Exhbition tells of one woman’s Great War experiences

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The discovery of some First World War medals led staff of Hawick Museum, to uncover the remarkable story of local woman Mary Lee Milne.

Museum staff were researching their contribution to the National Museum of Scotland’s World War I touring exhibition, ‘Next of Kin’ - currently in Hawick Museum - when they came across the small group of First World War medals which included a Scottish Women’s Hospital Lapel Badge.

The 1978 museum catalogue revealed that along with these medals, there was also a collection of glass plate photographic slides and a certificate awarded by the Serbian Government.

They had all belonged to Mary Lee Milne from Hobsburn, at Bonchester Bridge, and research would reveal the remarkable life and valiant service of one courageous woman during the Great War.

In August 1916, Mary, then aged 43, a recently widowed Church of Scotland minister’s wife, left her home in Selkirk and sailed from Liverpool on board the Huntspill, bound for Southern Russia with the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH).

She is listed as the unit’s head cook and travelled with 75 women led by the famous Dr Elsie Inglis.

Through their research, museum staff discovered that for the next two years, Mary would serve as a cook and housekeeper with the SWH in Russia, Romania and France.

She worked closely with the charismatic SWH founder, Dr Inglis and was one of only six women who stayed with Dr Inglis for the entirety of her final 15-month tour of duty.

Mary had smuggled a camera on her trip and took photographs of her surroundings, the local people and her colleagues at work and at play.

It was also discovered she had written a set of journals, now kept by the National Library of Scotland. Her journals, along with her slides some of which must have been taken at great personal risk, give a graphic insight into the sacrificial work of the SWH with the Serbian nation in Romania and Russia.

Reading her journals, parts of which were published in 1918 Blackwood’s Magazine, it is evident she was a gifted and descriptive writer.

After a stormy passage the women arrived at Archangel on September 10, 1916 and arrived at Medjidia in the Dobruja region of Romania on September 30 where they established a field hospital.

On October 26, Mary witnessed the entire terrified population of the Dobruja region in flight from the approaching enemy. At one point she writes: “I cannot bear to think of the things I saw. The retreating army was ruthless dashing through the terrified mob; the heart-broken screams of women, who saw their children being knocked down and we were powerless to help them!”

In April, 1917, the editor of The Southern Reporter published extracts from a letter received from Mary in Reni, Russia, recalling her experiences: “Prince Dolgourokoff and a lot of generals came to inspect our hospital, and the Prince presented us with our medal - St George’s Medal, 4th class - to those of us who had been under fire in the Dobruja retreat.”

Her medal, which is on display, may be one of the last to be presented as it was replaced shortly after the Russian Revolution that had began a few days previously.

Of the hospital she recalled: “I was only the cook. I never visited the wards. I could not bear it. To be unable to speak to the poor suffering creatures was so terrible, and just to look at them as a spectacle was adding insult to injury.”

Due to rapidly deteriorating conditions, Mary and her colleagues left Odessa in October, 1917, and returned home, disembarking in Newcastle, on November 27, 1917. Sadly Dr Inglis died the following day.

On returning to the Borders, Mary gave a lecture in February, 1918, in Selkirk’s Victoria Hall, on her experiences.

From November 1918, to May 1919, she served with the SWH Elsie Inglis Memorial Sanatorium, for Serbs, in Sallanches, France, and in April 1925, she was honoured by the Serbian Government with the Serbian Cross of Mercy.

In 1923 she, along with her brother William Bowden who was Acting Governor in Sierra Leone, moved to ‘Greenriver’, Bonchester; later renamed ‘Hobsburn’.

In her final paragraph in Blackwood’s Magazine, Mary said of Dr Inglis: “I am proud to be one of the few who was with her from the beginning to the end of her last undertaking. I am proud to have won her approval, but most proud of all to have worked under one whose name will go down to prosperity as one of the Big Women of the Age.”

Mary died in August, 1948, aged 75 and was laid to rest in Hobkirk Churchyard. Her obituary in the Hawick News records: “…she was woman of great individuality and force of character...”

l Next of Kin is currently on display in Hawick Museum’s Waterfall Gallery and War Memorial Room until December 21.