Among more than 1,600 graves in the CWGC’s Salonika (Lembet Road) Military Cemetery is an unusual memorial to Katherine Mary Harley.
The grave, marked by a large stone cross, bears a moving inscription chosen by Officers and men of the Serbian Army. The sister of Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders in 1914-1915, Katherine led a group of British nurses serving with the Serbian Army until her death in 1917. The inscription reads,
“On your tomb instead of flowers the gratitude of the Serbs shall blossom there. For your wonderful acts your name shall be known from generation to generation.”
Katherine Harley was born in Kent on 3 May 1855.
Before the First World War, Katherine was a prominent member of the suffragette movement. At the age of 61 when war broke out in 1914, she volunteered to put her nursing background to good use – initially serving in France, where she was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
By late 1915 Katherine was in Greece – where she established and commanded a motorised ambulance unit. The unit operated near the frontline – collecting Serbian casualties and bringing them to one of the many hospitals for treatment.
Keeping the vehicles roadworthy was no easy task in this harsh climate. The unit also had a reputation for ignoring orders in their enthusiasm to help the wounded – even operating at night, close to the battlefield, despite explicit orders not to do so.
When the town of Monastir (now Bitola) was captured, Katherine decided to rent a house there so that she could provide assistance to the town’s inhabitants, despite the fact the town was still on the front line and within easy range of artillery.
On 7 March 1917 Katherine Harley was with her daughter and Miss Mary L. Matthews, head of the American Girls' School, when a shell landed nearby and killed her.
Since at the time of her death she was a civilian working for the Serbian forces, she did not “qualify” for military commemoration but her funeral was attended by Prince George of Serbia, General Milne, the commander of the British forces, and many other dignitaries, and was accompanied by contingents of troops and military bands.
She is the only woman buried in the CWGC’s Salonika (Lembet Road) Military Cemetery.
March 7, Wed. 1917
A fine warm day. Mrs. Harley, sister of Field-Marshall Sir John French of the British Forces in France, and her daughter Edith, have been here some weeks, giving proper food to little children. In the afternoon, I went to invite the ladies to tea tomorrow. They were living in a house near the Government Headquarters. It was about half past three. Shelling often began about that time. I should have remembered and suggested that we go down stairs.
Miss Edith was serving tea and had just gone to get another cup when a shell burst in the street and shattered the windows of the room where we were sitting. I looked across at Mrs. Harley whose body had stiffened and her face was very white.
Then I saw blood trickle down her face. We laid her on the floor and I had to run to the Government to ask for an Ambulance to take Mrs. Harley to the Hospital.
The Governor and his staff were down in a sub-cellar, waiting for the firing to cease. After quarter or half an hour, it was considered safe to come up. Mrs. Harley was taken to the hospital, but as they laid her on the operating table she died. A bit of glass had ended her useful life. Miss Edith said they knew the danger when they came, but they wanted to feed babies and small children. Mrs. Harley was laid out in a shirt of the British Red Cross and her uniform jacket.
She looked very peaceful. General Sarrail (French) at Salonica arranged for a military funeral and burial there. The Governor and the Mayor called on Miss Harley and were sympathetic. It was strange that Miss Harley and I escaped harm.
© The Mary L. Matthews Papers, Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections