Mabel Stobart - the remarkable story of the The Tatler magazine cover girl
PUBLISHED: 10:49 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 10:49 10 November 2014
A cover girl for The Tatler Mabel Stobart remains a hero in Serbia, and yet the remarkable story of her leading a women-only medical team to war torn Serbia in 1915 had all but been forgotten until now
Described by The Tatler magazine as ‘an English heroine’ by rights Mabel St Clair Stobart’s upbringing should have had her sitting in a grand house leafing through The Tatler rather than being its dashing cover girl on a magnificent black horse. But by November 1915 this fearless woman had made quite a name for herself - tending the sick and wounded of the First Balkan War with her own all women corps of nurses and doctors, and then continuing her work in Serbia during the First World War.
Born in 1862 to a wealthy family Mabel Annie Stobart enjoyed an idyllic early life and then marriage, in late Victorian Britain. She only realised her true potential in the Transvaal in 1903 after the Boer War. Facing ruin when their farm failed, she set up a store trading with locals in order to keep the family. Life was tough and dangerous but this experience proved to be the making of Mabel. With the loss of her husband St Clair at sea and two grown up sons settled abroad Mabel had time on her hands and a chance to take up a new challenge.
She returned to England in 1907 and, with remarkable foresight, she spotted the need for field hospitals behind the army front line. In 1910 overcoming prevailing prejudice against women serving in the forces, and taking advantage of the suffragist movement and the widespread fear of invasion by Germany she founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps (WSWCC). The Corps held training camps in Studland and Rottingdean, where they strided around in practical culottes-style skirts doing drills and practicing their first aid. Mabel raised funds for her Corps by shamelessly seeking the support of her wealthy and influential friends in London. Even a rebuff from Sir Frederick Treves, Chairman of the Red Cross, did not stop her from taking her unit to the Balkan Wars in 1912.
Mabel was uncompromising and when she later discovered that the WSWCC had sided with the Red Cross while she was on leave in Canada in 1913, she promptly resigned from both. But such were her qualities of leadership and experience that when the First World War was declared she was the first to take a new all-women troop of nurses and doctors (now called the Women’s National Service League) to the Continent. Opposition from the authorities and her lack of formal qualifications never bothered her and she always found it easy to recruit women anxious for some action.
This wasn’t surprising, especially when it came to recruiting female doctors. Before the First World War there were only 600 women doctors in England. These were channelled away from the more prestigious specialties, notably general surgery, into asylums, dispensaries, public health and general practice. Many of these women welcomed the chance for some military surgery and did outstanding work, amputating limbs, extracting bullets and staunching bleeding. It was not until the advent of the National Health Service in 1948 that equal opportunities for women in medicine became widespread.
Sometimes Mabel found the doctors difficult to manage, a notable example being Dr Florence Stoney. Stoney was a pioneer radiologist with a distinguished career and the two clashed swords on several occasions. Mabel referred to her as “Snakey Stoney” in her diary and wrote that she was an impossible woman. Incidentally X-rays were in widespread use by the First World War, being especially useful for locating bullets and setting fractures.
Mabel’s ability to get things done was remarkable and in a mere six weeks she put together a unit of 45 women to go to Serbia in April 1915. As well as doctors, nurses, cooks, orderlies, chauffeurs and interpreters, she had 60 specially made tents, medical equipment, an X-ray machine, six motor ambulances and an ox wagon nicknamed Derry and Toms after the well-known London store who donated it. The first aim of the unit was to deal with the appalling typhus epidemic. By the time Mabel’s unit arrived it was almost over but not before it had killed one third of the country’s doctors. The Serbs were so grateful for her help that they made Mabel a Major in the Serbian Army. They also presented her with a magnificent black horse, which was immortalised – somewhat romantically - in the 1916 painting by George Rankin, ‘Lady of the Black Horse’, showing a remarkably youthful Mabel (who by this stage would have been in her fifties), leading a mobile hospital column.
Mabel was very proud of her roadside dispensaries, set up to help the civilian population of Serbia during a lull in the fighting, though there were very few effective drugs in her day; just aspirin, opium and quinine. It is salutary to recall that throughout the Great War antibiotics and blood transfusion were unknown. Surgery was aseptic and done under general anaesthesia, but shock was poorly understood and claimed countless lives.
As well as taking photographs, Mabel kept a diary during the Great Retreat of the Serbian nation which they were caught up in. During October and December 1915, in bitter weather, they trekked over the mountains of Montenegro and northern Albania to the coast where they picked up a boat which would eventually get them back to England. This diary is now in the Imperial War Museum and, apart from details of the dreadful suffering of the soldiers and civilians, she also wrote about her feelings on the madness of war and man’s enthusiasm for militarism. Only the intervention and common sense of women, she ventured, could stop this.
Wherever Mabel went she managed to meet people that mattered, whether it be Lord Esher in England, Sir Cecil Hertslet, the British Consul General in Antwerp, Sir Noel Buxton, our man in the Balkans, Queen Eleanora of Bulgaria, HRH Alexander, Crown Prince of Serbia or Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnet, the list was endless. Her ability to network and a keen eye for publicity enabled Mabel to achieve what she did. How else would you end up on the cover of The Tatler heralded as a war hero! But inevitably with such a strong personality she fell out with people, notably the medical profession on whom she was so reliant. Despite a well received book The Flaming Sword: in Serbia and Elsewhere, which drew heavily on her diaries, and successful lecture tours, nobody wanted her when she applied “here, there and everywhere”. Fortunately America entered the war in 1917 and, thanks to the influence of John Buchan at the Ministry of Information she enjoyed a successful lecture tour in North America for nine months.
Notably Mabel was one of only five women featured in the War Illustrated 100 Heroes of The Great War; the others were Lady Paget, Nurse Edith Cavell, Émilienne Moreau and the Queen of the Belgians. Mabel was clearly delighted to be included, circling her photo, and pasting it into one of her many scrapbooks. These along with her personal diaries, letters and photos have helped us to put together the exhibition A Dorset Woman at War at the County Museum.
After the war Mabel became involved in spiritualism, and she retired to a cottage in Studland. She died at the grand old age of 92 in 1954. Her contribution was, like so many others who played their part in the Great War, all but forgotten. Mabel gave women doctors the opportunity to perform surgery, she also provided vital medical support to the battered Serbian army and the many thousands of refugees who joined the Great Retreat. This exhibition is just one way in which the lives of remarkable people like Mabel Stobart can be rediscovered by a new generation.