Tibby Gordon

Tibby Gordon

Mary Isabella Gordon, born County Cavan, Ireland, 22 July 1885; married John Leggat Anderson; died Elgin, 15 November 1970.

Tibby Gordon’s parents came from Moray and Banffshire: her mother, Margaret Duncan from the farm of Begrow, Duffus, and her father John from Glasterim farm, near Portgordon.

Tibby Gordon joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) during the First World War. This organisation was founded by Elsie Inglis early in the war, after she had famously been told by the Royal Army Medical Corps to 'go home and sit still'. Elsie Inglis then offered her services, and those of her band of helpers, to the allies and, by December 1914, the 1st SWH unit had been established at Royaumont Abbey, near Paris, and another unit was on its way to Serbia. Tibby Gordon was one of this latter group and, after only a few months in Serbia, she had got caught up in the great retreat of winter 1915: a trek of 500 miles across the mountains of Montenegro and Albania.

Tibby joined the 2nd Unit SWH in Edinburgh in June 1915. By the time she arrived in Serbia the SWH had made progress, establishing some order and routine in various buildings in the town of Kraguievatz. Hundreds of wounded Serbs and Austrian prisoners needed attention and there were very few facilities available. The fact that there were no trained Serbian nurses explains some of the chaos that was found when the SWH first arrived. To add to the problems, typhus fever, spread by lice, was sweeping the country from the north. The disease thrived when people were undernourished. A regime of whitewash and disinfectant was instantly established. Eventually a line of hospitals extended to the north of Kraguievatz helping to arrest the spread of infectious diseases into the main body of Serbia. Surgical cases were mostly dealt with in Kraguievatz. Soon after her arrival in Serbia, Sister Gordon was working further north at Lazaravatz, about twenty five miles south of Belgrade, where Dr Holloway had taken over the Serbian hospital. The hospital was spread throughout the village – 200 beds in eight different houses. Sometimes there were many more than 600 patients. One day a hundred wounded men came all at once, followed by fifty the next day. Generally, however, there was a lull in the fighting; 1915 was called 'the long peaceful summer'. By September rumours were circulating about the Bulgarians joining with the Germans and Austrians. In October, with the country encircled, the Serbian Army prepared to retreat.

When Tibby Gordon returned to Moray she gave an account of her experiences of the retreat to a reporter of The Elgin Courant – it was printed on Hogmanay 1915 – which gives an invaluable record of the journey. Tibby was in Lazaravatz when the SWH received orders to leave on 19 October 1915. They, along with their equipment and many refugees, got the last train south; the railway line was destroyed shortly after they left. At Krushavatz they managed to find one room to house the twenty two people in their party. They stayed there for seventeen days helping in the Serbian hospital. 300 to 500 soldiers arrived each day and they were kept busy dressing wounds.

On 5 November orders came to evacuate. Dr Inglis, Dr Holloway and a few others decided to stay in Serbia, but most of the SWH joined the retreat: a moving mass of people streaming through the town. To begin with, the SWH women had a donkey each and the use of a bullock cart, but most of their possessions were jettisoned on the journey. There were twenty two women in Tibby’s group. They covered twelve miles the first day and camped in the open by the roadside.

The next day: 

'The road was in a frightful state with mud, through which we had to wade at times almost up to the knees, and we were held up in most places by a continuous stream of traffic both of refugees and of the retreating Serbian Army. We camped at night by the roadside again; rain came on, and it was dismal. Those who were lucky to have umbrellas used them, but the others had to cover themselves as well as possible with their blankets, which by morning were drenched with rain'.

The party started off with a selection of food: bully beef, sardines, syrup, condensed milk, tea, coffee, sugar and bread, but soon they were reduced to half a loaf of black bread a day, with sometimes a little milk given by the local people. Often they had to sleep out; once a ‘filthy hut’ kept the worst of the weather away.

Moving south across the Plain of Kossovo they came to Prisren. William Smith who was transport officer for the SWH in Serbia, and was travelling with the women, reported that there they found a great congregation of different groups of people: French, Russian and British medical missions and diplomats. They discovered that the route through Albania to the Allies’ base at Salonica was blocked by Bulgarians and the only way of escape was over the Montenegrin Alps and westwards to the Adriatic coast. But first they had to get to Ipek where the mountains began:

'From Prisrin we went to Jackovitza, a distance of thirty six miles, leaving in the morning about six o’clock and reaching Jackovitza at 12.30 the next morning. Our legs were tired and aching on the way, and our feet were blistered, but we trudged on. Some of us hummed tunes most of the way, including ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, which helped cheer us up.'

Another two days took them to Ipek where there was food and time to recuperate. For three nights they slept in the barracks; during the day they organised themselves for the journey over the Alps. A pony was shared between three and food was carried in a tuck bag. The snow began on the third day of the trek over the mountains. It snowed all day and the narrow track became treacherous when the frost set in. There was no comfort at night:

'We reached a place that night where there was neither food nor shelter, and spent the night round a campfire in the open, singing the whole time. When morning came we set off after having a cup of hot tea and a piece of bread.'

The next day the pony carrying Tibby’s blankets fell over one of the precipices that they encountered along the way. The worst night was when Tibby and two other SWH women who had gone on ahead got bogged down in snowdrifts up to the waist:

'At the very top of the mountain we came on a small hut. Half of the roof was off, and we saw there was a good fire, so we thought it would be a good place at which to put up. Here we met an old Serbian woman, refugee, with two donkeys and a Montenegrin man with a horse. We took off our boots which were frozen to our feet, icicles being on our stockings. At 9pm a severe blizzard came on, our fire went out, the snow came down and we could see nothing around us. We had no food with us and had had nothing since morning. We could neither go on nor back to our party. The old woman was starving but she was very good to us. She gave us a bag, into which the three of us got and lay very close to each other to keep warm. The Montenegrin was our pillow, and he did not object for he was starving. Here we lay till morning. I don’t know how we lived through that night.' 

Though it was the worst night of the journey, there was more hardship to come, with streams to wade (resulting in water frozen in their boots) and a 7000 ft mountain to climb. All of the women suffered frostbite to some degree. Some days there was no food. At Leverika there was some relief; motor buses took them to Podgoritza where they stayed for two days and had a good meal in the Hotel Balkan. There were more hitches, but eventually they got a boat across Lake Skadarsko, to Scutari (now Shkodra) where there was food. They stayed for three days there and were comfortable enough, but for the occasional bombs which fell on the town. Two day’s hard walking took them to port San Gohan O Medua on the Adriatic. It too, was war torn: Austrian submarines had sunk several ships in the harbour three days previously. Tibby and her colleagues waited there five days, desperately short of food. Finding bacon washed up on the shore from the wrecks, they fried it with black bread.

From there it was relatively easy: an Italian boat took the SWH women to Brindisi in Italy, thence they went by train to Turin, and further to Paris where they were able to wash properly for the first time since the beginning of the retreat. Tibby was reduced to wearing slippers by this point. On arrival in London, a reporter wrote ‘Never has London seen such a worn out, travel-stained, ragged company of professional women’. By Christmas Eve, Tibby Gordon was back with her family in Garmouth. It had been quite a year.

There was a price to pay for the adventure. Not only had there been the frostbite and starvation, Tibby had also contracted malaria in Serbia; a serious disease that returns from time to time. At home in Garmouth she had time to rest and recover, but also to worry about her brother, William, who joined as a Gunner in 1917 and was wounded in France. Christina Culbard's story throws some light on the SWH activities following the retreat from Serbia.

Once recovered, Tibby worked as matron of the Forres Fever Hospital and soon afterwards returned to the capital where she worked at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

With grateful thanks to the contributors to, and editors of, Women of Moray: a celebration of the women of Moray and their contribution to history (Luath Press: Edinburgh, 2012)

Tibby Gordon
Tibby Gordon post-war. (Image courtesy of Hugh Robertson)