The Scottish nurses of Salonika
It’s one of the great untold stories of the First World War: the courage of a redoubtable group of Scottish women who travelled to Greece and Serbia 100 years ago this month.
But now, author Clive Aslet has documented the privations, passions and pioneering spirit of the females who formed the Scottish Women’s Hospital unit, the volunteers who journeyed to Salonika in the summer of 1916 and remained on the Balkan Front until the following year.
They included some tough-as-teak characters in the mould of Miss Isobel Ross, who was born on the Isle of Skye in 1890 and joined the hospital ship Dunluce Castle, on her way to a nursing station in Greece, where she experienced the best and worst of life amidst conflict.
Once they arrived in Salonika, they were joined by other redoubtable women, including a group of hardy Australians, marshalled by Agnes Bennett, who took part in a mission of mercy with their Scottish comrades.
Mr Aslet has dramatised the tales of these trailblazers in his novel The Birdcage – which is published by the Scottish-based Sandstone Press this month.
And, having researched the fashion in which independent women such as Miss Ross adapted to the challenge, he has nothing but admiration for how their behaviour amidst the horrors of war.
As he said: “These women were incredibly resourceful and, though some of them thought at first it was a big adventure, they soon appreciated the danger in which they were living.
“Many of them had never been in a foreign country before, and the sea voyage was perilous, because they were at risk of being torpedoed. But they took these things in their stride.
“Somebody such as Isobel Ross was remarkable in how she dealt with any obstacles or tragedies which were placed in her path.
“She kept a diary – and it was published by Aberdeen University Press after her death [in 1965] – and it shows you exactly how these women went from enjoying a life of privilege to dealing with death and working in malarial conditions on a daily basis.
“They were utterly unique in WW1. They were women who created a hospital without walls, they had to carry stretchers, drive ambulances, act as surgeons and do operations on the sick in basic tents, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. And they were stationed in Salonika, which was rife with spies, rather like Casablanca in the Second World War.”
The front line was a stark contrast from Miss Ross’s early life at Broadford Hotel on Skye. Her father was the man who transformed an arcane recipe into a malt whisky, whose name lives on today. It was Dram Buidhe: the golden drink. And it subsequently became Drambuie.
But there were no cocktails on the menu for Miss Ross while she was in Greece. As her journal recounted in October 1916, horror abounded.
“We had to push the ambulance through mud. There were many soldiers wounded. The funerals passed the kitchen on the way to a little graveyard on the hillside.
“So many of the dead were just boys.”
Another of her entries related the rigours of the work in their spartan camps. It read: “We have Russians, Serbians and Italians wounded, but only the very, very worst cases.
“They are taken up to us on the backs of mules, one slung on each side of the animal in strange-looking stretchers. All those that can be moved further are taken down in our ambulance to the various field hospitals, and our ambulances are busy from morning to night.
“There is a poor Russian boy with both hands off and he is nearly blind. It is awful to see his suffering. The Bulgars [Bulgarians] are lying about on the hillside unburied and I am going up to bury some of them tomorrow. But it’s snowing quite deep. And the cold is terrible.”
The Scottish and Australian nurses were called “little grey partridges” by the Greeks because of the hue of their uniforms.
But these women went boldly where no women had gone before.
The Birdcage by Clive Aslet is out now.
Posted on Almanac, 18th June by Neil