Several months ago, I talked about Flora Sandes, the only British woman to serve as an officer on the front line in World War I. Flora fought as a volunteer with the Serbian army and she arrived in that country after being recruited as a driver for a group of Red Cross nurses led by an American woman, Mabel Grouitch. Flora's adventures intrigued me and further research tells me that not only is Mabel's story just as fascinating as Flora's, but it also begins right here, in West Virginia.
Mabel was born on Aug. 13, 1872, in Shinnston, near Clarksburg in Harrison County and was baptized Mabel Gordon Dunlop. Early information concerning her seems to be quite sparse, but it looks like her mother, Alice Dunlop, nee Miles, died while Mabel was still very young and her father, Charles Dunlop, who was a prominent railroad man, then moved away. She was left behind and apparently neighbors took care of her for several years until her father was located in Illinois and an annuity was provided for her upkeep.
Mabel went to school in Wheeling and then went on to the University of Chicago, where she studied archaeology and ethnology, interests that she seems to have inherited from her father. In 1901, she crossed the ocean and moved to Europe where she continued her archaeology studies in Greece at the University of Athens. It was while she was there that she was introduced to a young Serbian who was working as a diplomat.
The man's name was Dr. Slavo Grouitch. He was a nobleman from a prominent Serbian family and was serving as an attach at the Serbian embassy in France. The pair liked each other, began a relationship and eventually married at the embassy in Paris.
From here they moved to on London, where Mabel's husband was named as the Serbian Charge d'Affaires to the Court of St. James. Mabel got to meet the British king and queen and many of the most prominent people in the country. It was at this time that her philanthropy came to the fore as she first determined to found a boarding school for girls in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. In those days, although girls were admitted to Serbian universities, they were not allowed to live away from home and were not permitted to go out alone. This hampered their opportunities and Mabel was determined to provide them with the chance of getting a good education. One of her main aims was to improve Serbian agriculture by providing a course in the subject for the girls. She reasoned that while sons could not be spared to study because they had to serve in the army, girls could, and could pass their knowledge on to their families. She began by recruiting the aristocratic families in Serbian embassies around Europe to raise funds while she sought finance from her friends back in the United States.
Serbia, and the Balkan countries as a whole, were full of unrest at that time and, during 1912 and 1913 a series of wars was fought in the region. The small countries won and that saw the end of Ottoman Turkish rule. During these conflicts, Mabel raised money for the Serbian Red Cross.
The wars ceased in September of 1913 but the political ramifications carried on. Serbia had lost at least 36,000 soldiers and many thousands of civilians during the wars. Mabel, whose husband was now the Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Serbia, continued to raise money and relief for the thousands of refugees.
Then, in June of 1914, a Bosnian Serbian student called Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro Hungarian empire and World War I quickly followed.
This was when Mabel recruited her nurses in Britain and she and Flora Sandes first met. They traveled out to the Balkans but the Serbian army was vastly outnumbered by the Austrians and Mabel was with them as they retreated before the invading enemy. As usual, Mabel was concerned about the women and children among the refugees and early in July of 1915 she contacted the American Red Cross, gave them money and requested they supply two doctors and some nurses to establish a hospital for children in Serbia.
Her thinking was that the invading enemy, seeing the flag of neutral America flying over the building, would think twice before attacking it.
The hospital was established in the town of Nic, which was the temporary Serbian capital. Two American doctors, Louise Taylor Jones and Catherine Travis, arrived on Aug. 4 while two Red Cross nurses made the journey three weeks later.
The hospital opened on Aug. 20, under the name of the Mabel Grouitch Baby Hospital. It was a success, but it didn't last long and in mid October it stopped taking children and switched to treating the constant stream of wounded Serbian soldiers arriving from the front.
Mabel spent much of the rest of the war traveling in the United States, lecturing, giving speeches and doing all she could to raise money for refugees as well as encouraging Americans to provide comforts, mainly in the shape of warm clothing, for those affected by the war, including our own troops.
At the end of the conflict her husband was appointed as ambassador to the United States where she continued her work to bring aid to the Serbian people.
She was back in Serbia in the mid-1930s but returned to America after her husband's death and continued her charitable work. She herself passed away from leukemia in a Washington hospital on August 13, 1956.
Mabel Dunlop Grouitch began life as an ordinary West Virginia girl. She went on to marry into European nobility, she mixed with kings and queens, was a friend of the Serbian royal family and looked after their children.
She could have had a life of idle comfort and luxury but she never lost her desire to help people.
She traveled tirelessly, made long speeches, pleaded for aid with the rich and famous, gave her own money for good causes and did all she could to help people. She is mostly forgotten here, in her own country, but she is fondly remembered in Serbia where she did so much good work. I don't think she would have wanted it any other way.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.