THE funeral of Dr Elsie Inglis, who died 100 years ago this month, brought the city of Edinburgh to a standstill. The woman the War Office told to “go home and sit still” had added the title of war hero to her list of remarkable achievements that include medical pioneer and campaigner for a woman’s right to vote.

On the anniversary of her death on November 26, a special tribute is being paid to her as part of the Scotland’s History Festival and her achievements are being marked by WW100 Scotland who commemorate Scotland’s part in the First World War.

That she is being remembered in this way is due largely to the work of Alan Cumming, a football fan from Cumbernauld, who came across her story when he travelled to Serbia to watch a match in 2006.

He befriended a Serbian and, as they toured the sights, he was shown a plaque dedicated to Inglis.

“I knew the name and that there was a connection to Edinburgh but that was about it,” Cumming told The National. “I found out she was really well known in Serbia and described as the Serbian mother. It was funny to think I had gone 2000 miles to find out a story from my own back yard.”


CUMMING decided to find out more and uncovered the full story of Inglis’s courage as well as the bravery of all the women who went with her and saved many lives by setting up field hospitals supporting Britain’s allies.

“I discovered the Mitchell Library had all the files of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals that she set up and I started to look into it. I had never done anything like that before as I live a very ordinary kind of life.

‘‘I work hard, have a family and go to the football and before this I had never done any research but it got under my skin.”

As one of the first women doctors in Scotland, Inglis had already embarked on pioneering work with women and babies in the slums of Edinburgh, saving lives in a period when there were scant medical resources for the poor – particularly pregnant women, many of whom died in childbirth.

When war broke out she volunteered her services to the British Army only to be told “Good lady, go home and sit still.”

Cumming said: “Elsie being Elsie was having none of that and offered her services to Belgians, French and Serbs and all of them accepted.”


THE women first supported Belgian troops in France but the story really takes off when they started supporting troops in Serbia.

“The women felt empowered there,” said Cumming. “They were accepted by the generals and felt they had a voice as they were listened to about where they wanted their field units.

“The Serbs were in dire need when they got there – virtually on their knees, mainly because of a typhus epidemic.”

Four Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) staff – Louisa Jordan, Madge Fraser, Augusta Minshull and Bessie Sutherland – died during the epidemic.

What surprised Cumming most was that so many women had gone with Inglis to work in the SWH. “I just expected there to be about 20 women from the UK but once I started the research I found out that around 1400 women joined the SWH,” he said.

‘‘However, the application forms just showed their names – there was no date of birth or where they were born and I wondered who these women were.”

Painstaking research uncovered women from all over Scotland as well as the rest of the UK and further afield.

“They were from Selkirk, Hawick, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Thurso, the Western Isles, Oban – they were from all over Scotland. I thought it was remarkable that these women 100 years ago had packed up their stuff and gone out to support this small Balkan nation.”


BY the winter of 1915 Serbia could hold out no more against the Austrian army which had been joined by German and Bulgarian forces and invaded, again, forcing the Serbian army to retreat into Albania.

The SWH staff had a terrible choice to make: stay and be taken captive – or worse – or go with the retreating army into Albania.

Inglis, who was suffering from cancer, and others were taken prisoner and were eventually repatriated to Britain.

The others joined the Serbian army and government in its retreat over the mountains of Albania and Montenegro in the depths of winter with no food, shelter or help. Soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war perished.

“About 200,000 men, women and children died on the retreat,” said Cumming. “Most people know about what we did in the First World War war but very few know much about Serbia and in actual fact they played a critical part in the war.

‘‘It is difficult to see how it would have ended if they hadn’t been involved.” On her return, rather than rest, Inglis began campaigning for help for Serbia.

“She was furious about how they had been treated by the Allies in their hour of need. She felt they had just been left to be cannon fodder but she never gave up on them.”


INGLIS was asked by the Serbian government if she would go to the Russian front where the Serbs were fighting so she headed off with nearly 80 women to set up two field hospitals.

When it became clear the Bolshevik revolution was in full flow and Russian troops no longer had an appetite for war, Britain demanded that Inglis come home. She refused until 8000 Serbian soldiers were guaranteed safe passage.

“She saved their lives because they would have just been left to fight and would have been completely slaughtered,” said Cumming. “She was still thinking of others even though she was dying.”

Inglis died the day after she finally returned to Britain.

Cumming added: “It’s not just a first war story, it’s an important part of social and Scottish history and a very important part of Serbian history.”

Cumming believes Inglis represents everything that is good about Scotland. “When Elsie saw suffering or injustice she wanted to make a difference. It makes me feel very proud. She was someone who built bridges and what she did paved the way for other women to come after her.

“The best way to remember her is by ensuring young people go out in the world knowing these stories. She is a great role model and someone young Scots can be proud of.”

Cumming will speak at An Afternoon with Elsie Inglis at Edinburgh’s City of Edinburgh Methodist Church on November 26.

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