Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

19 August 2014

Mabel Dearmer in Serbia

Amid the more famous items in Enduring war such as Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement nestles a letter from Mabel Dearmer dated March 1915 (Society of Authors Collection, Add MS 56690, f.151) which refers to the fact that both she and her husband were imminently going to Serbia to work for the field hospitals there. How did this children’s writer and artist come to serve as a linen orderly in Serbia for a unit of women doctors and nurses led by another Mabel - Mrs Stobart? 

   Child playing with a hoopFrom: Round-about Rhymes. Written and pictured by Mrs. Percy Dearmer. London: Blackie & Son, [1898]. (B.L. shelfmark: 12809.u.27.). Dedicated to Geoffrey and Christopher.  Noc

Mabel Dearmer, born in 1872, was primarily known as a dramatist, writer and artist. She was opposed to the war on the basis of her Christian faith but threw herself into work with the Women’s Emergency Corps, as Chairman of the Publicity Department, and into fundraising for Belgian refugees. Her younger son Christopher enlisted soon after the outbreak of war followed by his elder brother Geoffrey (subsequently renowned for his war poetry). In March 1915, busy organising the production of one of her own plays, she attended a farewell service for the Third Serbian Relief Unit to support a friend. There she heard her husband, Percy, then vicar of St. Mary’s Primrose Hill, announce that he had just been appointed Chaplain to the British units in Serbia and would soon be departing there. 

Mabel made the sudden and dramatic decision to volunteer to join the Third Serbian Relief Unit and approached Mrs Stobart at the end of the service. Although Mabel’s own account, quoted in Letters from a field hospital and Mrs Stobart’s in The Flaming sword in Serbia differ in a few details, both agree that Mrs Stobart was not gripped with instant enthusiasm for the idea and made a few brisk observations about Mabel’s suitability. However, she agreed to take her as a hospital orderly.

Mabel left for Serbia in early April, appointed orderly in charge of linen. She proved an efficient and effective member of Mrs Stobart’s team in Serbia and describes her happiness there (slightly guiltily) in a letter of 16 May. However, by June 1915 she had fallen ill with enteric fever (typhoid). Although she subsequently appeared to rally, another letter in the Society of Authors Collection, dated 23 July, tells of the sad conclusion to this story, namely that Mabel died in Serbia on 11 July 1915 (Add MS 56690, f.153). Poignantly her son Christopher died at Suvla Bay (Gallipoli) only a few months later in October 1915.

Alison Bailey
Co-Curator, Enduring war

Further reading:
Mabel Dearmer, Letters from a field hospital. With a memoir of the author by Stephen Gwynn. London: Macmillan and Co., 1915. British Library shelfmark: 9082.gg.34.
Mabel Annie Saint Clair Stobart, The Flaming Sword in Serbia and elsewhere. London; New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916. B.L. shelfmark: 09082.cc.12.

Enduring war: Grief, grit and humour until 12 October 2014
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