One of the main objectives and targets this year was to visit Serbia. The events that took place in Serbia are some of the most powerful, devastating and heroic. Over 600 Scottish Women’s Hospital members served in Serbia during WW1 as Doctors, nurses, orderlies, cooks etc. Some ended up as prisoners of war, others had to leave on foot, joining The Great Serbian Retreat and many endured physical and mental hardships that cost them their lives. Others didn’t return, instead electing themselves to continue providing medical support to their adopted nation.
The hospitals were stationed in four primary towns and cities, Kragujevac, Mladenovac, Valjevo and Lazarevac all these towns are synonymous with the catastrophic events that took place during 1914-1915.
The aims of this particular trip was to research and explore the where various hospital locations were, to introduce our project to the many interested institutions and to learn from the local people the impact the hospitals and women had in helping to save lives. As I found out when Serbia remembers WW1, it remembers the work of these incredible women.
Last year I was fortunate to receive funding from the Heritage Lottery that has enabled me to research and highlight these forgotten women. I was even more amazed when I was invited by MacTV to tell my story as part of a documentary that will be screened this November on BBC and STV. So the opportunity to travel to Serbia, visit the various hospital locations, museums and monuments and have my 15 minutes of fame was too big a draw to turn away. On the 3 of April this year, despite my nerves and lack of any sort of TV experience I was on a flight to Belgrade.
Walking through the airport at Belgrade and having a TV crew following me was surreal but after we all got acquainted things settled down. Also joining us on this adventure was my great friend Vladimir from Belgrade.With time being an issue we headed straight for Mladenovac where I was greeted by Nenad and Vera Vukovic, Vera’s late husband Dr Zarko Vukovic had dedicated much of his time restoring and building up huge local interest in the fountain at Mladenovac. The fountain was built by Serbs during WW1 to commemorate Elsie Inglis and the other members of the Scottish Womens Hospitals. Nenad and Vera provided me with an immense amount of detail with regards to the fountain, the hospital unit and battlefields close to Mladenovac. Astonishing to think there is still a ceremony every year at the fountain to remember Elsie Inglis and her band of Angel’s .Nenad and Vera were excellent hosts and we ended a perfect day in a local restaurant with splendid food a few cold beers and much to talk about. At night we returned to our hotel in Belgrade.
Next day was a trip to the picturesque town of Valjevo, nestling between the rolling green hills; Valjevo was easily a town I could have spent a few days in. On arrival we were met by Velibor Vidic at the typhus cemetery, Velibor was clearly the man to talk to with regards WW1, his enthusiasm and knowledge was inspiring and clearly he was very emotional on the subject of the Scottish nurses coming to Serbia. The typhus graves at Valjevo were a reminder of the huge sacrifice the people had made during WW1. I enjoyed the visit and felt I had been well educated on the subject. We also had Serbia TV covering our story and I did an interview with them on what we are trying to achieve. They were very enthusiastic.
Later that day we were shown around the National Museum Of Valjevo by Dragana Lazarevic (museum expert) and Professor Vladimir Krivosejev(director). A worthwhile visit as we both shared information on the work and location of the hospitals during 1915. I had documents and personal files for them to keep at the museum and they plan to have them on display in the near future. The hospital had been under canvas on a hillside just outside the town which they pointed out to me. We agreed to work together over the next few years with regards to developing an exhibition at the museum, something I am looking forward to.. To my surprise the museum awarded me with a diploma!! And not for the first or last time Rakija made an appearance, a custom that I am all in favour of.
One of the highlights for me was our next visit to Ravna Gora. Beautiful scenery and quaint homes and villages. Many of the women either became prisoners of war or ended up going on the Serbian Retreat after the German occupation in November 1915, this epic trail was carried out in winter mainly on foot, walking hundreds of miles with little to no food and for most all hope. Serbia paid a huge price in those mountains as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and hearts were broken. I was keen to walk and film all be it a tiny part of one of the roads used. A truly unforgettable moment in my life and it was impossible not to be moved.
It would be unforgivable to attempt to tell this story and not visit Kragujevac, it was here the SWH had their largest surgical and typhus wards and faced their biggest challenges. We were joined by Predrag Ilic of the archive department who showed us around and explained that during ww1 Kragujevac had been turned at one point into one large hospital with every available building used as a ward of some kind, thousands had been killed or wounded in the fighting and thousands more died from the deadly typhus. Also a number of SWH and other women Doctors and nurses had succumbed to the disease and there was in the morning an opportunity to visit some of the graves. Thankfully women like Dr Elizabeth Ross from Tain are still remembered in Kragujevac every year.
On the last day of my journey we went down to Nis, Nis I found to be an interesting and vibrant city, certainly very smart, I liked it a lot. Many of the SWH members that died in Valjevo, Vranje and Kragujevac are buried at the Chela Kula Cemetery. I wanted to pay my respects and reflect on this astonishing story. Bojana Vujanac was my guide, her aunt is currently writing a book on the SWH, and in a small way I am helping her in her research. We spent the afternoon at the cemetery discussing their own individual personal experiences of their time in Serbia during the war. There also may be the opportunity to work with the University of Nis as they have plans to introduce Scottish studies into a course sometime soon.
I really hope when the documentary is shown later this year I will have done the story justice. But what an opportunity to get this story out to a large, wider audience Hopefully people will begin to understand the deep friendship that exists between our nations through the many heart-warming accounts of women like Elsie Inglis. The trip was a complete success, our project gained many contacts and there is now a huge amount of work to be done. We completed our own overseas filming that will be used as part of our presentation for schools, museums, community groups etc.