Over the line – a German medic’s war


In this month’s edition, Louise, Archivist in Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA), finds a different view of the First World War….

Ernst Levin (1887 – 1975) was a German-born neurologist who first came to Edinburgh in 1933 to work with neurosurgeon Norman Dott in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Since Levin was Jewish, the Nazi rise to power meant that he could no longer work in his then-home of Munich, where he had just received a Chair in neurology at the city’s University.

ernstErnst Levin (1887 – 1975)

We knew about Levin’s medical work in hospitals across the city and for the German consulate in Scotland through his medical papers, donated to LHSA in the 1970s. However, although we had a record of Ernst’s career, we knew little of his time in Germany or his experiences as an émigré, leaving a lot of blanks when interested researchers asked to know more about the man behind the archive.

In 2015, I was given the opportunity to acquire Levin’s personal papers for LHSA – letters, photographs and mementos that added to the clinical profile we already held. This was a first for us in combining private and career records to give a more complete picture of a prominent personality in Edinburgh’s medical life.

Through this new collection, I learnt that Levin served during the First World War and later, along with his wife Anicuta Belau, had a wide circle of friends in the artistic movements of the decadent Weimar Republic. With the Nazi rise to power, Levin came to Edinburgh, subsequently joined by Anicuta and their daughter, Anna. Levin (like many other European exiles) was interred (in the Isle of Man) during the Second World War – but still returned to live the rest of his life in Edinburgh.

One of the first things that I noticed about our new donation was a group of photographs and mementos from the First World War, when Levin served as Assistant Surgeon of the Reserve of the Bavarian Infantry Regiment. These images from the German lines were extremely striking, and gave an immediate view of the trenches that are rare from British troops. Although smaller cameras were popularising photography as a hobby by the time of the First World War, the British Army had imposed restrictions on private camera use by 1916. In contrast, personal photography was tolerated more on the German side.  It appears that Levin was a keen photographer, and noted chemicals used in the development process on his photograph envelopes. There are a large number of First World War images in the collection, from photographs of the German lines:


… to soldiers relaxed and enjoying themselves:


As a first for us, LHSA has also acquired images of German field hospitals thanks to Levin’s collecting:


What really sticks out about Ernst’s First World War archive is the mixture of battlefield images and snatched moments of life for civilians under occupation – something that is reflected in his photography:


… but also by handmade postcards which were intermingled with his war memorabilia:


The postcards are signed, but we cannot be sure whether they were created under a pseudonym by Ernst himself or by an acquaintance. The word ‘Postkaart’ on their reverse may imply that they were drawn in Holland or Belgium, though:


We can guess where Ernst may have been stationed on account of the paper memorabilia he collected, from postcard books of places like Bruges and Tournai to maps of the front-lines:


As a medic, Levin far from escaped the dangers of the Front. In fact, he won a Military Medical Medal for his heroism in the Battle of the Somme. In August 1916, Levin was ordered to set up a dressing station in Cléry. Not only did he achieve this in an exposed area without artillery protection, but also showed bravery under fire when the station was shelled. The following is taken from Bavaria’s Golden Roll of Honour, compiled from the Bavarian War Archive:

“Whilst everyone took what shelter they could from the artillery fire, Dr Levin, hearing a wounded man cry out, immediately went to the aid of the casualty despite the firing and at the risk of his life. He bandaged the wounds and carried the man to the dug-out. Throughout the Battle of the Somme, Dr Levin distinguished himself by his spirit of sacrifice, his calmness and level-headed-ness and his strong sense of duty.”


Ernst Levin in uniform

It is lucky that a good proportion of this war archive is largely visual – most of Levin’s personal collection is written in German. There are, for example, bundles of letters like this one, sent home to Munich through the German military mail system, Feldpost:


And it is this language barrier that, at the moment, we are looking for ways to overcome, from involving academics to better understand the content of Levin’s archive to tracing the content of the collection through methods that do not involve deciphering the older-style German script in which manyof the letters are written. However, the visual clues I can decipher have already given me a privileged view behind the German lines.


All images from LHSA accession, Acc15/001.

The Battle of Jutland – 100 years on

This week sees the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest and most important naval engagement of the First World War, and also a particularly Scottish event, as the majority of the British ships involved set out from Scottish ports – from Rosyth on the Forth, up to Scapa Flow in Orkney.

As the Navy, the politicians and VIPs, heavy security and the media descend on Orkney this week, it seemed an appropriate moment to see what we could find in our collections of the contemporary reporting and commentary on the battle.

The outcome of the battle of Jutland was complex: the losses of British ships and lives were far higher than the Germans’; but, it was a tactical advantage in that Britain retained control of the seas, maintained the blockade of German shipping and ultimately it contributed to winning the war.   However, immediately after the battle the longer-term consequences were not obvious and the consequences of the confused action were very much open to interpretation.

Jutland, was, for the Admiralty, a media disaster: the German High Seas Fleet, having retreated to port, issued prompt communiques declaring it their victory.  The Admiralty was unable to report so rapidly; the British fleet was still at sea, and they had no information.  When they did issue their own communique it was so badly worded as to make the British media interpret it as a defeat.

This was embarrassing.  The situation inspired the Admiralty to start a systematic propaganda campaign, as well as a review of how they handled these matters.

Their propagandist of choice was Rudyard Kipling – famous, influential, very much in support of the war, but long sympathetic to the lot of the ordinary soldier or sailor.  He was already writing general newspaper articles for the Admiralty – three were ready for publication when Jutland happened, appearing in The Times in late June 1916.  Kipling’s visits to the Fleet in connection with these had made contacts among the officers, and he had heard first-hand accounts of the battle as soon as a week after it happened.   In August he was provided with all the official reports, and in October four articles were published in The Daily Telegraph.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare c

These begin by outlining a positive interpretation of the battle, stressing the confusion of the action and the difficulty for those involved of being sure what was happening.  The rest of the articles, consistently upbeat in tone, consist of anecdotes showing the bravery, resourcefulness and ingenuity of the men involved, in overcoming battle damage, hitting their enemy targets, and getting their ships home.  They owe as much to Kipling’s contacts among the ships’ crews as to the official reports, and are as colourful in the telling as his fictional stories.  Indeed, they are openly somewhat fictionalised to avoid disclosing military intelligence.

From a modern perspective the thing which seems odd about these is the timing.  In our modern instant-news culture a series of lengthy articles would be unlikely to be published four and a half months after the event, and certainly not as a means to win round public opinion in that way.  What is even more alien to modern media culture, is that these, along with Kipling’s other articles for the Admiralty, were republished in book form before the end of 1916.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare b

However, the book version interspersed the articles with verse, and acquired a greater nuance of interpretation than that conveyed by the original articles alone.  The Jutland section of the book opens with ‘My Boy Jack’, a reflection on the dead.  This undoubtedly carries some of Kipling’s feelings about the loss of his own son at the battle of Loos the previous year, framed in naval terms.

SB 82391 Kipling sea warfare d

Our copy of Sea Warfare, can be consulted in the Centre for Research Reading Room, shelfmark: S.B. 82391 Kip.

‘Doing their bit’: the remarkable life of nurse Yvonne FitzRoy

Today’s blog is by Louise, archivist at Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA), as she looks into a very singular wartime life:

On the surface, Yvonne FitzRoy (1891 – 1971) seemed an unlikely nurse. A privileged socialite (daughter of Sir Almeric FitzRoy and Katherine Farquhar), progressive and actress, she was in fact to serve on the battlefields of Russia and Romania as a nursing orderly to Elsie Inglis between 1916 and 1917 with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH).

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were set up as soon as war broke out by Edinburgh clinician and suffragist Dr Elsie Inglis, with the financial support of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

LHB8A-9 Elsie Inglis

Dr Elsie Inglis (LHB8A/9)

The all-female SWH units were formed in order to offer medical support to front-line troops, and by the end of the war there had been units based in France, Corsica, Salonika, Serbia, Russia, Romania and Malta. Although rejected by the War Office in Scotland (the famous rebuke to Dr Inglis was that, as a woman, she should ‘go home and sit still’), the aid of the SWH was accepted first by the French Red Cross, and a hospital was set up in Calais to treat Belgian troops. A hospital in the abbey of Royaumant soon followed.

The SWH are perhaps best known through their units in Serbia (work that still links Scotland to the area today). However, the Serbian army’s defeat by Austrian troops forced their withdrawal – Dr Inglis was captured and was returned to Britain; others who could escape chose to retreat in treacherous conditions with the Serbian army. However, in 1916, the London Suffrage Society financed another SWH unit of 80 women to support the Serbian army in Russia and Romania, of which Yvonne FitzRoy was one. LHSA is lucky enough to hold two letter books (LHB8/12/6 and 7) and one scrapbook (LHB8/12/8) that trace Yvonne’s work on this eastern front.


Yvonne’s appointment letter to the SWH (LHB8/12/8)


Luggage label from Yvonne’s journey to serve with the SWH on a captured Austrian ship (LHB8/12/8). According to her memoirs, her luggage consisted of ‘one kit-bag, one haversack, and a rug.’

Although SWH archives are held by Glasgow City Archives  and The Women’s Library, the pivotal role played by Elsie Inglis means that we have some intriguing material across LHSA collections (of which more as the weeks go on!): SWH work is reflected in archives from the Bruntsfield Hospital (where Dr Inglis was a surgeon), in the papers of the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital (opened as a memorial to Dr Inglis in 1925 with the remainder of the SWH funds) and in the personal collections of campaigners who fought to keep the memory of Dr Inglis alive. The letters and scrapbook created by Yvonne FitzRoy can be found in LHSA’s Bruntsfield Hospital collection.

Although not solely covering her time at the front, Yvonne’s scrapbook is dominated by the War and its aftermath. Reflecting her artistic and social life as well as her military one, the book is pasted with typed quotations, theatre scripts, postcards and programmes, indicating a love of words, the London stage and the idiosyncratic:


Memorabilia in Yvonne’s scrapbook (LHB8/12/8)

However, the levity of costume design, exhibitions and drama is soon punctuated by newspaper clippings of events in the theatre of war as European tensions grew in 1914.


A typical ‘text heavy’ page in Yvonne’s scrapbook (LHB8/12/8).

As a result of her services to the Russian sick and wounded, Yvonne FitzRoy was awarded a Russian medal for meritorious conduct, the ‘Order of Service’, which she was given government permission to wear:


Certificate of Yvonne FitzRoy’s ‘Order of Service’ medal (LHB8/12/8).

Her service throughout the war was also recognised by the British Red Cross and Order of St John organisations, which worked together during the war after forming a Joint War Committee:


Yvonne’s certificate for wartime services with the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem in England (LHB8/12/8).

Like others who served with SWH, Yvonne FitzRoy seemed to have been involved with the Voluntary Aid Detachments, women (who came to be known as VADs) who volunteered in county Red Cross hospitals. Yvonne seems to have used her literary skills in work for a hospital magazine, the Egginton Howl, the magazine of Egginton Hall Red Cross Hospital near Derby.

The Egginton Howl was even praised in this December 1916 article by The Spectator: http://bit.ly/1Ki26lQ. The letter by Rudyard Kipling mentioned in the article is in fact pasted into Yvonne’s scrapbook, indicating that at this time she must have been closely involved in the magazine’s production:


Letter from Rudyard Kipling to Yvonne FitzRoy (LHB12/8/8).

Not content with one literary autograph, Yvonne managed to collect another trophy, in the shape of a questionable pun and endearing sketch from author HG Wells:


HG Wells caricature (LHB8/12/8).

Following the war, Yvonne (like other SWH medical staff) chose to write a memoir of their experiences working on the front line. Her memoir, With the Scottish Nurses in Roumania, was published in 1918, giving an account of her life at the front – it was dedicated to Dr Inglis, who died from cancer on 26th November 1917 just as she had returned to Britain. Yvonne’s adventures did not end with peacetime, however. In 1921, she was appointed as Private Secretary to Alice, Marchioness of Reading, wife of the British Viceroy in India, a post that she occupied until 1926. Yvonne’s life in India can be pieced together through another memoir, Courts and Camps in India: Impressions of Viceregal Tours 1921 – 1924, or through her personal papers from this time held at the British Library. The cuttings and correspondence in her scrapbook also reflect this period of her life:


Greetings card sent from the Viceroy’s Camp, c. 1924 (LHB8/12/8).

Yvonne’s letters home to her parents are more directly focused upon her SWH period, covering September 1916 to January 1917, when she travelled between Russia and Romania with ‘Hospital A’, headed by Dr Inglis. From her journey east to life treating patients at the front and retreating and advancing in the wake of Allied campaigns, Yvonne’s collected letters cover her friendships, leisure time, daily life and the business of staying warm, including frequent mentions of ‘Swedish drill… all of us flat on our backs… waving our grey legs in the air’ (6th September 1916). Frequent references to the ‘Russian censor’ preclude any detailed references to military manoeuvres, victories or defeats, but on some occasions working conditions are mentioned in more detail:

‘Now we are about 10 miles from the firing line, and Hospital B has gone off to act as our clearing station. I am really glad to be in A. B won’t probably see more of the fighting than we shall, and from the medical point of view our work will be the most interesting as they simply dress the wounds and send the men straight on. Here they only stay a day or two if they are well enough but anyway that give us enough time to cope with things a little. Also I am with Dr Inglis and have got the pick of the sisters in my Ward headed by a Bart’s nurse – my word what a difference a big hospital training makes! We arrive just in time for the biggest rush of wounded they’ve yet had and got 100 in before we were half ready. Every soul worked like bricks but the first few days were just terrific. Now, in all the confusion, we are beginning to see daylight and in a day or two shall have our next two Wards open.’ (10th October 1916)

As the extract above hints, Yvonne’s letters also give her personal insight into Elsie Inglis. In a 1919 letter to Eva Shaw McLaren, who was to publish a history of the SWH and a biography of Elsie Inglis, Yvonne wrote:

‘You know it wasn’t at least an easy job to win the best kind of service from a mixed lot of women – the trained members of which had never worked under a woman before – and were ready with their very narrow outlook to seize on any and every opportunity for criticism. There was a tremendous amount of opposition, more or less grumblingly expressed at first. No-one hesitated to do what they were told – you wouldn’t with Dr Inglis as a chief, would you – but it was grudgingly done. In the end it was all for the best. If she had been the kind of person who took trouble to rouse an easy personal enthusiasm the whole thing would have fallen to pieces at the first stress of work – equally if she had never inspired more than respect she would never have won the quality of service she succeeded in doing.’ (9th November 1919)

Weighing up Dr Inglis’ ‘loveable personality that lay at the root of her leadership’ with her ‘strength and singleness of purpose’ (which did not always endear her to those around her at first sight), Yvonne provides a counter to the ‘fanatics’ (as she describes them) whose awe at the work of the SWH coloured their perceptions – also revealing Yvonne’s own individuality and strength, which must have carried her through a particularly harsh Russian winter.


Yvonne in her SWH uniform (LHB8/12/8).

Louise Williams, Archivist, Lothian Health Services Archive