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Elsie Inglis
Chapter XI - Russia

"For a clear understanding and appreciation of subsequent events affecting the relations between Dr. Inglis and the Serb division, a brief account of its genesis may be given here.

"The division consisted mainly of Serbo-Croats and Slovenes—namely, Serbs who, as subjects of Austria-Hungary, were obliged to serve in the Austrian Army. Nearly all of these men had been taken prisoners by the Russians, or, perhaps more correctly, had voluntarily surrendered to the Russians rather than fight for the enemies of their co-nationals. In May, 1915, a considerable number of these Austro-Serbs volunteered for service with the Serbian Army, and by arrangement with the Russian Government, who gave them their freedom, they were transported to Serbia. After the entry of Bulgaria into the war it was no longer possible to send them to Serbia, and 2,000 were left behind at Odessa. The number of these volunteers increased, however, to such an extent that, by permission of the Serbian Government, Serbian officers from Corfu were sent over to organize them into a military unit for service with the Russian Army. By May, 1916, a first division was formed under the command of the Serb Colonel, Colonel Hadjitch, and later a second division under General Zivkovitch. It was to the first division that the Scottish Women's Hospitals and Transport were to be attached.

"The Unit mustered at Liverpool on August 29, and left for Archangel on the following day. It consisted of a personnel of seventy-five and three doctors, with Dr. Elsie Inglis C.M.O."

A member of the staff describes the journey:

"Our Unit left Liverpool for Russia on August 31, 1916; like the Israelites of old, we went out not knowing exactly where we were bound for. We knew only that we had to join the Serbian division of the Russian Army, but where that Division was or how we were to get there we could not tell. We were seventy-five all told, with 50 tons of equipment and sixteen automobiles. We had a special transport, and after nine days over the North Sea we arrived at Archangel.

"From Archangel we were entrained for Russia, and sent down via Moscow to Odessa, receiving there further instructions to proceed to the Roumanian front, where our Serbs were in action.

"We were fourteen days altogether in the train. I remember Dr. Inglis, during those long days on the journey, playing patience, calm and serene, or losing her own patience when the train was stopped and would not go on. Out she would go, and address the Russian officials in strenuous, nervous British—it was often effective. One of our interpreters heard one stationmaster saying: 'There is a great row going on here, and there will be trouble to-morrow if this train isn't got through.'

"At Reni we were embarked on a steamer and barges, and sent down the Danube to a place called Cernavoda, where once more we were disembarked, and proceeded by train and motor to Medjidia, where our first hospital was established in a large barracks on the top of a hill above the town, an excellent mark for enemy aeroplanes. The hospital was ready for wounded two days after our arrival; until then it was a dirty empty building, yet the wounded were received in it some forty-eight hours after our arrival. It was a notable achievement, but for Dr. Inglis obstacles and difficulties were placed in her path for the purpose of being overcome; if the mountains of Mahomet would not move, she removed them!

"In connection with the establishment of these field hospitals I have vivid recollections of her. The great empty upper floor of the barracks at Medjidia, seventy-five of us all in the one room. The lines of camp beds. Dr. Inglis and her officers in one corner; and how quietly in all the noise and hubbub she went to bed and slept. I remember how I had to waken her when certain officials came on the night of our arrival to ask when we would be ready for the wounded. 'Say to-morrow,' she said, and slept again!

"'It's a wonder she did not say now,' one of my fellow-officers remarked!

"We were equipped for two field hospitals of 100 beds each, and our second hospital was established close to the firing-line at Bulbulmic. We were at Bulbulmic and Medjidia only some three weeks when we had to retreat."

Three weeks of strenuous work at these two places ended in a sudden evacuation and retreat—Hospital B and the Transport got separated from Hospital A. We can only, of course, follow the fortunes of Hospital A, which was directly under Dr. Inglis.

The night of the retreat is made vivid for us by Dr. Inglis:

"The station was a curious sight that night. The flight was beginning. A crowd of people was collected at one end with boxes and bundles and children. One little boy was lying on a doorstep asleep, and against the wall farther on lay a row of soldiers. On the bench to the right, under the light, was a doctor in his white overall, stretched out sound asleep between the two rushes of work at the station dressing-room; and a Roumanian officer talked to me of Glasgow, where he had once been invited out to dinner, so he had seen the British 'custims.' It was good to feel those British customs were still going quietly on, whatever was happening here—breakfasts coming regularly, hot water for baths, and everything as it should be. It was probably absurd, but it came like a great wave of comfort to feel that Britain was there, quiet, strong, and invincible, behind everything and everybody."

A member of the Unit also gives us details:

"I went twice down to the station with baggage in the evening, a perilous journey in rickety carts through pitch darkness over roads (?) crammed with troops and refugees, which were lit up periodically by the most amazing green lightning I have ever seen, and the roar and flash of the guns was incessant. At the station no lights were allowed because of enemy aircraft, but the place was illuminated here and there by the camp fires of a new Siberian division which had just arrived. Picked troops these, and magnificent men.

"We wrestled with the baggage until 2 a.m., and went back to the hospital in one of our own cars. Our orderly came in almost in tears. Her cart had twice turned over completely on its way to the station; so on arrival she had hastened to Dr. Inglis with a tale of woe and a scratched face. Dr. Inglis said: 'That's right, dear child, that's right, stick to the equipment,' which may very well be described as the motto of the Unit these days!...

"The majority of the Unit are to go to Galatz by train with Dr. Corbett; the rest (self included) are to go by road with Dr. Inglis, and work with the army as a clearing station.

"On the morning of October 22 the train party got off as quick as possible, and about 4 p.m. a big lorry came for our equipment. We loaded it, seven of us mounted on the top, and the rest went in two of our own cars. The scene was really intensely comic. Seven Scottish women balanced precariously on the pile of luggage; a Serbian doctor with whom Dr. Inglis is to travel standing alongside in an hysterical condition, imploring us to hurry, telling us the Bulgarians were as good as in the town already; Dr. Inglis, quite unmoved, demanding the whereabouts of the Ludgate boiler; somebody arriving at the last minute with a huge open barrel of treacle, which, of course, could not possibly be left to a German. Oh dear! how we laughed!"

Dr. Inglis would never allow the Sunday service to be missed if it was at all possible to hold it. Miss Onslow tells us how she seized a seeming opportunity even on this Sunday of so many dangers to make ready for the service.

"Medjidia.—Sunday was the day on which we began our retreat from the Dobrudja. We spent most of the morning going to and from the station—a place almost impossible to enter or leave on account of the refugees, their carts and animals, and the army, which was on the move, blocking all the approaches—transporting sick members of the Unit and some equipment which had still to be put on the train, and only my touring car and one ambulance with which to do the work. Dr. Inglis had been at the station until the early hours of the morning, but nevertheless superintended everything that was being done both at the train and up at the hospital.

"Towards noon a Serbian officer brought in a report that things were not as bad for the moment as they expected. Whereupon the Doctor immediately gave orders to prepare the room for service at 4 o'clock that afternoon! And she began revolving plans for immediate work in Medjidia. But, alas! the good news was a false report—the enemy was rushing onwards. The Russian lorry came for the personal baggage and any remaining equipment which had not gone by train; and it, piled high with luggage and some of the staff, left at 3, the remainder of us going in the ambulance and my car. Dr. Inglis came in my car, and I had the honour of driving our dear Doctor nearly all the time, and am the only member of the Unit who was with her the whole time of the retreat from Medjidia until we reached the Danube at Harshova."

The four days of the Dobrudja retreat from October 22nd to 26th were days of horror for all who took part in it, not least for Dr. Inglis and the members of her Units. "At first we passed a few carts, then at some distance more and more, till we found ourselves in an unending procession of peasants with all their worldly goods piled on those vehicles.... This procession seemed difficult to pass, but as time went on, added to it, came the Roumanian army retreating—hundreds of guns, cavalry, infantry, ambulances, Red Cross carts, motor-kitchens, and wounded on foot—a most extraordinary scene. The night was inky black; the only lights were our own head-lights and those of the ambulance behind us, but they revealed a sad and never-to-be-forgotten picture. Our driver was quite wonderful; she sat unmoved, often for half an hour at a time. There was a block, and we had to wait while the yelling, frantic mob did what they could to get into some sort of order; then we would move on for ten minutes, and then stop again; it was like a dream or a play; it certainly was a tragedy. No one spoke; we just waited and watched it all; to us it was a spectacle, to these poor homeless people it was a terrible reality."

At 11.30 that Sunday night Dr. Inglis and the party with her arrived at Caramarat. The straw beds and the fairytale dinner, and the cheery voice of Dr. Inglis calling them to partake of it, will never be forgotten by these Scottish women.

On arrival at Caramarat Dr. Inglis had asked for a room for her Unit and "a good meat meal." She was told a room was waiting for them, but a good meal was an impossibility; the town had been evacuated; there had been no food to be got for days.

"Though it was only a bare room with straw in heaps on the floor and green blankets to wrap ourselves in, to cold, shivering beings like ourselves it seemed all that heart could desire.... Never shall I forget the delight of lying down on the straw, the dry warm blanket rolled round me. Then a most wonderful thing happened—the door opened and several soldiers entered with the most beautiful meal I ever ate. It was like a fairytale. Where did it come from? The lovely soup—the real Russian borsh—and roast turkey and plenty of bread and chi. We ate like wolves, and I can remember so distinctly sitting up in my straw nest, with my blanket round me, and hearing Dr. Inglis's cheery voice saying, 'Isn't this better than having to start and cook a meal?' She was the most extraordinary person; when she said she must have a thing, she got it, and it was never for herself, always for others."

They started again early on Monday morning, and after another day of adventures slept that night in the open air beside a river.

"Cushions were brought from the cars and all the rugs we could find, and soon we were sitting round the fire waiting for the water to boil for our tea, and a more delightful merry meal could not be imagined. We all told our experiences of the day, and Dr. Inglis said: 'But this is the best of all; it is just like a fairytale.' And so it was; for as we looked there were groups of soldiers holding their horses, standing motionless, staring at us; we saw them only through the wood-smoke. The fire attracted them, and they came to see what it could mean. Seeing nine women laughing and chatting, alone and within earshot of the guns, the distant sky-line red with the enemy's doings, was more than they could understand. They did not speak, but quietly went away as they had come.... Rolled in our blankets, with the warmth of the fire making us feel drowsy, our chatter gradually ceased, and we slept as only a day in the open air can make one sleep."

Another two days of continued retreat, and the different parties of Scottish women arrived at places of safety.

"Thus we all came through the Dobrudja retreat. We had only been one month in Roumania, but we seemed to have lived a lifetime between the 22nd and 26th of October, 1916." In a letter to the Committee Dr. Inglis says of the Unit: "They worked magnificently at Medjidia, and took the retreat in a very joyous, indomitable way. One cannot say they were plucky, because I don't think it ever entered their heads to be afraid."

Finally the scattered members of the Unit joined forces again at Braila, where Dr. Inglis opened a hospital.

During the time at Braila Dr. Inglis wrote to her relations. The letter is dated Reni, where she had gone for a few days.

"October 28th, 1916.

"Dearest Amy,

"Just a line to say I am all right. Four weeks to-morrow since we reached Medjidia and began our hospital. We evacuated it in three weeks, and here we are all back on the frontier.... Such a time it has been, Amy dear; you cannot imagine what war is just behind the lines. And in a retreat....

"Our second retreat—and almost to the same day. We evacuated Kraguevatz on the 25th of October last year. We evacuated Medjidia on the 22nd this year. On the 25th this year we were working in a Russian dressing-station at Harshova, and were moved on in the evening. We arrived at Braila to find 11,000 wounded and seven doctors, only one of them a surgeon.

"Boat come—must stop—am going back to Braila to do surgery. Have sent every trained person there.

"Ever, you dear, dear people,            
"Your loving sister,      

"We have had lots of exciting things too—and amusing things—and good things."

Two further retreats had, however, to be experienced by Dr. Inglis and her Unit before they could settle down to steady work. The three retreats took place in the following order:

Sunday, October 22nd.—Retreated from Medjidia.

October 25th.—Arrived at Braila. Worked there till December 3rd.

December 3rd.—Retreated to Galatz, where very strenuous work awaited them.

January 4th.—Retreated to Reni.

August, 1917.—Left Reni, and rejoined the Serb division at Hadji Abdul.

The work during the above period, from October 25th, 1916, to August, 1917, was done for the Russians and Roumanians. As soon as it was possible, Dr. Inglis joined the Serb division in the end of August, 1917.

"Dr. Inglis was still working in Reni when the Russian Revolution broke out in March. The spirit of unrest and indiscipline, which manifested itself among the troops, spread also to the hospitals, and a Russian doctor reported that in the other hospitals the patients had their own committees, which fixed the hours for meals and doctors' visits and made hospital discipline impossible. But there was no sign of this under Dr. Inglis's kindly but firm rule. Without relaxing disciplinary measures, she did all in her power to keep the patients happy and contented; and as the Russian Easter drew near, she bought four ikons to be put up in the wards, that the men might feel more at home. The result of this kindly thought was a charming Easter letter written by the patients—

"To the Much-honoured Elsie Maud, the Daughter of John.

"The wounded and sick soldiers from all parts of the army and fleet of great free Russia, who are now for healing in the hospital which you command, penetrated with a feeling of sincere respect, feel it their much-desired duty, to-day, on the day of the feast of Holy Easter, to express to you our deep reverence to you, the doctor warmly loved by all, and also to your honoured personnel of women. We wish also to express our sincere gratitude for all the care and attention bestowed on us, and we bow low before the tireless and wonderful work of yourself and your personnel, which we see every day directed towards the good of the soldiers allied to your country.... May England live!

"(Signed) The Russian Citizen Soldiers."

We cannot be too grateful to one member of the Unit who, in her impressions of Dr. Inglis, has given us a picture of her during these months in Russia that will live:

"I think so much stress has been laid, by those who worked under her, on the leader who said there was no such word as 'can't' in the dictionary, that the extraordinarily lovable personality that lay at the root of her leadership is in danger of being obscured. I do not mean by this that we all had a romantic affection for her. Her influence was of a much finer quality just because she never dragged in the personal element. She was the embodiment of so much, and achieved more in her subordinates, just because she had never to depend for their loyalty on the limits of an admired personality.

"There is no one I should less like to hear described as 'popular.' No one had less an easy power of endearing herself at first sight to those with whom she came in contact—at least, in the relations of the Unit. The first impression, as has been repeated over and over again, was always one of great strength and singleness of purpose, but all those fine qualities with which the general public is, quite rightly, ready to credit her had their roots in a serenity and gentleness of spirit which that same public has had all too little opportunity to realize. Her Unit itself realized it slowly enough. They obeyed at first because she was stronger than they, only later because she was finer and better.

"You know it was not, at least, an easy job to win the best kind of service from a mixed lot of women, the trained members of which had never worked under a woman before, and were ready with their very narrow outlook to seize on any and every opportunity for criticism. There was much opposition, more or less grumblingly expressed at first. No one hesitated to do what she was told—impossible with Dr. Inglis as a chief—but it was grudgingly done. In the end it was all for the best. If she had been the kind of person who took trouble to rouse an easy personal enthusiasm, the whole thing would have fallen to pieces at the first stress of work; on the other hand, if she had never inspired more than respect, she would never have won the quality of service she succeeded in winning. The really mean-spirited were loyal just so long as she was present because she daunted them, and Dr. Inglis's disapproval was most certainly a thing to be avoided. But the great majority, whatever their personal views, were quickly ready to recognize her authority as springing from no hasty impulse, but from a finely consistent discipline of thought.

"We were really lucky in having the retreat at the beginning of the work. It helped the Unit to realize how complete was the radical confidence they felt in her. I think her extraordinary love of justice was next impressed upon them. It took the sting out of every personal grievance, and was so almost passionately sincere it hardly seemed to matter if the verdict went against you. Her selflessness was an example, and often enough a reproach, to every one of us, and to go to her in any personal difficulty was such a revelation of sympathy and understanding as shed a light on those less obvious qualities that really made all she achieved possible.

"People have often come to me and said casually, 'Oh yes, Dr. Inglis was a very charming woman, wasn't she?' And I have felt sorely tempted to say rather snappishly, 'No, she wasn't.' Only they wouldn't have understood. It is because their 'charming' goes into the same category as my 'popular.'

"I am afraid you will hardly have anticipated such an outburst; the difficulty is, indeed, to know where to stop. For what could I not say of the way her patients adored her—the countless little unerring things she did and said which just kept us going, when things were unusually depressing, or the Unit unusually weary and homesick; the really good moments when one won the generous appreciation that was so well worth the winning; and last—if I may strike this note—her endless personal kindness to me."

The following letter to her sister, Mrs. Simson, reveals something of the lovable personality of Elsie Inglis. The nephew to whom it refers was wounded in the eye at the battle of Gaza, and died a fortnight before she did.

"June 24th, 1917.

"Dearest, Dearest Amy,

"Eve's letter came yesterday about Jim, and though I start at seven to-morrow morning for Reni, I must write to you, dear, before I go. Though what one can say I don't know. One sees these awful doings all round one, but it strikes right home when one thinks of Jim. Thank God he is still with us. The dear, dear boy! I suppose he is home by now. And anyhow he won't be going out again for some time. We are all learning much from this war, and I know —— will say it is all our own faults, but I am not sure that the theory that it is part of the long struggle between good and evil does not appeal more to my mind. We are just here in it, and whatever we suffer and whatever we lose, it is for the right we are standing.... It is all terrible and awful, and I don't believe we can disentangle it all in our minds just now. The only thing is just to go on doing one's bit.... Miss Henderson is taking home with her to-day a Serb officer, quite blind, shot right through behind his eyes, to place him somewhere where he can be trained. I heard of him just after I had read Eve's letter, and I nearly cried. He wasn't just a case at that minute, with my thoughts full of Jim. Dear old Jim! Give him my love, and tell him I'm proud of him. And how splendidly the regiment did, and how they suffered!

"Ever your loving sister,      
"Elsie Maud Inglis."

Another of her Unit, who worked with Dr. Inglis not only during the year in Russia, but through much of the strenuous campaign for the Suffrage, gives us these remembrances:

"Our Last Communion.

"'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.'

"Dearer to me even than the memory of those outstanding qualities of great-hearted initiative, courage, and determination which helped to make Dr. Elsie Inglis one of the great personalities of her age is the remembrance of certain moments when, in the intimacy of close fellowship during my term of office with her on active service, I caught glimpses of that simple, sublime faith by which she lived and in which she died.

"One of my most precious possessions is the Bible Dr. Inglis read from when conducting the service held on Sunday in the saloon of the transport which took our Unit out to Archangel. The whole scene comes back so vividly! The silent, listening lines of the girls on either hand—Hospital grey and Transport khaki; in the centre, standing before the Union Jack-covered desk, the figure of our dear Chief, and her clear, calm voice—'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High.' One felt that such a 'secret place' was indeed the abode of her serene spirit, and that there she found that steadfastness of purpose which never wavered, and the strength by which she exercised, not only the gracious qualities of love, but those sterner ones of ruthlessness and implacability which are among the essentials of leadership.

"Dr. Inglis was a philosopher in the calm way in which she took the vicissitudes of life. It was only when her judgment, in regard to the work she was engaged in, was crossed that you became aware of her ruthlessness—her wonderful ruthlessness! I can find no better adjective. This quality of hers, perhaps more than any other, drew out my admiration and respect. Slowly it was borne in on those who worked with her that under no circumstances whatever would she fail the cause for which she was working, or those who had chosen to follow her.

"Another remembrance! By the banks of the Danube at Reni, where at night the searchlight of the enemy used to play upon our camp, in the tent erected by the girls for the service, with the little altar simply and beautifully decorated by the nurses' loving hands, I see her kneeling beside me wrapt in a deep meditation, from which I ventured to rouse her, as the Chaplain came towards her with the sacred Bread and Wine. Looking back, it seems to me that even then her soul was reaching out beyond this present consciousness:

"'Here in the body pent,
Absent from Him I roam.'

The look on her face was the look of those who hold high Communion. So 'in remembrance' we ate and drank of the same Bread and the same Cup. Even as I write these words remembrance comes again, and I know that, although her bodily presence is removed, her spirit is in communion still."


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