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Elsie Maud Inglis

Elsie Maud InglisThe 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 redoubled.

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 Hospitals.

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 into contact.

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, opposite Belgrade.

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 transport.

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 country.

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 complete exhaustion.

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 bed.

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 her memory.

[See "Dr. Elsie Inglis," by Lady Frances Balfour (1914); and "Elsie Inglis," by Mrs. Eva McLaren.]

The Scottish Women's Hospitals (SWH), a unique health institution in the history of medicine, staffed entirely by women, was founded soon after the outbreak of the First World War, August 12, 1914 in Edinburgh, by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The founder and the main driving force behind this organisation was Dr. Elsie Inglis (1864-1917). Although her proposition to the British War Office had been rejected, she offered her services to the Allies (France, Belgium, Russia and Serbia). The first 200 bed SWH unit was sent to France in November 1914, and soon after followed other units, so at the end there were 13 very well equipped SWH units working in the various theatres of war in Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Rumania and Greece. The first unit of SWH came to Serbia in early January 1915, and was located at Kragujevac. Soon after, three other SWH units arrived to Serbia and were stationed at Mladenovac, Valjevo and Lazarevac. It was an enormous help to Serbia, full of wounded and sick people, due to the dreadful typhus epidemic which was devastating the country. A large SWH unit, attached to the Southern Slav Volunteer Division, had worked on the Dobrudja front, and there were three hospitals and a special transport unit on the Salonika Front, which were all engaged in the treatment of Serbian wounded soldiers until the end of the First World War. Two other SWH units, located in France, were treating the Serbian refugees. Serving bravely and honorably on the various theatres of war, the legendary Scottish Women's Hospitals made enormous contributions to the allied war efforts, and helped Serbian people a great deal.

A History of the Scottish Women's Hospitals
Edited by Eva Shaw McLaren (1919) (pdf)

Dr. Elsie Inglis
By Lady Frances Balfour

With the Scottish Nurses in Roumania
By Yvonne Fitzroy (1918) (pdf)

Scots Women in History  |  Significant Scots


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