Friday, 26 May 2017

An astonishing tale from World War I

My plan this week had been to write something about James Brooke, perhaps following up any ideas that had come out of my talk on his life last night. Then I remembered that I have to spend Friday driving to Wales. I'm going to see the Anglesey Hussars at Fort Belan on Monday and we're making our way there by slow stages.

Anyway, all this activity means I don't have time to put my own blog together today, so I'm delighted to be posting one of the contributions that Marsali Taylor sent to cover my holiday break.

Marsali has a particular interest in women’s history. She has written Women’s Suffrage in Shetland and transcribed the diaries of an old lady she knew when she was a child: Ysabel Birkbeck, who was an ambulance driver on the Russian Front in 1916. Marsali is in the process of revising her edition of the diaries, Forgotten Heroines, using Birkbeck’s own typescript. She hopes the final version will be published later this year.

Marsali's web site is at and her Facebook page is

Aunt Ysabel

When WWI began, Dr Elsie Inglis, one of Scotland’s first women doctors, offered the War Office two front-line units staffed entirely by women. ‘Go home and sit still,’ she was told. Her reply was to create the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service, funded through the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. They established the first hospital outside Paris, attached to the French Army, and Dr Inglis herself went to Serbia. She and two others remained there even under German occupation, while the equally intrepid women with her marched over the Serbian mountains to safety.  When Serbia was relieved, Dr Inglis returned to Britain. She was already ill with the stomach cancer which was to kill her a year later, but she once more led a unit of 75 women to go with the Serbian army to the Romanian front.
         I came to the story of the indomitable Dr Inglis through my equally indomitable Aunt Ysabel. She wasn’t actually my aunt; we spent my childhood summers on her brother’s estate in the Highlands, and she lived in the next cottage along, six miles by boat from the road end. She had a head of snow-white curls, and wore the faded blue tunic and wide trousers of a Chinese peasant, a dress she’d adopted as a teenager when visiting her missionary brother-in-law. She bathed in the burn, read by Tilley lamp and cooked on an ancient gas stove, using provisions sent by post from the Army and Navy stores in London. Chaffinches flew in and out of her kitchen, and she’d take you round the back of the cottage to show you the story of the night’s wildlife in the muddy patch there: ‘That’s the dog fox’s pawprint – that’s an otter cub.’  

Aunt Ysabel at the helm of Mine.

         What I hadn’t known, as I’d helped carry buckets of stones to make a new jetty for Mine, her dinghy, or forced down her tar-black tea on picnic expeditions, was that Ysabel Birkbeck had driven an ambulance on the Russian Front in 1917 – until we bought her house after her death, and I found her diaries, two black-bound books bulging with tiny photographs and watercolour sketches.
         Reading the diaries made me really see how World War I was the turning-point in Edwardian women’s emancipation.  The Buffs, as the drivers called themselves, to distinguish themselves from the ‘Greys’ or medical staff, were mostly ‘surplus’ county daughters who’d resigned themselves to a life of good works and flower arranging.  This was the most interesting time they’d ever been offered, and they were determined to make the most of it.
         The women sailed from Liverpool in August 1916. They learnt Russian and mechanics on the journey out, and met Serbian officers who were to become friends (characteristically, in this photo, Aunt Y is the one talking to the cat).

         They had a fancy dress party to celebrate arriving in Archangel (Aunt Ysabel went as Puss in Boots ‘with wire whiskers stuck through a soft Balaclava helmet and wearing my jacket and field boots and at the beginning of the evening a rope tail.’)  Their two days in Archangel included a visit to the house of Peter the Great, and tea at the Cafe de Paris. They left by train, singing It’s a long way to Tipperary behind the Ship’s Band – ‘formed of firemen and stokers – till roars of cheers drowned out our song. Hundreds of Russian soldiers, which we had not seen because of the dark, were massed on either side of our way. They cheered as I have never heard men cheer ...’ From being surplus daughters, they’d become heroines.  

         When their train arrived at Odessa, they were treated as the guests of the city, and invited to the Opera, where the Grand Duchess Mary Pavlova asked to meet them, and accidentally coined a phrase which the drivers gleefully used to describe themselves thereafter: ‘Are you a chouveur?‘ she asked one of them, and ‘shovers’ they all became, an appropriate designation given the time they were to spend shoving their cars out of mud holes. From the train, they went on a barge for three days – with food only for one day. 

         They arrived at last on the ‘road’ to Medjidea, where the hospital was to be set up: ‘a worse road than I had dreamed one would ever drive a car over. Water filled the holes and it was impossible to guess a puddle from a pit.’  The heavy kitchen car got stuck, and had to be hauled up by hand. 

         They got to work almost straight away. This watercolour is labelled ‘Road to the Front – shelling ahead.’  

         Ysabel wrote in her diary, ‘My car was the first to be loaded, two stretcher cases, one head case – delirious – and another with a fractured thigh. It was for them the horror, and I, to lessen it as far as possible, and so I drove them back and the memory of it will always be there till I die... the plain, and all those tracks, and not to know the shortest way home, with the wounded screaming at every jolt.’
         They had less than a month at Medjidia before they had to retreat, some by road, some by rail, among chaos and brutality – ‘One saw on every face what we have since called “the mark of the Exodus”. We have all agreed not to talk about it ... we have all seen things we are trying to forget. No, we never, never shall.’ 

         The entire unit was awarded the Serbian gallantry medal (the same medal as the men, to their satisfaction) and some, like Aunt Ysabel, were given an extra medal for courage under fire – in her case, changing a car tyre while under aeroplane fire.
         Safely over the Danube, Ysabel was laid low by a severe case of jaundice, but she was determined to stay, and soon they were back at work, attached to the Russian cavalry near Constanta. Skirts over their breeches were forgotten; they wore layers of greatcoats, and were  reproved by Dr Inglis herself for swearing. In this photo, Aunt Ysabel is on the left; the lively woman by the sentry was ‘Jack’ Holmes, Mrs Pankhurst’s driver.

         By now they’d learnt to flirt in French, German and Russian, and their time here included a magnificent ball, given by the General, with a display of Cossack dancing and singing –  ‘Long coats, tiny waists and shaggy black hats made them fierce and wild-looking ... they stamped and leapt with amazing agility and lightness ... they sang in harsh, rather thrilling, voices of love and war.  When they paused, and I went to the door, I heard guns and it – was it like the night before Waterloo?’
         Rain turned the roads to mud: ‘mud that works its way into ones boots, one’s pockets and one’s hair, mud through which one has to struggle a foot deep at every step.’  It was not a retreat this time, but ‘the retreat. Romania is to be abandoned...’ They spent the night surrounded by soldiers, singing, and were proud to be the last cars across the Danube before the pontoon bridge was destroyed.
         They ended up back in Odessa. Their Model T Fords had survived three months of the roughest treatment, and were due for a rest and overhaul. For the first time the women were bored, as they worked under two male mechanics sent out from Britain: ‘Truly we worked as British workmen should, and do, the whole world over. Slackness has entered our bones. Punctually, at 1, we knocked off for the full dinner-hour...’

         They still managed to have fun at the Opera, and Birkbeck persuaded a sledge owner to let her drive his horse. She and her friend Teddy were sent of to Remi with a ‘bolshoi pacquet’, and were taken under the magnificent wing of a Georgian officer, Alexandre, who was bound for the front.  They returned in a hospital train owned by a Grand Duke. 

         They couldn’t drive during the winter months, because the roads were snowed up, so Birkbeck and others applied for leave. The plan was to go home via St  Petersburg, but they arrived there in March 1917 – just in time for the Revolution. They had another narrow escape when someone fired on the new regime’s police from their hotel. English sang-froid coped even with that: ‘Such a mob as poured into our room – soldiers, factory hands, old men and young – all carrying firearms or knives. We cordially welcomed our visitors (never anger a man with a gun) – and gave them cigarettes ... ‘ After that, they showed one new officer how to wear his sword-belt, and cleaned the rooms of three officials.
         They finally escaped via Finland, and weren’t allowed back; the British Government was desperately trying to get Dr Inglis and her women out of revolutionary Russia. Dr Inglis refused to go until the Serbian regiments, the last Serbian men, were recalled with her. She arrived in Newcastle in November 1917, and died there two days later. A service was held for her in Westminster Abbey, and she was buried in her native Edinburgh.
         Birkbeck and her friends headed for France instead, joining FANY. She was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Bronze star for her coolness and courage ‘in continuing to transport wounded under violent bombardment’ at Verdun. When WWII came, she returned to London, and drove an ambulance once more in the explosive nights of the Blitz. This photo shows her celebrating VE day. 

         She was an amazing lady. I feel privileged to have known her.


  1. That is an amazing blog post about an amazing woman - what a story! It should be a book!

  2. I'm working on it - a proper edition on the diaries, and a novel as well.