What did you do in the Great War, Grandma? Dr Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Zvezdana Popovic, our Senior Customer Services Assistant, has been hard at work researching for her contribution to the British Library Exhibition, What did you do in Serbia in WWI, Grandma? and the Coventry Peace Festival (taking place next week). Read on for an insight into her fascinating exploration of women in WWI…

During World War I hundreds of thousands of women participated on the home front supporting the men who had gone out to fight – either working as nurses, teachers, tram drivers, land workers or in the munitions factories. This is what we generally know about women’s role in the Great War. Images of these women can be found on propaganda posters, tales of their acts of heroism accounted in books available in libraries across the country and students at schools will learn these basic facts in their history lessons.

Thousands of women were recorded as being on the Western Front and Eastern Front as nurses, doctors, orderlies, drivers, cooks, administrators. So, what do we know about these women?

The Women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Over a thousand women served in the SWH during the Great War and, according to their records, half of the women were Scottish, the other half mainly English, some Irish and Welsh, and from all over the British Empire.

Reading their names, and their next of kin names and addresses, it is difficult not to feel sad, even bitterly disappointed that they are not commemorated anywhere. Miss FitzRoy lived at Lower Belgrave Street; Dr Potter, lived at Addison Road, Kensington, and Miss Rendall,  at Courtfield Rd, South Kensington. Miss Murphy, from Transport column lived at Onslow Gardens, and Miss Hodges, at Mornington Avenue, West Kensington, also from Transport Column, 28 women strong under Mrs Haverfield, Scottish baroness who founded the orphanage at Bajina Bašta and died there in 1920.

Dr Elsie Maude Inglis (1864-1917)

Elsie Inglis Edinburgh Library (2)
Elsie Inglis

Elsie Inglis was one of the first Scottish female doctors. A member of her London unit wrote:

There was a driving power in her fragile body which would have put a Rolls-Royce to shame, a genius for getting miracles to happen, and administrative gifts hardly distinguishable from statesmanship …

She established a maternity hospital in Edinburgh that was staffed entirely by women. She was also an active suffragist who advocated for women’s political freedom and played an important role in setting up the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Federation. Nevertheless, she did not agree with the suffragettes’ methods, that “women should throw tantrums to show how they deserve right to vote.”  (Margot Lawrence, Shadow of Swords, A Biography of Elsie Inglis, 1971, p.88)

However important, her medical achievements in Scotland were not the reasons that Elsie Inglis’s plaque was put up in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and in the hospital ‘Dragiša Mišović’ in Belgrade and on the Memorial fountain in Mladenovac; and that she was commemorated by Clydesdale Bank on a £50 heritage note in 2009; and that she was voted second in one hundred most famous Scots – ‘100 Edinburgh’s Greatest.

Her death in November 1917 caused national shock and grief. Her body lay in state in St Giles Cathedral. The Queen sent a message of condolence to her sister.  She was buried in Dean Cemetery, in Edinburgh. At her burial, the flags of Great Britain and Serbia were placed on her coffin, and the lilies of France were placed around her body. Historic Scottish banners were placed over her head. Her pallbearers were Serbian officers.

Her funeral was followed by a memorial service in Westminster where members of parliament, government ministers, British diplomats, heads of Red Cross and Army Medical Services, representatives of French, Italian and Russian embassies and Serbian, Belgian and Rumanian legations, lords, ladies, suffragists, army and navy officers and many others came to pay homage to this ‘truly glorious woman’.

Winston Churchill wrote, after her death, that Inglis and her doctors and nurses “would shine forever in history.”

At that time everyone involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals was certain that what Florence Nightingale previously achieved for nurses, Dr Elsie Inglis had now done for women in medicine.

When the First World War started, women doctors and nurses wanted to help. Dr Inglis was too late to join Louisa Garrett Anderson’s Women’s Hospital Corps as they already had enough volunteers and left for France.

Elsie Inglis now applied to the War Office and suggested that women’s medical units should be allowed to serve on the Western Front. She was rejected with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

This is exactly what Elsie Inglis did not do. The Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies took her idea,  agreed to form a hospitals committee, published a plea for funds and she was able to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (SWH).

Scottish Women's Hospital for Foreign Service

As her biographer, Leah Leneman, pointed out:

The War Office may have spurned the idea of all-women medical units, but other allies were desperate for help, and both the French and the Serbs accepted the offer. The first unit left for France in November 1914 and a second unit went to Serbia in January 1915. Inglis was torn between her desire to oversee the fund-raising and organizational side of the SWH and her desire to serve in the field, but in mid-April the chief medical officer of the first Serbian unit in Kragujevac, Dr Soltau, fell ill, and Inglis went out to replace her. During the summer she set up two further hospital units.

Late in 1915, during a major Austrian and German offensive, two of the hospital units in Kragujevac and Kruševac with Dr Inglis and Dr Hutchinson and their staff, were captured as they refused to leave wounded Serbian soldiers. Eventually, with the help of American diplomats, British authorities were able to negotiate the release of Inglis and her medical staff. The women of Scottish Women’s Hospitals were the most famous prisoners of war at that time.

Elsie Inglis’ last post was in the Dobrudja (Rumania, that time Russia) with the Serbian Division (SerbianVolunteer Corps) until October 1917. The London Committee did not know that Elsie Inglis was gravely ill. The situation in Russia was very difficult and the future of the Serbian division very unsecure. With her last efforts Dr Inglis did everything to influence and secure their movement from Russia to Macedonia towards the Salonika front. Elsie Inglis’ biographer believes that she was responsible for saving the Serb Division.

It took her unit three weeks to reach Newcastle. On 25th November 1917 Dr Ingles dictated the last letter to the London Committee and stood nearly 20 minutes while the entire Serbian staff and her SWH staff said goodbye. Elsie Inglis died the next day.

As Leah Leneman wrote, Elsie Inglis captured the public’s imagination. She was a heroine of a very British kind, her virtues of those of devotion to duty, and a keen sense of responsibility. She had endured hardship and deprivation in pursuit of her mission to aid sick and wounded – most notably the Serbs, who had been so badly let down by their allies – and she sacrificed her life in doing so. She was pragmatic, with a real can-do attitude.

Above all, Elsie Inglis had received no recognition, but considerable obstruction, from her own government.

It is hard to believe that today almost nobody knows the name of Dr Ingles.

To better understand women’s roles in the Great War, I particularly recommend two books: Lucinda Hawksley’s  March, Women, March and Kate Adie’s Fighting on the Home Front. The Legacy of Women in World War One to start with.