“Two great people in soul, but small in number, Scottish people and Serbian both known by their heroism, were so far apart and did not know each other. Now these people since the four years of this terrible world’s war … the one helped the other when her army was in great need. And the daughters of this great mission are in every county where Serbs are gathered and also at the front, and are in the same danger as the army… On the heart of every Serbian is lying the remembrance of the love of the Scottish people… the Scottish women, who have done so much for us, and are doing still in these difficult days where life is hard…in the end dear noble ladies, believe me that is only a poor sign of our expression of all we feel, and that I cannot put in words, and in your language, and also that is impossible to say in words all we mean and feel. I cannot but to exclaim veve la Ecosse!”
Letter received by the Honorary Secretary of the Scottish Women’s Hospital from Serbia on a visit to the hospital in Ajaccio, Corsica, Autumn 1918.
In researching the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, messages that dote on the heroism and bravery of Scotland and her people are not uncommon. The gratitude expressed in this letter and many others from Serbia is immensely moving.
The story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals is extraordinary. The organization was founded in 1914 by Elsie Inglis, a surgeon from Edinburgh. After the War Office rejected her offer to serve in the First World War, she formed an organization that sent all-female field hospitals to the war to help Britain’s allies. The letters, such as that above, are a testament to the work that the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals did on the front.
Much of my research looks at the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and their experience as women in a predominantly male world – both war and medicine (which was gradually changing). However, the phrases such as “veve la Ecosse” stand out. It’s these subtle, or in this particular case not so subtle, remarks that have me asking other questions that are, most of the time, unessential to my argument at hand. Here are two thoughts:
Thought 1: Just before the war, Scotland was fighting for Home Rule, and arguably, fighting to break the perception that England was Britain. While the war placed Scottish Home Rule on the back-burner, the recognition of Scotland by her allies shows an outside perception of Scotland’s position. The Serbs recognized Scotland and her war efforts as separate from that of England and the United Kingdom. While tempted to ask how England interpreted this, I am inclined to believe that it was accepted as a note of gratitude for the whole of British war aid and not in as literal of a manner as I’ve interpreted it here.
Thought 2: Connecting this with another project on the Scottish National War Memorial, I find myself asking new questions. The Scottish National War Memorial is a testament to both the collective and individual efforts of a nation bound together by their Scottish identity: Scottish not British. The memorial itself cried “veve la Ecosse.” However, the purpose of this memorial was not only to recognize the war effort of the Scottish people but to honor the ultimate sacrifice made by her sons and daughters. It offered loved ones with a place to grieve in the absence of the physical body. Although, when I read such letters of appreciation as shared above, I wonder what the Scottish National War Memorial meant for Scotland’s allies. When those touched by Scotland’s war aid visited the memorial, what did it mean for them? I venture to say that amongst other things, the memorial shed its commemoration of Scottish efforts and stood as a testament for all who sacrificed in the “four years of this terrible world’s war,” they saw their own nation’s sacrifice through the Scottish National War Memorial.