Among the countless stories of Bedfordshire heroism associated with the war, one that should thrill with pride the heart of every man, woman and child is that of the Luton nurse who has returned home after being compelled to face the trying ordeals of retreat across the mountains from her nobly borne work among the distressed and needy population of Serbia.
It is a thrilling story, and one worthy to be associated with the name of that immortal Bedfordshire worthy, John Bunyan, from whom the family of Miss Bessie Bunyan claims to be descended.
Miss Bunyan was born at Shefford, and her aged father has now lived for some four years in Wellington Street, Luton, while her sister, Mrs W. J. Fountain, is the wife of the licensee of the Wellington Arms, at the corner of Wellington and Stuart streets.
Trained as a nurse in the Uttoxeter Infirmary at Derby, she emigrated to Canada at the expiration of 12 months. She spent three years there, returning home a little more than a month before the terrible gas explosion which occurred at the home of her parents in Wellington Street three Christmas Eves ago. Her mother never really recovered from the shock of that explosion, and Miss Bunyan stayed at home to nurse her until her death on December 27th, 1914 - a year and two days after the explosion. After that she offered herself to the nursing service in connection with the war.
It seemed to Miss Bunyan at that time that there was an abundance of workers available for France, and on reading of the plight of the Serbians she came to the conclusion that this was a field of service in which she could be of most use, especially in view of the fact that during her stay in Canada she had spent about a year up country, and was therefore thoroughly accustomed to "roughing it".
Accordingly she sent up her name to the Serbian Relief Fund, and was referred to Miss Christitch, a Serbian lady resident in London whose father is a colonel in the Serbian Army and whose grandfather is the Prime Minister of Serbia. Miss Christitch's visit to Valjevo and consequent acquaintance with the terrible hardships of the population there had cause her to set up a Valjevo Relief Fund.
No one had been sent out to Valjevo on relief work until Miss Christitch took out a party last May, and three weeks later Miss Bunyan followed with six other trained nurses. Arriving at Valjevo on June 26th, Miss Bunyan became somewhat ill as the result of inoculation against cholera and did not proceed to the hospital work, but was retained at the Christitch depot until eh had fully recovered. The work there grew to such an extent that it became her permanent function until the evacuation of the town. This work was of a very varied character - cleansing and fitting out homeless and starving children, distributing clothing to refugees, the visitation of the houses of the people and the fitting up of the hospitals with clean necessities, and the distribution of comforts among the wounded and sick Serbian soldiers.
It was on October 10th that the party first heard rumours that they might have to leave Valjevo, and ten days later came definite orders that they were to clear out within 24 hours. Night and day they worked at the highest pitch to get packed up a few of the stores they had left, as tat that time they were in hopes of being able to set up a hospital lower down the country.
They were able to delay their departure until the last. A cattle truck was requisitioned for the party and their baggage and they steamed out of the place at midnight on Tuesday, 19th. It was the last Serbian train to leave Valjevo, for as it passed out of the station the railway lines behind were blown up, and for some distance the passengers as they travelled down could hear the sound of explosions in the direction they had left behind.
For 15 days after this Sister Bunyan and her companions were living in the cattle truck. When they left Valjevo they were expecting to settle at another place called Meladnovats, but when they arrived there at 10 o'clock the next morning they heard for the first time the distant boom of the guns, and were informed the town was to be evacuated almost immediately.
And so they went from place to place, always to hear the same story - that the town was expected to be shortly evacuated, and therefore they could not be permitted to stay. At one place they were allowed to stay for one whole day, and were given a building for the purpose of setting up a hospital, but the very next day they were told they could not have it and must move on.
All this time they were within the sound of gunfire, and were subject to air raids. At one of their halting places a bomb was dropped on the station while Sister Bunyan and some of her companions had gone for a walk, and it exploded only some 50 yards from where Miss Christitch was standing. The bomb killed a soldier and a civilian.
This state of affairs continued until November 3rd. At this time the party were making Craljevo [Kraljevo] their objective, but word was received that the train service was being stopped, as the fall of that place was thought to be imminent. Miss Christitch accordingly bade the members of the party to partake of as good a meal as they could off their not particularly luxuriant fare of bully beef and hot drinks, and then called them together and told them she was sorry that they would have to part.
Miss Christitch announced that she intended to stay on with a Norwegian nurse who, being a neutral, was safe from the enemy. Miss Bunyan and the other remaining members of the party were directed to pack up all their necessities and make their way to Alexandovats in two bullock wagons which had been secured for their use.
The arrangement made was that they were to stay at this place three days and, if Miss Christitch and her party did not arrive in that time they were to press on and try to make their way to Monastir, and join up under the care of Sir Ralph Paget. Miss Bunyan's party got to Alexandovats safely enough, but their three days' wait was in vain for, as is now well known, Miss Christitch and her mother fell into the hands of the enemy, and as news came along that the enemy were pressing they had to get on as quickly as ever they could.
There were four of them with an orderly, and at last they came up with Sir Ralph Paget, but they were three hours too late to join up with one party and, as the town was to be evacuated, they were advised to join up with the Stobart unit, who were then making their departure.
It was then that the weather broke, and in one day they had all kinds of weather - sunshine to start with, then wind and rain, and in turn hail, snow and ice. The blizzard itself was something terrible, and the experience was made all the more trying because of the distant boom of the guns and a warning that the Bulgars were pressing one way and the Germans and Austrians the other.
It was not expected they would get through the lines, and that night they rested for only three hours. Just before 11 o'clock terrific firing was experienced. The Bulgars had apparently seen the camp fire of the nursing sisters and taken it to be a Serbian soldiers' camp. The guns appeared to be no more than three-quarters of a mile distant, but they did not hit the little party. Coupling up their oxen, the little band set off in haste and continued their journey all through that night and the whole of the next day before they dare think of another rest.
Anyhow they got safely through to Ipex, and then came to the mountainous country with all its perils and rigours. The bullock wagons had to be left behind, and the party, now numbering eight, had to resume their retreat on foot with three pack-horses to carry their necessities, everything by eatables and blankets being left behind.
For the first three days the journey was accomplished amid snow and ice, and Miss Bunyan thinks the party must have perished with cold the first night but for the fact that some Serbian soldiers gave up to them a hut in which they were resting. During those first three days they were travelling in company with the Serbian Army, and Miss Bunyan says it was a wonderful sight to see the soldiers hauling the huge guns over the mountains.
Another sight which she is not anxious to keep in her memory was that of the poor men who had dropped out of the ranks. Harder still than the sight of men who were dead - and there were heaps of them - was the spectacle of those who were living and yet had to be left.
Food for four days had been taken by the party when they set out on their journey across the mountains, but it was not until midnight on the seventh day that they reached a place where they could get in fresh supplies, so it can be imagined how sparing they had to be with rations.
Next day they got a barge and crossed the lake to Scutari. This took another whole day, and leaving Scutari the following morning the party had another two days' walking to a coast town from which it was hoped to catch a boat of some description. When they arrived there they learned that during the week nine vessels had been sunk in the harbour by Austrian torpedoes or aeroplanes, but the Americans were going to bring a boat to fetch all the nursing sisters, and the Austrians had promised not to touch it.
For four days they waited for this boat, and during that time they were practically starving for lack of sufficient to eat. A slice of bread an a cup of tea was their day's ration during the journey over the mountains, and this was all they were having during their period of waiting until some of the sailors succeeded in getting out some rice from one of the sunken vessels in the harbour. It was soaked with sea water and was very salty, even after it had been boiled, but Miss Bunyan says that when she had a cup full of it she thought she had never tasted anything so beautiful.
Then, on the fifth day, an Italian vessel came in, and so anxious were the nurses to get away that Sir Ralph Paget asked the captain if he could take them. The reply of the captain was that he was willing to take the party, but they were to fully understand that they must take the risk of the consequences. It is a tribute to the courage of our British womanhood that without a moment's hesitation the whole part elected to take the risks in preference to waiting on for the safe American boat.
Crossing over during the night, they reached Brindisi on December 18th, only too thankful to feel that at last they were out of reach of the guns, bombs and torpedoes. On their arrival at Brindisi a meal was prepared for them, and Miss Bunyan says she does not know what the people there must have thought of them.
"We had not seen a clean cloth or anything decent for so long that I just sat and looked at the cloth. I could not even eat, so delighted was I to see a clean cloth and clean things," said Miss Bunyan.
Everyone was most kind to the refugees in Italy. They started off from Brindisi by train at five o'clock, and travelled all that day, having coffee and rolls brought at one station, and luch, which had been ordered in advance, later on in the journey.
Dinner had been prepared for them when they reached Milan late at night, but there was only ten minutes in which to eat it, and the ordinary customer gave up their seats, and every waiter - and the proprietor as well - devoted their whole energies to the serving of the lightning meal. Miss Bunyan says she never ate anything so quick in her life, for they got through nearly all the course, and the dessert was thrown on the train after them.
"Someone," says Miss Bunyan, "has asked if I didn't enjoy the Italian scenery. My answer was that I am afraid I can remember Italy for nothing else but the feeds I had."
After their short but exciting stay at Milan they party resumed their train journey, travelling night and day without a stop until they reached Paris on the morning of the 21st. At five o'clock they left for Havre and went on board a ship at midnight. When they got on board all the berths had been taken, but as soon as the officers and men were made aware who the party of ladies were they at once turned their berths over to them and slept on deck.
Immediately on arrival in England Miss Bunyan wired to her people the first news they had had as to her escape from Serbia, and her safe return. By about four o'clock on the 22nd [December] she was home again in Luton.
"We must have looked a queer collection of freaks," Miss Bunyan told a Luton Reporter representative. "Most of us were wearing jack-boots and short dresses. Some had hats and some had not, but had to be content with little scarves for headgear. We hadn't got anything to change into or any money to buy anything, and we were such a disreputable looking lot that when we went into a store in Paris we were followed! I think people really wondered who we could be because all of us were awfully thin and what clothes we had were nearly dropping off, but we didn't mind that a bit as long as we were on the way home."
Miss Bunyan herself arrived home with nothing but what she stood up in, her blankets and an Austrian haversack, the gift of an enemy soldier. One night in the course of their retreat across the mountains they party could not get to the village they had tried to reach as the horses would not go any further, and so they camped for the night by the side of a mountain.
Attracted by a camp fire they made their way to it, and found two Austrian prisoners. One of them was writhing in agony, and Sister Bunyan gave him some of the little medicine she had left in her possession. Next morning the Austrian showed his appreciation of this little kindness by giving the nurse all he had - his Austrian haversack - and firmly declined to take any payment for it, but Miss Bunyan induced him to accept in return the remains of her tin of milk.
"The Austrian prisoners were just as anxious to get away from the advancing enemy as we were, "said Miss Bunyan. "They didn't want to fight. On the mountains there were no guards, and they could have gone which ever way they chose, but they all made for the coast."
Another experience is related by Miss Bunyan under the description of "a great sport". One day the party were just about feeling they could not tramp any further when they were overtaken by a mounted guard preceding an empty carriage and pair. This was too good to be true. Instantly they sprang into the carriage and declared that it should not go on without them. The driver was furious, but seeing that the party were nursing sisters, suggested to them that they should wait while he went and spoke to one of the officers.
The officer readily acceded to the request for a lift, and at the end of about a seven-mile journey Miss Bunyan and her companions found they had had the privilege of riding in the carriage of the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
Since her return home Miss Bunyan says she has felt no ill effects as a result of her terrible experiences. Until they got clear of Serbia they were often well-nigh starving, and this made them awfully thin, but as soon as they began to feed they quickly picked up again.
Since she got back to Luton, Sister Bunyan has been in constant touch with the committee of the fund under whose auspices she served, and she is set upon returning to work in Serbia. "I would go back next week if they would send me," she said.
[The Luton Reporter: Monday, January 10th, 1916]