2012 seems to be a year of anniversaries, writes Hilary Green, but one that has not been mentioned is the outbreak of the First Balkan War on October 5th 1912, in which Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece allied themselves to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Macedonia. This may seem at first sight a localised and relatively unimportant event but its significance is twofold. Firstly, it prefigured and to some extent laid the foundations for the First World War; and secondly, and more importantly for me as a writer of historical fiction, it gave an opportunity to a group of remarkable women to prove that women could play a useful role alongside men at a time of war.
Mabel Stobart and FANY
One of the prime movers in this endeavour was Mabel Stobart. Born in 1862, she went to South Africa with her husband to farm on the veldt; but after his death she returned in 1907 to live in London. She found a country obsessed with the fear of imminent invasion by Germany and it struck her that, if such an invasion occurred, most of the women of her acquaintance would be incapable of performing any useful function. They would not even know how to bind up their menfolk’s wounds. She set about looking for an organisation that might remedy this state of affairs and found the First Aid Women’s Yeomanry, know for short as the FANY, which had recently come into existence.
The FANY was the brainchild of Edward Baker, an ex-sergeant major in the Guards regiment. He had been wounded in the last great cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman and had realised that all around him men were dying for want of basic first aid. On leaving the army he advertised for young ladies with a spirit of adventure to join his First Aid Yeomanry with the object of creating a corps of mounted nurses who could gallop onto the battle field when the fighting was over and care for the wounded. His call was eagerly answered and the corps embarked on a routine of training which encompassed not only First Aid, but horsemanship, including mounted cavalry manoeuvres, camp cookery, signalling and even basic veterinary techniques.
The Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy
Mabel Stobart enrolled as a member, but by 1912 internal dissension within the Corps brought about a split and she decided to create her own organisation, along the same lines. Thus was born the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy. Stobart was a feminist and a believer in women’s suffrage, but she did not agree with the suffragettes. She believed that in order to prove that they were worthy of having the vote women first needed to prove that they were able to be as brave and resourceful as men and prepared to endure the same dangers and privations in defence of their country. She did not think women should fight, as she saw their role as nurturing and protecting rather than killing, but she did think they should be able to go to the Front Line in case of war in order to rescue and succour the wounded.
When the First Balkan War broke out, Stobart saw the perfect opportunity to demonstrate her ideas in practice. She gathered together a group of women doctors, nurses and volunteers, put them and their equipment on the Orient Express and went to Sophia, the capital of Bulgaria. Here she got an introduction to the King and Queen, who were most impressed by the courage a dedication of the women. They were refused permission to go as far as the Front Line, which by then was at Chataldza almost on the doorstep of Istanbul, but they were eventually allowed to travel to Lozengrad, the nearest large town. After a six-day trek in ox carts, over roads axle-deep in mud, as winter was almost upon them, they reached the town, commandeered two houses left vacant by fleeing Turks, and set up a hospital. Within twenty-four hours they were accepting wounded turned away by the overwhelmed Red Cross facility. These men also had to endure a six day journey, having received only basic First Aid behind the lines, and arrived in terrible condition, filthy, starving and suffering from exposure as well as their wounds. Within hours Stobart’s nurses had them bathed, fed and in bed between clean sheets. Their wounds were treated and there was even an operating theatre where amputations could be carried out if necessary. Stobart had succeeded in creating the first military hospital to be entirely run and staffed by women.
The war ended in a peace treaty which satisfied none of the parties, and within months the Bulgarians were at war with the Serbs and the Greeks over who should control which parts of Macedonia.
‘We want no petticoats here’
Stobart and her companions earned the undying gratitude of the Bulgarian and Serbian soldiers they nursed but if they hoped that their efforts would be recognised back in England they were to be disappointed. Disillusioned, Stobart turned her attention to town planning and became involved in the creation of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. Meanwhile, the FANY, under the direction of a redoubtable Scotswoman called Grace Ashley Smith, had continued to train and had earned the respect of the army’s Surgeon General, who recommended them to Sir Arthur Sloggett, Chief Commissioner of the Red Cross. When World War 1 broke out they confidently anticipated being allowed to play their part. They, too, were disappointed. The attitude of the High Command towards the involvement of women in military matters was summed up by the response of one general. ‘For God’s sake, madam, go home and sit still! We want no petticoats here.’
In contrast to the British disdain, the Belgians were happy to accept Ashley Smith’s offer of help and the FANY were given the use of an abandoned convent in Calais to turn into a hospital. There they accepted not only the wounded but typhus patients, who were turned away from other hospitals. They also drove ambulances up to the Front Line, collecting the wounded and distributing comforts to the troops; they set up canteens where men could get a hot drink and a little respite from the horror of the trenches; they even formed a ‘concert party’ to entertain them. Initially they worked for the Belgians and the French but eventually their efforts were recognised by the British High Command and they were taken on under the auspices of the Red Cross, while retaining their independence. In recognition of their bravery in extricating casualties under fire many of them were decorated. For their efforts in one night alone they earned sixteen Military Medals and two Croix de Guerre.
The Serbian Retreat
Meanwhile, Stobart had returned to the fray. After setting up her own hospitals in France and being taken prisoner by the Germans she escaped being shot as a spy when one of the German officers, who was also interested in town planning, recognised her as one of those involved in planning Hampstead. By this time Serbia, the powder-keg whose explosion had triggered the war, was facing attack from the Austro-Hungarians on one front and the Bulgarians on another; so Stobart, who had conceived a great affection for the ordinary Serbian soldier, set off once again with a group of volunteers. She was given a hospital to run outside Kragujevac and then asked to take a medical team up to the front line with Bulgaria. She had hardly reached the appointed place before the Bulgars and the Austrians launched a concerted attack. Pushed back and back by superior forces, the Serbians found themselves in the dead of winter with their backs to the Albanian mountains and had to make a choice. They could make one last stand and almost certainly be annihilated, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains to the port of Durres in the hope of being picked up by Allied ships. They chose the latter and the story of that epic retreat is grim in the extreme. In terrible weather, with snow up to the horses’ knees, along mountain tracks too narrow to take a wagon and over rickety bridges above swollen rivers, they struggled onwards. Thousands died of exposure and starvation and the survivors were forced to abandon all their equipment and arms. And Mabel Stobart, then fifty-three years old, led her party through it with them, sometimes spending eighteen hours a day on horseback.
Finally, the remnants reached Durres and were picked up and taken to Corfu to recover. From Durres Stobart and her team returned to England, but one young girl, Flora Sands, did not go with them. She had become separated from her unit some time further back and had been taken up by a company of Serbian soldiers. With them, she had fought her way to the coast, insisting on being given a rifle so that she could play her part. When the other women went back to England, she went with her adopted company to Corfu, where she was instrumental in bullying the occupying French and British into re-supplying the exhausted and starving Serbs. As a reward she was commissioned as a sergeant in the Serbian army, the first women ever to be accepted as a fighting soldier in a modern army. After a brief return to England to raise money for comforts for the troops, she went with them to Thessaloniki and then fought alongside them as they forced their way over the mountains and back into their homeland. It was the collapse of the German resistance and the handing over of Belgrade to the Serbs that triggered the final request for an armistice and the end of the war.
The ‘Leonora’ Trilogy
I discovered the FANY when I was researching the activities of SOE in the Second World War, but faced with such spine-chilling events and such extraordinary characters what could a novelist do but incorporate them into a story? Or, to be precise, into three stories. They became the basis for my ‘Leonora’ trilogy, in which two young women run away from the stifling proprieties of pre-war London to join Mabel Stobart at Lozengrad and subsequently serve with her or with the FANY through Serbia and France until the end of the Great War.
Researching these books gave me great enjoyment as there are so many first-hand accounts to draw on. Stobart and Flora Sands have both written autobiographies and the Imperial War Museum in London has many letters and diaries written by members of the FANY during their time in France. I also travelled to Belgrade and to modern-day Macedonia to see towns such as Bitola, which lies on the cross-roads between the ancient Roman Via Egnatia, which ran from Rome to Constantinople and the main route from the port of Thessaloniki to central Europe. It was hard fought over when the Serbs were trying to force their way back into their own country and several of the books’ dramatic events are set there.
Leonora is a fictional character and her personal story is my own invention; but the events and the characters surrounding her are drawn from life and as accurate as I can make them.