Stobart and Serbia retreat in First World War

‘Lady of the black horse’, by George Rankin

Just over 100 years ago, Mabel St Clair Stobart was forced to flee her field hospital in Belgrade, Serbia during the First World War.

One of many women who volunteered with the Red Cross, she was head of a hospital unit on the front line.

Events in the war were escalating. Serbia had been invaded – and lives and vital medical equipment were now in danger.

As head of the hospital, Mabel Stobart had to lead the sick and wounded, and the nurses, on an 800-mile escape over snow-capped mountains.

Yet most people have not heard her name – or know anything about her incredible life.

Women’s rights and the First World War

As the ‘women’s movement’ gathered pace in the early 20th century, Mabel Stobart became a keen supporter of the suffragettes.

With these principles in mind, she set up a medical unit for female volunteers in the UK. These women were trained to help the sick and wounded in times of national emergency.

The medical unit went to mainland Europe in 1914, at the start of the First World War.

Stobart, then in her mid-fifties, was trying to set up a Red Cross hospital in Belgium. She was arrested by the Germans in Brussels and sentenced to be shot as a spy – but was fortunately released just two days later.

Bombs and no butter

Mabel Stobart’s medical team was sent to Serbia a year later, along with other VADs from Britain.

A typhus epidemic had swept into Serbia, killing around 150,000 people – including nearly half of the country’s doctors.

One nurse, Miss K.M. Coaling of Southampton Queen Nurses, joined up with Stobart’s unit in Belgrade.

Miss Coaling later described the conditions that the women faced in the city.

“As we approached the town, we saw signs of the recent fighting everywhere,” she wrote.

“Our hotel was much damaged, one of my bedroom windows was blown out. A bomb fell in the yard, completely destroying two rooms adjoining the music room, which we used as a dining room.

“For a few days we had no lights in the hotel except candles and tiny lamps. As our stores had not arrived, we had no butter, so ate cheese for breakfast instead, and drank coffee out of egg-cups. It was all very novel.”

Medical aid on the move in World War One

When Serbia finally became too dangerous, Mabel Stobart was part of a countrywide retreat that lasted ten weeks, in cold winter winds. Over 100,000 people died on the journey.

Stobart and Serbia retreat in the First World War 600George Rankin’s (1864-1937) oil painting is full of dark colours and shadows, which give a sense of this danger and desperation. However, he added in some light around the pathway – which fixes on Stobart, with the Red Cross emblem on her arm.

Stobart’s ‘mobile hospital’ treated and tended to some of the soldiers and civilians who were making the tough journey, too.

On her return to Britain, she wrote in the Red Cross Journal: “The behaviour of the Serbian army in retreat, under conditions generally conducive to demoralising, was nothing short of marvellous.

“I never saw or heard a soldier say or do anything which could have given offence to the most fastidious girl, and I am thankful to have been able to render to that army and to the Serbian people, whom I love and respect, even the slightest service.”