In the Footsteps of Elsie Inglis- Special interest group visit to Serbia, 10 - 17 September 2023By Fiona Garwood
The group spent two days sight seeing in Belgrade, before travelling around the country to visit former WW1 hospital sites and memorials commemorating Dr Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women's Hospital (SWH) Doctors, nurses, and volunteer auxiliaries, drivers, cooks and administrators.The visit attracted a lot of local interest and media attention. They were very honoured to be invited to a reception by the British Ambassador and his wife in the residence, The Elsie Inglis House.
The places we visited were: Belgrade: The Royal Palace, St Sava’s Orthodox Church, Tito’s mausoleum, Kalemegdan fortress which overlooks the confluence of rivers Danube and Sava, The Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital.Vranje: Former SWH hospital site, now a working army barracks, the Isobel Emslie Hutton Memorial Hospital and monument.Nis: to the Chela Kula cemetery, commemorating the SWH typhus victims - Louisa Jordan, Agnes Earl, Bessie Sutherland and Madge Neill Fraser.Kragujevac: Old Cemetery - SWH graves -Dr Elizabeth Ross and two nurses, the Sumarice WW2 memorial to the 2,300 massacred pupils and townsfolk in October 1941.Mladenovac: Annual Memorial wreath laying ceremony in honour of Dr Elsie Inglis, attended by local dignitaries and foreign Ambassadors where we laid a wreath (see photo)Valjevo: National Museum with extensive SWH photographs, records and memorabilia, with a specialist lecture on the WW1 infectious diseases: typhus, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, dysentery. Malnutrition and the harsh winter weather killed many others too. Serbia still remembers and commemorates these pioneering women, who answered the call to help the war torn country, beset by a typhus epidemic and few medical facilities to cope with the population and wounded soldiers. They coped admirably with the enormous challenges of finding suitable buildings to make into hospitals. Then they had to scrub them throughout, install heating, create kitchens and laundries before they could even admit the wounded.Sadly, several SWH staff also died of the dreaded typhus, which spread Rapidly through the weakened population, especially during the harsh winters. Fortunately, they were helped by the British public support and their careful guardianship of the precious supplies and medical equipment which were shipped out to Serbia. Elsie Inglis herself arrived in April 1915, to relieve one of the doctors who had become ill.She was alarmed at the standards of hygiene and lack of fresh water. In the town of Mladenovac, where she headed the local SWH unit, she found a fresh water spring. Here the Serbian soldiers built a simple memorial to her, during a lull in the fighting in 1915.To the right of this photo is the flower bed where MWF planted memorial roses during their centennial visit in 2015. Sadly these perished during Covid. The group of recent travellers have pledged to replace the rosesand are in touch with the authorities and hope to plant them in the right season.On the trip, we were very fortunate to have Snjezana Marinkovic, one of the top Serbian guides to accompany us, along with Colonel Nick Ilic, a British born Serbian and two British born Serbian ladies from London. Nick had served as military attaché in Belgrade and has a deep knowledge and understanding of the WW1 history. Our two guides provided a memorable experience for us all.A special visitor in the group was the great granddaughter of Lance Corporal Thomas Bexton, Royal Army Service Corps. Sadly, he died of typhus in 1919, having volunteered to stay on in Serbia on humanitarian work and is buried in the Chela Kula cemetery in Nis, alongside SWH nurses.