The Nurses War: the Red Cross in Salonika in WWI by Loretta Proctor

Posted by on Jul 31, 2012 in Historical Research, World War One | 2 comments

The beauty of the Hortiach Hills: a painting by William T Wood RWS during the Eastern Campaign

 Just imagine for a moment that you’re a nicely bred young lady used to comforts and a secure quiet home life in Edwardian Britain.  You volunteer to be a Red Cross nurse or a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) in Salonika in the northernmost part of Greece. A month or so later you wake in the night to find yourself in a small tent, a very small tent.  The bed is uncomfortable, the pillow like a lump of rock.  Your room mate is snoring loudly from sheer exhaustion.  Outside there is a howling hurricane as the winds come hurtling down the great river Vardar, the ancient river Axius of Homer’s poems, coming inshore across the Gulf over the mountains and vast empty plains.  You huddle under thin blankets with your coat on top of everything else.  Your winter coat, laughingly called British Warm.  Warm enough in Britain maybe but not here in Macedonia, up in the barren wind-wasted hills.  You curse the idiots who sent you and a hundred regiments of soldiers to this inhospitable terrain without a clue what it was like over here.  Imagining, perhaps, that it was like the dry arid heat of Egypt. In the morning you might wake to find your hair frozen to the pillow and have to have bathe your head in lukewarm water till it thaws and frees you.  After this, you make darned sure you wrap your head in a towel or cardigan at night.

That’s just the winter months.  In the summer there are other horrors and discomforts.  Flies everywhere and in everything, ants crawling up table legs and floating in your precious cup of tea.  But more horrible than the flies, the ants, the centipedes, sandflies, scorpions, wind and rain.  Most horrible of all is the female Anopheles mosquito who has a really vicious taste for human blood.  She isn’t fussy if it’s male or female blood but the soldiers will swear she likes men best.  She takes your blood and leaves her poison in exchange.  In a short while you develop malaria, feel weak as a kitten; there’s fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, aching limbs and deep depression if not death in extreme cases – all the results of her loving bite.

The Eastern campaign in Salonika was sometimes called ‘The Doctor’s War’ because it wasn’t the enemy that was the main problem – it was the terrain, harsh, inhospitable, barren yet utterly beautiful.  The villagers weren’t the tourist friendly Greeks we meet today.  At first they were deeply suspicious, apathetic and weary.  They’d had their fill of invaders, fighting, occupation and turmoil in the Balkans and now they had this invasion of Allied Forces to contend with and the threat of becoming a Bulgarian province.

The Red Cross began to send supplies and set up a rest station on the quay at Salonika and a building to house Red Cross Stores.  This was well established by 1915 and had one trained nurse.  Then refugees began to stream in from Serbia, which had been taken by the Bulgarians.  There was always the dread fear of typhus and other epidemics.  In January 1916 more medical stores and comforts were sent out and the Canadians set up hospitals.  At this time, the soldiers were still sent to Egypt, Malta or England on hospital ships but several hospitals were now set up on the mountains surrounding the city.  It became too dangerous to send men and nurses home evntually as the Germans ignored the Red Crosses on the sides of the hospital ships and bombed or torpedoed them.

Sisters mess hut, Salonica Christmas 1916.

By June 1916 a Red Cross Invalid kitchen was set up in Salonika and a Voluntary Aid Detachment comprising of three women cooks were sent from England and a kitchen opened at the 29th general Hospital.  The VAD’s were mainly cooks or acted as orderlies while the better educated girls trained in first aid and helped with nursing.  Those with SRN status and signed up for six months and received pay.  After one year’s service they received a chevron to sew on their sleeve.  But few made it for that long.  They either succumbed to malaria or found the situation so inhospitable and ghastly that they asked to return home.

In August 1916 a home for the nurses to rest and recuperate during their brief leave was opened in the house of a former Turkish governor of Salonika and the nurses might be taken for trips on the yacht ‘Agnes’, loaned by a Mr and Mrs Bertram Philips.  There were entertainments devised by the soldiers, pantomimes and theatricals, picnics and other pleasures.  Occasional trips to the local market in Salonika meant the nurses could purchase a few comforts to make their tents more inviting.

The nurses took turns at night shifts which lasted about a month and had to wear mosquito veils, thick elbow length gloves and boots in the heat of summer to prevent being bitten. It was just as dangerous in the winter when you might trip over a guy rope on a tent as one unfortunate nurse did.  She was the Night Superintendent in a POW hospital who fell into a deep snow filled trench.  Luckily she was discovered and rescued before she died of exposure.  The agony of sensation returning to her frozen limbs was so intense, she begged to be allowed to die!

Perhaps one of the saddest little bunch of letters I read, while researching for The Long Shadow, was from a young Welsh nurse called Ella Richards.  Her photo shows a round faced, pretty young woman.  She wrote of her days in the 64th General Hospital some miles outside Salonika in May 1918 where she was sent after serving in France.   She described how she had to wash her clothes in cold water as there was no oil left, how she had to heat a flat iron as best she could as collars and cuffs were still expected to look starched and clean.  When going from ward to ward she had to carry a hurricane lamp with her and wear strong boots, a sweater and a British Warm officer’s overcoat.  It would still be freezing cold.  On her days off she would have breakfast in bed – otherwise it was up at 6am.

The varied creatures she encountered were amusing and alarming at times.  A mouse walked across her chest in the middle of the night, lizard, wild dogs and cats abounded.  There were storks in the villages and tortoises were a common sight on the hills.  The frogs croaked all night and a snake was caught in the mess tent.  In the sweltering heat of July, sweat would be pouring off her and she felt thirsty all day.  In one letter she asks for simple things to be sent to her such as hair prongs for curling, back combs, shampoo powder, face-cream and books, toffee, elastic, biscuits.  These simple things just made all the difference to the dreariness of it all.  She was a sweet, normal young girl who still liked to look attractive and tidy.

Sadly, just before she was due to return home, Ella succumbed to the outbreak of pneumonia and influenza that swept through the exhausted nurses and officers at the end of the war. A memorial plaque was erected for her at Soar Congregational Chapel in Lampeter, Wales by the children of her Sunday School class.

It reads:

In loving memory of Nurse Ella Richards VAD Ardwyr, Bridge St, Lampeter who died of pneumonia in Salonika on October 14th 1918 aged 31 years.  She was buried in Mikra cemetery Salonika.  For three and a half years she gave dedicated service to the Red Cross Nursing Society.

She has done what she could.

Loretta Proctor,  article on background for  The Long Shadow, July 30, 2012



  1. I learned a lot form this post, Loretta, both in geography and history. I had no idea that Macedonia was such a hellish place to begin with (nowadays tourists flock there for pleasure trips) and that the Allies were engaged there. Your writing is exquisite.


  2. How easy our lives are! There’s just no comparison.