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14 February 2016

Serbia celebrates British heroines of the First World War

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The British Library has gratefully received a donation of a set of postage stamps which commemorate the role played by British female doctors, nurses and humanitarian aid volunteers in Serbia during the First World War.

British Heroines in WW1 Serbia
The Serbian Mail  issued the commemorative stamps last December in partnership with the British Embassy in Belgrade which donated a set to the British Library. BBC Scotland recently reported on this initiative, while the British Embassy in Belgrade dedicated a Facebook page  to the commemoration of the First World War events in Serbia.

British Heroines in WW1 Serbia_2
 The stamps tell the story of the British women who arrived to Serbia to assist the wounded and sick in war. They came individually or as part of two organisations which were set up in Britain at the beginning of the war to assist the allied countries in wartime. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals was founded by the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies in Edinburgh through the efforts of Elsie Inglis, and the Serbian Relief Fund was founded in London by the journalist Bertram Christian, among other British experts on the Balkans.

 British Heroines in WW1 Serbia_4Stamps showing Flora Sandes (left) and Katherine MacPhail (right). Sandes (1876-1956) was officially recruited to the Serbian Army in 1915 and promoted to Sergeant in 1916. She was the only British woman in active military service in the First World War and the only female officer in the Serbian Army. MacPhail (1997-1974) worked at the Military Hospital in Belgrade during the First World War. After the war she remained in Serbia where she founded the country’s first children’s hospital in 1921.

The collection of postage stamps is accompanied by biographical details of six British women, four of whom were members of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, a voluntary organisation staffed entirely by women. The portraits of the women, together with the images, present instances of their work in Serbia and on the Salonika front.

British Heroines in WW1 Serbia_6
Stamps showing Isabel Hutton (left) and Elsie Inglis (right). Hutton (1887-1960) worked on the Salonika Front, transferring to Vranje in 1918 where she treated victims of the typhus and Spanish flu epidemics and, in 1919, helped to found a civilian hospital. Inglis (1860-1917) was the founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals and established the first war hospital in Serbia. She refused to leave the hospital when the Serbian Army was forced to retreat, and was imprisoned and later repatriated.

The Serbian Mail issued the commemorative postage stamps in Serbian Cyrillic and Latin scripts in parallel English translation with captions in German and French.

The Serbian army and civilians suffered terribly from the war, cold, hunger and infectious diseases. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the Serbian Relief Fund medical units were among the first to arrive to Serbia to attend and nurse the sick and wounded. They also, together with their Serbian colleagues, doctors and hospital orderlies, gave their lives in the service of others and were among the early victims of war and disease in Serbia.

British Heroines in WW1 Serbia_8
Stamps showing Evelina Haverfield (left) and Elizabeth Ross (right). Haverfield (1867-1920) came to Serbia in 1915. Like Elsie Inglis, she was imprisoned and repatriated after the retreat of the Serbian Army but continued to work organising the Serbian Relief fund and later helped to establish soup kitchens on the Salonika Front. After the war she opened a home for war orphans in Bajina Bašta. (On Elizabeth Ross, see below.)

Elizabeth Ross, who came to Serbia from Persia where she had been working as a doctor, died in the Serbian typhus epidemic of February 1915. Dimitrije Antić, the director of the hospital where Dr Ross worked, left this account of her:

It is my duty, and the place is right, to mention with great respect the name of a foreign colleague from Scotland, Miss Elizabeth Ross, who came to help as a volunteer in the most difficult moments for my hospital. She tirelessly treated soldiers sick with typhus, fearless for her life, day and night. Everyone around her was falling down with typhus; she saw that very well and she was aware that the same destiny awaited her; but, despite my appeals and warnings to look after herself, she heroically performed her grave and noble duty till the end. Unfortunately, the inevitable came quickly: Miss Ross contracted typhus. She was even more courageous in sickness: severely ill, she lay quietly in her bed in a very modest hospital ward. Her only complaint was that she couldn’t provide medical assistance any longer to our sick soldiers! Indeed, one of the rare shining examples of medical sacrifice. She is buried in Kragujevac town cemetery.

Upon hearing the news of her death in Serbia, the residents of her home town of Tain in Scotland raised funds for the memorial ‘Dr Elizabeth Ross Bed’ at the Kragujevac Military Hospital where she served, and for surgical and medical needs in Serbia. The Serbian daily Samouprava informed its readers how Dr Ross managed six wards in the hospital without nurses, relying solely on the help of hospital orderlies. “There was no wood for cooking or for heating, something was always missing; one day there was no bread,another there were no eggs or milk and so on.” On the day of her funeral service all local stores were closed and large numbers of the people of Kragujevac came out to pay their respects.

The tradition of respect has been kept alive to the present day. Each year on 14 February at noon Kragujevac remembers Dr Elizabeth Ross.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South Eastern European Collections

References/further reading:

A History of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. Edited by Eva Shaw McLaren. (London, 1919). 9082.bbb.32.

Elisabeth Macbean Ross, A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiari Land. Edited by Janet N. MacBean Ross. (London, 1921). 010076.de.28

D. Antić, ‘Pegavi tifus u kragujevačkoj i rezervnoj vojnoj bolnici 1914-15’. In Vladimir Stanojević, ed., Istorija srpskog vojnog saniteta (Belgrade, 1925). YF.2011.a.22007.

Želimir Dj. Mikić, Ever yours sincerely: the life and work of Dr Katherine S. MacPhail. (Cambridge, 2007). YK.2008.b.4740. Serbian original: Uvek vaša: život i delo dr Ketrin Makfejl. (Novi Sad, 1998). YF.2015.a.24057.

Louise Miller, A fine brother: the life of Captain Flora Sandes. (Richmond, 2012). YC.2013.a.2462.

Ž. Mikić, A. Lešić, ‘Dr Elizabeta Ros – heroina i žrtva Prvog svetskog rata u Srbiji’. Srpski arhiv za celokupno lekarstvo, 2012, vol. 140, 7/8, pp. 537-542. Available via SCIndeks