▪Irene Rope – lady in the Balkans

Marga’s family were badly affected by the First World War of 1914-18.
Of the six children, two of the boys were serving with the forces, and two of the girls were acting as nurses to wounded soldiers. Their father had died in 1899.

Margaret herself, as far as we know from our very few records, did not become involved in the war effort; though, judging from all the war memorials she did later, she clearly had sympathy with the plight of the soldiers.

But – Marga’s sister Irene found herself driving ambulances, a thousand miles from home.

Women at war

At first, women had been excluded from the war effort except in very traditional roles.
However, some strong female figures came forward to challenge this view, among them another famous Shrewsbury woman, Katherine Mary Harley. Despite official opposition, Mrs Harley encouraged British women to go out to help on the front line in the Balkans, where the “plucky” Serbians and their Russian allies were fighting the might of the Austrian Empire.  Mrs Harley herself died out there, killed by an exploding shell.

Elsie Inglis in 1916 on her return from SerbiaAnother such woman was Dr Elsie Inglis (pic right: credit Wikipedia) of the Scottish Federation of Woman’s Suffrage Societies, who decided to organise medical units, to be run by women, in the battlefields.  However, when she approached the British War Office we are told that they said to her “My good lady, go home and stay still”.

However, the undaunted Dr Inglis approached European ambassadors instead – and some, including Serbia, accepted her offer gratefully.

It was Dr Inglis’ organisation – the Scottish Women’s Hospitals – that Irene joined; and she was sent to Serbia as an ambulance driver.

Women ambulance-drivers volunteers in Serbia
Women ambulance-driver volunteers in Serbia

Our Lady of the Balkans

Irene Rope at the time of her service in SerbiaContemporaneous accounts give us a picture of the awful conditions these volunteers worked under:   “… the women worked in terrible conditions, often working themselves to exhaustion; and going without food, sleep and regard to their own safety.”
Irene (pictured at this time, right) herself remembered the extreme cold, and the difficulties of driving on the roads in the winter conditions.

Irene’s personal courage must have matched only by her sadness at what she saw: we know this because of a poem she wrote, dated July 1917, and written (we believe) while she was in Serbia. It is called ‘Our Lady Of The Balkans’, dedicated to the Virgin Mary…

Our Lady, for thy blissful grace / Hear our prayers in this mournful place
Men have groaned and men have died / Still sullenly flows the battle tide.
Little by little the broken men / Drag slowly back from the mountains’ ken
Some to die and some to heal / A many for woe and a few for weal.

Lady, but for thy blissful grace/ Pleading before thy Son’s dear face,
Our wills were weary and hearts were fain / For memories graven as deep as pain:
Sight of the sea from the Dartmoor tors; / Abaft dark pines where the snow-peak soars,
Breathless, aloof from our sinful years,/ The noontide spell of the Westland meres;
Wedges of wild duck in winter flights,/ Honk of the wild swan on frosty nights;
Chrysoprase moon on cloud-hung heights; / The dusking headland’s October scent;
The redshank’s pipe when the tide is spent; / And small birds rustle their reedy tent.

Steady our hearts and strengthen our wills / Adrift amidst burgeoning earthly ills.
Clean from the Hand of God these came,/ In Paradise wrought on the weaving-frame;
That which is webbed at Christ’s command / Textured by cunning of Angel’s hand,
Knows no decay – to us children of earth / But a loan till the advent of death-born birth.
The Lady, by bliss of thy benison’s grace, / Remember us ever before His Face
Because of the day beneath the Tree / When memory drave his shafts at thee.

(…published in a magazine edited by Irene’s brother, Father Henry Rope)

The extraordinary middle section of this poem, with its yearning memories of England, shows how difficult and how saddening the whole experience must have been for Irene, who was a mere 22 years old at the time.
(Irene, very like Marga, was pretty tough inside though: when studying at Oxford University, she was told she could not attend lectures alone in the company of men students – so she defied the ruling by taking a chaperone with her …! )

Serbia

Britain’s relations with Serbia have soured since the days of 1914-18, but it is fascinating to know that the efforts of British women like Irene are not forgotten there.  The graves of the women volunteers who died out there – including that of Katherine Anne Harley – are still tended to this day by local people (see photo below).

Commemoration of WW1 women volunteers who died in Serbia

As for Irene herself, she survived World War One.
After serving in Serbia, she returned to England to join the WRNS; and became the first Wren to take charge of a unit outside the UK (in Gibraltar).

In later life, she became a botanist and moved with her family to Wales.
Near her home is a window in Llandovery RC Church that she and her husband Captain Vaughan commissioned after the death of two of their children.  Naturally she turned in that hour of her grief to her artist sister Margaret – and it is Margaret who created that window, and it is one of Marga’s most touching works.

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