Belgrade Ghosts

While the UK was imploding, I was enjoying a very sunny weekend in Belgrade and trying not to think about the political situation. I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be a member of the public during such a momentous, disastrous occasion as a declaration of war. In the course of little over a week, the world as you know it seems to crumble, and yet everyday life carries on very much the same. Okay, so hopefully (I’m not ruling anything out here) Brexit (or the threat thereof) doesn’t precipitate total war in Europe. But uncertainty over the political situation has me paralyzed with anxiety, and the news from distant climes (many of which places I’ve never heard of) is almost unbearably tragic. I feel helpless; I want to do something, but I don’t know what. And I’m a historian, so I see parallels everywhere.

It’s been ten years since I first heard the call and made my way to Serbia, following the footsteps of my heroines from ninety years earlier. A lot has changed over those ten years. The hipsters have arrived, and more tourists, too. Belgrade looks cleaner, tidier, more commercial. Memories of the “NATO aggression” seem more firmly relegated to the past, less a part of the living memories of the city. But I can’t be the only one seeing ghosts of European wars everywhere I go. Walking beside me through the streets of Belgrade are not only figures from history but characters of my own imagination, as they lived, loved, and (some of them) died. And a lot of things feel the same to me. I love the monument to France in the Kalemegdan fortress, though it’s looking a bit worse for the wear. Whatever else has changed, I’m drawn to it every time I go to Belgrade.


Also relatively unchanged in the military museum, a dungeon full of relics in Kalemegdan. Though some parts of the museum have been updated here and there (a poorly functioning app invites us to step inside Serbian military history for ourselves), it begins with a dusty, practically indecipherable display on Belgrade in pre-historic times and stops rather abruptly after the Second World War, with an added, modern bit on the so-called “aggression” (offset by a section on Serbia’s military contributions to the UN; passive-aggression at its best).  So much to read into, with the museum’s communist undertones showing through the more modern “lick of paint” interpretations and spotty English translations. Excellent value at 150 RSD.

Photo 25-06-2016, 12 41 54Photo 25-06-2016, 12 42 24Photo 25-06-2016, 12 43 10

I can’t help but love the museum. Studying such an obscure part of history, it’s rare to find someone else who cares as much as I do, and the First World War galleries of full of interest. Here are some of my favourites:

Ooh, what’s that, in the far right of the last picture? American flags? Could this be the US diplomatic mission, in Belgrade 1919?

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The story goes on, as ever, and I wonder what will happen next.


Serbian postage stamps honoring British heroines of WWI

I was so excited to see these stamps announced on Twitter, especially when I saw on of the women featured was Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton, who I’ve been researching for a long time and who is a subject of the group biography project I’m working on now. I just had to get some for myself, so I enlisted the help of a Serbian publisher I work with in my day job, and she was kind enough to track them down. Ask and ye shall receive.

There’s been a lot* of buzz in the media about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals because there’s an art exhibit in Edinburgh at the moment (which I’m really sad I won’t be able to go to – maybe it will come to London next! Ask and ye shall receive?). In the meantime, I’m having my own exhibit as part of the “gallery wall” I’ve just created on my stairwell.

*by “a lot” I mean more than usual: it occasionally comes up in my saved searches on Twitter.

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!

Brideshead Revisited, and the mysterious Balkan death of Charles Ryder’s mother

Our household is watching Brideshead Revisited (I say household because the kitten in particular is enjoying it) which is a bit of a revelation.

The kitten enjoying scenes from Brideshead Revisited
The kitten enjoying scenes from Brideshead Revisited

It does have the unfortunate side-effect of inspiring one to drink too much whisky on a Sunday night, but nevertheless I stopped in at Waterstones on my way home from work to pick up a copy of the novel.

A real book from a real bookstore
A real book from a real bookstore

It’s another book I can’t wait to read (but in fact probably will, at least until after London Book Fair). It never occurred to me to read it before, though it’s been on my radar for over ten years. Not because of my encompassing knowledge of English literature of the early twentieth century, but because of an obscure reference to Charles Ryder’s mother, and her untimely death in the Balkans.

Claire Hirshfield’s article from 1987, “In Search of Mrs. Ryder: British Women in Serbia during the Great War,” was one of the only secondary sources I could find on the topic when I did my MA thesis, which I requested on ILL and read with interest. It’s basically a catalogue of the various ways brave British women might have met an untimely end while on the Balkan front. I knew all about that so I promptly forgot the article. Then I remembered, while watching the miniseries, and we heard this passage:

It once seemed odd to me that she should have thought it her duty to leave my father and me and go off with an ambulance, to Serbia, to die of exhaustion in the snow in Bosnia.

Which is all very well and good, except – Bosnia?? When were there British women in Bosnia? Possibly she was part of an ambulance attached to the Serbian army in late 1914 when the fighting extended into Austria-Hungary. But she would have had to have been pretty snappish to volunteer, and I don’t think there were any British units there that early. Dying of exhaustion in the snow to me implies the “Great Retreat” of the Serbian army (and British hospital units) through Montenegro and Albania (not Bosnia!) at the end of 1915. On review of the article, is seems Hirshfield is actually referring to a different Charles Ryder story, where his mother’s death is given slightly more detail, and in which version she is apparently killed by German artillery fire…  in Bosnia. An even less likely story.

I’m not normally pedantic, but I find this inaccuracy interesting especially given Waugh’s own involvement in (second world) wartime Yugoslavia. Going off to Serbia with an ambulance was obviously a cultural reference that the generation of Britons Waugh’s was writing for would have understood. But why Bosnia?

In the last episode we watched, we learned that Cordelia is ‘off in Spain.’ Off in Spain? It seems to me that Evelyn Waugh disposes of inconvenient female characters by sending them as ideological volunteers to wars in obscure parts of Europe.

“A worse situation”: Winston Churchill, the Dardanelles debate and its effect on policy towards Serbia

I’ve been following the Sky News twitter account that tweets news from World War I 100 years on, and a couple of recent tweets reminded me of the situation in southeastern Europe in 1915, referred to by a volunteer air worker as “muddling diplomacy.”

Britain loans £5 million to Romania to try and secure support in the war. Romania strategically placed between Germany and Ottoman Empire


British government agrees plan for naval attack on the Dardanelles.

What does the Dardanelles have to do with Serbia? Well, quite. In 1915, members of the War Council were torn between two ways of helping Allied interests in southeastern Europe: an expeditionary force to Serbia to help defend against the Austro-Hungarian and German armies attempting to join with Turkey (for example via the Berlin-Baghdad railway which ran through Serbia), or ground forces to back up the naval bombardment at the Dardanelles. There was political will to send one expeditionary force away from the Western front, but not both. For the politicians on the war cabinet, it was a choice between the two, although many, including Winston Churchill, favoured both.

My MA thesis includes a section about the political debate over sending British military aid to Serbia, which I’m including below. One thing that struck me while reviewing this (and I remember being equally surprised when I undertook the research initially) is the degree to which members of the War Council were personally concerned with the situation in Serbia. It shouldn’t be surprising, though: it was a world war, after all. The contemporary British public and their leaders were interested in all aspects of the war on all fronts. Serbia, like Belgium, was an important ideological ally for Britain. It’s only the “memory” of the war that seems to have forgotten this.

This was one aspect of the “muddling diplomacy” that prevented military aid being sent to Serbia in 1915 until it was too late;  the obsession with Bulgaria and (to a lesser extent) Romania was another. British volunteers and officials in on the ground in Serbia were the ones who dealt with the reactions and results of  the War Council’s decisions (or lack thereof).

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