Last Ship Home
Amidst the blackened earth and corporeal mayhem, fall out from a war tossed hither and thither on the horns of hubris
Creating the Centena
Elsie Inglis was a phenomenon. She was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in Scotland. She was a leading suffragist, taking the platform from Shetland to Cornwall. She was a socially minded physician who took her care way beyond the carpeted surgery. She regularly ventured forth into the unlit tenements of the Edinburgh underprivileged, helping deliver a baby, boiling milk in a pan for a worn-out mother, supporting a sick wife who was denied treatment in favour of her husband: earning her the nickname ‘the lady with the torch’.
When the War came she wanted to help. Turned down by the War Office, her assistance was welcomed by the Allies. With the help of the global suffrage movement, she raised the equivalent of £53 million in today’s money, with which she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.
There were seventeen in all, each nearer to the front line than any other hospital including the Red Cross. 1500 women from all over Britain and beyond joined her and, bar the odd gardener and chef, the hospitals were run entirely by women. Including the sawing off of gangrenous limbs.
Scottish Women’s Hospitals came to regarded, by the French and Serbian authorities, as unparalleled. Wounded Allied soldiers (though sadly not the British because they were ineligible) prayed that they would be sent to one. In the words of one Frenchman, they were ‘paradise’.
In Serbia, Elsie was venerated as a Saint for not only did she tend the wounded, she reformed Serbia’s whole medical system and regularly treated children, women and the old as well as soldiers. And she laid her own life on the line for the Serbian Army when it was virtually abandoned by the Allies on the eastern front after the Russians withdrew from conflict following the 1917 Revolution.
That’s 300 words: an ice cube off the iceberg. I couldn’t possibly tell her story in 100 words. Though I tried, in the very first centena ever written, in January, in Amsterdam, where I was tutoring a Dark Angels course. Luckily my editor, Becca Magnus, had the pluck to give me some decent feedback. Though back then I thought: “Who’s this whippersnapper!” But I sat with her criticism for a couple of months till the hurt pride eventually flaked off, almost invisibly, like dead skin.
What drove and sustained Elsie? That was my new question.
Last year I was commissioned to write a booklet on Elsie for the Scottish Commemoration Panel’s WW100SCOTLAND campaign. Both commissioner and scribe were pleased with the account but there was barely more than one line about her strong religious faith. We couldn’t exclude her dying words though: “So, I am going over to the other side. For a long time I meant to live, but now I know I am going. This is wonderful – but this is wonderful.”
Why was her faith not made more of? Maybe because it’s hard to reconcile God with war. Maybe the only way to do that, is if you believe in free will, human drama and an ultimate, ineffable healing (when ‘the fire and the rose are one’.)
Did Elsie believe that? I don’t know. But I had to try and put myself in her size 3½ shoes.
(A note on the cross. I agonised over whether it should be a crucifix or an empty cross. Most of Elsie’s work as a surgeon took place in Serbia. She is on record as adoring the Serbs. She, like her parents, was an Anglican, yet happy to worship in a Church of Scotland kirk. Not rigidly denominational. More than happy therefore – I imagine – to hang a Serbian Orthodox cross on the wall of her operating theatre.)
Lives of the First World War
You can find out more about Elsie Inglis here at Lives of the First World War
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