“In 1914 a large number of British women doctors and nurses formed their own medical units for war service; but, as women, they were rejected by their own authorities so they volunteered for service with Allied armies, and nowhere were their courage and fortitude put to the test more savagely than in Serbia where bitter campaigns raged between 1914 and 1918 in circumstances the equal of those faced by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.”
I should start off this review by saying this is not a new book. It was written in the 1970s and published in the 1980s, with information gathered directly from some of the women involved, their families, and letters and diaries in private family collections. Some of the writing is therefore more sentimental than if this book were written today, and every woman mentioned is beautiful, but if you can chalk that all up to when it was written and ignore it, then you get to the meat of the book.
I had never really thought about what happened to the medical profession after Florence Nightingale, and this book fills in some of the gap between her and the doctors and nurses of today. In 1914, everyone knew war was coming, and the Serbian Relief Fund and Scottish Women’s Hospital fundraised to provide medical equipment, tents to make movable hospitals, medication and professionals to be sent out to Serbia with the army. The British War Office rejected their help, so the women went out anyway, to work directly with the Serbs and occasionally the French. On one occasion the book describes how the combined services (the Serbs referred to them all as “Scottish Women”) were providing the medical wing to Serbian and French forces working with a British one as an allied force – the British had no medics!
The stories in the book, and the individual women mentioned, are inspiring. Some of them stayed as doctors, nurses, and orderlies for the whole war. Some were invalided out, and returned to continue to support the Serbs, even when the Serbs had temporarily totally lost control of their country to the Bulgarians, Greek and Austrians, so both the Serbs and the Scottish Women were working in the terrible conditions in Russia. Some took part in the (pretty much national retreat, only the very old and very young were left behind) Serbian retreat through Albania, over the mountains to escape the advancing enemy forces.
The “Scottish Women” from all over Britain, and some from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, doctored, nursed, fed and clothed Serbia through outbreaks of typhus and influenza, general malnutrition, and the usual battlefield illnesses, as well as providing surgery, amputation, radiology and other services directly to the soldiers. Some of the women were pacifists, working only behind the lines, others travelled with the army, working on the battlefield. One in particular, Flora Sandes, actually joined the Serbian army, working her way up from private to Sergeant-Major by the end of the war. Some died, some were taken prisoner of war, some survived and went on to work in other wars and other countries.
I am at risk of just telling you everything in the book. Or of simply shouting “it’s amazing!” until you get bored. Please, if you can, get hold of a copy and read this book. The English-speaking world may have ignored (at the time) and forgotten (now) these people, but the Serbs still remember. They are heroic and inspiring stories.
If you are interested in:
- Medical history
- Military history
- World War 1
- Florence Nightingale
- Eastern Europe
- The Balkan’s
- Women’s history
- British history
- Scottish history
- Knowing something that most other people don’t (and let’s face it, everyone likes that)
Then read this book!