- 'the Macedonian Heroines'
- from the book From All the Fronts, 1917
- by Donald A. Mackenzie
Helping Hands in the Balkans
The Macedonian Heroines
The inspiring story of the noble work done by the British lady doctors, nurses, and chauffeurs of the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Macedonia will long be remembered, not only in their native land, but in the Balkans as well, and especially in Serbia.
When the Serbian army had been reorganized after its great retreat to the Albanian coast before the superior forces of Germans, Austrians, and Bulgarians, and conveyed by sea to Salonika, it lacked a sufficient staff of doctors or trained nurses. The directors of the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Edinburgh were appealed to for help, and at once sent out a hospital unit, which had been named "The America Unit", because the women of America had given generous contributions to the funds required. Before it reached Salonika the Serbian army, with the aid of the Allies, had advanced towards and across the frontier of Macedonia, and the men saw once again the mountains of their conquered kingdom. Heavy fighting was in progress, and the enemy was being gradually driven back on Monastir. The America unit hastened northward from Salonika soon after arrival there, with all their tents and hospital material packed in motor- ambulances, which were driven by ladies. For eighty miles of their journey towards Ostrovo they had to go over rough and narrow roads which were in places little better than cattle tracks, having been torn up by the heavy traffic and made very muddy by the rain. The skeletons of horses and cattle strewed the roadside; many villages were in ruins, and the inhabitants could be seen doing their utmost to repair their houses and make them comfortable again. They passed hundreds of poor people who were camping by the wayside, waiting for the soldiers to drive back the invaders, so that they might be able to reach their desolated homes among the mountains.
When the lady doctors and nurses reached Ostrovo, they looked about for a suitable place for their camp, and chose a sheltered spot behind a ridge of bare mountain, not far from the highway. Serbian soldiers welcomed them, and told that many wounded men were waiting for treatment. Could the hospital be ready to take them in that night?
Such a request could not be refused. Although they were tired and weary after their long rough journey, the staff set to work at once, erecting the hospital, laying out the beds, and doing everything necessary to treat the wounded Serbians.
Meanwhile the lady drivers set out with their motor-ambulances to bring in the patients. They had to go up the mountain passes as far as they dared towards the scene of the fighting and collect the wounded, who had been brought down from the little field stations on pack-ponies and stretchers. The roads through the passes were narrow and muddy, and in places very dangerous, especially where they twisted round the edges of precipices and skirted steep slopes of loose gravel and clay. Several army motor-lorries and carts had tumbled over the sides of these terrible roads before the hospital workers arrived, and could be seen lying among the rocks twisted and battered beyond repair. Some stretches of the roads ran sheer up and down among the hills like switchback railways. The motors often stuck on steep inclines, and the nurses had to jump out and place big stones behind the wheels to keep them from rolling back. The daring and clever lady drivers, however, got over all difficulties and brought in the wounded safely, nor did one of them meet with a fatal accident. It was pitiful to see the wounded men. Many of them had been lying for hours on the bare ground, weak from loss of blood, suffering from pain and cold and hunger, and covered with mud. They were very brave and made no complaint; hardly a groan came from the lips of the greatest sufferers. These Serbian heroes were all very grateful for the kindness shown them by the lady doctors and nurses from a distant land far across the ocean, and when they found themselves in comfortable beds, with their wounds dressed, and were given hot drinks, their faces grew cheerful and their eyes bright. Again and again they thanked the ladies, who did everything in their power to help them and relieve their pain.
When night fell the booming of the guns could be heard in the distance. The battle was waging constantly behind the hill under which the hospital tent had been pitched, and all through the hours of darkness wounded men were being brought in. Few of the hospital staff got any sleep.
Next day, and on many days that followed, German aeroplanes flew over the camp. It was feared that bombs would be dropped, but fortunately at the time the enemy was short of munitions. French motor-cars, armed with anti-aircraft guns, opened fire at the aeroplanes, and the little shells sometimes burst right above the hospital.
When some of the staff found time to take a little exercise, they climbed the hill behind the hospital to get a glimpse of the fighting. They saw big shells bursting in the valleys beyond, and soldiers leaving their trenches to deliver attacks against strong positions. Again and again the enemy tried to break through the Allied lines so as to force their way into the passes. Had they succeeded in doing so the wounded could not have been removed in time, for the roads would have been blocked by soldiers and transport vehicles, and the hospital would probably have come under the fire of field guns in the confusion. People at home scarcely realize how great were the perils faced by the brave lady doctors and nurses in Macedonia and Serbia.
Besides treating the wounded, the hospital staff often did their utmost to relieve the sufferings of troops on the march. One wet and stormy afternoon a regiment of dark Senegalese soldiers, under the command of French officers, halted beside the hospital on their way to the front. All the men suffered greatly from cold. They were taken into the kitchen in batches and given hot drinks. They thanked the ladies in broken French, bowing and smiling and saluting as they came and went. When they marched away at length through the rain, they raised cheers for the hospital staff and looked wonderfully happy. Soon after night fell about forty Senegalese stragglers arrived. They had lost their regiment and looked dejected and miserable, being very cold and drenched to the skin. The ladies set to work to make them comfortable, and gave them hot tea. The dusky soldiers gathered round the stove, and pleaded to be allowed to sleep on the kitchen floor all night. The nurses could not give up the kitchen to them, but they had a tent erected, and placed in it a big tin box filled with glowing charcoal. The stragglers were thus able to pass the night in shelter and pretty comfortably. No sooner were they thus attended to than a British soldier arrived. He was covered with mud from head to foot, and so weary that he was hardly able to walk. "Yet," as one of the nurses has told, "he was still smiling."
The soldier received a warm welcome from his countrywomen. He told them he was in charge of a motor-car which had got stuck in the mud, and that after leaving it to look for help, darkness had come on and he could not find it again. A complete change of clothing was found for the soldier, and after he had been given some food, a "shakedown" was provided for him in one of the tents. "Well, well, ladies," he exclaimed, "I am in great luck to-night. How can I thank you?" The ladies, who had been doing their best to help everyone, were only too pleased to do what they could for a countryman, and especially a soldier of the great British citizen army.
Often the camp was a "Babel of tongues". One day a motor-lorry got stuck in a quagmire not far from it, and a motley company of workers did their best to pull it out. Among the men who "put their shoulders to the wheel" were British men, Frenchmen, Anamites from Indo-China, Serbians, Russians, and a few Bulgarian prisoners. They were all shouting in their own languages, and the only orders they could understand were those given in dumb show. After a great effort they were able to haul the motor on to hard ground again.
As the fighting increased in fury the wounded were brought in by day and night in large numbers. Those patients who could be removed with safety were from time to time sent south to Salonika to make room for fresh cases. Many difficult operations had to be performed, and the staff in the operating tent were kept very busy. They worked at all hours, and had to snatch a little time for sleep when possible. It is no wonder to learn that some of them lost count of the days of the week. "Is this Wednesday?" a hard- worked nurse asked one evening. "No," laughed another, "it is Friday."
In addition to organizing and running the hospital, the staff had also to undertake a great deal of laundry work. A house near the camp was occupied for this purpose, and a number of native women had to be employed to do the washing. Most of them spoke a mixture of the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Turkish languages, and the Scottish lady in charge of the laundry found it difficult to make herself understood. An interpreter, who had a slight knowledge of French, was, however, found, and she translated to the women workers the orders that were issued. The native women were very poor, and were glad to be able to earn a little money. They came every morning with their babies and gave them to little girls to nurse. The sickly children were treated by the lady doctors, who received many blessings from the poor women who had been suffering greatly on account of the war. The villagers learned to admire and love the ladies of the hospital staff who treated them with such great kindness, and were ever ready to attend to their needs. In days to come many touching stories will be told in Macedonia and Serbia about the noble women of Great Britain who performed a labour of love in their war-stricken land, and did everything in their power to relieve suffering without desire for or hope of reward. Among those who met their death while engaged in the good work was Mrs. Harley, sister of Lord French, who was fatally wounded by a shell at Monastir
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