Jan and Cora Gordon through the eyes of Dr. James Berry: Serbia 2015

I had read accounts of Dr. James Berry during his 2015 WW1 Balkan Red Cross exploits from the perspective of Jan and Cora Gordon ("The Luck of Thirteen" 1916), but not his own accounts of Jan and Cora Gordon from the same time period. These are abundantly contained in his 1916 book (The Story of a Red Cross Unit in Serbia. London: J. & A. Churchill), which I only recently came across.

These included mention of Jan Gordon's musical abilities:

"We left Malta on a beautiful evening, and while sitting on deck watching the moonlit sea and sky, we had our first introduction to the banjo and the inimitable songs of Mr. Gordon (the Herr Ingenieur as he was usually called in our Serbian hospital), which during so many months were to be such an antidote to depression and influence for sociability in the Unit, as well as such an unfailing attraction to lay before our Serbian visitors." Berry (2016, p 22)

and later:

"We had no piano at the Terapia, and as we had most of us come out prepared for hardships and perpetual labour, with no time for recreation, we could only muster a handful of books between us. Fortunately we had plenty of newspapers sent from home. Gordon's banjo and melodious howlings provided us with most of our music .. One al fresco rendering of "Pherson's Feud " to a mixed audience of Serbs and British will remain an abiding memory with all of us, and what the Serbs thought of it as an ancient Scottish war song they could hardly express in words." Berry (2016, p 172)

There was also Jan Gordon's value as a practical handyman:

"One of the busiest departments of the hospital, especially during the early days, was the workshop, fitted up by Gordon and Norris. A very serviceable bench was constructed out of a few planks and the wreckage of some wooden railings ; tool-racks and shelves were installed and a window was put in. Even a little metal-work was done at times as witness the stand for the theatre steriliser, made with aluminium splinting and thick iron wire. The first step in this process was to make a drill to bore rivet-holes in the aluminium. A large bradawl was sacrificed for the purpose, and after being shaped with a file, was hardened with the aid of a "Primus" stove and a basin of water ; it worked fairly well. There were no rivets in the stores brought out from England, but screws cut in halves and split down with a hack-saw served the purpose. The finished article lasted for several months of constant use." Berry (2016, p 65)

also,

"Gordon and Norris made some massive trestles with logs brought down from the Gotch forests ; and these, fastened together with iron staples, were placed in the big concrete basin, while thick beech boards were shaped roughly with saw and axe and nailed on to the trestles. The work was finished about midnight, by the light of an acetylene lamp, and the two carpenters celebrated the occasion by swimming round the pool while waiting to see whether the structure would float up when the water rose again to its full level. Fortunately, it remained quite firm." Berry (2016, p 69)

Jan Gordon developed some rudimentary medical rules of thumb:

"Gordon helped Williams for a while with the work at the clearing hospital, and as a result of this experience he concluded that the whole science and art of medicine is summed up in the rule that if the pain is above the eyes, one must give a "sleeper" (a tablet of aspirin) ; if below the eyes, a "shifter" (a tablet of calomel). When Williams went his round each day, Gordon followed him with a bottle of "sleepers" in one hand and one of "shifters" in the other. Very soon, however, the pharmacy was extended to include a number of "tabloid " preparations, some quinine, and several other useful drugs. Some stock solutions were made up by the dispenser at the Terapia containing much orange peel and a little burnt sugar." Berry (2016, p 70)

Gordon was resourceful in response to emergencies:

"During the fire (described in "The Luck of Thirteen"), "Gordon and Norris cut a hole in the ceiling of a room alongside the fire, and so were able to get into the loft above and throw water upon the burning roof, thus preventing the fire from spreading to the main ward of the Terapia. The Professor and the " Frau Doktor " (Mrs. Berry) worked with the rest, and the former, perched amid the smoke of the burning rafters," * Fire-buckets, filled, some with water, others with sand, had been established in all the corridors within a day or two of our arrival, and fortunately we had also a large supply of buckets for other purposes." Berry (2016, p 76)

Meanwhile, Cora ("Joe") Gordon impressed with her linguistic abilities:

"Mrs. Gordon aroused nothing but admiration. She was almost the only member of the rank and file of the Unit who seriously attempted to acquire and employ an extensive vocabulary. She worked for some weeks with the out-patients, getting details of their complaints before passing them on to the doctor, and if her grammar was inaccurate she wanted nothing of fluency. She was invaluable as an interpreter in the out-patient department. Miss Barber was little inferior to Mrs. Gordon. Mr. Berry had unquestionably the largest vocabulary, as he had to deal with all sorts and ranks of Serbians. Miss Barber acquired the phrases which enabled her to chat familiarly with peasants, and Mrs. Gordon specialised in the language of symptoms, but traversed a wide general field as well. The rest of us had very little to show, even after several months in the country, in the way of knowledge of the language of its inhabitants. But with the Professor, Mrs. Gordon, and Miss Barber the mission had a very good opportunity of obtaining an intimate knowledge of the Serbs and thus correcting superficial impressions." Berry (2016, p 119)


Cora ("Jo") Gordon with the out patients ("The Luck of Thirteen" 1916)


The Gordons stayed much longer than their initially planned period of three months:

"The members of the original mission had all enlisted for a minimum period of three months, and when this was over a gradual disintegration of the Unit set in, accompanied by infusion of fresh blood. By June 9th all the medical staff had gone home except the two heads of the Unit, all the sisters except one, Sister West, and all the orderlies, men and women, except Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, Mrs. Eldred, and Mr. Gwin. The first new arrivals were a party of six, four sisters and a V.A.D., Miss Barber, under the escort of Mr. Blease." Berry (2016, p 170)

"On one of these journeys to Kragujevatz Mr. Berry and Sister Hammond were visiting an anti-aircraft battery at the moment when Austrian aeroplanes attacked the arsenal. Gordon was actually in the arsenal when the bombs fell, and a man was killed close to him.* But as a rule our expeditions were made without any adventures, and the greatest excitements were provided by the condition of the roads(This and other adventures are described in Mr. and Mrs. Gordon's book, " The Luck of Thirteen " : Smith, Elder & Co., 1915)" Berry (2016, p 174)


Bomb damage near the arsenal ("The Luck of Thirteen" 1916)


James Berry also wrote about the role of the Gordons in finding an effective escape route during the horrific great retreat:

Food was scarce during the retreat, with many of the Serbian refugees dying of starvation. According to James Berry's account of the retreat, bread could only be had by military order, "and it required prodigious exertions on the party of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon to wrest from the reluctant authorities even a third of their prescribed allowanceFor the first time in his life Blease tried to buy bread at a shop and was told there was none to buy.... he will never forget the feeling of helplessness which for a moment seized him when he realised that he was there, in the midst of thousands of hungry people, and the money in his pocket gave him no advantage over the poorest of them all." Berry (2016, p 208)

"The next morning the party was roused, grasped the baggage, and rushed down to the beach, and at 9 o'clock the Harmonie, of Marseilles, put out to sea. The stern cable was cut, as the second torpedo was supposed to be entangled in it. Within an hour there appeared, almost simultaneously, the Austrian submarine and the Italian cruiser and her convoy. The submarine was chased away, and nothing worse befell the fugitives than sea-sickness. At 9 o'clock at night they reached Brindisi, and slept on the floor of the cabin, on their baggage, or on coils of rope, while the locomotives on the quay whistled a lullaby. Three days more brought them to London, rather tired of rice, which they had eaten, curried or sugared, twice a day for nearly five weeks, but otherwise none the worse for their adventure. The chief credit for the success of the expedition seems to belong to Gordon, though how much was due to Mrs. Gordon's command of the Serb language cannot be estimated. The thanks of all the rest are also due to Cutting and Watmough, both British Red Cross Society's men, who lit fires and cooked under all sorts of impossible conditions. The rest did little more than pull their own weight, but as West, of the Serbian Relief Fund, began the journey with a dangerously septic place on his arm, and Mawson, a Red Cross chauffeur, was badly hampered by his attack of pleurisy, they deserve special praise for doing even that. The most extraordinary fact in the story of their escape is that of all the thousands of men, women, and children who fled from Serbia before the Austrians, a mere handful took the same route as Gordon's party." Berry (2016, p 224)



Retreating ammunition train 2015 ("The Luck of Thirteen" 1916)

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