and
three Englishwomen had been laid to rest in Serbian soil, at Kraguievatz.
For some time the situation had
been quiet on the Serbian front, and it was not until September that the
storm-clouds regathered. Simultaneously came the news of the arming of
the Bulgars and the massing of 100,000 Germans on the northern frontier,
The Serbs withdrew the main part
of their army from the Danube towards the east, to meet their old
enemies the Bulgars. But the Allies refused to allow them to attack, and
Bulgaria was permitted peacefully to complete her mobilization.
Combined Enemy Offensive
Meantime the Allies discounted the
threatened attack from the north, believing the enemy to consist only of
Austrian levies. Then in early October the storm broke. The 100,000
Germans poured over the northern frontier, the Bulgars invaded from the
east, the Greeks failed to come to the support of Serbia, and the
Austrians completed the concerted attack from the west.
This meant the beginning of the
end for the hospital units, and Dr. Elsie Inglis was compelled to
evacuate Kraguievatz, and she and the members of her unit made their way
to Krushevatz, taking with them such equipment as they were able to
The condition of Serbia in those
autumn months was beyond all description. Harried by the advance guard
of the pursuing Germans, and fearful of being caught in a trap between
them and the Bulgarian army which had crossed Serbia’s eastern frontier,
the whole of the civilian population streamed southwards through
Albania, towards Greece. This pitiful procession was reinforced with
such wounded Serbian soldiers as had evaded the enemy, the personnel of
the now disbanded British hospitals, and some 60,000 Austrian prisoners.
The whole country was by now
completely disorganized, and the Serbs were not always able to produce
even the daily ration of black bread which by this time was the staple
diet of English and Serbs alike.
Refusal to Leave Krushevatz
Sir Ralph Paget, in his capacity
of British Red Cross commissioner, went to Krushevatz to make
arrangements for the evacuation of Dr. Inglis’s hospital. But Dr. Inglis
would not go. Her position was pretty desperate. The retreating Serbs
had blown up the bridges to delay the advance of the Germans, so that
there was no hope of getting any of the hospital equipment from the
north, while the railway to Salonika (where the bulk of the Red Cross
stores was kept) had been cut at Yrania by the Bulgars, and all hope of
supplies from the south had to be abandoned. Yet the plucky little
Scotswoman refused to go.
Almost knee deep in mud, and
shivering with cold, she stood and argued the matter on a certain
October morning, when those in authority first pleaded and then ordered
that she should leave. Impervious alike to persuasion and threats she
said, "I will not leave my hospital "—and she didn’t.
Taken Prisoner by the Germans
There she remained, being made a
prisoner by the Germans when they arrived. For some months they allowed
her to continue her work, and then in February, 1916, she and her unit
were sent north, under an Austrian guard with fixed bayonets, first to
Vienna, next by slow stages to Zurich, and thence home.
So Dr. Inglis returned, not to the
rest she so badly needed, but to plan new campaigns for the help of the
Serbian people. For a few months she worked from the bases of her two
committees in London and Edinburgh.
After many difficulties with the
official world, Dr. Inglis succeeded in getting permission to raise a
hospital unit and transport section, staffed by eighty women, to go to
the Dobrudja, via Archangel and Odessa. Eyewitnesses—officers and
soldiers—have told how these women went straight from the trains, after
forty days’ continuous travelling, to the stretchers of the wounded, who
had been defending the centre of a retreating army. For fifteen months
Dr. Inglis stayed with these men, slowly losing her physical strength,
though her undaunted spirit never faltered.
In all her letters to England she
praised unstintingly the work done by the members of her unit. There is
no doubt that they were a loyal body of followers, and Dr. Inglis was
most popular with them, for she shared all their trials and troubles.
Never did she ask them to do something that she herself would not have
done; she always took her part, even in the lowest of menial tasks.
Description of Russian Retreat
After witnessing the Russian retreat of 1916, she
described it in a letter to her sister Amy as being far worse than the
Serbian tragedy:— The whole country was covered with groups of soldiers
who had lost their regiments. Russians, Serbs, and Rumanians. The
Rumanian guns were simply being rushed back through the crowd of
refugees. The whole country was moving; in some places the panic was
awful . . . you would have thought the Bulgars were at the heels of the
people. One man threw a baby right in front of the cars. They were
throwing everything off the carts to lighten them, and our people, being
of a calmer disposition, picked up what they wanted in the way of
vegetables, etc. - . . we simply went head over heels out of the
The Russians, warmly appreciating
Dr. Inglis’s efforts to relieve the sufferings of their wounded, helped
her in every way. But, though they did their utmost to make her
existence as comfortable as possible, the hardships she suffered
lessened her strength day by day.
Communication with England became
increasingly difficult, and towards the end was cut off altogether, but
Dr. Inglis managed to get short messages through to her committee, and
from time to time her friends and relations received letters full of the
pride of service and enthusiasm for the work she was doing.
Coming Home to Die
At last, in November, 1917, came
the news that she was on her way home, through Archangel, and for the
first time came the warning "Have not been well—nothing to worry about."
In reality she was dying, though on board the transport she was busily
planning the organization for yet another unit—which, unhappily, was
destined never to be formed.
On the journey home she had a
relapse, violent pain set in, and she was forced to take to her bed.
Even then her courage did not fail her. She insisted on checking the
hospital accounts, she interviewed personally each member of her unit,
and invited them to volunteer for service in a new hospital which she
said she would form at Salonika.
The night before the transport
arrived at Newcastle, Elsie Inglis became worse, and had no sleep at
all, but she insisted on getting up next morning to bid farewell to the
Serbian staff. Those who were with her say it was amongst the most
impressive scenes they have witnessed.
She stood alone and unsupported, a
splendid and dignified figure, dressed in her worn uniform coat, and
wearing her faded service ribbons, her face ashen and drawn with pain.
It was after that parting that Dr. Elsie Inglis collapsed. She left the
boat on the 25th November and arrived at her hotel in a state of
She now realized that her service
was ended, and courageous in death as she had ever been in life, she
broke the news herself to those who were anxiously gathered round her
She was speaking of the closing
days on board ship, and describing how a big liner had nearly collided
with their transport in a storm, when suddenly the moorings of the
transport broke, and they swung round and were saved. After a pause,
Elsie Inglis added, "The same hand who cut our moorings then is cutting
mine now, and I am going forth." The next day she died.
Impressive Burial Ceremony
It was on the 29th November, 1917,
that Elsie Inglis was buried in Edinburgh, amidst such marks of respect
and recognition as make her passing stand alone in the history of the
last rites of her fellow-citizens. The flags of Great Britain and Serbia
were placed on her coffin, and the lilies of France were around her,
whilst over her head hung the torn banners of Scotland’s history.
At her graveside her life’s story
was represented by those grouped around her—Serbian officers lowered all
that was mortal in her to its last resting-place, while the military of
her own nation and her women comrades and fellow-workers did homage to
[See "Dr. Elsie Inglis," by Lady Frances Balfour
(1914); and "Elsie Inglis," by Mrs. Eva McLaren.]