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Elsie Inglis
Chapter X - Serbia


Serbia in January, 1915, was in a pitiable condition. Three wars following in quick succession had devastated the land. The Austrians, after their defeat at the Battle of the Ridges in October, 1914, had retreated out of the country, leaving behind them filthy hospitals crowded with wounded, Austrian and Serb alike. The whole land has been spoken of as one vast hospital. From this condition of things sprang the scourge of typhus which started in January, 1915, and swept the land. Dr. Soltau and her Unit, arriving in the early part of January, were able to take their place in the battle against this scourge. Their work lay in Kraguevatz, in the north of Serbia, where Dr. Soltau soon had three hospitals under her command.

In April Dr. Soltau contracted diphtheria. Dr. Inglis was wired for, and left for Serbia in the end of April, 1915. She went gaily. There seems no other word to describe her attitude of mind—she was so glad to go. The sufferings of the wounded and dying touched her keenly. It was not want of sympathy with all the awful misery on every hand that made her go with such joy of heart, but rather she was glad from the sense that at last she, personally, would be "where the need was greatest." This had always been her objective.

The Ægean Sea,       
"May 2nd, 1915.

"Dearest Eva,

"We have had a perfectly glorious voyage from Brindisi to Athens, all yesterday between the coast and the Greek Islands, and then in the Gulf of Corinth. I never remember such a day—all day the sunshine and the beautiful hills, with the clouds capping them, or lying on their slopes, and the blue sky above, and blue sea all round. Then came the most glorious sunset, and when we came up from dinner the sky blazing with stars. We put our chairs back to the last notches, and lay looking at them, till a great yellow moon came up and flooded the place with light and put the stars out. It was glorious....

"Your loving sister,      
"Elsie Inglis."

She landed in Serbia when the epidemic of fever had been almost overcome, and with the long, peaceful summer ahead of her. It is a joy to think of Dr. Inglis all that summer. Her letters are full of buoyancy of spirit. She was keen about everything. She had left behind her a magnificent organization, enthusiastic women in every department, the money flowing in, and the scheme meeting with more and more approval throughout the country. In Serbia she was to find her power of organizing given full scope. She had splendid material in the personnel of the Scottish Women's Hospitals Units under her command. She made many friends—Sir Ralph Paget, Colonel Hunter, Dr. Curcin, Colonel Gentitch, and many others. She was in close touch with, was herself part of, big schemes, a fact which was exhilarating to her. Everything combined to make her happy.

The scheme that eventually took shape was Colonel Hunter's. His idea was to have three "blocking hospitals" in the north of Serbia, which, when the planned autumn offensive of the Serbs took place, would keep all infectious diseases from spreading throughout the country. Innumerable journeys up and down Serbia were taken by Dr. Inglis before the three Scottish Women's Hospitals which were to form this blocking line had been settled, and were working at Valjevo, Lazaravatz, and Mladanovatz. Dr. Alice Hutchison and her Unit, with "the finest canvas hospital ever sent to the Balkans," arrived in Serbia shortly after Dr. Inglis. Dr. Hutchison was sent to Valjevo; Lazaravatz and Mladanovatz were respectively under Dr. Hollway and Dr. McGregor. Dr. Inglis herself took over charge of the fever hospitals in Kraguevatz, working them as one, so that soon there were four efficient Scottish Women's Hospitals in Serbia. The Serbian Government gave Dr. Inglis a free pass over all the railways. She calls herself "extraordinarily lucky" in getting this pass, and writes how greatly she enjoys these journeys, how much of[Pg 47] the country she sees during them, and of the interesting people she meets. For the first time in her life she had work to do that needed almost the full stretch of her powers. And deep at the heart of her joy at this time lay her growing love of the Serbs. Something in them appealed to her, something in their heroic weakness satisfied the yearning of her strength to help and protect. She writes glowingly of their soldiers streaming past the Scottish Women's Hospitals at Mladanovatz, massing on the Danube, "their heads held high." Every letter is full of enthusiasm of the country and the people. "God bless her," writes a friend; "it was the last really joyous time she knew."

Later on the Serbs erected a fountain at Mladanovatz in memory of the work done by the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Serbia, and in particular by Dr. Inglis. The opening ceremony took place in the beginning of September. Many people, English and Serbs, were present, and a long letter by Dr. Inglis describes the dedication service.

"A table covered with a white cloth stood in front of the fountain, and on it a silver crucifix, a bowl of water, a long brown candle lighted and stuck in a tumbler full of sand, and two bunches of basil, one fresh and one dried."

At the end of the service the priest gave the bunches of basil to Dr. Inglis. "These are some of the few things," she writes, "which I shall certainly keep always."

The Serbian officer who designed the fountain has contributed to this Life the following account of his impressions of Dr. Inglis:

"Already five sad and painful years have gone by since the time that I had the chance and honour of knowing Dr. Elsie Inglis. It is already five years since we erected to her—still in the plenitude of life—a monument. What a prediction! Whence came the inspiration of the great soul who was founder of this monument?

"Oh, great and noble soul, there is yet another monument created in the hearts of the soldiers and Serbian people! And if the pitiless wheel of time crushes the first, the second will survive all that is visible and material.

"One did not need to be long with Dr. Elsie Inglis to see all the grandeur of her soul, her long vision, and her attachment to the Serbs. I was not among those who chanced to pass some months in her company, but even in a few days I soon learnt to recognize her divine nature, and to see her relief in all colours.

"After the second big offensive of Germano-Austrian forces against Serbia in the autumn of 1914, Dr. Elsie Inglis took a great part in working against the various epidemics spread by the invasion in Western Serbia. The significance and tenacity of this time of epidemic was such that only those who witnessed it can understand the great usefulness, devotion, and attachment of its co-workers. A great number of Dr. Inglis's personnel were occupied in coping with it, and with what results!

"The Serbian counter-offensive terminated, provisional peace reigned in Serbia. Six months went by before the last soldier of the enemy left our sacred soil; the second enemy—the great epidemic—has also been arrested and vanquished. The terrors that these two allies brought in their train gradually disappeared, and the sun shone once again for the Little Armed People. Men breathed again, and tired bodies slept. One had the time to think of the great soldiers of the front, as well as those who worked behind the lines. And, indeed, in those great days we knew not who were the more courageous, the more daring, the greater heroes.

"General Headquarters decided to give a tangible recognition to all those who had taken part in this epoch. Among the first thus distinguished were Dr. Elsie Inglis and her hospitals.

"On the proposal of the Director of Sanitation, it was decided to erect a monumental fountain to the memory of Dr. Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women's Hospitals. This was to be at Mladanovatz, quite close to one of these hospitals, at a few yards' distance from the main railway-line running from Belgrade to Nish, in sight of all the travellers who passed through Serbia.

"It was erected, and bears the inscription:

"In memory of the Scottish Women's Hospitals and their Founder, Dr. Elsie Inglis."

"The object of my letter is not to make known what I have told you; what follows is more important.

"Dr. Inglis was present in person at the unveiling and benediction of the fountain. The idea was to give her a proof of the people's gratitude by erecting an original monument which, in recalling those strenuous days, would combine a value practical and real, solving the question of a pure drinking-water, and cutting off the danger of an epidemic at the root; and also, the impression that she had after visiting a number of fountains in the environs of Mladanovatz and its villages left her no rest (as she said later), and produced in her an idea, long thought over, and eventually expressed in the following conversation:

"'Look here, Captain P——, I have a scheme which absorbs me more and more, and becomes in me a fixed idea. You suffer in Serbia, and are often subject to epidemics, through nothing else but bad water. I have been thinking it over, and would like to ameliorate as much as possible this deplorable state of affairs. I have the intention of addressing an appeal to the people of Great Britain, and asking them to inaugurate a fund which would create the opportunity of constructing in each Serbian village a fountain of good drinking-water. And then, I should return to Serbia, and with you—I hope that you are willing, since you have already built so many of these fountains round about—should go from village to village erecting these fountains. It will be, after the war, my unique and greatest desire to do this for the Serbs.'

"Oh, great friend of Serbia! Thy clear-sighted spirit was to have but a glimpse of one of the most essential necessities of the Serbian people. Thy frail and fragile body has not permitted thee to enjoy the pleasure to which thou hast devoted so much love. For the well-being of this dear people thou hast given thyself entirely, even thy noble life. What a misfortune indeed for us!

"May Heaven send thee eternal peace, so much merited, and so much desired by all those who knew thee, and above all and especially by all those Serbian hearts who have found in thee a great human friend."

Dr. Inglis wrote every week to the committee. In the letters written towards the end of September we are aware of the anxiety about the future which is beginning to make itself felt.

"Last week Austrian aeroplanes were 'announced,' and the authorities evidently believed the report; for the Arsenal was emptied of workmen—and they don't stop work willingly just now. So—as a Serbian officer said to me yesterday—'Serbia is exactly where she was a year ago.' It does seem hard lines on our little Ally....

"Well, as to how this affects us. Sir Ralph was talking about the various possibilities. As long as the Serbians fight we'll stick to them—retreat if necessary, burning all our stores. If they are overwhelmed we must escape, probably via Montenegro. Don't worry about us. We won't do anything rash or foolish; and if you will trust us to decide, as we must know most about the situation out here, we'll act rationally."

At last, in November, 1915, the storm broke. Serbia was overrun by Germans, Austrians, and Bulgarians. All her big Allies failed her, "so when her bitter hour of trial came, Serbia stood alone."

The Scottish Women's Hospitals at Mladanovatz, Lazaravatz, and Valjevo had to be evacuated in an incredibly short time. The women from Mladanovatz and Lazaravatz came down to Kraguevatz, where Dr. Inglis was. After a few days they had again to move further south to Krushevatz. From here they broke into two parties, some joining the great retreat and coming home through Albania. The rest stayed behind with Dr. Inglis and Dr. Hollway to nurse the Serbian wounded and prisoners in Krushevatz.

"If the committee could have seen Colonel Gentitch's face when I said to him that we were not going to move again, but that they could count on us just where we stood, I think they would have been touched."

writes Dr. Inglis.

At Krushevatz both Units, Dr. Inglis's and Dr. Hollway's, worked together at the Czar Lazar Hospital under the Serbian Director, Major Nicolitch. It was here they were taken prisoners by the Germans in November.

"These months at Krushevatz were a strange mixture of sorrow and happiness. Was the country really so very beautiful, or was it the contrast to all the misery that made it evident? There was a curious exhilaration in working for those grateful, patient men, and in helping the Director, so loyal to his country and so conscientious in his work, to bring order out of chaos; and yet the unhappiness in the Serbian houses, and the physical wretchedness of those cold, hungry prisoners, lay always like a dead weight on our spirits. Never shall we forget the beauty of the sunrises or the glory of the sunsets, with clear, cold, sunlit days between, and the wonderful starlit nights. But we shall never forget 'the Zoo,' either, or the groans outside when we hid our heads in the blankets to shut out the sound. Nor shall we ever forget the cheeriness or trustfulness of all that hospital, and especially of the officers' ward. We got no news, and we made it a point of honour not to believe a word of the German telegrams posted up in the town. So we lived on rumour—and what rumour! The English at Skoplje, the Italians at Poshega, and the Russians over the Carpathians—we could not believe that Serbia had been sacrificed for nothing. We were convinced it was some deep-laid scheme for weakening the other fronts, and so it was quite natural to hear that the British had taken Belgium and the French were in Metz!"

During this time in Krushevatz Dr. Inglis and the women in her Unit lived and slept in one room. One night an excited message was brought to the door that enemy aircraft was expected soon; everyone was taking refuge in places that were considered safe; would they not come too? For a moment there was a feeling of panic in the room; then Dr. Inglis said, without raising her head from her pillow: "Everyone will do as they like, of course; I shall not go anywhere. I am very tired, and bed is a comfortable place to die in." The suspicion of panic subsided; every woman lay down and slept quietly till morning.

The Hon. Mrs. Haverfield was one of the "Scottish women" who stayed behind at Krushevatz. She gives us some memories of Dr. Inglis.

"I think the most abiding recollection I have of our dear Doctor is the expression in her face in the middle of a heavy bombardment by German guns of our hospital at Krushevatz during the autumn of 1915. I was coming across some swampy ground which separated our building from the large barracks called after the good and gentle Czar Lazar of Kosovofanee, when a shell flew over our heads, and burst close by with a deafening roar. The Doctor was coming from the opposite direction; we stood a moment to comment upon the perilous position we were all in. She looked up into my face, and with that smile that nobody who ever knew her could forget, and such a quizzical expression in her blue eyes, said: 'Eve, we are having some experiences now, aren't we?' She and I had often compared notes, and said how we would like to be in the thick of everything—at last we were. I have never seen anyone with greater courage, or anyone who was more unmoved under all circumstances.

"Under our little Doctor bricks had to be made, whether there was straw or not!

"In this same hospital at Krushevatz she had ordered me to get up bathing arrangements for the sick and wounded. There was not a corner in which to make a bath-room, or a can, and only a broken pump 150 yards away across mud and swamp. There was no wood to heat the water, and nothing to heat it in even if we had the wood. I admit I could not achieve the desired arrangement. Elsie took the matter in hand herself, finding I was no use, and in one day had a regular supply of hot water, and baths for the big Magazine, where lay our sick, screened off with sheets, and regular baths were the order of the day from that time forth.

"One never ceased to admire the tireless energy, the resourcefulness, and the complete unselfishness of that little woman who spent herself until the last moment, always in the service of others."

"At last, on the 9th of February, our hospital was emptied. The chronic invalids had been 'put on commission' and sent to their homes. The vast majority of the men had been removed to Hungary, and the few remaining, badly wounded men who would not be fit for months, taken over to the Austrian hospitals.

"On the 11th we were sent north under an Austrian guard with fixed bayonets. Great care was taken that we should not communicate with anyone en route. At Belgrade, however, we were put into a waiting-room for the night, and after we had crept into our sleeping-bags we were suddenly roused to speak to a Serbian woman. The kindly Austrian officer in charge of us said she was the wife of a Serbian officer in Krushevatz, and that if we would use only German we might speak to her. She wanted news of her husband. We were able to reassure her. He was getting better—he was in the Gymnasium. 'Vrylo dobra' ('Very well'), she said, holding both our hands. 'Vrylo, vrylo dobra,' we said, looking apprehensively at the officer. But he only laughed. Probably his Serbian, too, was equal to that. That was the last Serbian we spoke to in Serbia, and we left her a little happier. And thus we came to Vienna, where the American Embassy took us over.... When we reached Zurich and found everything much the same as when we disappeared into the silence, our hearts were sick for the people we had left behind us, still waiting and trusting."

Referring to this year of work done for Serbia, Mr. Seton-Watson wrote of Dr. Inglis:

"History will record the name of Elsie Inglis, like that of Lady Paget, as pre-eminent among that band of women who have redeemed for all time the honour of Britain in the Balkans."

We close this chapter on her work in Serbia with tributes to her memory from two of her Serbian friends, Miss Christitch, a well-known journalist, and Lieutenant-Colonel D. C. Popovitch, Professor at the Military Academy in Belgrade.

"Through Dr. Inglis Serbia has come to know Scotland, for I must confess that formerly it was not recognized by our people as a distinctive part of the British Isles. Her name, as that of the Serbian mother from Scotland (Srpska majka iz 'Skotske'), has become legendary throughout the land, and it is not excluded that at a future date popular opinion will claim her as of Serbian descent, although born on foreign soil.

"What appealed to all those with whom Elsie Inglis came in contact in Serbia was her extraordinary sympathy and understanding for the people whose language she could not speak and whose ways and customs must certainly have seemed strange to her. Yet there is no record of misunderstanding between any Serb and Dr. Inglis. Everyone loved her, from the tired peasant women who tramped miles to ask the 'Scottish Doctoress' for advice about their babies to the wounded soldiers whose pain she had alleviated.

"Here I must mention that Dr. Inglis won universal respect in the Serbian medical profession for her skill as a surgeon. During a great number of years past we have had women physicians, and very capable they are too; but, for some reason or other, Serbian women had never specialized in surgery. Hence it was not without scepticism that the male members of the profession received the news that the organizer of the Scottish hospitals was a skilled surgeon. Until Dr. Inglis actually reached Serbia and had performed successfully in their presence, they refused to believe this 'amiable fable,' but from the moment that they had seen her work they altered their opinion, and, to the great joy of our Serbian women, they no longer proclaimed the fact that surgery was not a woman's sphere. This is but one of the services Dr. Inglis has rendered our woman movement in Serbia. To-day we have several active societies working for the enfranchisement of women, and there is no doubt that the record of the Scottish Women's Hospital, organized and equipped by a Suffrage society and entirely run by women, is helping us greatly towards the realization of our goal. It was a cause of delight to our women and of no small surprise to our men that the Scottish Units that came out never had male administrators.

"It is very difficult to say all one would wish about Dr. Inglis's beneficial influence in Serbia in the few lines which I am asked to write. But before I conclude I may be allowed to give my own impression of that remarkable woman. What struck me most in her was her grip of facts in Serbia. I had a long conversation with her at Valjevo in the summer of 1915, before the disaster of the triple enemy onslaught, and while we still believed that the land was safe from a fresh invasion. She spoke of her hopes and plans for the future of Serbia. 'When the war is over,' she said, 'I want to do something lasting for your country. I want to help the women and children; so little has been done for them, and they need so much. I should like to see Serbian qualified nurses and up-to-date women's and children's hospitals. When you will have won your victories you will require all this in order to have a really great and prosperous Serbia.' She certainly meant to return and help us in our reconstruction.

"I saw Dr. Inglis once again several weeks later, at Krushevatz, where she had remained with her Unit to care for the Serbian wounded, notwithstanding the invitation issued her by Army Headquarters to abandon her hospital and return to England. But Dr. Inglis never knew a higher authority than her own conscience. The fact that she remained to face the enemy, although she had no duty to this, her adopted country, was both an inspiration and a consolation to those numerous families who could not leave, and to those of us who, being Serbian, had a duty to remain.

"She left in the spring of 1916, and we never heard of her again in Serbia until the year 1917, when we, in occupied territory, learnt from a German paper that she had died in harness working for the people of her adoption. There was a short and appreciative obituary telling of her movements since she had left us.

"For Serbian women she will remain a model of devotion and self-sacrifice for all time, and we feel that the highest tribute we can pay her is to endeavour, however humbly, to follow in the footsteps of this unassuming, valiant woman."

"My Recollections of Dr. Elsie Inglis.

"I made her acquaintance towards the close of October, 1915, when, as a heavily wounded patient in the Military Hospital of Krushevatz, I became a prisoner, first of the Germans and then of the Austrians.

"The Scottish Women's Hospital Mission, with Dr. Inglis as Head and Mrs. Haverfield as Administrator, had voluntarily become prisoners of the Austrians and Germans, rather than abandon the Serbian sick and wounded they had hitherto cared for. The Mission undertook a most difficult task—that is, the healing of and ministration to the typhus patients, which had already cost the lives of many doctors. But the Scottish women, whose spirit was typified in their leader, Miss Inglis, did not restrict themselves to this department, hastening to assist whenever they could in other departments. In particular, Dr. Elsie Inglis gave help in the surgical ward, and undertook single-handed the charge of a great number of wounded, among whom I was included, and to her devoted sisterly care I am a grateful debtor for my life. She visited me hourly, and not only performed a doctor's duties, but those of a simple nurse, without the slightest reluctance.

"The conditions of Serbian hospitals under the Austrians rendered provisioning one of the most difficult tasks. At the withdrawal of the Serbian Army only the barest necessaries were left behind, and the Austrians gave hardly anything beyond bread, and at times a little meat. The typhus patients were thus dependent almost entirely on the aliments which the Scottish Mission could furnish out of their own means. It was edifying to see how they solved the problem. Every day, their Chief, Dr. Inglis, and Mrs. Haverfield at the head, the nurses off duty, with empty sacks and baskets slung over their shoulders, tramped for miles to the villages around Krushevatz, and after several hours' march through the narrow, muddy paths, returned loaded with cabbages, potatoes, or other vegetables in baskets and sacks, their pockets filled with eggs and apples. Instead of fatigue, joy and satisfaction were evident in their faces, because they were able to do something for their Serbian brothers. I am ever in admiration of these rare women, and never can I forget their watchword: 'Not one of our patients is to be without at least one egg a day, however far we may have to tramp for it.' Such labour, such love towards an almost totally strange nation, is something more than mere humanity; it is the summit of understanding, and the application of real and solid Christian teaching.

"Dr. Inglis cured not only the physical but the moral ills of her wounded patients. Every word she spoke was about the return of our army, and she assured us of final victory. She did not speak thus merely to soothe, for one felt the fire of her indignation against the oppressor, and her love for us and her confidence that our just cause would triumph. I could mention a host of great and small facts in connection with her, enough to fill a book; but, in one word, every move, every thought of the late Dr. Inglis and the members of her Mission breathed affection towards the Serbian soldier and the Serbian nation. The Serbian soldier himself is the best witness to this. One has only to inquire about the Scottish Women's Mission in order to get a short and eloquent comment, which resumes all, and expresses astonishment that he should be asked: 'Of course I know of our sisters from Scotland.' ...

"But the enemy could not succeed in shaking these noble women in their determination and their love for us Serbians. They at last obtained their release, and reached their own country, but, without taking time to rest properly, they at once started to collect fresh stores, and hastened to the assistance of the Serbian Volunteer Corps in the Dobrudja. They returned with the same corps to the Macedonian front, and thence to Serbia once more at the close of last year, in order to come to the aid of the impoverished Serbian people. The fact that Dr. Inglis lost her life after the retreat from Russia is a fresh proof of her devotion to Serbia. The Serbian soldiers mourn her death as that of a mother or sister. The memory of her goodness, self-sacrifice, and unbounded charity, will never leave them as long as they live, and will be handed down as a sacred heritage to their children. The entire Serbian Army and the entire Serbian people weep over the dear departed Dr. Inglis, while erecting a memorial to her in their hearts greater than any of the world's monuments. Glory be to her and the land that gave her birth!

"(Signed) Lieut.-Col. Drag. C. Popovitch,
"Professor at the Military Academy.      

     "December 24th, 1919.

Dr. Inglis was at home from February to August, 1916. Besides her work as chairman of the committee for Kossovo Day, she was occupied in many other ways. She paid a visit of inspection for the Scottish Women's Hospitals Committee to their Unit in Corsica, reporting in person to them on her return in her usual clear and masterly way on the work being done there. She worked hard to get permission for the Scottish Women's Hospitals to send a Unit to Mesopotamia, where certainly the need was great. It has been said of her that, "like Douglas of old, she flung herself where the battle raged most fiercely, always claiming and at last obtaining per[Pg 58]mission to set up her hospitals where the obstacles were greatest and the dangers most acute."

It was not the fault of the Scottish Women's Hospitals that their standard was not found flying in Mesopotamia.

During the time she was at home, in the intervals of her other activities, she spoke at many meetings, telling of the work of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. At these meetings she would speak for an hour or more of the year's work in Serbia without mentioning herself. She had the delightful power of telling a story without bringing in the personal note. Often at the end of a meeting her friends would be asked by members of the audience if Dr. Inglis had not been in Serbia herself. On being assured that she had, they would reply incredulously, "But she never mentioned herself at all!"

The Honorary Secretary of the Clapham High School Old Girls' Society wrote, after Dr. Inglis's death, describing one of these meetings:

"In June, 1916, Dr. Inglis came to our annual commemoration meeting and spoke to us of Serbia. None of those who were present will, I think, ever forget that afternoon, and the almost magical inspiration of her personality. Behind her simple narrative (from which her own part in the great deeds of which she told seemed so small that to many of us it was a revelation to learn later what that part had been) lay a spiritual force which left no one in the audience untouched. We feel that we should like to express our gratitude for that afternoon in our lives, as well as our admiration of her gallant life and death."

The door to Mesopotamia being still kept closed, Dr. Inglis, in August, 1916, went to Russia as C.M.O. of a magnificently equipped Unit which was being sent to the help of the Jugo-Slavs by the Scottish Women's Hospitals.

A few days before she left Dr. Inglis went to Leven, on the Fifeshire coast of Scotland, where many of her relatives were gathered, to say farewell. The photograph given here was taken at this time.



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