Published on the 8 November 2013 in the Edinburgh Evening News
On the battlefields of First World War Europe, Elsie Inglis risked her life to save those of countless soldiers.
Wading through mud in the face of the enemy, the redoubtable Edinburgh doctor made sure the injured and the dying received the basic medical care they would otherwise have been left without.
Tens of thousands were helped by field hospitals she set up in Serbia, Ukraine and Romania, acting with the support of the French and Serbian governments, after the British rebuffed her offer of help.
Her heroism, said Winston Churchill, would “shine forever in history”, while in Serbia she is a national hero.
But today as we prepare to mark Remembrance Day in Scotland there is little to mark the final resting place of Edinburgh’s greatest heroine.
Exposed to the elements for almost a century, the inscription on her gravestone has faded.
It is only with difficulty that visitors to Dean Cemetery can discern her name on her memorial stone, while the citation marking her achievements – her pioneering medical work and support of the Suffragette movement in Scotland, as well as her First World War heroics abroad – is in parts completely worn away.
Historian Alan Cumming was disturbed to discover the neglected state of her grave on a recent visit. The state of her Edinburgh memorial stood in stark contrast to the pristine plaque that stands in her honour in Serbia.
He said: “What Elsie Inglis achieved at that time was nothing short of a miracle – she had an incredible life. I was ashamed that the women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital [which she established during the First World War] are known about and revered in Serbia, yet their work and achievements are barely recognised in the country they came from.
“It’s very poor that there’s nothing to let visitors to the cemetery know who she was.”
The upkeep of her grave is technically the responsibility of her family, said a spokesman for the privately-maintained Dean Cemetery, but like the memorials to millions of Scots whose immediate family are no longer living, it has slipped into a state of disrepair. Today there were calls for funds to be made available ahead of next year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War to restore her grave and provide information boards for visitors.
Born in India, she was 14 when her parents came to Edinburgh, where she would go on to establish the George Square Nursing Home in 1899, which eventually merged with the Bruntsfield Hospital to provide a complete women’s health service in Edinburgh for the first time.
At the start of the war, Elsie approached the government with a plan to utilise women’s medical skills in female-run field hospitals but was flatly denied, leading her to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service.
She would equip field hospitals with only basic supplies and faced a fight to improve hygiene, help the starving and control typhus and infections.
Her efforts in Serbia led to her being given the highest national award, the Order of the White Eagle, with the commendation that “Scotland made her a doctor but Serbia made her a Saint”.
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, Lothian Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said: “Elsie Inglis is such an inspiring figure it is a real shame that her headstone has been allowed to deteriorate. Ensuring the epitaph on her grave is legible is the very least we owe her.”
Mike Turnbull, who wrote the Edinburgh Graveyard Guide, said: “Are many people aware Elsie Inglis is buried in the Dean Cemetery – probably not.”