14 February 2024

A Nurse's Terrible Journey in Serbia

 From the Luton Times and Advertiser - Friday 28 January 1916

A Nurse's Terrible Journey in Serbia

Leighton Lady’s Experiences


Edith Dickinson outside her tent in Belgium, 1915
Miss Edith Dickinson, a daughter of Mrs. Dickinson, of Heath-road, Leighton Buzzard, was one of the party of British doctors and nurses which accompanied the Serbian Army in its retreat, and her dreadful experiences form a long story of terrible hardships.

Miss Dickinson arrived in England few days ago, and, being blest with a good constitution, the rest that she intends to take should leave her little the worse for what she has been through, but the horrors that daily accompanied the retreat are indelibly engraved upon her memory.

Miss Hilda May Dickinson (a sister) who is now engaged in Belgian Relief work in London, was with her sister doing Red Cross work in Belgium when the invasion was at its height.

From Miss Dickinson's story in the Leighton Observer, we gather that the fall of Belgrade marked the opening of what proved to several days terrible hardships. After reciting a vain attempt to leave by railway for Salonika, the line having been torn up, she says:

After proceeding some distance farther by motor car this also had to left and the journey continued on foot. Waggons drawn by oxen and containing stores also had to be abandoned until the party had nothing beyond what they carried and what clothing they stood up in. The Austro-German army was then only a few miles away, and their big guns were action.

The route that was eventually decided upon was an uneven, muddy track, and along this trudged groups of many thousands of grief-stricken refugees, and the remains of the Serbian army. On the way the party had to pass numerous dead horses and cattle which had figured in the earlier stages of the retreat, and been abandoned by the refugees. The dead bodies of human beings also lay by the roadside half-covered by snow.

With these sights an all too frequent occurrence the sorrowful procession wended its way over the mountains for ten days. Piercing blizzards and rain storms beat down upon the party unmercifully, and the wonder is that the toll of death and disease numbered so few among its victims.

At one stage in the journey the strain proved too much for Miss Holland (a nurse associated with Miss Dickinson), and she undoubtedly owed her life to that lady who, although herself weak, was able to support her companion over a great stretch the journey.

At night tents were pitched in the snow, and into these the exhausted refugees flung themselves to sleep. Sometimes rest houses—small wooden buildings—were used, and into these the people flocked, glad of the opportunity to lie on the floor.

The track was altogether too dangerous go along night, for in some places the "road" was little more than a narrow ledge on the mountain side, and on more than one occasion vehicles were precipitated over the edge, and fell a distance of many feet throwing out and either killing or injuring those who happened to inside. The toll of death in this way included one of the nurses, a Scottish lady.

The food supply was very limited and rations had served out gradually diminishing quantities. The prisoners who accompanied the party received food as far possible. On many occasions these prisoners, who were Bulgarians and Austrians, had nothing to eat, and many died of sheer starvation. Miss Dickinson saw officers high rank in the Austrian army pick cabbage stalks that had been dropped by the others, and bite at them ravenously.

In the matter of food, the hospital party itself was better off than the great bulk the refugees, although the only bread they had was black bread and maize bread. The party had fortunately retained some of the hospital stores, of which Bovril and condensed milk came in very handy. For some days, however, they had nothing to eat but a little bread and some Bovril, and when a nurse discovered a tin of margarine and divided it, everyone who was fortunate enough to share it said it was delicious.

The cold grew intense as the party got high up into the mountains. In many places they had to wade through streams owing to the bridges being broken, and there was no chance drying the clothes, which froze on the wearers and became stiff as boards. In this respect some of the lady nurses came off worse than others, as they were attired in light summer dresses, and were wearing shoes totally unfit for such a journey. Miss Dickinson had the good fortune to be provided with breeches and top boots, for which she was very thankful. The track was frequently knee deep in mud and slush, and hard and slippery with a temperature of nearly 40 degrees of frost.

Two of the mountains the party had to ascend were 8,400 and 7,600 feet high respectively. Upon descending on the Adriatic side the atmosphere became warmer, however, and relieved the sufferings some what.

The hospital party sailed across the lake of Scutari, and a farther tramp of two days enabled them to reach San Giovanni di Medua [Sh├źngjin]. Their dangers had not ceased here, for they were told that the Austrian Army was on the move, and that unless they embarked on a small Italian vessel which had arrived with food for the Serbian Army, for Brindisi, they might have to remain. It was decided to risk the journey, and 300 people were packed into the vessel, which had to combat heavy seas, and many of the voyagers fell ill.

The party presented a sorrowful spectacle arrival at Brindisi, and there was difficulty in getting sufficiently into the authorities’ good books to be allowed to land. "In fact," says Miss Dickinson, "we looked simply wretched. Most of were ragged, muddy and dirty, not having been in a bath for weeks. On top of this they were distressingly thin, and our feet were showing through our boots."

The party entrained at Brindisi for Paris, and thence Havre and England.