I visited Dr Sybil Lonie Lewis memorial in Old St Paul’s church in Edinburgh a few years ago. Recently i was reminded of her story.
DR. SYBIL LONIE LEWIS, who died at Hull on March 1918 after a short illness, was born in 1874. She studied medicine in Edinburgh and Dublin, having previously been trained in nursing and midwifery, and obtained the TJ.R.C.P., L.R.C.S., and L.R.F.P.S. diplomas in 1905. After serving as assistant resident medical officer at the Larbert Asylum she began a practice in Hull, and held the appointment of school medical officer and the honorary medical officer ship of the Diocesan Maternity Home, the Hull Sheltering Home for Girls, and the West Hull,creche. In the spring of 1915 Dr. Lewis volunteered for work in Valjevo, Serbia. She served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She was in Serbia when the country was overrun by the enemy and the hospital staff taken- prisoners in 1915. Although a Red Cross party, they were detained in Hungary for four months, under the roughest conditions, and were not released and sent home until February, 1916. Dir. Lewis went out again in August, 1916; and worked with the Serbian army in Macedonia and among the civilian refugees till December, 1917, when she was- recalled by urgent need at home.. She received the Serbian, decoration, of the Order of St. Sava. Fourth Class, in recognition: of’ her devoted work among the Serbs. Her illness lasted only three days, but, in the opinion of the surgeon attending her, the conditions causing it were contracted abroad, and her name must be added. to the growing list of medical women who have given their lives for Serbia.
“In this spot are immured the ashes of Dr Sybil Lonie Lewis a faithful and loving member of this congregation of Christ’s church who died March 10th 1918 after working in Serbia on the start of the Scottish Women’s Hospital 1915,6,7 and of the Serbian Relief Fund 1917. Her experiences in the campaign and as a prisoner of war so undermined her health that she died shortly after her return home. In recognition of her services, HM the King of Serbia conferred on her the order of Saint Sava. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Off at 0845 to the town hall for the welcome ceremony. Speeches, the exchange of presents including the Quaich, playing of the pipes and TV interviews. Following this we moved into an adjacent theatre where we watched a remarkable film, in English, about Dr Vukovitch – the Serbian historian who first publicised the work of the SWH in Serbia. He had realised that the WW1 history covered only battles and defeats and on searching the archives had learned about the support which Serbia had received from other countries and in particular Scotland. The film covers this extremely well and we should obtain a copy to show in the UK. His wife and son were present at the film showing (Vukovitch himself died in 2009) and it was an honour to meet them, and to see
his wife Verica’s fine collection of photographs (including several of Amy Maddox and sister Eva during their 1985 visit) which she showed us over lunch.
On to the hospital where there is a memorial to Elsie and there was a big ceremony with music – a choir of children, brass band, pipes and wreath laying and speeches, then TV interviews.
Finished at 1200 and on to the medical high school, where children destined for a health career (mainly nursing and also medical technicians) study from age 14 on. The school, said to be one of the best in Serbia (it is normal to enter a specialist high school at this age) is named after Isobel Emslie Hutton, another SWH member. After a welcome speech from the Principal, we laid wreaths and planted a tree and then were shown round the school, very interesting. Finished at 1.30pm.
Back to our hotel on the hill for lunch and to meet Robin and John who had taken a rest during the morning. Beautiful views over the valley and over Vranje to the mountains beyond. I was fortunate to meet the President of the Assembly, the local minister of Education and the High school principal, and also Vera Vukovitch who is an engaging and feisty lady. Final departure soon after 4pm, for Nis.
On the way to the hill we stopped at a little club building for a welcome ceremony where I presented the final Quaich and we were serenaded at last with ..Serbian bagpipes! I followed the lad with my own pipes then we exchanged instruments and he played much better on mine than I on his!
Finally on to our hotel in the centre of Nis for a meal and exchange of presents with Velibor, Mira, Bob and tributes to Vlada, Graham and Alan on our last evening together. After the meal Velibor took us in taxis to a restaurant for a musical evening with a group of his friends from a Nis orchestra – clarinet, double bass, accordion and guitar who played a lovely selection of Serbian music followed by jazz and Scottish tunes – a really delightful end to our time together
though we still had a morning of ceremonies in Nis on the final day of our amazing escapade.
Thursday 21st September
A large industrial and university town, the third biggest city in Serbia. The location of the Commonwealth Great War cemetery where some of the SWH staff are buried.
From our central hotel we walked to Army HQ for a remarkable visit, conducted by the General commanding the army in Serbia. He showed us the lists of those who had died for Serbia, including members of SWH, in particular Isobel Hutton and Flora Sandes. He spoke out strongly against ‘NATO agression’ during the Balkan wars, and showed us the special chapel next to the names of the war dead. Rather a disturbing experience. Then I played the pipes, perhaps the first time they have been heard in army HQ?
Next to the town hall for a welcome by the Mayor and speeches including Jim and Marsali. Further media interviews and then a visit to a school for orphan children set up after WW1 by an English lady which now houses 96 children from poor families who attend local high schools and receive extra tuition in the home.
Next to a site (Cegar Hill) of a battle between Serbs and Turks in 1809, marked by a tower. This was becoming rather militaristic so many of us decided to miss out on the further visit to the ‘Tower of Skulls’ marking an atrocity of Turks on Serbs.
Finally a moving visit to the Commonwealth war graves to pay our respects to the SWH nurses.
Back to our hotel for the last lunch together and moving farewells… then to the bus for the journey north to Belgrade and the end of our great escapade.
This was such a memorable, emotional and historic week that we will never forget and we mean to keep in touch with our wonderful Serbian hosts as well as our Scottish champions of the SWH.
And our great thanks in particular to –
Velibor, the leader of the visit in Serbia and SWH historian
Slavica and Bob Filipovic, scholars of Elsie
Vlada Jovanovic, our inestimable and inimitable interpreter
Graham our faithful and patient photographer
Alan, our ever-present guide, oracle and networker with the Serbian people.