Serbia’s Chargé d’Affaires Natasa Maric recalls the life and work of Dr Elsie Inglis as an extraordinary example of solidarity and friendship between the Serbs and Scots
I strongly believe that contacts among ordinary people of any two countries are essential for a genuine and sustainable understanding between their people and for overcoming any differences in mentality, culture and religion. Accordingly, the story of the life and work of Dr Elsie Inglis is an extraordinary example of the solidarity and long-lasting friendship that exists between the Scottish and Serbian people. It serves as a strong foundation for deepening the relations between Serbia and the UK.
This year, we will commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I. Thousands of events will be held around the world to mark one of the most important dates in human history. However, the achievements and eagerness of Dr Elsie Inglis and other Scottish and British women – both doctors and nurses – seem to me to be particularly impressive, not only for their courage and strong will, but because these determined women refused to stay at home and do nothing, at a time when it was most certainly a man’s world.
“My good lady, go home and sit still,” was the response Dr Inglis received at the War Office in London, when she inquired if female doctors and surgeons could serve in frontline hospitals. She was not, however, that kind of woman. Shortly afterwards, Dr Inglis initiated the establishment of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units, staffed entirely by women, that provided support for British allies, the French, the Belgians and especially the Serbs. Aside from this, Dr Inglis was also a prominent campaigner for women’s right to vote.
The first Scottish Women’s Hospital field unit in Serbia was formed in the town of Kragujevac in December 1914. Serbia was devastated by the war when, apart from being invaded in autumn 1915, it was gripped by a typhus epidemic. Between 1914 and 1918, nearly 800 women who had joined Scottish Women’s Hospitals came to support Serbia during one of the most difficult times in its history. They set up hospitals in Serbian towns and in tents on the frontline, treating wounded and ill Serbian soldiers and refugees.
In addition to helping the wounded Serbian soldiers in Kragujevac, Nis, Valjevo, Krusevac, as well as on the island of Corfu and the Salonica Front, Dr Inglis collected humanitarian assistance throughout the UK to provide and care for the wounded and the operation of hospitals. In her last mission, Dr Inglis accompanied Serbian volunteers on the Russian Front. Before her death, already very unwell, Dr Inglis wrote her last letter, pleading that transport and hospitals for Serbs be provided.
Serbia lost over one million of its population during World War I. We will be forever grateful to Dr Elsie Inglis and the other British doctors and nurses for their selfless efforts and sacrifice in World War I. For her achievement in April 1916, she became the first woman to be awarded Serbia’s Order of the White Eagle. In 2015, the Serbian Post released a series of stamps to commemorate Scottish women who volunteered in Serbia during World War I. Five women who worked as doctors, nurses and drivers featured on the stamps: Dr Elsie Inglis, Evelina Haverfield, Dr Elizabeth Ross, Dr Katherine MacPhail OBE and Dr Isabel Emslie Galloway Hutton. As the only British female to bear arms during World War I, Captain Flora Sandes was also remembered. Since 2015, the British Ambassador’s Residence in Belgrade has been carrying Dr Inglis’s name.
I was particularly honoured to represent Serbia at a special service marking the centenary of her death at Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral (the setting of her funeral), on 29 November 2017. The Princess Royal laid a commemorative wreath and gave a reading. The event was also attended by First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop, Lord Lieutenant and Lord Provost of Edinburgh Frank Ross, the descendants of the brave British doctors and nurses, diplomats, journalists and other distinguished guests. A few days earlier, a remembrance service was held in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh, on 26 November, on the very day of the death of Dr Inglis. Also, a commemoration was held at the Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in London. On the same day, UK Parliament held a debate in recognition of Dr Elsie Inglis’s service and the contribution of women to the war effort in 1914-18.
Dr Elsie Inglis did not live to see peace in 1918, nor the granting of the first vote to British women the same year. I myself was born in a peaceful era and in a country with a long history of cherishing women’s rights. However, writing this article from the comfort of our modern lifestyle, I cannot be but amazed by the legacy of Dr Inglis, who was a pioneer paving a path towards universal rights, which are so often taken for granted today in this part of the world.
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