The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – The American Unit

Volunteer medical groups played a significant role in taking care of sick and wounded during WWI. One very important group was the Scottish women doctors. Everything started when Elsie Maude Inglis (1864-1917) asked the British authorities in the beginning of the war to serve as a doctor – her profession – in the front. The reply, famous now, was “go home and sit still woman”. Fortunately, Elsie was not the kind of person who could sit still at home. She took the initiative to found the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), an organization of patriotism and feminism. Supported by the National Union of the Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the new organization had its headquarters in the Scottish Federation of the Women’s Suffrage Sosieties.

The aim of the organization was to create hospitals near the front line composed exclusively of women. The financing was ensured through sponsorship and fundraising. Although many were cautious in the beginning about the chances of success, the result was spectacular: seven hospitals were set up in a relatively short period of time attracting women not only from Scotland or the UK but also from USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In total, about 50% of the staff were women outside Scotland.

Three Scottish hospitals were set up in Macedonia. The first was established in Thessaloniki near Allatini Mill. The second, known as the American Unit, was fixed somewhere in Arnissa (Άρνισσα then Ostrovo) very close to the front line. The latter took its name from the fact that it was totally financed by funds raised in America. The location of the third hospital is still unknown.

A year ago I tried to locate the precise site of the American Unit. With some old photos in my bag I visited the Vegoritis region and started comparing the various landscapes. Et voilà! After some hours of driving and walking up and down the hills of the region I spotted the place. And guess what: the site is exactly as it was a century ago…minus some old trees which are not anymore.

Comparing the two photos below we can observe that even the stones, shrubs and bushes are in the same place

1aSWH staff photo

1bSite of SWH staff photo

Surrounded by hills the site was well protected from the north winds. In red line the site of the hospital. The direction of the photos here is towards SE

2aSWH camp from NW1

2bSite of SWH camp from NW_

The direction of the photos below is towards SW. A century ago the lake was larger and visible from the camp. I marked in blue line the approximate old border of the lake in the modern photo

3aSWH camp from NE13bSWH camp from NW2

In red below is the precise location of the American Unit. In blue line the old border of Vegoritis (Βεγορίτις then Ostrovo) lake. About two miles NW is Arnissa (Άρνισσα then Ostrovo) village

SWH Location.resized

The establishment in Ostrovo

Early August 1916 the unit embarked on the Dunluce Castle, a hospital ship, together with the No 41 British General Hospital from Southampton to Salonika.Dunluce Castle

There were about sixty women of various origins. Three of the doctor’s staff came from Australia and New Zealand, Dr Agnes Benett, the Chief Medical Officer and Drs. Cooper and Scott; Dr. Lewis from England and Dr. Muncaster from Scotland. The administrator of the unit, Miss Jack, and Miss Gordon, sanitary officer, from Scotland; Miss Bedford, in charge of the cars, from Australia. The chief nurse, Miss Tate, from England, and Miss Kerr, chief of the culinary department and her assistant Miss Ross, from Scotland.

The American Unit at the departure from Southampton

SWH America Unit

Early September they moved to their designated site in Arnissa (then Ostrovo). “The site of the camp was perfect. Set in a cup among the lower hills, with the higher peaks soon to be covered with snow, before and behind us, protected from the winds on every side, and surrounded by large trees with a spring of fresh water beside us, we felt we had reached our ideal camping ground” Dr Benett noted in her report.

The entrance of the camp

Entrance of Ostrovo Camp

“On our first evening in camp, star shells were being sent up over the enemy’s lines, and it was known that great preparations were being made for a big advance”. The unit had arrived just in time. The battle of Gornichevo (now Kelli – Κέλλη) and the storming of Kaymakchalan mountain were about to start. “What a day this has been, the bombardment has begun. The guns started at 5 a.m. this morning and have gone steadily ever since. The noise is quite deafening…They say that the bombardment will continue for four or five days. What noise! Some of us went on the top of the hill tonight and saw the flashes from the guns. What a gorgeous night too, with the moon shining and the hills looking so lovely. The thought of so much killing and chaos so near to all this beauty made me very sad” wrote Ishobel Ross in her diary. The ambulances started going up and down the big mountain.

Convoy of ambulances in Ostrovo

Convoys

The hospital was often the target of enemy planes.

After an air raid

“The girls’ presence of mind and courage during air raids and bombardments have been a source of amazement and admiration to me. No one ever wanted to go to the shelters when the whistle used to blow. It was really quite hard work to get them out of the wards” wrote Agnes Benett in a report before her departure due to malaria. Following her departure, another Australian doctor Mary De Garis took the position of Chief Medical Officer. During that last period writer Miles Franklin worked as volunteer in the American Unit.

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4 thoughts on “The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – The American Unit

  1. Yes a very special place indeed. I also found it as I have family links in the area. I was excited when I discovered that the site you said confirmed my location of it too.

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  2. Thank you Nikiforos for linking to my blog post about Stella Miles Franklin. Franklin is her surname. She is one of Australia’s most renowned authors but is more commonly known by her pen name, Miles Franklin.

    I wish I was researching this area of WWI because your blog is such a helpful resource. I hope other researchers come across it. The one thing your blog is missing is the ‘A propos’ section. Who are you? What interests you about this history? What is the goal of this blog? From a bit of googling I think I found the answer to the first two questions – you come from this area and your father talked to you about the history of the area. I would love to read more about you and why you are writing this blog.

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    • Thank you very much perkinsy for your comments. You guessed right about me and my interests. I grew up with little stories of the Great War from my father who was a kid at that time in my hometown. After he passed away a year and a half ago I decided to look more in depth on these stories as I had more time myself after retirement from professional activities. You are right that there is a need to write something in the A propos section.

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