Australian Volunteers in Serbia in the First World War 1914-1918

Australian Volunteers in Serbia in the First World War 1914-1918

A printable fact sheet to help develop students’ understanding of the role of women as volunteers in World War I. Use the background context to encourage student research and learning in relation to female participation in Australia's armed forces.

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On 28 June 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip.

Austria-Hungary responded by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia appealed to her powerful ally Russia and began to mobilise her armed forces. Although Serbia agreed to most of Austria-Hungary's demands, she was determined to take Serbia and declared war on 28 July 1914. Britain's foreign secretary warned the German ambassador that if the conflict in the Balkans became a general European war it would be 'the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.' His fears were realised within a week.

When France and Britain declared war on Germany a week later, attention shifted to the Western Front. However, fighting in the Balkans and south-eastern Europe continued.

The Serbian Army was not equipped for conflict with a major power but it defeated a series of Austro-Hungarian offensives in 1914. During this period of war, Serbia's civilian population suffered greatly, and losses continued throughout the First World War. Before the war, the Kingdom of Serbia had some 4.5 million inhabitants. Estimates suggest that some 400,000 Serbian soldiers and perhaps as many as 840,000 Serbian civilians lost their lives during the First World War. Tens of thousands also died during a typhus epidemic. This is believed to be the highest number of dead proportionate to the population of all countries in the war.


Two divisions of British and French infantry landed in Salonica on 5 October 1915. They wanted to assist the Serbian Army and stop Bulgaria from entering the war in the Balkans. The next day, German and Austro-Hungarian troops launched a major offensive against Serbia. On 14 October the Bulgarian Army joined the offensive defeating the Serbs in a series of battles. Four days later an Australian newspaper described the war in this area as 'the temporary storm centre of Serbia', but it was a lot more than that.

British and French troops advanced from Salonica to support the Serbian army but there was not a lot they could do. They withdrew having suffered some 6000 casualties. The Anglo-French force was back in Salonica by 12 December 1915.

The Serbian Army was in disarray and there was a typhus epidemic. Tens of thousands of retreating Serbian soldiers and civilian refugees made their way across snowy mountains of Montenegro and Albania to ports on the Adriatic coast from where they were evacuated by the Italian, French and British navies.

The Salonica front became a stalemate. Salonica was a main supply base depot. It became crowded with troops and military equipment. Communications were poor and there were not enough roads to meet the needs of a modern military campaign. Most troops arriving at Salonica had to march quite a long way to the front. The summers were scorching hot and the winters were freezing. Malaria was widespread and soldiers suffered outbreaks of dysentery.

Fighting began again in August 1916 when a Bulgarian offensive was defeated. In September the Allies launched their own attacks and the Serbian and French armies liberated a major part of Serbian territory, including the important Serbian town of Monastir (today Bitola). Another Allied offensive in April and May 1917 failed but started a crisis in neutral Greece. After a pro-Allied government was installed, Greece declared war on the Central Powers in late June 1917.

The campaign continued without a lot of movement until September 1918. Allied troops launched attacks led by the Serbian and French forces and finally defeated the Bulgarian, German and Austro-Hungarian armies and liberated Serbia. For those who served at Salonica, victory had been won, but the fighting there would always be overshadowed by the vast scale of the war on other fronts.

Australians in Serbia

It is estimated that up to 165 Australians served alongside the Serbian army on the Salonica front in the Serbian Campaign. Small units of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) served with British forces. Some served as members of the British army or the British Royal Flying Corps. About 88 men had come to Australia from the Balkans before the war. They were recruited and partly trained in Australia for service with the Serbian army.

Two Australians who later went on to senior command during the Second World War, Major John Lavarack and Second Lieutenant Edmund (Ned) Herring, served with the British in Salonica. Herring received the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order for his work on the Salonica Front.

The Royal Australian Navy supported the Allied campaign in the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean seas in 1917 and 1918. The Australian flotilla included six vessels and some 400 sailors. They served as part of a Royal Navy fleet and were mainly engaged in anti-submarine work. Australian destroyers also played a role in ensuring safe passage for troops and supplies bound for Salonica. In 1918 Australian ships took part in bombarding the port of Durazzo as part of the final Allied offensive in the Balkans.

More than 300 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service served in the area from mid-1917. Australian civilian volunteers also worked as doctors, nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers. Explore some of their experiences below.

Stories of Australian volunteers in Serbia

Elsie Dalyell

Elsie Dalyell was born in Newtown in Sydney in 1881. She studied medicine at Sydney University and graduated with first class honours in 1910. She worked at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and became the first female on the full-time medical school staff. In 1912 Elsie also became the first woman in New South Wales to win the Beit Fellowship. She used the funds to travel to London where she worked with the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine.

After the First World War began Elsie joined the Lady Wimborne's Serbian Relief Fund unit which went to Skopje to help with the 1915 typhus epidemic. She worked in the fever hospital, about one and a half miles from the town's main hospital. She wrote of her experience:

Our building was meant for a barracks, but was hastily utilised for a hospital. The dining room is a clean bare cellar with a table and the inevitable packing cases as chairs. My own room (the last doctor in it had typhus) contains my bed, a packing case … my cabin trunk and a canvas chair … I have over one hundred patients who suffer from every imaginable fever … The suffering of the sick and wounded and the appalling waste of life here are beyond description... Yesterday I discharged a veteran Servian (Serbian) soldier, the scarred hero of a hundred fights and could find him no clothes but a Servian military coat and a split skirt made in London. He was thankful for even those, and with the addition of a blanket for overcoat set out for his home … The Servian soldiers are simply splendid, fearless and clever, and of fine physique …

In 1916 Elsie joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service unit in France. Later on, she enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Malta and in Salonica as a bacteriologist. Media reports suggested that she was the first female to hold such a role. Elsie stayed in Salonica until July 1919.

She then travelled to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) where she helped deal with a cholera outbreak. She was appointed OBE in 1919. She was also mentioned in dispatches twice during the war.

Elsie returned to Australia in 1923 where she spent many years working for the Department of Public Health. She died in November 1948.

Olive King

Olive King was born in 1885 in Croydon, Sydney. She attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls. After finishing school Olive travelled widely and was in England when the First World War began. She supplied her own vehicle and went to Belgium as a driver with a volunteer field ambulance service. Olive then joined the Scottish Women's Hospital and went to France in the spring of 1915. After six months, she was sent to Serbia.

She landed at Salonica on 3 November and helped to establish a hospital near the front. After six weeks the hospital had to be dismantled as the enemy advanced. Olive and two other female drivers made it out by train shortly before the station was bombed.

In 1916 Olive joined the Serbian army as a driver attached to a medical headquarters. For a while, her large ambulance was the only vehicle available to transport hospital stores, equipment and reinforcements to the front line and return with patients. A Scottish doctor wrote: 'The roads are beyond belief and the driving of our girl chauffers [sic] simply miraculous in its courage and skill.' Olive was promoted to sergeant in April 1917. In August there was a massive fire in Salonica. Olive drove for twenty hours at a stretch transporting civilians, medical personnel, patients and hospital records to safety. She was awarded the Serbian silver medal for bravery.

Olive asked her father in Australia for money to set up canteens. He formed a fund-raising committee which quickly raised 10,000 in donations. She opened the first Australian-Serbian canteen in Belgrade late in 1918. Seventeen more canteens followed, selling food, blankets, clothing and other necessities to the Serbian population. Helping people was not an easy job. The railway system was in chaos, many roads were closed and bridges were destroyed. To stop thieves, Olive often slept on top of the stores she was delivering. Her last canteen in Serbia closed in 1920. For her work in the country, she was awarded several local decorations and returned to Belgrade in 1923 as a special guest at the King of Serbia's wedding.

Olive returned to Sydney in 1920 and spoke publicly of her experiences.

The country was desolate when I went there first, but now it is almost in the normal conditions. Belgrade nearly two years ago was a shattered wreck – it now has all the attributes of a delightfully modern city … the peasantry are going back to their pre-war occupations and the country is regaining the prosperity it lost during the period of the war. After the war Serbia suffered the '“abomination of desolation.” There were villages whose population did not include one fit male … then … followed the famine and disease … I am happy indeed to say that these conditions were in a measure alleviated by the work of the Australian mission … through the generosity of the Australian people... Children's Hospital and the present industries of Serbia …

Olive received the Royal Serbian Order of Saint Sava, the Medal for Bravery, the Medal for Zealous Service and the Cross of Mercy for her service. She received King George V's silver jubilee medal in 1935 and George VI's coronation medal in 1937. During the Second World War she worked as an aircraft inspector at de Havilland Aircraft Pty Ltd. Olive died in Melbourne in November 1958.

Mary De Garis

Mary De Garis was born in Charlton, Victoria in 1881. She attended the Methodist Ladies' College in Melbourne. In 1900 she enrolled at the University of Melbourne. She completed a Bachelor of Medicine in 1904 and a Bachelor of Surgery in 1905. In 1907 she was awarded a doctorate of medicine.

Mary's fiance, Colin Thompson, enlisted in the AIF in May 1915. She tried to follow him into the army by enlisting in the Australian Army Medical Corps but she was rejected. The Corps did not accept female doctors. She made her own way to England with a revolver packed in her luggage but was also rejected by the British Army.

Her fiance was killed at Pozieres in August 1916. Mary joined the Scottish Women's Hospital and was posted to the America Unit at Ostrovo in Macedonia, quickly earning the staffs' respect:

You could see her every morning going over the hospital area … She steps into her ward, and with a mild and courteous tone goes to every patient … she understands everything the soldiers tell her in Serbian … If a new patient comes to the Hospital, she never lets him wait five minutes unless she examines him.

Mary served as a surgeon and Chief Medical Officer in the 200-bed hospital for 14 months. Sometimes she had to perform surgeries under enemy fire. Miles Franklin, the Australian author who also served at Salonica, remembered:

Once, in the earlier days of the Unit, while a serious operation was proceeding in the little operating tent of the advanced dressing station, the bombs began to rain … but Doctor continued her operation, occasionally remarking very politely to the Sister who stayed with her, that she was sorry, she supposed Sister would like to have a look at what was going on outside, but the patient had to be attended to or he would bleed to death.

Mary mourned the loss of her fiance, Colin. She wrote to her twin sister Bessie, 'I have lost the terrible wearing anxiety about Colin that nearly sent me mad before I left Melbourne – there is no suspense now … I have to keep mind and fingers occupied all the time, otherwise I would cry most of the time … if possible, in future, I'll not care greatly about anything'.

Mary also had to cope with the harsh winters on the Salonica front. She and other female surgeons wore fur coats, even while operating on the wounded. They contended with snow, storms, wasps, malaria, typhoid, dysentery and pneumonia. She wrote to her colleagues at the Scottish Women's hospital: 'Practical experience has convinced me that women run things very well, making me a more ardent feminist than ever.' For her service in support of the Serbian Army, she was awarded the Serbian Order of Saint Sava, III class.

After the war, Mary settled in Geelong where she made a major contribution to the practice of obstetrics. She lobbied for the building of a maternity ward at Geelong Hospital. When the ward was commissioned in 1931, she was appointed head of the unit. Mary practised medicine until 1960 when she was 79. She died in Geelong in 1963.


Balkans: An area in south-eastern Europe, the region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch throughout the whole of Bulgaria from the Serbian–Bulgarian border to the Black Sea coast.

Canteens: a general store and cafeteria at a military base.

The Central Powers: was one of the two main groups of nations that fought World War I (1914–18). It consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria;

Decorations: a badge or medal, given and worn for honour and bravery.

Dispatches: an official communication sent by special messenger; to be 'mentioned in dispatches' is a way to recognise bravery or distinguished service, and is a form of public commendation.

Divisions: (in the army) a major administrative and tactical unit, it is usually commanded by a Major General.

OBE: The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an Honour awarded by the British Monarch to men and women for outstanding work in the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations and the public service.

The Serbian Cross of Mercy: This medal was awarded for dedicated medical care of wounded and sick Serbian soldiers.

The Serbian Medal for Bravery: This medal was awarded to recipients who showed exemplary courage in the face of the enemy or perils such as fire and flood.

The Serbian Medal for Zealous Service: This medal was first awarded to soldiers and then to ancillary medical staff for distinguished service in wartime.

The Serbian Royal Order of Saint Sava: This high Serbian decoration was awarded by the King of Serbia for distinguished service in medical and humanitarian fields.

Stalemate: a position from which no action can be taken or progress made during a military campaign.

Ultimatum: a final demand or set of terms issued in dispute, the rejection of which may lead end of relations or to the use of force.


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