The Serbian adventure of 1915
Jan and Cora Gordon's volunteer service with Dr James Berry's medical mission to Serbia.
Vrnjatchka Banja Serbia. Feb-Nov 1915
It is not clear if Jan and Cora stayed in France after the outbreak of the 1914 war. They record only that “…the war had been on for five months, and we were suffering from the dreary depression caused by the feeling that world shattering events were in progress and we out of them”.1
In Paris at the end of 1914 a huge number of individuals and groups were engaged in trying to organise aid to beleaguered Serbia, where all the initial action was taking place, and which region was in dire straits after the events of the preceding few years – the fight to free themselves from the Ottoman empire, and several dreadful epidemics of typhus, events which had already been the subject of private relief efforts, mostly dispatched from the USA. From the UK the Red Cross was at the fore as ever, and aided by many private individuals.
One of these was one Doctor James Berry of the Royal free Hospital London, who, with his wife had already spent some considerable time in Serbia attending to the typhus epidemics. At the end of 1914 the doctor had already gathered together a number of friends and likeminded individuals in readiness for a return to the area.
Dr Berry himself was something of a character, a surgeon specialising in operations for goitre, a condition from which he himself suffered along with a cleft palate and a club foot.
Cora’s co-students at the Slade included a number of medical students from the college adjoining, and it appears that Cora’s best friend from Buxton days may have studied there. It is evident Cora numbered among her friends some medical people, not surprising really considering her father’s background.
A Mrs Cunning, wife of another surgeon of the Royal Free Hospital, encouraged the Gordons to sign up with the Red Cross for service in Serbia. They signed up initially for a 3 month stint as VAD3s with what was to become “The Berry Unit”.
Sent by Mrs Cunning to Dr Berry the Gordons described their interview with Dr and Mrs Berry, who were not altogether convinced of the notion of artists as useful members of a hospital unit, in typical Gordonesque fashion…
from their own words in the Penguin 1939 edition of "The Luck of Thirteen"
“Have you all your Red-Cross certificates?”
“I can cook,” murmured Jo hopefully.
“Oh. Any restaurant would give me a bit of training”
“Possibly. But we already have a certificated cook”
“I might translate,” said Jo.
“You speak Serb?”
“I will guarantee to learn. I know three languages already”
“I have been an engineer,” said Jan.
“That,” said Mr Berry with a faint return of interest,” might be useful. But no Red Cross certificate. We…don’t …see…how…”
A dire pause
“Oh!” exclaimed Jo with another of those brilliant feminine inconsequentia, “Jan plays the banjo and can sing to it. I mean quite well and he knows numbers of songs and tunes. Used to play for Parson uncles at dozens of parsonical penny readings.”
“Now,” cried the Berrys in chorus,“you have said something really worth while.”4
It was decided that if the Gordons could collect £50 for the unit funds they would be enrolled; probably the Berrys thought they had seen the last of them, but Jan and Cora collected the required £50 and more in less than a week, were accepted and in the January of 1915 were en route for Serbia.
It would appear that at this point they returned to the UK as on 19 January 1915 the unit, complete with equipment for a field hospital of 70-100 beds and six months of rations for the unit embarked from Avonmouth docks on the Admiralty transport ship SS Dilwara for a stormy voyage over the bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean where they transferred to the Caladonien, a French ship that was to take them via Malta. The voyage there was enlivened by the eccentric Serbo-Croat lessons given by Mr Berry and by Jan’s repertoire of songs accompanied by his banjo.
At Malta they were delayed for some days by prowling enemy submarines but eventually arrived without mishap at their final destination, Salonika, on 26 February.
A grindingly slow rail journey and a final leg on horseback in deep snow finally ended at Vrnjatchka Banja or Vrntse as it was always called. On arrival at Salonika they were sent to the spa town of Vrnjatchka Banja (Vrntse) where, after a grindingly slow rail journey and a final leg on horseback in deep snow, five days later finally ended at Vrnjatchka Banja or Vrntse as it was always called the unit took over the hydropathic building known as the ‘Terapia’ as a base to convert to a suitable hospital.
Jan’s engineering capabilities were soon to show their value, and he was aided by a willing labour force of Austrian prisoners who had been captured in the early days of the conflict and who were by all accounts only too pleased to be taken under the wing of the English and to work for decent food and clean lodgings, (These Austrian prisoners seem to have undergone the most dreadful tribulations since their capture.)
Jan’s practical mindset and past engineering training earned him the soubriquet of Herr Ingenieur from the Austrian prisoners, along with a lot of respect. His Malay experience of making do and improvising with few resources was put to good use at Vrntse; the old bath houses and facilities being primitive beyond belief, hygiene was of the most appalling standard, the locals were host to a zoo of bugs and lice - it had only recently been established that the typhus which had ravaged the region was spread by body lice. TB was endemic and not improved by the Serb habit of copious spitting everywhere regardless; animals for the local butcher were slaughtered over the open drains and the water in them was then used to sluice the meat . . .
Cora grew ever more fluent, if not grammatical, in her Serbian, “…if her grammar was wanting, she lacked nothing in fluency…”5 as she helped the qualified doctors and surgeons on their daily rounds. Jan was instated as a “gentleman orderly”. His daily duties included administering medicines, and constant de-lousing of patients and new arrivals, both clothes and person.
The discovery of the typhus-carrying lice ensured that huge resources were directed into eradicating the vermin. The unit’s work so far had been mostly nursing the soldiers who had been wounded or had caught typhus in the early fighting, and even more so the local civilian population who flocked to the Terapia with their various ailments.
When Jan was not attending to his orderly duties, he, with some other gentlemen orderlies, oversaw the construction of numerous projects around the Terapia and its grounds. Doctor Berry, appalled by the local slaughterhouse, had funded the demolition and construction of a new, hygienic one, much to the disgust of the local mayor.
A small entertainment was provided at one point when the roof of the Terapia caught fire and looked set to destroy the building, but Jan and two others were able to extinguish the blaze and save the greater part of the building.
One day in late summer, after some 6 months of work and while attempting to extricate one of the unit’s Ford cars from yet another of the notorious Serb mud sumps in the road, Jan decided that he and Cora were in need of a change. Many of that batch of volunteers who had set out with the Gordons had returned after their initial 3 months were up, but Jan and Cora had decided to stay for the long term. Their unit had cleaned up the hospital, eradicated the typhus bugs and “… disinfected the country till it reeked of Formalin and Sulphur…” Numbers of eager women volunteers were still arriving in Serbia, so to some extent the unit was overstaffed as, by late 1915, there had still been no serious fighting to create a need for the hospital battle plan to come into play.
Cora was reluctant to take time off due to being thoroughly engrossed with assisting Dr Helen Boyle in her outpatient department. But one day whilst chasing a recalcitrant Serb Patient who refused to be medicated Cora tripped, fell and drove a tooth through her lower lip; this was enough for Dr Boyle to concur with Jan and insist she had a break. Dr Berry suggested they go to Salonika to search for a disinfector that had gone astray en route to the Hospital. Armed with the necessary permits and two knapsacks full of rations they set off to brave the vagaries of the sluggish Serbian railway system.
They had no luck finding the elusive disinfector machine, but found that another unit leader, Sir Ralph Paget, had heard of a large consignment of Red Cross stores that needed an escort to a Dr Clemow’s unit in Montenegro. The Gordons seized eagerly on this chance of a further opportunity to roam and perhaps visit the front line, which they had long been seeking permission to visit. (The war at this stage still seems to have been in the stages of something of a spectator sport for civilians, a sort of gentlemen’s game.)
These lengthy and random wanderings throughout Serbia and Montenegro and parts of Albania were to prove of inestimable value later on, and are covered in detail in the book “The Luck of Thirteen” ...later reprinted as “Two Vagabonds in Serbia” by Penguin in 1939.
While waiting for transport (mainly bullock-drawn carts) for these stores to be arranged they wangled the long sought permission to visit the front line at Gorazde, several days’ journey on horseback through wild and spectacular mountain scenery.
In the border area around Plevlie they found and commented on the religious hatred - a very prescient observation: “… the Mohammedan is much more fanatic in these parts than his own civilised brother of Constantinople. This hatred is partly political …”
They crossed the Montenegrin frontier at Metalka and after a night’s rest rode to the hills above Gorazde and the river Drina, from where for the first time they could hear the faraway sounds of gun fire.
They were shown around the gun emplacements overlooking the Austrian-held town below, where a young lieutenant, a hero at 19 it was said, led Cora through a short tunnel leading to a machine gun bay aimed at the Austrian troops occupying Gorazde.
Cora needed little encouragement when the young hero offered to let her try out the machine gun, and she duly let fly several bursts of fire, causing some consternation amongst the Austrians’ camp, which duly returned fire.
Out of the tunnel and into the trenches once more, Cora popped her head over the parapet to see the consternation she had caused, only to realise that the noise she was hearing was in reality bullets aimed at her big white hat, passing close over her head!
The event of the day was two artillery shells fired at a large building housing Hungarian officers, one of the shells landing squarely on the roof and causing great panic amongst those officers.
(In 1922 while travelling in Bosnia and staying on a farm owned by a relative of one of their contacts, one of the numerous brothers-in-law, an Austrian ex-officer in this extended family, claimed to have been in Gorazde at the time of this incident, and that his wounds which he so proudly pointed out had been received at the hands of Cora. Notwithstanding this, in the Penguin edition they state in a footnote that this same officer had told them there were no casualties. Maybe the yarn had had a little colour added for the telling, or maybe the noted Balkan propensity for elaborating upon the truth had kicked in here.)
Eventually Jan and Cora discharged their duties with the stores, safely delivering them to their proper destination and returning to the Terapia at Vrntse, via Kraguvatz where they had the added excitement of seeing a German plane bombing the town while attempting to hit the arsenal based there.
By the end of October 1915 Vrntse was as yet still untouched by war casualties and life was still quiet in its routines. But disturbing news was filtering back from Paris implying that their studios were in grave danger of being repossessed (one can only assume this was due to arrears of rent or the pressure of the housing shortages caused by the influx of refugees from the war zone in France) risking the loss of all the previous eight years’ work. Jan and Cora were thus keen to return as soon as possible, but they were asked to stay a little longer, at least to deal with the first influx of wounded from the front, which rumour suggested would be imminent. Due to their extensive service they were the most experienced staff in the unit, especially in the running of the sanitation and disinfection plant, and thus extremely valuable to the running of the unit.
The first military casualties arrived in a disorganised rush, then more and more in a steadily increasing flow. Dr Berry dealt with case after case of seriously wounded men. A trickle of refugees began to arrive bringing conflicting tales of a huge enemy advance, or a German retreat, and slowly it became apparent that things were taking a bad downturn.
Gradually the true state of things became clear - a debacle was imminent, Serbia had lost catastrophically, and the Austro-German forces were advancing at a very fast pace; indeed, some Red Cross units had already been overrun and had been taken prisoner. Various other British units, The Stobarts, and the Scottish Women’s hospital (SWH), began to arrive at Vrntse. Received wisdom from above said that they should all remain and be prepared to be taken prisoner rather than face the hazards of a long trek; the railways were commandeered and the roads were roads only by name, such things in Serbia being but primitive tracks.
Sir Ralph Paget, however, advised that all men of military age who were not doctors should get out of Serbia into Montenegro under their own resources as quickly as possible. In view of their knowledge of the area and Cora’s fluent Serbo-Croat Jan was asked by Sir Ralph to take charge of a small Red Cross party and add any other Red Cross personnel that he could.
Immediately Jan set to studying the available maps of the area and reckoned that the best route would be to trek to Novi Bazar and thence via a track over the mountains to Berane. His acute map reading also led him to note that a lot of the villages and isolated habitations seemed to be at a much lower altitude than those on the Ipek route, which on the face of it was the more obvious course, and which the majority were intending or instructed to take. Jan also estimated that they would be on the march for at least two days less - a crucial two days in view of the rapidly worsening weather; it was likely snow was imminent and the winters in this part of the Balkans are particularly severe. This was an astute decision as it turned out.
On 30 October 1915 Jan, Cora and the orderly William Lyon Blease, all carrying a few possessions in a rucksack, rations, some blankets and Blease’s camera, took the midnight train out of Vrntse seated precariously on the carriage roof, the train being packed to overflowing with fleeing soldiers and civilians. Not least among these were a number of French officials frantically shepherding their mistresses whom they had gained whilst in Serbia.
During a three day halt at Kralievo Jan and Cora collected the Red Cross party charged by Sir Ralph Paget to their care, bringing their number to about twenty assorted nurses and Red Cross workers. In the distance the sound of heavy artillery began to make itself ominously heard and the muddy streets of the town were full of exhausted soldiery sleeping around and under their ox-carts in the damp clinging mud that was such a feature of the Balkans.
Food supplies were near non-existent and what there was remained under guard though there was no infrastructure to distribute it. The unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) turned up in despair with little or no food for the nurses and numerous wounded still in its care. Jan and some of the other Red Cross orderlies managed to persuade the lone British soldier guarding the supply train holding the scanty food supply to turn a blind eye while they loaded themselves up with some dozen large tins of corned beef and other essentials for the units. The SWH unit was eventually supplied with bread rations only after Jan, but mostly Cora, had vigorously berated the Serb officialdom into releasing some. Dr Milan Curcin, the indefatigable and much valued medical liaison officer, turned up once more with the news that he had secured, through commandeering, a number of the horse-drawn carts to be shared with the SWH.
Bad news continued to worsen as reports filtered through that further south, Mitroviza a town on the preferred route, was packed with refugees and neither food nor shelter was to be had. Furthermore, the large garrison town of Kraguvatz had fallen to the Germans who were rumoured to be advancing rapidly on Kralievo.
So after three days, on 3 November, early in the morning, the little company departed in their convoy of carts with their equipment and supplies more or less intact, despite the determined efforts of the town’s riff-raff to loot the carts overnight.
Just six days later on 9 November the Austrians arrived in Vrntse.
The route south down the valley of the Ibar, across the plain, then over the hill into the great zigzag pass to Rashka, was a slow tortuous nightmare of mud, men, animals and machines … complete and utter misery for thousands of people of all descriptions: peasants with their belongings piled in ox-carts herding their farm animals; Austrian POWs; soldiers; other Red Cross parties struggling to stay together; the odd motor lorry; diplomats from everywhere. All trudged along, in a state of utter fatigue. Exhausted men begged for scraps of food at the side of the narrow track that hugged the mountain side with a sheer 200ft drop to the river below. Dead horses were thrown into the river bed where they were flayed and butchered; dead men were just laid by the side of the road. At one point Jan shot a horse that had collapsed and been left by its owner for the heavy Ox carts to rumble over.
It was an indescribable scene of human misery that must have been positively medieval in all ways and it took them a miserable three days and two nights sleeping by the roadside to cover those few miles to Rashka.
(The Illustrated London News of 25 December 1915 has a graphic double page illustration of this misery reproduced from a sketch by Jan Gordon.)
The pace of travel along this gorge due to the packed masses was excruciatingly slow, with inexplicable hold-ups lasting for hours due to the narrow track clinging to the rocks twixt mountain and river gorge, with neither passing place nor resting place.
At the town of Rashka a mass of humanity filled the town. Almost the entire administration of the Serbian government had arrived there, leading the flight in the true tradition of the diplomatic service.
In Rashka they met The Stobart Unit, amongst them a contingent of British diplomats, one of whom was Admiral Trowbridge, a diplomat in charge of the British troops sent to aid the Serbs on the Danube. The Admiral had some decent large scale Austrian surveyed maps of the region; as Jan pored over them he saw that the rumoured route over the mountains was indeed viable and it was obvious that it was a far better option than the Ipek pass, affording the prospect of shelter, food and fodder for the animals. Jan discussed with Admiral Trowbridge the advice of Sir Ralph Paget to take the route to Mitroviza, the favoured evacuation route. Pessimistic local knowledge seemed to agree with Sir Ralph.
Back at camp Jan Gordon had “… a nasty half hour …” as he worried over the choice of routes open to them. He had also to consider that some members of his party were quite ill. He consulted the rest of the unit who voted Jan should do what he judged best. So finally Jan decided to go as far as Novi Bazar and make further enquires ... if indeed there was no road over the mountain they could divert to Mitrovitza and would only have lost a day.
At Novi Bazar they joined Miss Dorothy Brindley from the SWH, a welcome addition to the party. She had lost her good boots, but “… she commandeered a spare set of boots she found unclaimed in a motor … and she took them, cut the feet off a pair of rubber Wellingtons and pulled them on over her stockings, she then put a smile on her face which never came off in spite of any fatigue.”
In all a party of twelve opted to trust to Jan’s leadership and together they set off to Novi Bazar, a trek of about four hours, where they pitched camp and where West had to undergo a rudimentary operation on his septic arm by Dr Holmes. They were two nights at Novi Bazar where they were persuaded to take with them a young Serbian lad by the name of Stajitch, who was to prove a most useful addition to the party, which now totalled thirteen.
Their good fortune held when they encountered an old Albanian peasant, who not only knew the road they sought but offered to guide them to it. He was true to his offer and by this track they reached Tutigne to halt once more for the night in bug-infested accommodation found for them by the glum Mayor of the town. Here also they had to send back to Rashka the ox-carts with their soldier drivers who had brought them thus far. It took a further two days to round up six pack horses so they could continue the trek into Montenegro via Tutin, where they slept in the Mayor’s office. Thence they made their way to Rozai, the first village in Montenegro.
Another change of horses and eleven hours march via Urbitsa By the time they reached Berane they were almost completely exhausted, but found a room that could shelter them all. Despite their fatigue they could only agree with the sentiments they saw written in bright blue ink in English, on a post card stuck on the room wall … “Never again”.
They also solved the mystery of their rapidly disappearing spare boots and coats. These had been progressively looted by the same policemen who had been detailed to accompany them at the Montenegrin border.
There followed more days’ trek in a state of fatigue in the mud and rain to the next night at Lieva Rieka at the filthiest hovel they had yet stayed in; but at least it possessed the luxury of an iron stove with which to dry out their clothes. As they left Lieva Rieka the first snow fell on the mountains.
At Podgoritza they were able to find a telegraphic office to telegraph ahead to Cettinge for transport. Leaving the others to recuperate Jan, Jo and Miss Brindley managed to get a ride into Cettinge, some seven hours away, in a rickety cart. They sought and found help at the British Legation from the Count De Salis - and even managed to secure the ultimate luxury of a hot bath, most welcome as they had not been out of their clothes for some sixteen days, and at Lieva Rieka they had picked up lice. Back at Podgoritza they found most of the rest of the unit suffering from dysentery and pleurisy.
With the help of the Count de Salis, in three days Jan had found and arranged motor transport to give his exhausted party a ride to Plavnitza on the shores of Lake Scutari. Here, again after much misunderstanding and incompetence on the part of the authorities, they managed to find a small boat to Scutari, where they were met by a Montenegrin doctor who had found accommodation in a decent hotel.
There, the British Consul found enough horses to carry them via Alessio to the small port of San Giovanni di Medua which sheltered a couple of small ships sheltering from the threatening Austrian submarine lurking outside in the bay. Several days passed in the wait for berths. The hoped-for passage on the Benedetto was denied when a message came through that the Benedetto was to be held back for the use of the Serbian high command.
Several days passed in more waiting, in an Alessio “hovel” named The Grand Hotel, eking out their remaining rations. When the locals heard that they were Red Cross they brought all their ills and injuries to them and the VADs treated them as best they could.
A small French steamer, the Harmonie, managed to evade the submarine and gain the port, and after some haggling the captain agreed to take them to Brindisi in Italy, but only after they agreed to sign a disclaimer agreeing to their acceptance of his lack of life boats!
Safely escorted by a cruiser that had escorted another ship into San Giovanni, a day’s rough passage in the hold found them, as Jan wrote, “… safely back in Europe once more …”
Three days later, on December 6th, they arrived in London, the first Serbian Relief unit to return, and that some three weeks before any of the other units.
Naturally, as bureaucracy never changes, Jan and Cora were criticised for using their initiative, the official line being that they should have not used their own initiative but should have fallen in line and taken their chances of starving to death or dying of cold in the freezing sub-zero conditions of a harsh Balkan winter on the officially chosen route.
The chaos and disorder of the famous Serbian retreat has been well and thoroughly documented, albeit overlooked by today’s journalists, whether by choice or ignorance.
It is near impossible these days to envisage the appalling misery of that route, a choice limited by terrain, the approaching Austro- German armies and the almost total lack of roads.
The Serb high command, deciding that Serbia was completely overwhelmed and los,t had decreed that all the youth of Serbia was to be evacuated, and that no live stock or food stores were to be left for the invading forces. Thus, the retreating masses were composed of the young men of Serbia, the remnants of the Serb army, Austrian prisoners of war, peasants with their cattle, sections of the French, British and Russian aid services, overloaded motor vehicles breaking down or running out of fuel, trying to fit in with a column of ox-drawn carts moving at 2 or 3 miles per hour. In amongst this the little Red Cross units had to shift for themselves and those in their care as best they could.
It beggars belief to recall that one retreating column, working its way along a track, barely four feet wide and clinging to a mountain side, had to follow the decrepit King Peter who was being carried in a Sedan chair along this route. This ridiculous cortege stopped every fifteen minutes to change the poor exhausted bearers; in doing so they halted a two mile long column following in single file, in darkness. People dying of cold huddled together, exposed to freezing winds on the mountainside, while this absurd personage was manoeuvred around corners so tight that once it took half an hour to get around one. It says an awful lot for the loyalty of the Serb people that they did not just tip him over the edge.
These were the conditions, suffered by many thousands (a large proportion of whom died of cold and hunger) that higher authority decreed the British units should have endured.
It is worth recalling that despite all this misery and chaos not one of the retreating nurses was allowed to starve, and all received the utmost help from the Serb people at a time of great distress. The nurses always proclaimed their gratitude and thanks to the Serbs, and indeed the Serbs themselves have never forgotten the sacrifices these women made in those years.
That the criticisms never ceased to rankle in Jan’s memory becomes evident in the opening chapter of the Penguin re-edition of the Luck of Thirteen in 1939.
“On the great flight we, being still young and inexperienced, were perhaps too obsessed by the responsibility of getting the men for military age out of the country to avoid internment. Further, we took vague words of one authority which were meant as commands for mere suggestions, and the urgency of one high authority, who actually had no authority over us for something like commands. In consequence we committed the indiscretion of leaving the main line of retreat, of discovering our own way between the retreating armies across to the coast and of arriving back in England some three or four weeks ahead of everybody else.”6
Jan went on to point out, rightly, that if ‘Higher Command’ had taken notice of Jan’s route, better use could have been made of it and it might have prevented the deaths of some of the thousands of young Serbs who died on the “official” route.
The mindset of British authority can be assessed by the fact that the returning Red Cross units were applauded, fed and transported across Italy and France free of charge, yet when they had returned home the British government presented them with a bill for their train
1 Two Vagabonds in Serbia, Penguin edition
2 Later Knighted in 1925
3 VAD Voluntary Aid Dept formed in 1909 as a back up to the Medical organisation of the Territorial Army
4 from Two Vagabond in Serbia
5 red cross unit in Serbia
6 Penguin 1939, Two Vagabonds in Serbia and Montenegro
from the Sphere Magazine of Dec 1915 the routes taken by the retreating Serbs and medical units.
early on in my research I had the fortune to meet Dorothy Brindley, the lady with the smile on the right of this drawing by Cora. She was a remarkable woman.Sadly she died a few days after I met her. This little pen and ink sketch of an incident on their retreat over the mountains was an original for a tail piece in 'The Luck of Thirteen' Sadly I have lost track of it.
The Benedetto was rather worried by the suspected presence of enemy submarines outside the harbour, then was ordered to remain behind to away the arrival of the Serb government.
Fortunately for the 13 Jan managed to persuade the Captain of another ship the Harmonie to carry them across the sea to Brindisi.
They were escorted by an Italian destroyer till handed over to British cruiser HMS Topaze who escorted their ship through the minefields to Brindisi
The poor old Harmonie returned to San Giovanni only to be sunk there by submarine attack along with the Benedetto and others.It is believed her wreckage is still on the seabed.