Katherine Harley was born Katherine Mary French in Kent on 3rd May 1855, one of five children of an aristocratic, wealthy and well connected family (she was the sister of Field Marshall John French who was commander of British forces in France until December 1916. One of her sisters, Charlotte Despard, became famous as a feminist, pacifist, socialist, vegetarian and leader of the Women’s Freedom League. Katherine’s father had died when she was only ten years old and her mother had been admitted to an asylum. Her husband, George Ernest Harley, an army officer, was killed in the Boer War.
She became active in the Suffragette movement and held office in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Like many of the women who volunteered for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals she was clearly very committed to the cause of women’s suffrage and, like many, was a strong character, something that could make her a difficult person to get on with and led to differences of opinion and clashes with other volunteers during her time with SWH.
She first served as Administrator of the SWH hospital at Royaumont, France, in 1915. She wanted to institute changes to the way it was run and clashed with the matron, Miss Tod who she rightly considered to be out of her depth, and with Dr. Ivens, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) over who was in charge, the Administrator or the CMO[. She left to become Administrator of the newly established Girton & Newnham Unit in Troyes in May 1915. She was enthusiastic about her work but was considered to be something of a law unto herself. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for her service to France. In late 1915 she went with the Girton & Newnham Unit to Macedonia and helped establish a hospital in a disused tobacco warehouse in the Macedonian border town of Guevgheli (now called Gevgelia). Within a remarkably short period of time the building had been scrubbed and cleaned and was functioning as a hospital. It was not functioning for long however as the rapid Bulgarian advance soon forced a move to Salonica (now called Thessaloniki) in Greece during the general retreat of the Serbian army and the arrival in the theatre of British and French troops in the winter of 1915/1916. Despite her hard work and enthusiasm Katherine had, by early 1916, clashed with Dr. Louise McIlroy, the CMO, over who was in charge. The problem was solved by Katherine’s decision to resign and she returned to the UK She was soon back in Macedonia however having persuaded the Committee of the SWH to establish an independent motorised ambulance unit, The Transport Column, with her in command. The role of the unit was to operate near the front line to collect Serbian casualties and bring them to the SWH hospitals for treatment. One of her most famous patients during this time was Flora Sandes, a British woman who had enlisted as a soldier in the Serbian army after having gone to Serbia as a medical auxiliary with one of the first foreign medical units right at the start of the conflict in 1914. She was severely wounded by a Bulgarian grenade in fighting near Hill 1212 in November 1916 and Katherine took personal charge of her evacuation to hospital. There was severe fighting around this time in the Moglena Mountain range and the Transport Column did sterling work evacuating the wounded and working non-stop to keep their vehicles roadworthy in often primitive conditions. Despite their good work the Transport Column did attract adverse comment. They were enthusiastic about their work but this often went beyond enthusiasm to willfulness and even insubordination (more than once they defied Katherine Harley and operated at night and close to the battlefield despite explicit orders not to). Katherine was criticised for exercising poor control of the unit and for failing to enforce discipline. The unit was noted for its drinking, public smoking (some even took to smoking cigars), late nights and short hair cuts] – all of which attracted adverse comment and gossip. An enquiry team sent out by the SWH Committee in the UK to look into the Girton & Newnham Unit also chose to follow up on a disquieting reports about the lack of discipline and loose behavior of the members of the Transport Column. The Committee didn’t like what they saw and attempted to encourage Katherine to resign. In December 1916, after an acrimonious exchange of letters she agreed to go. With her daughters she went to the recently liberated front line town of Monastir (now Bitola) and acting quite independently did what she could to provide assistance to the inhabitants of the town who were suffering terribly from disease, illness and the ravages of war. Despite its proximity to the battlefield and daily shelling by the Bulgarians, she rented a house in the town and chose to live there to be as close as possible to those who needed help. On 7th March 1917 while sitting at the window of the house taking tea with her daughters she was killed by Bulgarian shellfire. Her death came as a shock to all who knew her and her funeral in Salonica was attended by Prince George of Serbia, General Milne, the commander of the British forces, and many other dignitaries accompanied by contingents of troops and military bands. She is buried in the British part of the Lembet Road Military Cemetery in Thessaliniki, Greece where her grave stands out among the simple military headstones that surround it as it is highly ornate. It is inscribed in both Serbian and English to The generous English lady and great benefactress of the Serbian people, Madame Harlay (sic), a great lady, with the following epitaph: On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there. For your wonderful acts your name shall be known from generation to generation.
Article taking from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals A-Z