Monday, 27 January 2020

Schoolboys and a Dead Doctor—part 1

The boys of Moredun house in 1918. Jim is seated at the right hand edge of the table
looking askance at the camera.
Thursday, November 29, 1917 was a chilly, misty day in Edinburgh on the east coast of Scotland. This was not unusual. With luck, if the prevailing west wind wasn’t blowing, the temperature in the early afternoon would pop up to around 45 degrees fahrenheit (7 degrees celsius), before slumping dismally back to somewhere around 38 degrees fahrenheit (3.5 degrees celsius), when the sun set at 4:30. 
As they waited, the crowds lining the route from St Giles Cathedral on the High Street to the Dean Cemetery 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometres) away, pulled their tweed jackets and shawls tighter, stamped their feet and wrapped their scarves more securely to keep out the chill. Eventually, they heard the tramp of marching feet and the rattle of iron-rimmed wheels on the cobbles below the castle. A gun-carriage, drawn by six black horses came into view. The coffin on the carriage was draped in the Union Jack and the red, blue and white Serbian flag emblazoned with an elaborate crest of a crowned, double-headed eagle. Around the carriage marched an honour guard of soldiers from the Royal Scots Regiment and men in the green uniform of the Serbian Army. Behind the carriage, dignitaries and a long trailing crowd of citizens followed. At the Dean Cemetery, the mourners watched in silence as the Serbian soldiers lifted the coffin and carried it to the prepared grave near the north wall.
The boy.
Perhaps, amongst the silent watching crowd were some students from the nearby spired and turreted Fettes College. Fettes was considered “the Eton of the North”. Today, it boasts a distinguished list of alumni as diverse as Tony Blair, Tilda Swinton and, according to Iain Fleming in You Only Live Twice, James Bond, but none of the famous were there that day. However, there might have been a twelve-year-old boy beginning his third year as a boarder in Moredun House. The boy had been born in India but had been sent back to Scotland to be educated and subjected to the Fettes regime of constitution-hardening ice-cold baths at 6 a.m.
The funeral ceremony was not to honour some famous military man recently fallen amidst the horrors of Passchendaele, but a short, fifty-three-year-old Scottish woman, Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis. Like the boy, Elsie Inglis had been born in India before moving to Scotland where she studied medicine and, in 1892, obtained her license from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Shocked by the low standards of medical care for women, Dr. Inglis became a political activist and opened a maternity hospital for the poor. She also joined the suffrage movement where she became secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. 
Elsie Inglis
In the formal photographs of the time, Elsie Inglis seems to be always trying to suppress the smile that threatens to overwhelm her face. Yet she was not someone to be trifled with. On the outbreak of the First World War, she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee with the aim of providing female-staffed medical units. She proposed the idea to the War Office in London and was condescendingly told, “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Instead, Dr. Inglis offered her idea to the French, who jumped at it and organized for a group of doctors and nurses to go to Serbia.
Austro-Hungarian troops had invaded Serbia in 1914 to enforce the ultimatum that had followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June but, by Christmas and despite heavy casualties, the battle-hardened Serbian army—they had fought two brutal wars against various neighbours in the two years prior to the latest invasion—had driven them back across the border. 
The situation was quiet when Dr. Inglis arrived to take over the unit in May and she even had time to propose a scheme to introduce fresh water fountains into rural communities. However, in the fall, the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies attacked, crushing the Serbian army and forcing the survivors to flee to Albania. In February 1916, the Scottish nurses and doctors were captured and forcibly repatriated to Britain.
Despite the horrors they had witnessed, Dr. Inglis and her colleagues immediately began raising money and organizing a new venture. In late August, 1916, they set sail for Archangel to provide medical aid for a Serbian division fighting with the Russian army.  For a year, the unit worked in Russia and Rumania, retreating and establishing mobile hospitals as the situation allowed or demanded. 
Serbian soldiers.
Dr. Inglis wrote extensively describing conditions. In a station waiting room, “A crowd of people was collected at one end with boxes and bundles and children. One little boy was lying on a doorstep asleep, and against the wall farther on lay a row of soldiers. On the bench to the right, under the light, was a doctor in his white overall, stretched out sound asleep between the two rushes of work at the station dressing-room; and a Roumanian officer talked to me of Glasgow, where he had once been invited out to dinner…” and later during the retreat, "The night was inky black; the only lights were our own head-lights and those of the ambulance behind us, but they revealed a sad and never-to-be-forgotten picture…it was like a dream or a play; it certainly was a tragedy. No one spoke; we just waited and watched it all; to us it was a spectacle, to these poor homeless people it was a terrible reality…We arrived at Braila to find 11,000 wounded and seven doctors, only one of them a surgeon.”
In March, 1917, revolution broke out, adding more unrest and chaos to the difficulties of war, but none of this daunted Dr. Inglis. A group of “Russian Citizen Soldiers” strained their command of English to write to her: “The wounded and sick soldiers from all parts of the army and fleet of great free Russia, who are now for healing in the hospital which you command, penetrated with a feeling of sincere respect, feel it their much-desired duty, to-day, on the day of the feast of Holy Easter, to express to you our deep reverence to you, the doctor warmly loved by all, and also to your honoured personnel of women. We wish also to express our sincere gratitude for all the care and attention bestowed on us, and we bow low before the tireless and wonderful work of yourself and your personnel.”
Despite fighting an agonizing personal battle with bowel cancer, Dr. Inglis struggled on, refusing to leave Russia before her unit was repatriated. On November 7, 1917, she and her companions took ship from Archangel to face the ordeal of a winter voyage through the Arctic and across the North Sea. She arrived in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on November 25 and died the following day in a room in the Station Hotel on Neville Street.
St Giles  Cathedral
In honour of Elsie Inglis, the British Residence in Belgrade is named after her, her picture graces the back of Scottish banknotes and there is a plaque where her funeral service was held in St Giles Cathedral, but her greatest memorial was constructed at the opposite end of the Edinburgh High Street from the cathedral. The Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital opened in 1925 and before its closure in 1988 many thousands of babies were safely brought into the world there. Dr. Inglis would have been pleased.
Whether the boy from Fettes watched the funeral or not, he would certainly have known about it and been aware of Elsie Inglis and her achievements. What he could not possibly have known was that, thirty-three years, eight months and four days after that chilly day, at 10:10 a.m., his only son, John, would be born in the maternity hospital named for the extraordinary woman buried that day.

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