British medical volunteers and the Balkan Front 1914-1918: The case of Dr Katherine Stuart MacPhail

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This paper examines the British presence on the First World War’s Balkan Front in the British popular imagination with a particular focus on the lesser-known woman humanitarian Doctor Katherine Stuart MacPhail. Allied military inertia from 1915 to 1918 led to the British presence in the Balkan theatre being mainly associated through the large number of medical aid volunteers, the majority of whom were women, defining it through a civilian rather than military paradigm. Having been unable to secure a career within the medical establishment of her native Glasgow, Dr MacPhail served as a volunteer doctor in both the Balkans and France during the war. Her experiences of living and working amongst the peasants of Serbia and Macedonia inspired her to remain in the region following the armistice in the newly created Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Amongst her achievements was the establishment of Serbia’s first children’s hospital in 1919. Whilst the example of MacPhail was not typical of the average medical volunteer, it represented a broader trend of record. Unlike many of her contemporaries she did not leave any precise record detailing her own views or ambitions. In Britain her name and mention of her work tended to reach wider attention only through the accounts of her more high-profile contemporaries. However it serves as a prime illustration of a unique historical episode in Anglo-Balkan cultural contact in which issues of gender, the changing role of humanitarianism in war and wider public investment within an Allied campaign primarily viewed as pointless, coalesced. It also reflected the limitations such an extraordinary yet brief historical context imposed on this equally extraordinary situation illustrated by the sudden change in MacPhail’s own fortunes following the war’s conclusion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-16
Number of pages13
JournalUniversity of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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