by Miles Franklin
Subtitled ‘Six Months with the Serbs’, this unpublished “novel in sketches” is Franklin’s account of her time as an orderly with a Scottish Women’s Hospitals unit at Ostrovo, Macedonia, behind the Serbian lines from July 1917 to Feb. 1918.
Sketch III, The Plight of the Serb.
Discontent bred of monotony and inaction was promptly laid on reflecting that a rush of that surgical work in which skilled nurses delight, meant few and fewer Serbs to enrich the human family, and the Serbs have already been depleted as no other people by the conquerors. Well indeed were it if every war hospital in Europe could rest as slack of mutilated as those big canvas settlements that dot the country on the Salonique front, lay for a time.
We can understand how great generals may have craved decisive action, but they will I trust equally understand and sympathise with those of us who oped like gamblers against that arch-cheat hope that we might rest on our equipment, all the soldiers we had come out to save or repair spared till peace shall come again for a short sojourn with us.
The members of the unit who had been in the retreat from Serbia reminded us that it had been just as quiet and uneventful with them before they had to move, and warned us that this lull might precede another such trek. Out of experience they were grateful for a time of waiting and had the wisdom to take whatever of pleasure or interest that each day afforded.
Having accepted the situation, life out there was very enjoyable to us.Our condition was much happier than that of the British men. We signed for a definite period of service and if compelled by business, or if desirous, could change into some other institution or go home on its expiration. The men of the M.T. and A.S.C. were there for duration, or goodness knows how long. What was a delightful novelty for our members had taken on the weariness of compulsory exile for them.
This differing point of view was brought home to me at my first outing, at Costuryan. We were being entertained at dinner by one of the transport companies after an afternoon’s sports. “Welcome” in cotton wool, and wreaths of thistles were the decorations in our honour, the Bulgars’ star shells and rockets from Dobro Polje were beautiful illuminations, the drone of their big guns a pleasing orchestra, and not so deafening as many I’ve endured in Chicago or New York.
“If the people at home knew what a gorgeous time we were having out here”, I observed, taking a second helping of turkey, “they’d close up the war out of jealousy”.
“Yes”, replied one of our hosts, who had been busy re-filling his glass with champagne, and not paying attention to my remark, “I often think they don’t half realise at home what we fellows are suffering with monotony and malaria. It’s terrible. Anything would be better than this, year after year! I believe they have forgotten our existence long ago and are just leaving us to rot here”.
I met many a fine young man out there so depressed by monotony and fever that he expressed himself as willing to lose an arm or a leg to be out of it and back in Great Britain or Australia. We were like a billabong left by a receding flood. The officials of the Serb camp attached to us showed no desire to move. Why should they, comfortable to fatness as they were, and there was no more work to be had elsewhere!
Every now and again we were roused by rumours of a move and had instructions to evacuate all beds possible for the wounded, but they never came. One time Matron asked Col. Djordjević to evacuate the Macedonian warrior of two years whom he had taken in. The Colonel, like the mother lark in the fable, refused to budge, and the baby remained. He was a born warrior and gave any sentimental sestra who came googooing near him a fist in the eye. Even sister Morris, who would have charmed the heart of a wheelbarrow, wasn’t able really to win his confidence.
It was all very well for us to be restless, with the British Isles and all the mighty dominions and dependencies in every corner of the globe, our very own to inhabit at will, and after that the U.S.A. built by our grandmothers and dominated by our own tongue and ideals, a second home to welcome us, but what of our dear Serbian brothers?
Behind them the Krupp guns thundering to bar the way to their native fastnesses, which they love with a virile example of the homing instinct, and where are parents, wives, sisters, sweethearts, little ones, of whose very fate they are in doubt; and before them, military laws forbidding them escape to other lands unless incapacitated for further military service.
“Tamo Daleko” – (there Far Away) was a song of village, and maiden, and farm continually on their lips, but as one man said of it, “Yes, there far away, but not far enough away”, and expressed a longing to get right away to America and make a fresh start. No, they must face the guns again with but little hope of early return to Serbia. Small wonder they clung to us.
I could have wept for the soldier disheartened and war weary who when dismissed sat down outside the door of the ward and refused to move. Sister was so distressed that she let him go back to bed for a day but that was the end of her power.
There was Ilija Žikić, only 19, and three years a warrior – a Balkan warrior, who when first brought to our mess tent was a terrified young thing afraid to raise his eyes, but who grew round of cheek and as full of mischief as a puppy, returning with interest the tricks we played on him.
The last I saw of him was a lonely figure on the near horizon against [Mount] Kaimacktchalan, wearing a clumsy pair of boots and a miserable and dirty old uniform going to rejoin his regiment, with no one to send him parcels or loving letters from home.
When they left us to rejoin their command or for a convalescent camp they generally went out in the dreadful uniforms they had worn upon arrival, the rents in pantaloons or coats not infrequently still clotted with the blood of their wounds. If they went by way of the barbed wire enclosure of wooden crosses, they left behind little more than a knife, a pipe light, a post card photo of loved ones and an average of a franc, rarely more than two francs.
Jovan, an older man, who had been very kind in attendance upon the sick staff, came and shook hands with us all and when we commiserated upon his departure, said simply and unaffectedly, with courage in his clear blue eyes, “Nemari ništa, I have been here a long time, it is well that I go to the front now and others have my place”.
The case of [illegible]: In America four years. Returned to Serbia eleven years before the war and worked as a forester. Wife and two little girls, one ten years of age when he went to war. He was an Austrian Serb so first was forced to fight against his own people. At length he escaped, taking with him to the Russians 23 men and one machine gun. Was kept in prison in Russia for some time, then came to the Kaimacktchalan front. Was wounded and in hospital for three months. He had a useless forefinger after this. Was then in the trenches steadily for two years. “That is all for me, Sister. What life is that for a man”?
He came to us with malaria and there were so many pressing on his footsteps that he could not be allowed to rest long. He was quite melancholy fearing that his wife and little girls had been slaughtered – or worse. “Sometimes I dream of them, Sister, and then I am happy and go on hoping I see them again some day. My god, If only I was in America”!
I reminded him that even our beloved U.S.A. was no longer a place of refuge from war, that he would be called upon there now. “Yes, but then I am happy and strong for this three years and leave my wife and little girls safe there. I was so big and strong when I start that they call me the saloon keeper, and look at me now”! He had a large but wasted frame.
“I used to care so much, now I don’t care if they killed or not. Nemari ništa! I hope they are killed and then I know that they are safe”. I adjured him to take care of his health and morals in the hope that all might yet be well, that out of the asinine welter he might be one of the lucky. “Oh, yes, Sister”, he said eagerly, “I am good man just for that, I hope I reach my wife again”.
Then he referred to the awful rumour, which a week before had reduced our men to tears and despair, that of the eight thousand Serbian maidens being drafted for war purposes. I advised him not to believe, that any atrocities would evaporate under later investigation. “Ah”, he said, “Now I am become so all that which is bad believe, and never nothing more that which is good”.
A beautiful boy of 21 whose physique could challenge that of the Greek gladiators, confessed that he had killed Bulgars in every possible way. He had shot them, clubbed them, used his jack knife, rent them barehanded, etc. etc. He seemed interested in the variety to be put into sport. I shuddered lest he might suddenly be impelled to try how easily a woman could be disposed of.
Against him must be put Z.M., a clerical worker before the war, who helped in the kitchen. He had been so severely wounded in the back that Doctor said it surprised her that he had regained all his movements. Always cheerful, sympathetic, humorous, surpassingly lovable, he was typical in his refinement and modesty. It was distressing to hide a form so lithe and graceful as his under such non-descript garments, or to set such beautiful hands to pot cleaning, but he was never known to be anything but a starlike, non-selfish influence on his fellow patients. Was he sick, tired, unhappy, nemari ništa! It was always nemari ništa in the sunniest way. It was nemari ništa when he had an altercation with the kettle, and no intimation that he suffered till his ward sister discovered a neatly scalded foot. Yet when he was called upon to kill a chicken his being just shirred with revulsion so that someone else had to be brought.
An officer lamented that he had left an infant son of six months. “So high”, he spread his hands – “He is now four and he knows not his father”. His father knew not of his welfare. He was one of countless Serbs who confessed a war weariness so deadening that for a time they had lost sight of the goodness of Liberty and cared not which way the spoils went, if only the gunning would cease and they could get back to Serbia and seek their women and children.
Voyeslav, pale and wasted by incessant malaria, had such an eager soul. He always greeted one with a smile and was so industrious to help. His widowed mother had given five such sons to the gun. Voyeslav was put on Red Cross work – one left the wailing mother by Mars like a single kitten is left the mother cat to pacify her.
We had a bandman suffering badly with delusions. He could see the enemy in forced possession of his wife and grew so ill that he had to be removed to another kind of hospital. A fine looking youngster whose thigh had been shattered told me how he had lain in dreadful agony in the cold beseeching his men to shoot him.“But they would not because I am an officer. The soldiers will do this for each other, but not for their officers, and I must live so till I am an old man. I shall never dance or ride”, he said.
I could fill a hundred pages with stories so similar that they would be as a roll of wall paper. These are sufficient to indicate the plight of the Serb. It would take a genius to do credit to his pluck. Therefore if these chronicles indicate a surprising share of gaiety and cheerfulness, let there be no mistake. As my little friend Tubby used to say: “A face a yard long isn’t going to help the Serbs any”.
Not for an instant was realisation of the devastation and desolation lost sight of. But so fine a courage, so highhearted a desire for liberty as Serbia’s is unthinkable without some silver on the smoke of horror which enshrouds her. Would Liberty, deathless, indestructible, be worth the price paid for her if we could conceive of her without her faithful handmaiden joy, or unaccompanied by her triumphal music, laughter?
This is great Bill … having just watched the recent German adaptation of All quiet on the Western Front, her description of the despair of the soldiers rings so true.
But my, the language is quite dense isn’t it?
I love All Quiet on the Western Front and would not be brave enough to watch it as a movie.
MF even as a girl in Australia was conscious of the reality of war – see her opinion of local boys joining up to fight in the Boer War – and she took an anti-war position at the beginning of WWI. Whether she still held it in 1917-18 is hard to tell, though she certainly did in later years.
You can see she feels for the Serbs and is more than conscious of the probable fate of girls and women left behind when Serbia was over-run.
I think she is too conscious of being a writer and tries too hard to write ‘well’, and doesn’t always pull it off.
I think that’s a fair decision re the movie.
And your point about her trying to be “writerly” makes sense, because the feelings and ideas are there.
Thanks, Bill. What a find! MF captures the idiom of the Serbian soldiers so well, as well as conveying their mood. It must have been a balancing act, to honour their despair and yet acknowledge her own excitement at being there. I wonder, is the density of the language here reflective of the rest of the book? It does help to create a solemn mood, but she seems to suggest her account has many lighter moments too.
I am of course over the moon to finally have a copy of this unpublished work. Overall it reflects accurately I think life behind the lines. Sometimes, hitchhiking to tourist destinations and pinicing by the lake she has to persuade us, and herself, that she is not on holidays.