Heroes of Gourock: Catherine Mary Barr

There are many ways to commemorate the Armistice which marked the end of the Great War a hundred years ago today. I chose a single individual from my own home town who played a role in one of the most heartbreaking, and remarkable, stories of that time.

This is the story of Catherine Mary Barr.

This is such a lovely place. I seem to say that in every letter wherever I write from here, but it’s perfectly true, Serbia is a lovely country. We are right among the hills here and on this grey and misty morning, we could be in Scotland. Could any Scotswoman say more? But the blue, blue skies and sunshine – they are all Serbia.
Dr. Elsie Inglis

Catherine Mary Barr was born in 1872, the daughter of the local chemist Robert Barr. She lived out her early years at the family home at 7 Albert Road in Gourock. When the Great War broke out, Catherine was among the first in Gourock to enlist: she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service as a nurse in December 1914. Her four years with the SWH were remarkable – she found herself at the centre of one of the most devastating fronts of the First World War.

Recruitment poster for the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the Great War.

Catherine’s first assignment was Serbia, a nation under siege from the Austria-Hungarian Empire since July 1914. She travelled to Southampton, then on to Salonika – a Greek city which the Allies would later use as a base. While at Salonika, Catherine was expected to en train for Kragujevac, then-capital of Serbia, and a vital connection point to the larger city of Belgrade. The SWH arrived on the 6th of January under Chief Medical Officer Dr Eleanor Soltau, geared for 100 beds: almost immediately, they received 250 patients. Soon after, 650 patients.

The Serbians were in dire straits: the Serbian Army could only muster 300 doctors to serve half a million soldiers and casualties. The SWH worked endlessly to save as many lives as they could with the meagre resources available, more and more casualties coming by the day. As the war went on, the hospitals overflowed: within a short time, Kragujevac itself became a hospital. Thousands of soldiers & civilians were lying with injuries, gangrene, frostbites, fractures, infections, and diseases in buildings and streets throughout the city, freezing and starving and dying with so few nurses and doctors to aid them. The Serbian military were effectively resisting the Austrian-Hungarians, but at great cost. The entire nation was exhausted. Over 170,000 people are estimated to have died by December 1914.

The situation worsened: in 1915, a typhus outbreak spread through Serbia, endangering everyone in the country. Dr. Saltau resolved to contact headquarters for aid, but the Serbs were insistent that no mention of typhus was to be used for fear that word of their precarious situation would spread to the enemy. Dr Soltau wired to HQ the cryptic message “dire need for more fever nurses”: luckily, the perceptive Dr. Elsie Inglis understood, and immediately dispatched ten nurses. Hundreds of thousands died in the epidemic, including four SWH staff – Louisa Jordan, Madge Fraser, Augusta Minshull, and Bessie Sutherland. It was the deadliest recorded Typhus outbreak in the history of the world.

With the situation barely relieved in Kragujevac, Catherine was reassigned to the command of Dr Beatrice McGregor at a new hospital at Mladenovac – closer to the front, and on the main Serbian supply railway. They were only there for a few fronts when a new danger emerged: the Germans joined the Austrians, and embarked on a full-scale invasion of Serbia. By the 12th of October, the combined might of the two nations overwhelmed the beleaguered Serbian front lines. The SWH had no choice but to evacuate the hospital, and the town itself. When they returned to Kragujevac, they regrouped, aiding hundreds of casualties at an emergency dressing station. Disaster struck again when the Buglarians joined the Austrian-German invasion from the east: the SWH were forced to retreat yet again, moving south to Kraljevo on the Ibar River.

By the winter of 1915 Serbia could hold out no longer. German and Bulgarian forces joined the Austrians and again invaded, and the Serbs were forced to retreat further south. The dressing station barely lasted a few weeks before the three invading nations were within reach. It was one of the darkest times in Serbia’s history. The SWH were faced with a choice: flee for their lives in a retreat to the Adriatic Sea, or remain with the Serbs and risk capture or death. Catherine and her fellow nurses chose to remain with the Serbs, and embarked upon one of the most incredible journeys in the history of the world.

On the 5th of November 1915, Dr McGregor, Catherine, and the nurses of the SWH joined The Great Serbian Retreat.

The procession, as it dipped into the hollow and reappeared on the crest, to dip and reappear again, looked like a great dragon wandering over the countryside, stretching from one end of Serbia to the other, and one realised that this was something more than an army retiring: it was the passing of a whole nation into exile – a people leaving a lost country.
– Diary, A Member of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Field Marshall Radomir Pudnik saw no recourse but to evacuate the entire military of Serbia. The route through allied Montenegro and neutral Albania was treacherous: they would have to cross the Albanian Mountains in the dead of winter. Hundreds of thousands of Serbians – men, women, children – accompanied them, preferring to risk the hazardous weather than suffer occupation under the Central Powers. A river of humanity flowed through the valleys and hills to coalesce at the border, at what has been called Albania’s Golgotha. The dangerous terrain and conditions proved as much an advantage as a hindrance, as the Serbs’ knowledge of their land allowed them to evade Central Power forces.

As they moved through Albania, another hazard emerged – one of their own making. Tribal Albanian warbands, desperate for bloody vengeance for the Serbs’ massacre of Albanians during the Balkan War only a few years beforehand, began to harry the Serbian migration. With precious little food, inadequate clothing, hypothermia, dehydration, hunger, and now merciless warbands, Serbs died by the hundreds of thousands on this great exodus over hundreds of miles. Among them was one of the SWH’s own – Margaret “Meg” Crowe & Caroline Toughill were in a motor ambulance when it went over a steep embankment. Caroline suffered a fractured skull, and died a few days later.

The Serbian Army retreats through the mountains of Albania.

Some 155,000 Serbs and allies – mostly soldiers – arrived at the coast of the Adriatic sea, where they were transported to the Greek isle of Corfu, with some later transported to Vido and even Bizerte in North Africa. 240,000 were lost on the journey. Thousands more were so weakened from exhaustion, they died in the weeks after their rescue.

Gravestones of Dr Elizabeth Ross, Lorna Ferris and Mabel Dearmer, Kragujevac, Serbia

Gravestones of Dr Elizabeth Ross, Lorna Ferris and Mabel Dearmer, Kragujevac, Serbia

Catherine, Dr. McGregor, and the others survived the journey, & made it home to Britain. However, after a brief respite at home, Catherine returned to the war: she headed to Corsica, where the French granted shelter for many woman & child refugees from Serbia, and where the SWH set up a convalescent hospital. Most of the survivors were completely destitute, far from their homeland, and utterly broken. She served there until October 1916: in 1917 she joined the American unit at Ostrovo, & then went to Belgrade.

Group photograph of women of the Sixth (American) Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospital in the sunshine at Ostrovo. According to the original caption, the CMO (Chief Medical Officer) is Dr Agnes Bennett and many of the staff are Australian.

Catherine’s tireless efforts did not go unnoticed: she was awarded the Serbian Samaritan Cross in recognition of her work.

This Samaritan Cross was awarded to Sister Emily Peter, a New Zealand nurse who succumbed to typhus shortly before the Great Retreat.

She died in Gourock in 1954.

The fountain at Mladenovac dedicated to the Scottish Women’s Hospital nurses.

Every year, the city of Kragujevac holds a memorial service to remember these Scottish women. Serbia suffered the highest per capita losses of any nation of the Great War: Scotland also suffered losses greater than other nations. As we commemorate all those who lost their lives in combat and violence, it seems appropriate to also commemorate all those who worked to save lives during that terrible conflict – Madge Neil Fraser, Evelina HaverfieldVera “Jack” Holme, Elsie Inglis, Ethel Moir, Mabel Stobart, and Gourock’s own Catherine Mary Barr.


2 thoughts on “Heroes of Gourock: Catherine Mary Barr

  1. Geraldine Harron says:

    Thank goodness Serbia remembers these great women.

  2. […] own little hometown of Gourock can boast women writers, artists, politicians, journalists, and war heroines. – to say nothing of my mammy, my sister, my niece, my granny, my aunties and great-aunties […]

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.