Looted underwear: Privations of POWs

"In Serbia" (1915) this evening
“In Serbia” (1915) this evening

I spent the evening doing what I love most about history: reading primary accounts in the British Library. It’s a conference-paper-a-month here at It Makes a Better Story Towers and I’m working on my paper for the Gender and War Captivity conference which I’m really looking forward to. I’m presenting on the experience of British women POWs under the Central Powers and I found a source I missed out while working on my thesis, to my dismay, because she is hilarious and full of interesting tidbits. I thought I’d share one here:

Most of our underclothing was obtained from the Red Cross Stores at Nish or looted (I grieve to say it, but one soon adopts the habit!) from the railway station here, when a consignment of Stobart [another relief unit] luggage arrived after its owners had left the country… Most of my underwear seems to have been sent out the Serbian Relief Fund by a kind lady named Macgregor, and I bless her every day—indeed, there were sad lamentations last week when one of my Wee Macgregors got lost—plainly marked in nice red tape as he was. It is a great advantage to have legibly marked things. One scores heavily over the people who attempt wonders with bits of black wool and red cotton, which invariably disappear under Slatka’s ruthless treatment. If only she wouldn’t boil flannel things! I am convinced they would shrink less if she abandoned this treatment, and as one may have to live for the next two years in these same clothes the outlook is rather serious. I rather think Mrs Macgregor must have been what I believe is known in draper circles as “Slender Womans” –I unfortunately am not.

–Ellen Chivers Davies, A Farmer in Serbia.

Scarcity of clothing and undergarments was just one hardship British women had to endure when they found themselves unexpected in an occupied nation. The ‘Macgregors’ make another appearance in Davies’ account when she described her elation when her unit learned they would be repatriated through Vienna:

The excitement! One can never forget the breathless moment when one gasped like a fish in realizing that it meant home, and news, and letters, and interesting food, and a nice bed, and no boards lashed together for seats, and no dreary filling up of days, no sentries, no black bread, fresh butter—even marmalade for breakfast—and the luxury of Solitude—baths—hot water that turned out of a tap—no groves of laundry—no more Macgregors—linen sheets, and an eiderdown—our breath failed and even imagination for a moment.

I’ll think of that when I’m getting dressed tomorrow. At least I’m not stuck wearing another, more slender, woman’s underwear.


Appreciation of WWI Heroines on International Women’s Day: “My dear lady, go home and sit still!”

So infamously said a war office official to Dr Elsie Inglis, who did not go home and sit still, but instead founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

I love the attention that historical figures get on International Women’s Day. I love the appreciation that women involved in the First World War now receive — so different from thirty, twenty, even ten years ago (when the wikipedia articles I’m linking to didn’t even exist. And no, I didn’t write them). I read with interest this article on Huffington Post about women rockin’ the boat during WWI, now making the rounds on twitter. No going home. No sitting still. I’m really glad of the well-served attention Elsie Inglis is finally receiving, including a residence in Belgrade being names after her. But it made me wonder, is that the most commonly used quote regarding women and the First World War?

Asked to name women who contributed to the war effort and you get the same list of names. Vera Brittain. Edith Cavell. Elsie Inglis. Flora Sandes. Marie Chisholm and Elsie Knocker. The same people over and over again. It’s in danger of becoming a cliche.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these women are kick-ass. And I do find it slightly ironic that many of them are part of a story of the war far removed from the usual tale of mud and blood in the trenches of the Western Front. Elsie Inglis and Flora Sandes have become canonized as part of the women’s roles in wartime story, yet the Balkan front is so far from being recognized as part of the great war that most people have never even heard of Salonika. How can these women be IN Britian’s war story, but not OF it?

Let’s widen the story. Let’s include everyone! Everywhere! And let’s talk about some new women. There were a lot of women making waves during the first world war. These articles do include a few others as well as the usual suspects. Here are some of my favourites:

Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton
Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton

Isabel Emslie Hutton
Another woman doctor who received a similar response to her initial offer of her services to the war office. Dr Hutton (Emslie was her maiden name) joined the SWH, served in France, Greece, and Serbia, made advances in the treatment of malaria on top of running a surgical word and later, and entire hospital. After the war she went on aid missions to the war-torn Crimea and malarial Albania, and when she returned home she fought for the right of women doctors to continue practicing after marriage, pioneered developments in modern psychiatry, and wrote a sex manual that went through ten editions and was in print for over forty years.

Olive King
Olive King

Olive King
An Australian adventurer and poet Olive King was accidentally arrested in Belgium as a spy before joining the SWH where she made friends with Hutton and drove an ambulance before enlisting as a driver in the Serbian Army. She was made Sergeant, awarded for her bravery during the great fire of Salonika, and founded a canteen organisation to aid the Serbian army and the starving population at tail end of the war.

Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia
Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia

Elsie Corbett
A socialite through-and-through, during the First World War Corbett did her socialising on the Balkan front. Being too young to volunteer for France, Corbett joined a hospital in Serbia because both she and her father enjoyed how the prospect scandalised their more conventional friends. She worked as a VAD until she was taken prisoner by the invading Austro-Hungarian army. After repatriation, she and her partner Kathleen Dillion joined the SWH as drivers where they caused no small amount of scandal with everything from their inability to cook to their inability to be follow discipline. After their triumphant advance on Belgrade, Corbett and Dillion retired to a life of leisure, travelling to visit their wartime friends who scattered around the world, and establishing a donkey sanctuary and abolishing the pub (hey, no one’s perfect) in Dillion’s native village in Oxfordshire.

Katharine Harley's funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)
Katherine Harley’s funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)

Katherine Harley
Revered and reviled in turns by all who worked with her (including the three women mentioned above), Harley was a formidable lady. When she found she couldn’t keep the SWH transport unit under her thumb, she went to Monastir (which was still being heavily shelled) to do relief work, where she was killed by shrapnel in March 1917. Her death cause a huge stir in Britain and especially among the community in Salonika, where her funeral because a spectacle of officials and royalty. A Serbian minister gave a speech including the words: “Noble daughter of a great nation, though not a sister of ours by birth, still dear to us as a true sister…” There’s a memorial to her in the military cemetery at Salonika to this day.

I could go on. There’s more interesting women where they came from. There’s also more interesting women from every front. Let’s not stop there!

“Not…to their taste”: Pickled Herring and British POWs in Germany during WWI

I spent this evening reading correspondence between James Gerard, the US Ambassador to Germany during WWI, and Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, (via the US ambassador to the UK) about the condition of British POWs in Germany. Actually, not as depressing you might think, as long as you don’t mind open-air latrines and alcohol-free beer (for the other ranks; officers could purchase beer and “light wines”).

Memoir of James Gerard, US ambassador to Germany
Memoir of James Gerard, US ambassador to Germany
Most of the complaints seem to have been about the food. I can’t really blame them after reading a specimen breakfast menu that included soy-starch soup consisting of soy-flour, potato-starch flour and margarine. Yum!

But many complaints seem to come down on national lines. In one camp, “French non-commissioned officers control the quality of food prepared, which appears to give satisfaction to all but the English prisoners who, as usual, do not find it to their taste.”

As Gerard pointed out, “there is no more prospect that the English soldier will ever be satisfied with his food in Germany than that the German soldier will be satisfied with his in England.”

Fair enough! I found one antidote, from a report written by an American inspecting the welfare of British soldiers in a POW camp, amusing. The lunch menu included raw pickled herring, much to the consternation of the Brits. “Germans and Russians relish these herrings raw, but the English do not, and there had been some trouble on this account.” British soldiers had gotten into trouble for building illegal fires to cook their fish.

“Upon my explaining to the commandant that the English did not eat their herrings raw, he said that he would have arrangements made so that they could cook them, without endangering the barracks from fire.” I’m picturing a bunch of British prisoners, building fires in their barracks to cook their herring rather than eat it raw. This obviously pre-dates the days of weekend breaks to Amsterdam! Or there could be another explanation for the fires:

“He said that a complaint on this score had reached him before, and that he had thought that the English had made the fires more or less out of insubordination.” Well, of course, there is also that!
A pickled herring stand in Amsterdam
A pickled herring stand in Amsterdam
Great Britain. Foreign Office. Correspondence with the United States Ambassador Respecting the Treatment of British Prisoners of War and Interned Civilians in Germany. (In Continuation of “Miscellaneous, No.15 (1915)”). Cd. ; 8108. Sl: HMSO, 1915.