Borders women serve in WWI

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Borders women who nursed casualties in Serbia during the Great War have been honoured on a special website and by in a major television documentary.

This week a joint STV and BBC documentary was broadcast marking the contribution of Scottish women to the First World War effort.

The Women Who Went to War – A Great Adventure reveals the story of the ladies of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) who travelled 2,000 miles to Serbia in Eastern Europe to deliver medical assistance.

The SWH was the idea of Dr Elsie Inglis, one of Scotland’s first female surgeons and a prominent suffragette.

The programme draws on the work of former Selkirk High School pupil Alan Cumming, who now lives in Paisley and who has set up a website about the hospitals in an effort to pay tribute to the women involved.

Although familiar with the name of Elsie Inglis, Alan was unaware of the extent to which Scottish women had been involved until he visited the Serbian capital of Belgrade for a football match some eight years ago.

Sister in veil assisted  by Blue Cap orderly doing  dressings, in the field hospital at Royaumont Abbey in France, during the First World War .''The hospital was set up by Elsie Inglis.

Sister in veil assisted by Blue Cap orderly doing dressings, in the field hospital at Royaumont Abbey in France, during the First World War .''The hospital was set up by Elsie Inglis.

“Many people were familiar with the name of Elsie Inglis because of her link to the hospital in Edinburgh, but few knew what she actually did during the war,” Alan explained.

In fact, in Serbia, such is the gratitude for what these women did that to this day, they are known as the Mothers of the Nation and are revered in cities throughout the country.

Alan picks up the story: “With that being the case, I couldn’t understand why so little was known of their story back home in Scotland. I felt that with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war looming, something should be done to honour the memory of these brave women.”

When war broke out in August 1914, people were desperate to support the war effort. The SWH was part of this movement, but also very different.

Edinburgh born suffragette and doctor Elsie Maud Inglis, ran a field hospital at Royaumont Abbey in France during the First World War.

Edinburgh born suffragette and doctor Elsie Maud Inglis, ran a field hospital at Royaumont Abbey in France during the First World War.

From the beginning its aim was two-fold; firstly, to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and, secondly – just as importantly – to promote the cause of women’s rights and, by involvement in the war, help win those rights.

Elsie Inglis had met with the War Office to offer the hospital to the British Army but was told that she and her nurses were not needed.

Britain’s allies eagerly accepted – first the French and the Belgians, and quickly afterwards by the Serbians.

Although the SWH operated units in France, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica, Romania and Russia, the majority of its work was helping Serbia.

Pic Greg Macvean - 19/12/2013 - Elsie Inglis headstone in Dean Cemetery after Scotmid Co-Op Funeral Directors arranged for it to be cleaned and have the lettering re-painted is it was hard to read - Pictured is James Blackburn (Head of Funerals at Scotmid Co-Op Funerals, in morning suit) and Alan Cumming (from The Scottish Womens Hospitals World War One Remembrance, leather jacket, bald head)

Pic Greg Macvean - 19/12/2013 - Elsie Inglis headstone in Dean Cemetery after Scotmid Co-Op Funeral Directors arranged for it to be cleaned and have the lettering re-painted is it was hard to read - Pictured is James Blackburn (Head of Funerals at Scotmid Co-Op Funerals, in morning suit) and Alan Cumming (from The Scottish Womens Hospitals World War One Remembrance, leather jacket, bald head)

Alan says he now hopes to uncover more of the personal stories of Borders women involved.

So far, his enquiries have uncovered the involvement of women from Peebles, Innerleithen and Walkerburn, and there are hopes that, if enough information can be gathered together, an exhibition can be held next year.

Information is
currently sought on:

z Elizabeth College, of Sandridge Farm, Innerleithen, who served as an orderly at Royaumont Abbey near Paris from September 1918-December 1918.

z Jessie Margaret Gerrard, of Stoneyhill, Walkerburn, who served as an orderly with the Girton and Newnham unit in Salonika and Belgrade, from August 1918-August 1919. In November 1919 she left for India, where it is believed she visited her aunt.

z Nettie Jean Smith, of Carnethy, Peebles, who served as a nurse at Salonika with the Girton and Newnham unit between July 1916 and December 1916.

z Madge Ramsay Smith, of Peebles, who served as secretary and administrator at Royaumont Abbey from May 1916- March 1919. Much of Madge’s story can be read in Antonio de Navarro’s book, The SWH at the French Abbey of Royaumont. The Mitchell Library also has a fair amount of information.

z Agneta Beauchamp, from Dawyck Estate, worked as a commissioner with the SWH. While in Salonika she joined the Red Cross. Later on, she went to work in Constantinople. She was awarded the OBE and the Croix de Guerre.