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DR. ELSIE INGLIS – THE SERBIAN MOTHER FROM SCOTLAND

Amateur historian and landscape gardener Alan Cumming has been researching the story of Elsie and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for four years.  While attending a football match in Serbia where Elsie spent most of her war years and is affectionately known as the ‘Serbian mother from Scotland’, he saw a commemorative plaque and wanted to know more. Here, he shares some of his knowledge to tell Elsie’s remarkable story. 

Elsie Maud Inglis was born on the 16th of August, 1864.  Her father John Forbes David Inglis was employed by the East India Company as a magistrate and rose to be Commissioner of the Rohilcund.

Dr Elsie Inglis © IWM (Q 68949A)
Dr Elsie Inglis © IWM (Q 68949A)

Under the guidance of loving and enlightened parents Elsie thrived as a child. She quickly developed a strong moral compass and a desire to make her own way in life.  She had a strong bond with her father and from a young age the two of them were inseparable.

Elsie, displayed an early keen interest in medicine, when one day while playing she decided that all her dolls were infected by the measles.   She illustrated her point by covering the dolls in spots using her crayons. Of course, by the end of the voyage all the dolls had made a full recovery.  In 1878 the family moved to Edinburgh.

The name, Dr Elsie Inglis, will mean different things to different people.

She enrolled at Dr Jex-Blakes Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women at a time when women were actively discouraged from studying medicine, however, after a dispute, Elsie, with the support of her father, formed a breakaway college.

Elsie Inglis Triple Qualification, a medical qualification at the time
Elsie Inglis’ Triple Qualification certificate on loan to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on behalf of Elsie’s relations

After qualifying as a Doctor she carved out a remarkable career in Edinburgh, electing to work among the poor and developing facilities for mothers and babies within the city. This was pioneering work and put Elsie on the map.  Her other great calling in life was women’s suffrage and Elsie campaigned vigorously for votes for women.  She was no suffragette, but was certainly very influential in the suffrage movement. From 1906 to 1914 she was honorary secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

In 1914 she entered the world stage when she founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for foreign service.

When war broke out in August 1914 men clamoured to do what they could to support the war effort but for women, the options were limited. Within weeks of being rebuffed by the War Office, – “my good lady, go home and sit still” – Elsie had formed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). They were very different from anything else at the time, unique, in fact. Unique, because, right from the beginning, they were set up with two very specific aims, firstly, to help the war effort by providing medical assistance and secondly, and equally importantly, to promote the cause of women’s rights and, by their involvement in the war, help win those rights.

The SWH were all female hospital units, not just doctors, surgeons and nurses but also ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers, cooks and orderlies. From 1914-1919 over 1400 women, not just from Scotland, but from the Home Nations, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and beyond joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.  These units were offered to Belgium, France and Serbia and were gratefully accepted.

Wounded French soldiers playing cards in a tented ward of a Scottish Women's Hospital unit, Salonika, 1916. © IWM (Q 31919)
Wounded French soldiers playing cards in a tented ward of a Scottish Women’s Hospital unit, Salonika, 1916. © IWM (Q 31919)

During WW1 the SWH provided front line hospitals, field hospitals, dressing stations and canteens. They served on both the Western and Eastern fronts in Serbia, France, Corsica, Romania, Macedonia and Greece.  No matter how bad the arena of war, they were there – in France, during the battles of the Somme; the final push of 1918 in Salonika; often decimated by malaria during the Serbian retreat, witnessing the Russian revolution and the refugees pouring into Corsica.  It was in Serbia however where units met their toughest challenges.

Elsie spent her entire war years supporting “her beloved Serbs”.  In 1915 Serbia endured a typhus epidemic that at one stage, crippled the nation. People were displaced, starving and dying in the freezing temperatures. After early successful battles Serbia was, in October 1915, vitally encircled by the Austrians, Germans and the Bulgarians. Forty of the SWH went on the Serbian retreat where they joined the Serbian army and headed to the Adriatic Sea, with some 200,000 men, women and children perishing along the way.  Elsie however, effectively became, along with 59 other women, a POW.   After she was repatriated she campaigned vigorously for more aid for the Serbs and in autumn of 1916 she lead two units to support the Serbs on the Russian front.

Fighting was intense and hospitals were involved in various retreats and offensives. They worked incredibly long hours under very difficult circumstances. The Russian revolution then ended Russia’s involvement in the war and the SWH were ordered home. With thousands of Serbs facing an almost certain death, Elsie again rallied behind her Serbian soldiers, telling the War office, “If you want us home, get them home”!  In the end Elsie won the day. But for Elsie, who had been suffering from cancer throughout the war, this was her final battle.  On the 25th November 1917, Elsie arrived in Newcastle and sadly died the following day. Even on her death bed Elsie had insisted that “Serbia must have its hospitals”.

Dr. Elsie Inglis' medals, whice are on display at the Surgeons' Halls Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on behalf of her relations.
Dr. Elsie Inglis’ medals, which are on display at the Surgeons’ Halls Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on behalf of her relations.

In the spring of 1916 the Serbian soldiers that had gathered and been convalescing in Corfu and now supported by the allies, made their way back to Serbia. All along the way, with every mile, up the mountain passes and on to the battlefields they were supported by units from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and in 1918, after years of fighting, the soldiers were finally home. Elsie’s dying wishes had been respected, for by their side were units from The Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Dr Elsie Inglis is affectionately and widely known in Serbia to this day as their “Serbian Mother from Scotland”.

A private ceremony will be held at Elsie’s grave in the Dean Cemetery on November 26 – 100 years to the day of her death and a larger ceremony will take place in St Giles Cathedral on November 29, 100 years to the day of her funeral there. A limited number of tickets are available to the general public for the ceremony at St Giles Cathedral on Wednesday 29 November. To register visit here or call 0300 244 4000.