When I started writing my book about the Women’s Institute I did a lot of reading about the suffrage movement. I was surprised to find that many of the women who had been active suffragists, such as Grace Hadow, were among the first people to set up and run branches of the WI. Generally speaking, they were suffragists, not suffragettes; suffragettes being the ones who bolted themselves to railings and set fire to buildings. The suffragists thought reasoned argument would get them further.

What surprised me even more when I read about the suffragists was that they played a very important part in the First World War, not as soldiers but as doctors, ambulance drivers, organisers of canteens for soldiers and settlements of refugees, as well as the more usual nursing orderlies and VADs. They didn’t just travel to the Western Front in Belgium and northern France. They undertook long and arduous journeys to Salonika, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia and Poland. Because they couldn’t get to Eastern Europe through Germany, they sometimes sailed from Liverpool, travelling across the North Sea and approached Russia via Sweden and the Baltic. They would then either stay in Russia and Poland, or travel south through Russia to Odessa on the Black Sea, from where they could sail to Salonika in Northern Greece, and thence to Serbia. Sometimes they went to France, travelling down to Marseilles from where they could get a boat to Salonika or one of the refugee settlements and hospitals in the Mediterranean.

Suffrage - Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon
Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon

That is what Elsie Corbett and Katherine Dillon did. They first met on the boat taking them from Marseilles to Salonika, and stayed together for the rest of their lives. They wanted to nurse in the typhus epidemic that was sweeping Serbia at the time. Typhus is spread by bed bugs and body lice, and though the epidemic was on the wane by the time they got there, there was no shortage of lice. Elsie records that visitors were not allowed in the wards unless children were very ill, because ‘we already had more lice than we needed.’ One child with diphtheria was admitted, not crawling with lice, because, as Elsie said, there was no room for them to crawl. They made a neat grey lining to her vest.

The two girls were captured by the Austrians who overran Serbia but were repatriated through the Red Cross. They returned to England for a short rest, but then trained as ambulance drivers. They were given a short course of instruction in London on how to drive the heavy Ford trucks and returned to Salonika.

Suffrage - Suffragists in WWI.
Suffragists in WWI.

By this time the Austrians were retreating before the Serbian army and Katherine and Elsie were following behind the troops, collecting the wounded and taking them back to hospital. Windscreens were taken out of the ambulances, as were the side curtains, because of the danger from splintered glass, so the driver was exposed to rain and snow alike and could consequently get very wet. ‘The easiest way to dry out is to go to bed in your wet clothes and let them dry overnight,’ wrote Elsie.

The land was mountainous so the drivers drove everywhere in low gear and Elsie had to fill up the radiator at every opportunity because her vehicle boiled fiercely. They only had two stretchers in the ambulance and any journey back from the front line took a long time so moving the wounded was necessarily long and drawn out. After one battle they could fit in only three journeys as the return journey, though only sixteen miles, took four hours. It was a dreadful road, not made easier by the fact that while most of the traffic was going forward, the ambulances were going in the opposite direction. The Serbs said the road was part of the Via Ignacia which had connected the Roman Empire with that of Byzantium. It still had its original stones, but was very steep and narrow and the drivers of the ox carts were in the habit of levering a stone out of the surface to stop the cart slipping when they had to stop to rest their animals. Unfortunately they didn’t put them back when they moved on.

Suffrage - Ambulance during wartime.
Ambulance during wartime.

At the end of the war the ambulance crews and nursing personnel were paraded in Belgrade and given the Officer’s Gold medal for Zealous Service. Katherine, as organiser of the ambulance service was awarded the Order of St Sava. Elsie wryly notes that the four Serb mechanics who had worked so hard and shared their hardships and triumphs were not even allowed in to the cathedral to the service.

The two women returned to Oxfordshire, to Katherine’s home village of Spilbury, joined the WI and lived there for the rest of their lives, though they did from time to time have trips abroad in their motor car.

Mavis Curtis's book The WI: A Centenary History is available now.