The History of Leith

November 26, 2006

True heroines of the battlefield


THE sound of bombs is deafening and the green fields of northern France are now stained with the blood of thousands of brave soldiers.

From the mass grave of the Somme battlefield to the carnage of Ypres’ no man’s land, the death toll is rising daily as Europe finds itself locked in the bitter conflict of the First World War.

In the trenches, men as young as 16 prepare for the latest push over the top – another advance that will lead to many of their deaths.

And in a disused Abbey a few miles from the war zone, a group of women volunteers struggle to tend to the massive number of casualties.

Alongside their founder – Dr Elsie Inglis – these members of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Service are faced with a daily routine of blood, suffering and death as they strive to keep alive the young soldiers cut down by gunfire.

But although their base at Royaumont Abbey – around 45km from Paris – was seen as one of the most important centres for medical aid during the war, many of the stories about how these women transformed the damp, disused church into a groundbreaking field hospital have remained unknown and unrecognised over the past 80 years.

While the troops who risked their lives are remembered and honoured, the women doctors, nurses and orderlies who put themselves in the firing line have been all but forgotten.

Now there is a campaign to erect a statue in Edinburgh to Inglis and the members of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Service so their work will be permanently remembered.

Here, we profile three women from Edinburgh and Lothian who risked their lives.

Elsie Dalyell
Dr Elsie Dalyell was one of the most respected and experienced doctors who worked at Royaumont during the war.

Although brought up in Sydney, she and her family were originally from West Lothian and had emigrated to Australia during the late 19th century – where she trained as a doctor after leaving school.

When war broke out she was quick to offer her services as a medic to the army and ended up travelling to Gallipoli with the Anzac forces during the first year of the conflict before joining the Scottish Women’s Hospital Service in Serbia in early 1915.

At 34, she was one of the oldest doctors in the unit based at the ruined Abbey. But alongside her comrades, she was able to help transform the crumbling church – which hadn’t been inhabited for more than 50 years – into one of the best field hospitals in France.

She led a team of doctors and nurses who treated many of the badly wounded soldiers from the battlefields. With 600 beds and a fully equipped laboratory, the hospital became a vital place for front-line treatment and prided itself on its low mortality rate – less than two per cent of the total 11,000 patients treated there died.

By the time it closed in 1919, it was the longest continuously-operated voluntary hospital in France and Dr Elsie Dalyell had come to be regarded as one of the most distinguished of its “doctoresses”.

“These girls who went out to treat the wounded were all absolutely heroic,” says former Linlithgow MP and Father of the House Tam Dalyell, who is Dr Elsie’s nephew. “And Elsie was no different. She was a formidable lady – a real toughie who was keen to do as much as she could and go wherever she was needed.

“After the war, she continued to work as a doctor and by 1920 was practising in Vienna, where she became a world expert on rickets.”

The 73-year-old adds: “Then, when she returned to Australia, she became a firm friend of my mother who managed to keep in contact with her and found out about the work she’d done with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. But all of the women who went out there did such a tremendous job. They had the barest of equipment and used converted cars as makeshift ambulances, but the work they did helped to save so many lives.

“When you think that they must have seen the true horrors of warfare but just got on with what they felt they had to do, it’s an amazing achievement.”

Ariadne Mavis Dunderdale
Ariadne Dunderdale was in her early 20s when she left her home in the affluent outskirts of Edinburgh to sign up with the SWH.

After telling her parents that she wanted to become a nurse – much to the family’s disappointment, since her father didn’t believe it was a fitting occupation for a well-to-do young woman – she left Scotland and travelled to London in 1913.

But it was while she was working as a fully-qualified Sister, that she joined Inglis in travelling to France when war broke out.

“She always spoke very fondly of her experience there and enjoyed it very much,” explains Ariadne’s daughter Margaret Oddy, who is in her mid-80s and lives in Newington

“She didn’t really have many daring anecdotes or heroic tales. I don’t suppose many of the women who went out there did, as being on the front line became a normal part of their everyday lives rather than an exciting adventure.

“She and the other nurses helped a lot of men who had been wounded and I’m sure they saved an awful lot of lives.

“However, she did say that it could be quite difficult at times. Not just because of the horrific injuries or death that they saw every day, but more because there were a lot of Algerian and Moroccan men fighting in the war and they didn’t speak any English.

“Because the nurses and those soldiers couldn’t understand or speak to each other, the men were a little distrusting about what the women were doing. When they were brought to the hospital, they seemed to be very afraid that the nurses were going to cut them up or leave them to die when, in fact, they were there to do everything they could to help.”

Dorothy Littlejohn
Dorothy Littlejohn was a trained cook who had graduated from the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science when she decided to offer her services to the war effort.

The daughter of medical pioneer Sir Henry Littlejohn, the first Medical Officer for Health in Edinburgh, she didn’t share her father’s views on the value of women doctors and didn’t even approve of the suffragette movement – instead deciding to perform the more “womanly” duties of cooking for the hospital.

At 38, she was one of the oldest volunteers at the Abbey when she headed to Royaumont in 1915.

“She was one of the first women to go out there,” says her daughter, 85-year-old Rachel Hedderwick. “And at that time, the Abbey hadn’t been occupied for many, many years. There were no lights or facilities, so they were really starting completely from scratch.

“There was no running water there and only the most basic of cooking equipment, so it must have made life very difficult.

“And because the hospital was staffed by women, they all had to help carry stretchers up the steep stone steps and drag equipment into the wards. It was really a very heroic team effort.”

Dorothy was only at Royaumont for six months before she returned to Scotland to get married, and on her departure she was presented with a travelling clock by her orderlies – inscribed simply, but touchingly, “to the hand that fed us”.

Rachel, who now lives in Bridge of Allan, adds: “She kept a diary and wrote letters to my father which mention some of the things that she saw in France but she didn’t talk about it to us. It was only much later on that I discovered about the kind of work she’d done. All I can remember her saying were a few recollections about going out into the countryside with the other women there and how much she liked it when the soldiers went out into the forest and picked wild flowers for her.

“But it must have also been terrifying at times. They weren’t very far from the battlefields and could hear the guns firing in the distance, so it was a dangerous place for them.

“I certainly think there should be some kind of memorial set up to recognise the work they did. My mother and all of these other women did far more for the war effort than many others ever did.”

THERE are numerous statues and monuments erected in France and Serbia to commemorate Dr Elsie Inglis and the work of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Service in the First World War, but there is barely anything to mark their achievements on home soil.

And while in Serbia Inglis was awarded the Order of the White Eagle – the country’s highest honour – in Edinburgh there is just a small plaque honouring her fixed to St Giles’ on the Royal Mile where she lay in state after dying from cancer in 1917 and before her full military funeral.

There is her grave in Dean Cemetery, and the hospital she established near Abbeyhill is now a nursing home which still bears her name, but a new campaign is aiming to remember her with something more prominent.

So far, 60 MSPs have backed a campaign by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Committee, which they hope will lead to the Scottish Executive funding a £150,000 statue on the Royal Mile.

The plans have also been backed by doctors at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary and Princess Anne – although the city council has said that it cannot contribute to the cost of the monument.

To show your support for the campaign, please contact Ian McFarlane on 0131-668 1421, or e-mail


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