The Scottish Women’s Hospitals: The Elsie Inglis Unit

In the period 1915-1918 three Scottish Women’s Hospitals were established in Macedonia. First came with the French army the Girton & Newnham unit from France which was set up at the end of 1915 in the Allatini hospital area in Salonika. In September of the following year the American Unit was established in Ostrovo (nowdays Arnissa) near Edessa. Finally, in March 1918 a third hospital, known as the Elsie Inglis Unit, arrived in Thessaloniki. This Unit was initially sent to the Eastern Front to Dobruja in the Russo-Romanian borders. After the October Revolution and the Russian withdrawal from the war, the Unit had to move quickly out of that area and return back to England. Dr Inglis, initiator and soul of the SWH movement and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the Unit, passed away the day after their return.
Early 1918 a new mission was under preparation. The Unit – named now ‘the Elsie Inglis Unit’ – would join the Serbian forces in Macedonia and would be attached to the Yugoslav division, a special division consisting of Yugoslav volunteers, mainly Slovenes and Croats. Ms Ethel Moir, a nurse in the unit, writes in her precious diary: “Back once more to the “rush & hurry” of existence, as a member of the S.W.H! And back to the dear old grey uniform & tartan facings & kit bags & ground sheets & all!”. On 18 February the unit was inspected by the King and the Queen in Buckingham Palace. The press wrote that “the members of the unit assembled in the grounds of the palace, and six executive officers were presented to their Majesties. Dr Inglis’s successor in the chief medical officership is Dr Annette Benson, and the assistant medical officers are Dr Lilian Chesney and Dr Gladys Ward. After the inspection, the King paid a tribute to the work performed by the Scottish Wopen’s Hospitals, and wished the unit success in its future labours abroad”.

The inspection of the unit at Buckingham Palace. Names written on the paper by Ethel Moir.

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The journey through France and Italy took three weeks arriving at Thessaloniki on 8 March. Ethel Moir was very much impressed by the variety of people she saw in the city: “yesterday afternoon, we spent a jolly afternoon in Salonique & did a bit of exploring! It is such a fascinating old place, simply chokeful of interest too, & at present, I imagine it is the most cosmopolitan spot on earth. The varieties of uniforms is marvellous – British, French, Italian, Russian, Indian, American & of course Serbs & Greeks & all the different native costumes are intensely interesting & picturesque…The women’s dress, consists of a long sort of skirt, embroidered & kept in place by a leathern girdle, a short, bright colored, rough home-spun petticoat & in their hair & round their necks they wear strings & strings of coins & beads. The “full-dress” worn by the men is most impressive! It consists of a red fez with a long blue tassel, a richly embroidered blue or red jacket, with “slit open” sleeves, a vest of similar cut, white shirt with  full sleeves, a white fustanella or kilt, tight-fitting white breeches & stockings& red shoes with “turned-up” toes & a big tassel on each toe-point! I assure you these men like very fine indeed! There are hundreds of varieties of native dress, but the above described is amongst the most noticeable”.

The unit left Thessaloniki on 2 April for a spot “about 100 kilometres N.W. from Salonique, situated amongst (at least at the foot of!) gorgeous snowclad mountains”. Moir notes that “it’s on the “direct-route” from the trenches & 15 miles or so down is a rail-head & a big base hospital, to whom we can pass on our patients. There is a wee stream running thru’ our “ground” (commonly known by us as the Potak River!!). On one side of the River are our Mess Tents – one for Transport, one for Hospital – camp kitchens, garage & store. Across the stream we have all the hospital tents, 6 large dressing tents, theatre tent, “Linen” tent, dispensary tent, office tent & “workmen’s” tent, ie. for carpenting & doing odd jobs like that. Then high up on the hill – over-looking the Hospital – are our own little sleeping ‘quarters’ ”. From the description we understand that the site was close to Skydra (rail-head) and the 36 and 37 British hospitals (big base hospital). It was on the “direct-route” from the trenches (the Vertekop – Moglena road) but at which point exactly? The tip was in Moir’s diary: “behind our tents are high, high rocks, one peculiar one with a huge hole in it -christened already “The Marble Anew”!” . This rock is well known in the region, the ‘rock with the hole’ (ο τρύπιος βράχος) close to Néa Zoï village. Tradition holds – even today – that passing through the hole increases the chances for married women to have healthy and intelligent babies. It’s what king Philip’s wife, Olympias, from neighboring Pella did, tradition says, before giving birth to Alexander!

The ‘sleeping quarters’ of the Inglis camp

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The site as it appears today

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Transport officer Hedges in front of her tent. The ‘rock with a hole’ appears in the upper right corner of the photo

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According to Ethel Moir “No Man’s Land divides us from the Transport Camp, they being just a little further along. Then we have a laundry tent down near the stream & later an incinerator will be added to the list! I foresee a terribly busy week ahead getting things fixed up & all the tents in order to receive wounded. Things are quiet up the line at present, but a push is expected shortly, so this is but “the calm before the storm”.

The site of the camp: a stream was dividing the staff quarters from the hospital tents

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The location in a modern map: A is the location of 36 and 37 British hospitals, B is the aerea of the  Franco-Serbian airfield in Mavrovouni, C is the spot of the Elsie Inglis SWH and D the place of the big Serbian hospital in Apsalos.

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The Elsie Inglis Unit and its distance from Thessaloniki

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First days were busy with setting up the hospital: “we have been up here for over a fortnight & it seems but a day! We have been extremely busy, all day & every day almost has been occupied “building” our Hospital! Our ploys have been many & mixed – some of them – pitching tents, filling mattresses, carpeting & upholstering, even making bricks (honest!) to build an incinerator. And now, I assure you, our Hospital looks “some” Hospital!”

Pitching tents…

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…and constructing the garage

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Here is a small selection of notes from Moir’s diary.

 April 13th [Trip to the American Unit in Ostrovo (present Arnissa)]

“Last Sunday, it was a case of “down tools” with all & we could do as we wished all day long! I went with several others for a fine motor run. We made a whole day of it, departing soon after 9a.m. Our first Rail was at Vertikop (present Skydra) – our nearest railway station. There are 2 big British Red X stationed there, the 36th & 37th Generals, they take mainly Serbs. Vertikop is on the Monastir Road, a fine surface & good broad road. 
We motored on till we came to Vodena (present Edessa), a lovely run thru’ such pretty country. Vodena stands high upon a hill & can be seen from everywhere for many miles around. It used to be the capital of Macedonia & is a wonderful spot, quite the prettiest & most picturesque old place I have ever seen. 
All down the sides of the hill are little rushing streams – just like “continued” waterfalls & just now they have such a wonderfully fairy-land like effect, the clear crystal water tumbling down & everywhere the fresh green foliage & the pale pinks of the peach & apricot blossom. It is difficult to describe it , but it is so beautiful. We garaged & had a peep at the town, but we did not see it at its best, as being Sunday, the most of the booths & stalls were closed. After leaving Vodena behind us, we went up & up, past Vladova (nowdays Agras), another sweet little village & on to Ostrovo (present Arnissa) – where we S.W. have a smaller base hospital. We had tea there & saw over their camp, then we went up a wee hill & had a good view of Lake Ostrovo, one of the largest in this part of the world – quite 30 miles in length. We motored home in the evening & the evening lights were beautiful”.

From Elsie Inglis Unit (X) to the American Unit (Y) through Edessa

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April 28th [Trip to Edessa]
“Things have been very quiet & not much doing all week. I had a long afternoon off yesterday, so went down on the van to Vertikop. The van goes down every day for our supplies – cow & black bread!
I was dropped at the 37th General & spent the afternoon there. The 36th & 37th have each 1500 beds & are entirely for Serbs, & are staffed with English medicals, nurses & orderlies.
Today, I was “told off” to got to Vodena with C. to fetch some Serbian laundry women! We had a nice run & enjoyed our few hours in Vodena very much. There are no less than 6000 Serbian refugees in Vodena alone. The Serbian Relief people are doing splendid work among them, the American Red X. have also lately started on a small scale to help.
We had lunch with the American doctors & then they took us over their refugee hospital & then we went “laundry-lady” hunting & saw countless numbers of refugees of course, all wanting to come! We selected 3 & brought ’em back with us & may they prove a success!

May 3rd [the Good Friday Service in Tresina (present Orma), the Yugoslav Division Headquarters]
I had a jolly afternoon.
W. got off also, so we razzled together. We went up in one of the ambulances to Tresina – which is the Head Quarters of the Yugo-Slav Division. It is a sweet little spot lying at the foot of Kaymakchalan. We found in arriving there, that there was a special Good Friday War Service on (Easter this year, in the Greek Church, falls 5 weeks after our own Easter). 
The Crown Prince was expected, so there was great excitement among the troops. We were invited to attend. It was quite a military “fray”. The display of uniforms, orders & decorations was indeed wonderful, as not only was Alexander of Serbia present, but of course all his “body-guard”, also the commander-in-chief of the Serbian Army & many generals & other brass-hats. The little village church was bedecked with flowers for Easter & the altar covered with the Serbian flag. The priests were most gorgeous in wonderful long capes, embroidered in gold & silver & brilliant blues & purples. The service we found somewhat tedious, but the chanting was rather fine. 
The Crown Prince is small & dark, not at all striking looking, but a most popular person we are told. After the service was over, we went over to Headquarters & partook of coffee & “did the polite” to all the different officers, including Prince Alexander! I came across quite a number of officers who I had met in Russia & Romania & it was delightful meeting them again. Tresina is quite near the Bulgar lines & the guns were booming all the time we were there yesterday.

May 5th [Greek Orthodox Easter]
Yesterday was Easter Sunday & a great day of rejoicing in the Greek church. 
To-day – St George’s Day – & Easter Monday is another great feast day. It is a case of eat, eat, eat & drink, drink, drink for two whole days – then sleep the third day. 
The patients have had all sorts of “extras”. At breakfast time they each a hard-boiled egg, brilliantly coloured in a “hit-me-in-the-eye” shade of pink! At dinner, the order of the day, was a young lamb roasted whole & washed down with white & red wine, then followed cheese, then numerous Serbian concoctions, none of which were suitable for Hospital diet, however “Easter comes but once a year”! Each tent was decorated, my centre poles were both encircled with wreaths of poppies & blue bells!

Since then the hospital was very busy with a lot of cases. “Most of our cases have come from Tresina, where the Bulgars have been shelling the Serb trenches unmercifully for over 3 days” (25th May). “So now June is upon & another month gone – how time flies! We’ve been very short-handed the last few days, so many of the staff are down! Being not very fit myself, I was put on duty in the sick-staff tent at the beginning of the week in order to have a rest. It has been a rest! It has been the most strenuous few days I’ve had since the hospital opened!! Not only is the sick-staff tent full, but lots of the staff are sick up in their own quarters & that means endless running back & forwards – no joke in this blazing sun!” (1st June). In June influenza made its appearance. “Nothing but work, work, work! We have been most awfully busy, every bed is full & quite a number of the staff & 21 of the bolnichars (orderlies) have been down with a new plague, which somewhat resembles sand-fly fever. It’s a fell disease, whatever it may be, of short duration but “short & sweet” & desperately sudden! It has spread thru’ the hospital in an astonishing manner & some of the men have been exceedingly ill. The bolnichars have just gone down like ninepins & we’ve got a tent full of them – so between patients, orderlies & sick-staff & being terribly short-handed, life has been one great big rush! The days are becoming unbearably warm now & oh the flies & mosquitoes! (June 16th).

In about three months the allied forces would break the enemy lines in the Voras ridge and before the end of September Bulgaria would surrender. It would be the beginning of the end of the Great War.

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