4 A Passage to Serbia
April 1915 found Margery once again at sea, this time on the SS Saidieh1, a steamer well past its prime rolling and heaving from the Irish Sea into the Atlantic stalked by a German submarine2. The Rector’s mad daughter was off to nurse in the Balkans, surplus no more.
She owed the adventure to her brother Clement and the case of scarlet fever — no joke before antibiotics — he brought home with him from the trenches. It had landed her in the Ipswich Fever Hospital where she spent a month of quarantine making herself useful in the wards and gaining enough experience to qualify as a VAD or Voluntary Aid Detachment orderly.
Austria-Hungary had invaded Serbia the previous August, nominally to avenge the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Though the Serbs prevailed at first, surprising everyone, by winter the country was on its knees. Typhus, passed from rats to lice and fleas to humans, thrived in the huddling mass of unwashed humanity thrown together in the chaos of war, and was proving even deadlier than shot and shell. Mabel Grouitch, American wife of the Serbian foreign minister, came to London to plead for help.
Among the many who answered her call were James and Frances Berry of the Royal Free Hospital, he a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, she a physician and anesthetist. They had fallen for Serbia on a bicycling holiday in 1904. The War Office was sending no more than a trickle of minor cases to the Royal Free and had no use for women doctors at this stage. The Berrys decided that if their skills were not wanted for repairing Britons mangled on the Western Front, they would equip and lead a mobile surgical hospital to assist a hard-pressed ally in the East.
Applications poured in. Margery’s was accepted. “The VAD is ubiquitous,” Frances Berry would write3. “Not only does economy favor her use and scarcity of trained nurses make her a necessity, but such desirable qualities as adaptability, enthusiasm, experience of the world and of travel, and especially a knowledge of foreign languages, are perhaps more generally found among VAD’s than trained nurses, and sometimes largely compensate for absence of complete training. All our VAD’s spoke French or German or both; one had nursed in the Boer War, one had run a native hospital in West Africa and one had experience camping in Canada.” The last, obviously, was Margery.
The Berry unit was one of seven represented aboard the Saidieh on its voyage to the Greek port of Salonika, now Thessaloniki, where its passengers — doctors, surgeons, radiographers, nurses, orderlies, cooks and drivers, most of them women — would entrain for points north. Leading another unit was Mabel St Clair Stobart.
Margery could not have missed her. For one thing, Stobart was a devotee of Swedish Drill, a sort of Nordic yoga. Weather and waves permitting, she would be out on the afterdeck before breakfast, leading her second husband (the first had died on one of her previous adventures) and anyone else she could dragoon, in the stretches and bends devised by fencing instructor Pehr Henrik Ling a century earlier and back in vogue.4
Stobart had written a book on golf, run a store in the Transvaal, lassoed cattle in British Columbia (not far from the Princess Patricia Ranch), and founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps which she led to the front in the Balkan War of 1912. Early in the present conflict she was taken prisoner by the Germans in Brussels and narrowly avoided being shot as a spy5. A suffragist, she took the view that men being what they were, humankind was doomed to endless bloodshed unless women had real power. This they would only win by proving themselves every bit as tough preserving life as men were prodigal in taking it, and by dressing appropriately. There were girls on board in hobble skirts and low cut blouses, she wrote, dismissing such attire as “the indecorums of the Society puppet”. These wanton creatures were letting the side down. They should be in uniform, looking the part as well as playing it.
It pleased Stobart no end that a group of Rhodes scholars from America — men — had volunteered to join her unit as orderlies, then begged off. They said they needed their parent’s consent before exposing themselves to typhus. “Our women, on the other hand, braved their relatives, knowing that a woman’s worst foes, where her work is concerned, are often those of her own household.” In a letter to her parents she would post when the ship put in at Gibraltar, Margery said she was “eternally grateful you did not oppose my going.”
“Everyone is kicking about the boat,” she continued. “Heaps of people are ill.” Not Margery. “I haven’t missed a meal yet”. Her arm had been sore from the typhus shot she’d received before boarding, but only briefly. “I hope you didn’t waste any sympathy.” Her only other news was that the stewards were “Gold Coast n……s”6 and “I’ve discovered a Serbian who is interpreter for the Khaki people and he has given me a lesson.”
For a fuller account, Robert and Adeline would have to wait until January the following year when William Coulson stopped off at the rectory. Coulson had been on the voyage as a driver with the Stobart unit. Margery had dazzled him. “She’s a clinker,” he said, “One in a thousand. There’s no back door about her. She’d stand up to any man”. She apparently spent much of the voyage below decks with the food supply. “She was more with the livestock than with the people. It was a Greek crew. She was on to the them for not slaughtering the sheep in the proper style and with blunt knives. She said, “Get out if you can’t do it properly!” She held the animals’ heads while they were being killed and helped in the skinning. She went to the captain and made him shift the ducks’ quarters and fed them herself. To get to the hold, she would slide down a crazy ladder with few (rungs) in the rolling ship and land on a truss of hay roaring with laughter.”
Margery had spared her parents some unsettling details. The Saidieh was full of ammunition, Coulson told them. “We were pursued by a submarine but zigzagged and they caught the following boat instead. Margery and I were to stand by at the same lifeboat.” Stobart wrote: “We all settled down comfortably to sea sickness and submarines. The rough weather provided us with the former but saved us from the latter. Submarines were supposed to be waiting for us off the Scilly Isles, and at first we were afraid that the Saidieh would be sunk; but later we were afraid she wouldn't.” Two months later she was. UB-6 commanded by Erich Haeker sank her in the Thames estuary on June 1.
SS Saidieh’s moment of glory came in 1879 when it carried the 91st Highland Regiment from Southhampton to Durban in record time following the destruction of Lord Chelmsford’s column by Zulu impis at Isandhlwana. Abandoned at sea after a fire in 1902, the ship was salvaged and sold to the Khedivial Mail and Graving Dock Steamship Co. which renamed it and put it to work carrying passengers and cargo between Alexandria and Hull.
Probably U 24 commanded by Rudolf Schneider which torpedoed the British steamships Lochwood and City of Bremen in the same area on April 2 and 4 respectively.
The Story of a Red Cross Unit in Serbia, by James Berry, F. May Dickinson Berry, W. Lyon Blease and other members of the unit.
She tells the story at the start of her splendid memoir, The Flaming Sword. She nearly missed the boat.
The cabbie who drove me and two others from the station at Liverpool, to the dock, was a fool, and couldn't find the dock in which the Saidieh was berthed, and for half an hour, in the rain, our four-wheeler crawled up and down, and in and out of a tangled maze of nine miles of docks. The horse, the cab, and the cabbie were all extraordinarily old, and when we were at the point farthest from possibility of help, they all three collapsed. We patched up the horse and cab, but had more difficulty with the cabbie. He couldn't see why we were so fastidious about sailing in one boat rather than in another, and time after time he drove, with triumphant flourish of whip, through the dock gates, and stopped in front of an old coal barge, and was much hurt by our refusal to get on board. But all this worked a miracle, for when at last we hit upon the right dock, a short time before the departure of the Saidieh, I was for the first time in my life, thankful to find myself on board a steamer.
The language of the time.