Past, Present & Beyond – The Lady on the black horse: Pt. 2 – Going where needed

Barbara Roden continues the story of Mabel Stobart as she heads off to the Netherlands to provide medical assistance for British soldiers.

When Mabel Stobart arrived in Ashcroft for the wedding of her son Lionel to Ashcroft resident Phyllis Christie in March 1914, she was already a famous woman.

She had founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convey Corps in 1910, and in 1912 set up a makeshift hospital at the front line of the First Balkan War, where she and her team treated some 700 soldiers. She gave a very well-received talk on the subject during her time in Ashcroft in 1914 (all proceeds went to the newly-established Lady Minto Hospital), and when she returned to her native England she might have thought that her golden years – she was then 52 – would be spent peacefully.

However, the European war she had been anticipating since 1910 – when she founded the Convey Corps – broke out in August 1914; and Mabel Stobart was not a woman to sit at home and do nothing during a crisis. On Nov. 14, 1914 The Journal reported that “Mrs. Stobart of Balkan Relief fame is again to the front, and this time has opened up a hospital in Belgium for the relief of the wounded of the Allies. . . . As there will be no limit to the assistance called for in Europe during the present crisis, there is no doubt that Mrs. Stobart will ‘have her hands full’, but she has already proven herself to be a match for any emergency or any difficulty that may arise.” A local fund in support of the hospital quickly received more than $300 in donations.

It’s not clear from this report whether The Journal was referring to the hospital Mabel tried to set up in Brussels in August 1914 or the one she established a few weeks later in Antwerp. The reason for her swift change in location was certainly dramatic. Mabel had been invited by the Red Cross to set up a hospital to treat sick and wounded soldiers, and she quickly recruited enough female volunteers – doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers – to staff the hospital. They arrived in the Belgian capital of Brussels on Aug. 18; but two days later the Germans marched into the city.

Mabel was given an official pass by the German commandant, allowing her unit to travel to safety in the Netherlands; but before they could reach that country she, her husband, and the unit’s chaplain were arrested as spies. A German officer – referred to by Mabel as the “Devil-Major” – said to the trio, “I suppose you know the fate of spies. Twenty-four hours.” He meant they would be shot by firing-squad the next day, and Mabel wrote that they spent a most uncomfortable night lying on “verminous straw”, kept awake by the “ceaseless chiming of half-a-dozen church bells all hopelessly out of tune”. In the morning Mabel spoke with the Devil-Major’s commanding officer, and showed him their pass. Instead of being shot, they were sent to Aachen, Germany for a military trial, and the sympathetic judge believed their story and let them continue to the Netherlands and thence to England.

Undaunted, Mabel prepared to set up a hospital in Antwerp, Belgium, and arrived there in September. She and her team had only been there for 10 days, however, when the Germans began bombarding the city. Mabel and her team continued to treat the wounded for as long as possible, and did not try to leave until just before the city surrendered, by which time it was almost too late.

“I stood at the gates [of the city],” Mabel wrote. “There was no sound except the crackling of the flames of the houses on fire, and the screaming of the shells as they whizzed over my head. There was nothing living in sight down that long length of street. It was like a bad dream. But suddenly I saw, tearing along toward me, at breakneck pace, three London motor buses! I ran into the road and spread out my arms to stop them. Would they stop? Thank God, they did! and I asked the drivers – English Tommies – if they could help us to the frontier. ‘If you’re quick as lightning,’ they replied. ‘But we have to get over the bridge of boats before it is blown up’.”

The women collected their belongings and were soon in the buses, perched on top of boxes of ammunition. The buses tore along the street, dodging the enormous holes that had been gouged out by shells. After the event, Mabel realized that she and her companions were probably “the last of the hospital staff, and probably the last of the inhabitants, to leave the town.”

A January 1915 article in The Journal about Mabel’s experiences noted that “Mrs. Stobart’s adventures in Antwerp [Belgium] read like a book of adventures, and we cannot but admire the daring and fortitude which prompts this woman, who is beyond the prime of years[!], to risk her life for a principle which is one of the most worthy to which a woman can aspire.”

By this time Mabel had established a hospital near Cherbourg, France. “It is extraordinary how, in this world, wherever you chance to be, there is always something that badly needs doing,” she wrote, “and still more extraordinary is it that, however inappropriate you yourself may seem to be to do the work, you can by shear steadfastness of purpose, get it done.”

By March 1915 Mabel’s organizational work in Cherbourg was done, and with the hospital running smoothly she began to look for another area where she could be useful. Her attention was once more drawn to the Balkans, where a typhoid epidemic was raging; and so it was that Mabel Stobart prepared to return to the area, where she would earn her title of “The Lady on the Black Horse”

To be continued

Barbara Roden