Alan Cumming, the inspirational Scotsman who has fought to keep alive the memory of the women doctors and nurses who served on the front line in WW1 Serbia, is interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland’s programme World War One at Home last week.
Alan spoke on radio about Dr Elsie Inglis, who in 1914 founded of the Women’s Hospitals for Home and Foreign Service. The programme starts out at the Elsie’s final resting place at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. Alan explains when he first came to see the headstone it was covered in algae and, much like Elsie’s memory at home, sadly neglected.
Elsie went to the War Office to offer her medical skills for the war effort in Serbia. She was famously told ‘My good lady, go home and sit still’. Alan says, ‘Elsie would have none of this’. Torn between raising funds and active service, Elsie organised legions of women who came forward to volunteer in WW1 Serbia, a nation on its knees, with the first unit leaving in December 1914 in Kragujevac. Elsie would join them when the active doctor became sick and worked tirelessly.
Alan explains that amid the horrors of war there was even time for fun and even a little romance with the Serbian soldiers they loved. Heroine Elsie was far too focused to approve. With the forced retreat of the Serbian nation in the winter of 1915, Elsie refused to leave her hospital and became a headache to the Germans who eventually sent back home.
Elsie would not settle and went back to help Serbs fighting on the Russian front. When ordered back home she refused to go unless Serbs would be guaranteed safe passage. She saved them from certain death. Alan shared this story about the heroine, when close to death:
The unit had very little to eat at that time. And one day they gave her some chicken, in amongst the soup. She asked, has everyone else eaten chicken today. And they said no. And she said, take it away, I don’t want it. And this was a woman who was more or less dying at that time.
On Elsie’s death, the response was huge and the streets of Edinburgh were lined with people. While there was no Victoria Cross for her at home, in Serbia she was the only woman to receive the Order of the White Eagle and is remembered by the nation every year in a ceremony at the memorial fountain built in her honour. As Alan spells out, “this is a ceremony which gets bigger and bigger each year. We were able to get the headstone cleaned up and I want to make sure we feel the same way about Elsie as the Serbs feel about her.”
Click on the link below to listen to the clip which says so much in 7 minutes: