Women Who Would Not Sit Still

The Five Sisters window in York Minster is dedicated to all 1,513 women of the British Empire who lost their lives serving in the First World War. The existing 13th century window was restored and rededicated with funds raised by public appeal, and unveiled on 24 June 1925. Image: © John Scurr (WMR-30648), Imperial War Museum

Hello! Michelle here. Today I’d like to share a post inspired by Kate and Felix’s Balance for Better Blanket and its celebration of thirty inspiring women. Like the blanket, this post doesn’t focus on one specific woman. Instead it looks at a number of women associated with a medical aid organisation founded by one of the women celebrated in the blanket, Scottish doctor and leading suffragist Elise Inglis.

Elsie Inglis (1864–1917), was one of Scotland’s first female doctors, a leading suffragist, and the founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Over 1,000 women served in the SWH during the First World War, including approximately 700 in Serbia. Image: The Women’s Library, LSE

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the government announced an amnesty for suffragettes. Those in prison were released and those, including Lilian Lenton, who were on the run suddenly had no fear of rearrest. During late 1914 and early 1915 Lilian danced in a series of entertainments raising funds for the socialist, anti-war Daily Herald League, before dancing off the historical record altogether — until early 1918 when she arrived in Ostravo, Serbia, as a volunteer nursing orderly for Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH).

Covert surveillance photograph from 1913 showing Lilian Lenton in a prison courtyard. Image: by Criminal Record Office, silver print mounted onto identification sheet, 1914, NPG x45560 © National Portrait Gallery, London

SWH had been founded by Elsie Inglis at the start of the war. Inglis was among Scotland’s first female doctors, responsible for establishing a medical practice, maternity hospital, and midwifery centre in Edinburgh in 1894. None of this impressed the War Office. When she offered them a medical unit staffed by qualified women she was told:

‘My good lady, go home and sit still.’

This she was disinclined to do. Instead, she offered her services to other allied countries and the French and Serbs accepted. Over the course of the war, fourteen women’s units comprising surgeons, nurses, orderlies, and cooks, established hospitals for soldiers and civilians. There was a particular focus on the eastern front, especially Serbia, hard hit due to its size, poverty, and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13.

The first Serbia SWH unit reached Kragujevac in early 1915. The situation was dire. The Serbian army had under three hundred doctors for an army of over half a million men. Hospitals were overcrowded, understaffed, filthy and lacked sufficient food and heating. Typhus was rampant — and Kragujevac was the epidemic’s centre. Elizabeth Ross, a Scottish doctor, was already working day and night in a military hospital when the SWH arrived, but within weeks contracted the disease. Glasgow-born nurse Louisa Jordan, in charge of the SWH typhus ward, volunteered to nurse Ross and became infected herself. Dr Ross died on her 37th birthday, 14 February 1915. Louisa Jordan died a few weeks later, on 6 March. You may recognise her name from recent news headlines — the new Glasgow hospital for the current coronavirus pandemic is named in her honour.

Detail of part of the ‘Women of Empire’ memorial panels in York Minster, showing among others the inscriptions for Elizabeth Ross, Elsie Inglis and Louisa Jordan. Image: © Michael Newbury, 2016

Inglis arrived in Kragujevac in May 1915. But in the autumn of 1915 Serbia was invaded, Belgrade fell, and SWH staff joined the army’s retreat. Inglis, along with Evelina Haverfield and Vera Holme — inseparable partners and former prominent suffragettes in the militant WSPU — felt duty bound to stay put and consequently were interned by the Germans. In February 1916 they were repatriated to Britain. But even then these women would not sit still.

Serbian stamp commemorating Evelina Haverfield. After being captured in Kragujevac and repatriated to Britain, Haverfield promoted the Serbian cause back home. She returned to Serbia after the armistice and founded one of its first orphanages, in Bajina Bašta. In March 1920 she died of pneumonia and was buried in the local cemetery. Serbia posthumously decorated her with its highest state honour, the Order of the White Eagle. Image: Universal Postal Union, UPU

A new unit was formed and headed off to Romania in September, with Inglis in charge. Despite herself being seriously ill with cancer, she barely stopped work and refused to leave Romania until late 1917, when the Serbian units they were serving had reached safety. Then she sent an understated telegraph home, reading:

Everything satisfactory and all well except me.’

She died the day after she landed in Newcastle, on 26 November 1917. British and Serbian royalty attended her funeral in Edinburgh three days later.

Elsie Inglis and other women from the SWH during the retreat at Caramurat, Romania, photographed receiving a mail bag. Image: Imperial War Museum © IWM Q 68949B

Despite its founder’s death, the work of the SWH continued. A new unit established a field hospital in Ostravo, Serbia in late 1916. Its chief medical officer and surgeon in 1918 was an Edinburgh-trained doctor named Isabel Emslie. Among her staff was the former suffragette arsonist Lilian Lenton.

Scene at the main hospital camp at Ostravo, Serbia. Image: collection of Agnes Bennett, record 22861121, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Ostravo camp was the allied field hospital closest to the front and it remained in operation until the end of the war, dealing with the most severe casualties and passing less severe cases to safer facilities further north. Diaries of SWH personnel who served there describe the beauty of the hillside lake, the cypress trees, and the high mountains — but with the front just a few miles away, the booming guns rarely ceased, and the casualties were horrific.

After the armistice with Bulgaria at the end of September 1918, Lilian and the rest of the unit travelled three hundred kilometres north to Vranje in central Serbia, where there was a dreadful need for medical relief, crossing steep mountain passes crowded with soldiers, ex-prisoners of war, and desperate refugees returning to find their villages in ruins and their families missing.

Patient outside the x-ray tent at the main hospital camp at Ostravo, Serbia. Image: collection of Agnes Bennett, record 23200210, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Vranje was in a state of tragic chaos. The women got to work, converting a barracks into a hospital that accepted soldiers, civilians and starved Austrian and Bulgarian ex-prisoners as patients. It was a gruelling ordeal for nursing orderlies such as Lilian, working far beyond their official assistant role. One woman wrote home:

‘we had a Herculean task to battle with indescribable filth and vermin, evil smells, no rations, no lights, a hospital full of ill and dying men, and everyone tired out’.

Emslie, the unit’s surgeon, was the only doctor in a fifty-mile radius. In January 1919 she wrote to the SWH committee:

the work increases daily, instead of showing any signs of decreasing . . . we still are able to take in only the very worst cases’.

From February to May typhus was rife, along with malaria and influenza. Wearing boots and rubber gloves nurses removed and incinerated their patients’ ragged clothes, before shaving and disinfecting them. Out back, a hearse was permanently stationed to remove the dead. Out front, every day, more patients desperately sought care.

Serbian stamp commemorating Isabel Emslie. In 2015 the British Embassy in Serbia partnered with the Serbia Post to produce a series of six stamps. The other stamps commemorate Flora Sandes, Elsie Inglis, Elizabeth Ross, Katherine MacPhail, and Evelina Haverfield. Image: Universal Postal Union, UPU

Emslie felt the SWH committee back in Britain did not grasp the depth of tragedy in the Balkans. Elsewhere, units had disbanded but she found it unthinkable that the Vranje hospital would close. The committee allowed it to stay open through the first half of 1919 — and in May hundreds of new patients were still arriving daily — but before long Emslie was instructed to close the facility. She was transferred to a hospital in Belgrade and her staff, including Lilian, were dismissed.

Lilian went to her parents’ home in Brixton, London, sick with malaria. But this did not mark the end of her travels. Two years later, she travelled with Nina Boyle (yet another former suffragette) to study the famine-struck Volga regions of Russia, on behalf of the Save the Children Fund. Like the other remarkable women named in this post, Lilian Lenton was not a woman for sitting still.

For anyone interested in learning more about the women named in this post, here are a few starting points for further reading and viewing: