Matron Bessie Dora Bowhill (1869 – 1930)
Bessie Dora Bowhill was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Berwickshire. Her parents retired to Dunbar, but by that stage Bessie had embarked upon a nursing career that not only took her all over Scotland, but also on two major overseas adventures.
During the 1890s she trained as a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She was night superintendent at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary but in May 1900, during the Boer War, she enlisted in Princess Christian’s Army Nursing Service Reserve and was quickly posted to the 13th Stationary Hospital outside Durban in South Africa. She served for the duration of the Boer War. On her return she worked in hospitals at Falkirk, Dundee and again at Aberdeen before being appointed matron of Perth Royal Infirmary during 1909.
After the outbreak of the World War One she volunteered with Dr Elsie Inglis’ Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) in Serbia, retaining her senior position as matron of the unit. The First Unit of the SWH worked to reduce the incidence of disease in the displaced Sebian population as well as treating military casualties but was caught up in the general rout of the Serbian Army. Eventually, most of the staff were captured and repatriated. Bessie’s ordeal was reported in her own words when she returned home:
Dunbar Nurse’s Experience in Serbia
A Tale of Privation and Adventure
Miss Bowhill, Matron of Perth Infirmary, one of the First Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospital, who went out to Serbia early in the war, and were subsequently taken prisoners by the Austrians and Germans, arrived at her home at Dunbar last week. In the course of an interview with our representative, Miss Bowhill said :-
“I went out last April to Kragoujevata, where we worked in hospitals until bombarded. The whole of the Serbian Military Staff and all British people were sent to Krushevatz. At that time I was away on a field ambulance attending to the wounded on the line, where a small party worked at a dressing station on the line at Markovatz. We were bombarded out of there, and at night had to leave, and walk for 16 miles, part of the time marching with the Serbian Army. We got a train in the morning about 8 o’clock; got into a truck and joined many of the refugees from Krushevatz, and others. Having travelled a short distance, which occupied the whole afternoon, we were picked up by our own ambulance, and went to another ambulance station. Had only been there two nights when we had to leave for the same reason – that the Army were coming down on us, and consequently we had to retreat in front of it. From there we travelled in bullock waggons for several days, stopping at all sorts of strange abodes, sleeping anywhere, and taking our food out of doors or anywhere we could get it. We passed through Krushevatz where all the other refugees were, and where we found arrangements were being made for British people to try and get home. After going further on we returned in about two days in a bullock cart, four sisters and myself, who wanted to get home. We joined our own staff again at Krushevatz and stayed there several days until the bombardment took place. We were away about a fortnight altogether. All that week we heard guns very near, and on 5th November learned that the Germans were only a few miles off. By this time the town was practically evacuated. On 6th November the bombardment took place. The Serbians blew up the ammunition on the railway, which gave the inhabitants of the town a great shock. They also blew up an iron bridge over the river, and with the terrific explosion just about finished everything we had, wrecking the living room of the hospital. Fortunately only two night sisters were in it, and managed to escape with but a few scratches from broken glass, etc. Aeroplanes dropped bombs over the town, and shells were fired on it. We stayed in hospital and busied ourselves carrying patients downstairs in readiness to depart. At night the Prussian Guards simply walked into the town without any fuss whatever, and took it. Dr Inglis and her staff were told to prepare beds for 50 Germans , and next morning we received orders to leave the hospital to them. Only half-an-hour was gien to us to get out, and all we were allowed to take was our beds and bedding. From there we finally went to head-quarters, and slept there for one night. We were turned out again from there and eventually reached the Serbian Military Hospital, in which there were over 900 patients. I should have said that when we were turned out of hospital we were given a small house by the Germans, where we carried all our beds and bedding, got it cleaned out, and into nice order, when in marched a lot of German soldiers and ordered us out once more into the street. Being unable to obtain any food for several days, we simply lived on what few stores we had with us, getting a few hard biscuits from the Germans – large square biscuits after the manner of dog biscuits at home. From there we left to come home on the 28th December, staring our homeward journey with a guard, in a motor-waggon, having to proceed by road on account of the bridge at Staloch being blown up. At Staloch, we entrained and went to Belgrade, where we slept one night in the station waiting-room. Again unable to get food, we made tea in the station, and went on next morning, and were taken to Semendria, where a very thorough search was made – all letters, papers, etc., being taken from us, but which were returned. The next day it was necessary to go to the Police Court, and we were again searched, but were well treated by the Hungarians. From there we were taken to Kevevana, and detained in quarantine for a few days, which was not resented at all. Met by Guards, we were marched in line and taken over at the entrance to the little town by the Head of the Police, where he gave us a room in his own house. A little straw was purchased, and we lay on the floor, twenty-one in all, in one room, but, we found the officials quite civil to us. Getting our faces washed in the morning was quite a tragic performance, starting about 6.30 and finishing about 11 a.m. It was understood we were to go straight home, but we were detained till the 6th January, and travelled with the Guards, halting at Budapest on the road for a day. We continued our journey to Bruck, the Border town of Austria and Hungary, and from thence to Vienna, after which we were allowed to go about without a guard to a distance of one kilometer beyond the town, and got bed accommodation in a hotel there – the first bed we had slept in since 28th December. At an interview with the American Consulate, we related all about the British people and prisoners we had seen on the way. Following two nights stay in Vienna, the march was continued to Waidhofen, where, on our arrival, the whole of the townspeople seemed to be out to meet us, and we were rather roughly handled by some. We were detained by the police, being provided with food, fire, light, etc., and, after being there for four weeks, were told on 6th February to leave Waidhofen at four o’clock that (Sunday) afternoon. I might mention that at Berne, where we halted, we got a fine reception, and we were taken to one of the best hospitals. It was the first place where we could get anything since 1st October, as we had lost all our belongings except in what we stood. We got a splendid send-off from there by all the English people in the place. Ultimately we arrived at London on Saturday afternoon, 12th February.”
Haddingtonshire Courier 25 Feb 1916
Bessie returned to Perth, briefly, where she hosted a meeting of the Scottish Matrons’ Association at the end of May 1916. After that, she vanishes from the record. It is possible that, like many others, the strain of her ordeal contributed to an early death: Bessie died at York in September 1930.