|Waiting for the Allies: British Civilian Women as Prisoners of War|
|From as early as September 1914, British Women civilians headed for Serbia to help with the war effort as aid-workers and hospital staff. Unlike other belligerent countries, Serbia welcomed these volunteers, grateful for any assistance offered. The women came from a range of different backgrounds and travelled with various organisations: the British Red Cross, the Serbian Relief Fund, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and the British Farmer’s Unit.
For over a year these women worked with the Serbian people, civilian and military, dealing with both the casualties of war – Serbia’s third in as many years – and a crippling typhoid epidemic. But in October 1915 they faced a new threat. Serbia was invaded on several fronts by the armies of Germany, Austria and Bulgaria. The women, like the Serbians, waited for the Allies, who had advanced as far as Salonika and had allegedly promised aid. They never came. Many of the women were evacuated. But some refused to abandon their posts, to leave their hospitals, their staff and their patients. Inadvertently, they became prisoners of war.
This paper explores these experiences through the written records of the women who chose to stay behind; who deliberately put themselves onto the front line because their sense of commitment and duty would not allow them to do otherwise. Lady Paget, commandant of the Serbian Relief Fund hospital at Skoplje became a prisoner of the Bulgarians. Also the wife of Sir Ralph Paget, the Commissioner for the British relief units in Serbia, she left a full published report of the experience. Dr Elsie Inglis and Dr Alice Hutchinson, both of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, were kept prisoner by the Germans in Serbia and in Hungary. They too wrote of their experiences. These testimonies illustrate the extraordinary situation that the women found themselves in, the hardship they endured and their determination to retain their civilian status (for under the terms of the Geneva Convention they should not have been kept prisoner at all). The accounts also emphasise their resolution to represent Britain in wartime, while never forgetting the patients, whose welfare they always placed above their own.