The many daring escapes of ‘Lady on the black horse’

This graphic painting depicts the besieged Belgium port of Antwerp in September 1914. Note the Zeppelins; early in the Great War the German airships were unchallenged and could bomb cities with impunity. English nurse Mabel Stobart was in Antwerp at the time but was fortunate to be evacuated by sea. SUS-140212-145746001 SUS-140212-145746001
This graphic painting depicts the besieged Belgium port of Antwerp in September 1914. Note the Zeppelins; early in the Great War the German airships were unchallenged and could bomb cities with impunity. English nurse Mabel Stobart was in Antwerp at the time but was fortunate to be evacuated by sea. SUS-140212-145746001 SUS-140212-145746001

Last week I wrote about the astonishing life of Mabel

Annie St Clair Stobart from her birth in 1862 up to her return from a visit to her rancher son in Canada early in 1914. Here I continue Mabel’s story.

Mabel Stobart in her Red Cross volunteer uniform in 1914.

Mabel Stobart in her Red Cross volunteer uniform in 1914.

Back in England she sensed that war in Europe was inevitable. Having had the experience of organising a mobile hospital and taking it out to Serbia to aid the wounded soldiers of that country in the course of the First Balkan War, Mabel was soon busily engaged setting up hospital units for the St John Ambulance Association.

She was in Brussels in the midst of this work on 20th August 1914 when the Germans marched in, heedless of Belgium’s neutrality. Mabel and two companions were arrested, accused of spying and informed by a German officer (whom she later dubbed “the Devil-Major”) that they would be executed by firing squad within 24 hours.

Mabel recorded how they spent a most uncomfortable night lying on “verminous straw” with sleep impossible because of the “ceaseless chiming of half-a-dozen church bells all hopelessly out of tune… the discordant melodies they played seemed to illustrate our position between the ideal of life, as designed by God, and the botching of that design by murderous man”.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mabel because though not under the threat of death by firing squad I have spent several similar sleepless nights plagued by the ceaseless church bells in the otherwise charming Belgian town of Bruges!

Mabel Stobart on horseback on the cover of 'The Tatler' of 10th November 1915. The caption reads: 'An English heroine. Loved and blessed by all Serbians for all she has done for them during the war."

Mabel Stobart on horseback on the cover of 'The Tatler' of 10th November 1915. The caption reads: 'An English heroine. Loved and blessed by all Serbians for all she has done for them during the war."

In the morning the ever-resourceful Mrs Stobart (who had a bona fide Belgium diplomatic stamp in her papers) convinced the Devil-Major’s superior to let them go. By what she later described as “a miracle” the trio got back to England. After a short respite she next took a group of nurses to Antwerp and was there when the port was besieged in September 1914. In spite of ferocious German artillery bombardments, the party worked tirelessly tending the wounded. Just hours before the city surrendered they were evacuated by sea. Unperturbed, Mabel and her nurses went on to Cherbourg and set up a hospital treating wounded from the Western Front.

With the hospital well established, after four months Mabel defied all commonsense and decided she must return to the Balkans. She had heard how a terrible epidemic of typhus was raging in war-battered Serbia; 150,000 people had already died and the medical services were overwhelmed. Now aged 53, Mabel set sail from Liverpool in April 1915 with seven female doctors, 18 trained nurses, 20 assorted orderlies, cooks and interpreters plus her husband John Greenhalgh.

They set up a hospital near Kragujevatz, south of the besieged Serbian capital, Belgrade. Mabel was given the rank of major in the Serbian army and an escort of 60 soldiers. At one time she was put in charge of a train to transport her “Flying Field Hospital”.

The war went badly for Serbia and soon Mabel’s party was forced into a nightmare retreat over the snowcapped mountains of Montenegro along with thousands of demoralised soldiers. The Germans were in close pursuit and many of the sick and wounded that died had to be abandoned at the road side as there was no time to bury them. Mabel would spend up to 18 hours a day in the saddle and it was during this time she earned the sobriquet, “Lady of the Black Horse”.

Eventually the party reached the sanctuary of Scutari on the Adriatic coast on 23rd December 1915. Thanks to Mrs Stobart’s drive and determination just one of her companions had died, a nurse also named Mabel who succumbed to typhus.

There is an intriguing coincidence about Mabel’s Balkan exploits ending at Scutari (from whence they sailed home to England). With her life having clear parallels to that other famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, I find it astonishing that the latter’s hospital for Crimean War casualties was also at a place called Scutari. Except that Nightingale’s Scutari was close to Istanbul in Turkey.

Back in England, Mabel’s story featured in all the newspapers and she even made the front page of the prestigious “Tatler” magazine. Numerous medals and titles were awarded to her. In 1916 she published a book “The Flaming Sword in Serbia and Elsewhere” and undertook many lecture tours, including a series in North America.

Sadly, Mabel Stobart’s life was marred by more tragedy. In 1919 her son Lionel and his wife Phyllis Mary died in Canada, victims of a worldwide influenza epidemic that killed many more millions than perished in the whole of the Great War.

Mabel took custody of her two granddaughters who joined her in England. Then in 1928 both her elder son Eric and her husband John died.

As a result, Mabel Stobart turned to Spiritualism, joining the British College of Psychic Science. She struck up a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s life had been blighted by various tragedies within his own family and he too had found Spiritualism a source of solace. The author lived in Crowborough on the High Weald of Sussex.

How the Stobart family came to put down Sussex roots as well as maintain a connection to those in Dorset is quite complicated. My sister-in-law Gill Huxley (nee Stobart – Mabel is her great grandmother on her father’s side) says that the 1891 census records her great grandfather having been born in Hurst Green. There is also a plaque in Hadlow Down Church remembering Lt Henry George Stobart-Laing who died aged 24 in the 1916 Battle of Jutland when his ship, HMS Indefatigable, was sunk. Gill says he was her grandmother’s brother.

Gill herself was born in Maresfield Park, in a house her grandmother had acquired. Mabel died in 1954 aged 92; Gill was a little girl at the time and doesn’t have a real memory of her.

But Gill has several books either written in person by Mabel or otherwise featuring accounts of her extraordinary life. She also has a small leather suitcase in which Mabel kept her war medals. Last summer Dorset County Museum in Dorchester staged a special exhibition marking Mabel’s extraordinary life. Members of the Stobart family gave assistance; for her part Gill loaned the suitcase for display.

Mabel’s medals are held by the Imperial War Museum. The painting of her on her horse high up in the Balkan mountains (reproduced in last week’s column) is hung in the British Red Cross Museum at Guildford. Gill and Brian have two sons named Bryan and David. They also have a daughter called Claire named after Gill’s paternal grandmother, Claire Margaret Stobart (nee Laing). Gill’s eldest brother Eric was named after their grandfather – Eric St Clair Stobart. Eric today owns the property on the site of the original house that Mabel owned in Studland, Dorset.