This story from Oldham is in the best tradition of wartime endeavour and adventure, showing just how much women played their part. It’s a long post and a gripping story.
Some of the extracts are taken from Mabel Stobart’s book, ‘A Flaming Sword in Serbia’.
Oldham Doctor in Serbia: A Lady’s Thrilling Experience
In February 1915 the Serbian Relief Fund asked Mrs St Clair Stobart to organise a hospital unit to work in the field with the Serbian army. For several years the Serbs had been engaged in military struggles with the Austro-Hungarian forces but during the early months of 1915 there was a lull in hostilities which the Serbs were using to try to rebuild and re-equip their battered army. Soldiers returning on leave to their families had spread the typhus virus and during the winter of 1914-1915 and on into the summer months, a deadly epidemic raged throughout the civilian population, killing thousands including doctors and medical staff.
Mrs St Clair Stobart gathered together a group of 89 volunteers including seven doctors, nursing sisters, orderlies, dispensers, cooks, chauffeurs, a treasurer, a chaplain, someone in charge of clothing and an interpreter. Ten of the group were men but, apart from one of the dispensers and the man in charge of x-rays, all the medical staff were women.
The seven doctors had all worked in northern hospitals and four had worked in Oldham. Dr Kate King-May Atkinson and Dr Mabel Eliza King-May were sisters born in London who had both trained in Manchester and had held brief posts at Oldham Infirmary. Dr Edith Maude Marsden was born in Rochdale, she too worked for a short time at the Infirmary and at a children’s hospital in Manchester.
Dr Catherine Payne came to Oldham in 1910 to take up the post of Senior Resident House Surgeon at Oldham Infirmary and moved in the spring of 1911 to take up a similar post at Oldham Poor Law Union, staying until she resigned to go to Serbia in 1915. She was born in Monks Eleigh, Suffolk in 1877 and completed her medical training in 1907 at Royal Free Hospital, London.
She went to Serbia with the best wishes of the Board of the Union
Minutes of meeting 17th March 1915
It was moved by Miss Lees, seconded by Mr. Philip Buckley and resolved:
That the board, having received and accepted the resignation of Miss Catherine Payne M.B.B.S. of the appointment of Resident Assistant Medical Officer at the Oldham Poor Law Institution do place on record their esteem, regard and high appreciation of the valuable services rendered by her to the Sick Indoor Poor during the period she has held that position and do express their sincere hope that in Serbia whither she is about to proceed she may be given health to continue the practice of her profession with that skill which has hitherto characterised her efforts.
It was decided that the hospital unit would be housed completely under canvas to enable it to be fully mobile and also because it was thought living in the open air would render people safer from the typhus epidemic. The Serbian Relief Fund was able to raise the money needed from charitable donations and so sixty tents were specifically made for wards, x-ray, operating theatre, surgery, dispensary, bathrooms, kitchens, staff accommodation etc and furnished with camp beds, tables and folding chairs. The party left on 1st April 1915, some personnel sailed from Liverpool with the equipment and supplies and some travelled overland.
The train of which I was a commander, and some of the flying field hospital unit, with field kitchen, Motor ambulances, wagons, oxen, horses and soldiers, leaving Kragujevatz for the front.
Other similar female hospital units had been raised around the same time and it was not until she arrived in Serbia that Mrs St Clair Stobart learned that her unit would be based at Kragujevatz which was the Serbian military headquarters. They were all pleased to be in such a central position. The equipment had to come overland from Salonica and it was April 23rd before the hospital was finally set up on the town race course. There was an avenue of staff tents, an avenue of ward tents and a third avenue for the kitchens, x-ray and dispensary.
There had been no fighting in the area for some time, so for the first few weeks the hospital cared for convalescent soldiers but soon found that civilians came begging to be treated. Years of hostilities had meant Serbian medical resources had been concentrated on the army and the typhus epidemic had taken its toll. The unit set aside some of its beds for non military patients, then it was decided to set up dispensaries for civilians. Seven were established in a twenty-mile radius around the main Kragujevatz hospital camp staffed by members of the Stobart hospital.
Stobart dispensaries around Kragujevatz, Serbia
During the summer of 1915 fund raising continued at home. Dr King-May returned to England in June and spent three weeks giving lectures and attending events organised by some influential women in the north of England which raised several thousand pounds. Seven motor ambulances with stretchers – one for each dispensary – and some ox wagons were provided. The London department store Derry and Toms presented the unit with two wagons and supplies arrived for the dispensaries.
In September it was rumoured that the Bulgarian troops were massing on the Serbian frontier and that the Austrians and Germans were forming up on the Danube, the situation looked serious. The Serbian army began to mobilise and Mrs St Clair Stobart was asked to organise a group of her volunteers to accompany them to the front as a flying field hospital. To go to the front with the army, to tend to any casualties, had always been part of what was expected of them.
Two doctors were chosen for the front, Dr Catherine Payne and Dr Beatrice Coxon, one of the original seven doctors. She was a Northumbrian and had worked in Preston hospitals before going to Serbia. The others in the group were four women nurses, one woman cook, two women orderlies, a dispenser, six chauffeurs, two interpreters, one secretary and sixty Serbian soldiers who were to serve as ambulance men and drivers. They took with them six of the motor ambulances to transport the staff and their baggage, thirty oxen and horse wagons to transport hospital equipment, tents and stores. Their wheeled field kitchen had been taken from the Austrian army in 1914. The Serbian Colonel Dragitch put Mrs. St Clair Stobart in charge of the whole unit and said the soldiers were to follow any orders she gave them.
All the remaining personnel stayed in the field hospital at Kragujevatz with Dr King-May in charge. Six nurses were travelling overland to replace the staff leaving to go with army. The dispensaries had to close, so once again the civilians suffered to meet the needs of the military.
On Thursday September 30th marching orders were expected at any time. Early that morning German aeroplanes flew over the town of Kragujevatz and dropped bombs, killing five people and wounding many more. The next morning they came again, this time targeting the hospital but failing to hit anything important. Comment was made that white tents presented too clear a target and that in future green or khaki canvas would be better. Later that day, Friday 1st October, the hospital, known officially as The First Serbian-English Field Hospital (Front) – Commandant Madame Stobart and attached to the Schumadia Division of 25,000 men, left for the front.
The hospital, with all the personnel and equipment, including all the vehicles boarded a train and travelled north to Pirot. They disembarked and set up the hospital camp surrounded by soldiers in their bivouacs all expecting to march into Bulgaria. All was quiet and after a few days the convoy was ready to move by road to Stananitza and then on to Nish. Here they encountered wounded soldiers arriving by train from Belgrade and learned that the city had been taken by the German army. After spending a few days tending to casualties who arrived by train from Belgrade in the north, the hospital and all its equipment boarded a train bound for Belgrade but before they reached the city they had to disembark and that was the last time they travelled by train.
From this point the Serbian army was in retreat and initially moved south to Dobrido. Columns of refugees were also moving south from villages south of Belgrade which had been bombarded by the Germans, the hope was that the Allies would arrive to help but that did not happen.
On 19th October news arrived that the tented hospital at Kragujevatz had received 180 wounded soldiers. The same day they also heard that the Germans were pressing south and were not far behind them and at 6 a.m. the next day they received marching orders once again. Things were serious, the Bulgarian and German armies were closing in and from now on the army was kept constantly on the move. Each night just some of the hospital tents were erected to allow the staff to do what they could for wounded soldiers, surgical operations became impossible. The terrain was difficult and muddy. On the road with the army were columns of civilians fleeing from towns and villages which had been overrun by the enemy. Instead of sleeping in tents the hospital staff were sometimes able to spend a night in houses abandoned by Serbian families in anticipation of the German army arriving.
By the end of October they arrived at Voliovtza, but now the only casualties were those who could walk into the hospital, it was too dangerous for men to go into the field to rescue the more seriously wounded. Mrs St Clair Stobart heard that their field hospital in Kragujevatz had been abandoned, they later found out that the staff managed to get back to England. When they reached Varvarin they had been driven further south than Kragujevatz and that town, with its army headquarters, had fallen to the Germans. The Schumadia Division was retreating at the rate of 20 miles on some days, the enemy were so close that any accident or delay would be catastrophic. On one occasion one of the motor vehicles broke down and four cows were commandeered from a farm to pull it.
The route south from Kupci to Blatzi was through a narrow pass and there was a great fear that the Germans would block off the northern end and the Bulgars would move from the south to cut them off at the southern end, leaving the Serbs trapped in the pass. The only hope was to get through as quickly as possible so they set off in the dark at 5 a.m. The pass was completely filled with the army, refugees and all kinds of vehicles. After 25 hours of continuous marching, with the sound of gunfire all around, they reached the mid point of the pass and were able to snatch a few hours’ rest but at 4 p.m. they set out again to complete the journey. There was still hope that the British or French armies were on the way from Salonika and once through the pass everyone would be safe. They knew, however that if help did not arrive the only escape was over the Montenegrin mountains to the coast of Albania.
On November 15th they arrived at Marzovatz, the hospital unit set up camp for a few hours to provide treatment, more for sickness among the army than for wounds. They managed to acquire more carts and oxen so all the animals could pull lighter loads but by now it was snowing and the animals were suffering from the cold. Many of the army officers had been on horseback but the horses had been worked so hard that a lot died of cold and exhaustion. They all crossed the plain of Kosovo in intense cold and arrived at Prishtina. Here Mrs St Clair Stobart received the order for the hospital unit to head for Kosovan town of Dresnik with the army. About 200,000 people – soldiers, refugees with their animals, carts and supplies started on the trek all of them organised into columns. There were a few different routes through the mountains but it was essential for a column to stay together to retain access to their own food and other supplies and for about 80 people, with assorted animals and vehicles moving at different speeds, that was not easy. From Monday November 22nd the hospital unit marched for 81 hours with only brief stops during which the staff were often in demand. When they arrived at Dresnik they found a deserted farm where they ate round a campfire then pitched their tents and got some decent sleep in camp beds.
The way ahead was now on foot over the mountains and the members of the field hospital and their accompanying sixty soldiers made preparations. They sawed the ox carts in half to create two-wheeled vehicles which might be more suited to the terrain and lighter for the oxen to pull, they bought ponies to carry equipment in panniers and they bought food. They were only able to find maize flour, rice and beans so that was their staple diet for the mountain crossing. They gave most of the tents and some surgical supplies to a hospital in nearby Pec. Their five remaining cars were destroyed to avoid them falling into enemy hands.
They set out at daybreak on Friday December 3rd. After only one day they entered ravines which were only two or three feet wide in places, impassable for the carts. The retreating army was using several similar routes over the mountains but there was a danger that many people would be held up by jammed carts and so the order was given by the military high command forbidding from them going any further. The hospital unit had to abandon its field kitchen, tents, camp beds and most of its remaining medical equipment and supplies. It would now be difficult to help anyone in need.
Mrs St Clair Stobart wrote in A Flaming Sword page 245:
It took us, at first, a long time to pack the ponies but we were away by dawn (Monday, December 6th), climbing up the mountain, through the fir trees, over slippery ice, and rocks which were half hidden in snow. There was no longer a defined way; the whole earth was now an untrodden track, from or to perdition. Whichever way you looked, oxen, horses, and human beings were struggling, and rolling, and stumbling, all day long, in ice and snow.
As the physical difficulties of the route increased, the difficulty, for all the columns of securing bread for men, and hay for the oxen, and for the horses, increased also, with the result that the track became more and more thickly lined, with the dead bodies of oxen, and of horses, and worse still – of men. Men by the hundred lay dead: dead from cold and hunger by the roadside, their eyes staring at the irresponsive sky; and no one could stop to bury them. The whole scene was a combination of mental and physical misery, difficult to describe in words ……… it is believed that not less than 10,000 human beings lie sepulchred in those mountains.
Each night they bivouacked where they could with thousands of others on sloping ground near a campfire for some warmth.
On Thursday December 9th they reached the village of Kalatchi and an Albanian offered the women the chance of a night in his house. They bought and cooked a sheep then gave the man some tea from their provisions. Soon they were back on the rough mountain tracks hoping to reach Yabuka where there was a military station which might have bread for them. They got there on Monday night, the women managed to cram into one room of a hotel and the soldiers slept in outhouses.
Thursday December 16th was the last day in the mountains, they arrived in Podgorica, capital of Montenegro. Everywhere was packed but they found space in a school. The next morning the women had the luxury of riding in lorries to Plevnitza. At this point Dr Catherine Payne and Dr Beatrice Coxon together with some of the other women took a boat to Scutari, the rest of the party went by road. The Stobart field hospital column was one of the few to reach their destination without losing any men or women.
Nine months after they had arrived in Serbia, the women set out for home by bullock cart to the Adriatic coast, boat to Brindisi, train through Italy to Paris and they arrived in London on December 23rd 1915.
On her return to Oldham Dr Payne was interviewed by a reporter from the Oldham Evening Chronicle:
We left England on March 27th and arrived at Kragujevatz on May 1st. We went out to carry on a field hospital for wounded soldiers, but by the time we arrived the soldiers were practically all convalescents, as there had been no series fighting there for some months. Out hospital was entirely of tents, including operating theatre; we had no buildings whatever. We were dealing with the soldiers for a month or two, and then, as there was no fighting, we started dispensaries for the civilian population, one at Kragujevatz and five others round about at a distance of about 20 miles away; and we also had tents set apart for civilian in-patients.
We did that until war broke out again, and then I went with Mrs Stobart to a small field hospital with the army. First of all we went to Pirot, south of Nish, and then as there was no fighting we went north again almost as far as Belgrade, and then began the retreat of the Serbian army. We did quite a lot of work in the way of first dressings, but we were not able to do any operations then as we had to keep moving owing to the army being gradually pushed back. At first we retreated about two or three miles a day but afterwards we had to go faster and cover ten or twelve miles a day. One time we were going through a mountain pass with the Germans behind us and threatening us on either side, and the Bulgars closing in from the east and threatening to cut us off, and we had to hurry and get through the pass as quickly as we could move. There was very heavy fighting for about 20 or 30 miles south of Belgrade, but after that the Serbians practically gave it up and simply retreated all the time.
We had our motor ambulances part of the time and also bullock wagons as far as Prishtina and across to Ipek, but from there we had to walk the whole of the way. The footpaths over the mountains were too narrow for vehicles and only ponies could be used on them, so we left our motor ambulances at Ipek, where they were blown up. We were four days going over the mountains from Ipek to Andrievitza, and six days from there to Podgoritza. From there we able to ride. It was on a sort of lorry with our luggage in the bottom and us on top. We reached Plevinitza and crossed the lake in a motor boat to Scutari, and from there we rode in bullock wagons to San Giovanni, on the Adriatic coast, which we reached on December 19th. There we hot a steamer across to Brindisi, and train thought Italy to Paris, and we arrived in London on the 23rd.
Although it was very hard, of course, I quite enjoyed the journey over the mountains. The difficulty of the journey was not so much the walking as the shortage of food. We had only bread and it was very coarse and indigestible, so much so that it made people ill and then they could not eat it and so they had to starve.
It was awful seeing all the dead animals lying by the side of the road and to see the hungry people cutting the flesh off them – especially the Austrian prisoners who had been taken by the Serbians before and who had been let loose to take care of themselves.
In the first part of the journey we saw many Serbian peasants retreating with their worldly possessions all packed on bullock wagons, with supplies of food for the journey, and the children tied on top, and the sheep, and so on, running by the side. But later on we did not see that. The Bulgars had come in from the east and cut them off, and the Germans and Austrians were coming southward and there was nowhere for them to go. So a great many of tem had to stay behind and they must be starving. There must be terrible distress in Serbia now, for their was no food, not even to buy. It had all been taken for the army. What will become of these people one cannot tell.
Shortly after her return to Oldham Dr Payne resumed her post with the Oldham Union but after a few months she fell ill with tuberculosis and was unable to work. All the staff of the Serbian Relief Fund field hospital were given a Serbian bravery award but when Catharine’s arrived she had lapsed into unconsciousness and was never aware of it. She died after a long illness on February 4th 1918 aged just 41 years. She was buried in Chadderton Cemetery.
Mabel Stobart, A Flaming Sword in Serbia, 1916
Oldham Evening Chronicle, available at Oldham Local History and Archives