[ British Red Cross in Serbia in the First World War. ] Autograph diary (largely unpublished) of nurse Elsie Corbett, describing twelve months based at Yelak, including 'Christmas and social events'. With unpublished poem by William Noel Pharazyn.

Elsie Corbett [ Elsie Cameron Corbett ] (1896-1977), First World War Red Cross nurse in Serbia [ Kathleen Dillon [ Kathleen Nora Dillon ] (1877-1958) of Spelsbury House, Oxfordshire; W. N. Pharazyn ]
Publication details: 
Mainly written in Yelak, Serbia. Entries dating from between July 1917 and September 1918.
SKU: 20587

Elsie Corbett was the daughter of Archibald Corbett, 1st Baron Rowallan (1856-1933), and sister of a Governor of Tasmania. She joined the Red Cross during the First World War, and met Kathleen Dillon, a member of the notable Dillon family of Ditchley, while seabound for Serbia. Kathleen Dillon owned Spelsbury House in Oxfordshire, together with a large part of Spelsbury village, and the two women lived together at Spelsbury until Dillon's death. The diary is written on 171pp., 4to, in a burgundy morocco binding, marbled endpapers. Internally in good condition, with one loose leaf; the binding is worn and has the front hinge sprung. The diary is written in a vivid, intelligent and entertaining style, giving much information regarding the work of the Red Cross in wartime Serbia, and reflecting Corbett's strong personality (as a teetotaller she would force the village pub at Spelsbury to close, and after Dillon's death she took in abandoned animals at Spelsbury). The period covered by the diary is dealt with on pp.102-141 of Corbett's book 'Red Cross in Serbia 1915-1919' (1964, hereafter referred to as RCS), which is subtitled 'A personal diary of experiences'. Much of the material in the dairy serves as a basis for Chapter 5 of RCS. The unpublished diary begins with Corbett in England on leave, followed by a year during which she was 'Based at Yelak for twelve months': it contains descriptions of 'Christmas and social events' in Serbia, and ends during the Battle of Dobro Pole, at the start of what Corbett calls 'the Advance' – the Vardar Offensive by French and Serbian forces against the Bulgarians, supported by the British Salonika Force (BSF). The first page of the diary is headed 'Brown's Hotel, Dover St., London' (where Corbett's father, whom she describes as 'an M.P. and a philanthropist', was living). The first entry is dated Monday 9 July [1917]; and the last Monday 16 September 1918. By far the greater part of the present item remains unpublished, much of it filled with information and of high interest. Corbett chooses for publication descriptions of noteworthy incidents rather than descriptions of day-to-day activities, and her use of the diary in RCS is selective: what material she does use summarised, and the published extracts (including the final ones written at the time of the Vardar Offensive) are abridged, paraphrased and amended. (Corbett's of editorial method can be assessed by comparison of the original five-page diary entry describing 'the 9th Regiment's “Slava”' on 11 January 1918, with the version as published in RCS on pp.122-124.) An example of the material omitted from the published version is the entry for 2 December 1917: 'No journey, but walked up to the Grumpies with K. after lunch, - & have arranged to clandestinely meet a bad stretcher-case at the masked road to-morrow morning, & take him straight down to Skotchivir, - saving him the last 3 kilometers carried by hand, & the wait & about at the dressing-station here | We could so easily fetch all the stretchers from there, - or indeed everybody from the Ambulance itself, if only would let us, & would cause just 100 yds or so of the road to be mended. Can't think why he won't; - just administrative apathy I suppose. - & meanwhile the patients come jogging down on mules, - exposed to wind & rain & snow.' The following extended extract from the diary, reproducing part of the entry for 13 September 1918, gives a good example of the style and content. The extract is followed for comparison by the completely recast and heavily abridged version published by Corbett in RCS, which misdates the events described to two days earlier. The unpublished diary version (13 September 1918) reads: 'The Clagayanik's Sister arrived last night, & has been up here most of the day as the unit's been rigging her out in S.W.H. uniform! She hasn't cut her hair, & brought a Gotch with her, but it's got a bit dilapidated. She hadn't been helping the spy, & she hadn't killed an Austrian Colonel who tried to come into her house; she was in no danger, but merely “tired of captivity!” She came over dressed as a Serb soldier, the other four men being the old mayor of Vrnjatchka Banja, a soldier who'd been wounded & left behind in the retreat & has lived in the hills ever since, the spy's father (who was known to be in communication with him & therefore in danger) & the spy himslef, dressed as a Bulgar, supposed to be guarding the party. They started from V. B., by the track of Gotch we so nearly took three years ago, - travelling by night & lying in the woods by day; & got across the lines while a brisk Serb bombardment was in progress & the Bulgars all in their dug-outs! The serjeant's been given the Kara George, & she the Milosh Obelitch medal for courage. She's going on to Paris in a few days, where her father & two younger brothers are. She is a nice girl, vivacious but with pretty, modest manners, & bubbling over with joy at the moment. Not a bit pretty, yellow-faced like most Serb women who are at all upper class; & with untidy black hair, looking nearer 40 than 22, - but of a wonderful pluck! She says things are terribly dear in Serbia, a coat & shirt costs £40 & a pair of shoes £12! - & the Austrians have taken their cows & sheep, & a great many blankets out of their houses; - but they've <?> & maize & beans (which was always their staple food) & the meat ration's 1 ½ lbs a week per head, - eggs only 4d. to buy; - & she does not quote any “atrocities” at all. It must be pretty bad to have your country in enemy hands at all, & three years without much news of your folk in the army must be hard, - but I'd like to “atrocity” all the sensation-mongers who write ghastly books & articles, for their own gain & glory, & the terrible harrowing of the soldiers here who are in enough anxiety already about their dear ones.' Corbett's treatment of the previous passage on pp.135-136 of RCS gives a good indication of her editorial style: 'September 10th. There was great excitement as the sister of the cashier at our Dressing Station suddenly arrived, across the lines, from Serbia. A spy was sent over some time ago and had just returned, bringing four old men and this girl with him, I can't imagine why. She was dressed as a soldier, and we rigged her out in female clothes. She hadn't been helping the spy, she hadn't shot an Austrian Colonel; she was in no danger at all, but merely tired of hardships and regulations. They started from our Vrnjatchka Banja, by the track over Gotch we so nearly took three years ago, travelling by night and lying up in the woods by day. They got across the lines while a brisk bombardment was going on and most of the enemy underground. She said nearly everything was terribly scarce and expensive, but there was plenty of maize and beans, and she had no atrocity stories.' The diary contains several references to the liaison officer 'Captain Pharazyn', i.e. the New Zealand soldier, businessman and trades unionist William Noel Pharazyn (1894-1980), who was awarded the Military Cross in 1918. Taking up two pages at the back of the diary, in Corbett's hand, is a parody of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If', attributed at the end to 'Capt. Pharazyn.', No reference whatsoever has been discovered of this 32-line poem in four eight-line stanzas, which is titled 'If - | (an Invitation to the New Army, 1915)'. The first stanza reads: 'If you can find your way to scattered trenches, | Lost in the inky darkness of the night, | And never fall into the mud that quenches | All that remains of ardour for a fight, | If you can wade, & not get tired of wading, | Kneedeep through countless miles of clammy ooze, | If you can stand the constant serenading | Of German shells, & not give way to booze.' The poem concludes with some bitterness: 'If it amuses you to fight the Bosches, | If you delight in mud & blood & clay, | If you can love the Staff in their goloshes, [sic] | And watch your best friends taken day by day. | If you are keen to try a fall with glory, | And count the horrors lost in victory won, | No matter if you're Socialist or Tory | You hurry up & take my place my son!'?>?>