SWHTent header image

YSABEL BIRKBECK: EXTRACTS FROM THE LIFE OF A SWH AMBULANCE DRIVER

As we commemorate the centenary of the death and funeral of Elsie Inglis, we also reflect on the remarkable accomplishments her brave and determined Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) colleagues. In this post, Marsali Taylor shares the story of her Aunt Ysabel, who worked as an ambulance driver on the Romanian front.  

As a young girl, I would holiday at Loch Hourn in the West Highlands with my family, which is how we came to know Ysabel Birkbeck. She also had a home there that she stayed in for the summer, and after spending a great deal of time with her, she became like an Aunt to my siblings and I. When she passed away, my parents bought her house and her war diaries came into my possession. Full of life, the diaries paint a vivid tale of Aunt Ysabel’s time on the front line, and I wanted to share her story to mark the centenary of the war.

Ysabel was born into a wealthy banking family in 1890 and raised in Norfolk where she had a privileged upbringing on a large estate. However, in comparison to her two older sisters, she was always considered a bit of an “ugly duckling” and a “tomboy”. By the age of 26, she still hadn’t married, and through a link to Evelina Haverfield, a prominent suffragette and chief administrator of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), Ysabel joined the SWH in 1916 as an ambulance driver.

Ysabel, third from the left, with the ship’s cat, on her way to Russia
Ysabel, third from the left, with the ship’s cat, on her way to Russia

She began to forge friendships with her fellow Transport drivers on the ship from Liverpool to Archangel, and during the long journey to Romania. Many were from backgrounds like her and considered “unmarriable daughters”, with a sense of adventure and no inclination to conform to the expectations of women in those days. Known as “The Buffs”, they cut their hair short, wore breeches, and referred to each other by their surnames. They were described as an anarchic lot. Dr Elsie Inglis reproved them for their swearing – it’s lucky she didn’t know about their flirting with the local officers.

One of Ysabel’s sketches on the journey from Moscow to Odessa
One of Ysabel’s sketches on the journey from Moscow to Odessa

Their first base was in Mejidia, where Ysabel was involved in the first SWH retreat. At this stage, Ysabel became unwell with jaundice and dysentery, but she was determined to get better and she made a full recovery.

She continued to drive ambulances on the Romanian front until the army’s second retreat, where all the SWH vehicles worked at the back to get the wounded soldiers and valuable hospital equipment across the Danube River, this time with support from the British Armoured Car group. The SWH ambulances were the last to cross the river. A small excerpt from her account of this retreat reads:

When we got a little way on the high road we found the usual pack of retreating infantry walking in masses, carts in a single line, plodding back.  Wounded walking as best they could.  The carts had picked up all they had room for, others hung on behind.  We each picked up all we could.  I took three extra, and kept changing the less serious cases for weaker men I passed later.  All looked absolutely expressionless, and marched in silence, bone weary.  The pack thickened till we could only edge through a little way at a time.  In the outskirts of Isaccea the street was blocked for a great distance with wounded, outside a hospital waiting to get dressed.  We left our sitting cases there, and took the others in to hospital after hospital, but all had either evacuated already, or were evacuating.

Ysabel and her friends remained in Odessa until March 1917, when they returned home, getting caught up in the Russian Revolution on the way.

She went on to serve in France in 1917-18, where she was again decorated for her coolness and courage in transporting the wounded under heavy bombardment. In WW2 she returned to London and drove an ambulance during the Blitz.

By the time I met my Aunt Ysabel, she was an old lady, however, she remained the type of person who really made an impression on you. It’s a great privilege to have had the opportunity to immerse myself in her first-hand accounts and memories, and I hope to share the incredible contribution that she made to the war effort as we commemorate the amazing achievements of the SWH.

Ysabel’s diaries, which include a number of photographs and her own sketches and paintings, are now held at the Imperial War Museum in London. Marsali’s book Forgotten Heroines, a transcription of the Romanian diaries, includes many more anecdotes about Ysabel, from both during the war and in later life. Get more information here.