Of love and war

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The movement of Australians across the world during times of war has created both new opportunities and challenges for love and romance. Love blossomed in some unlikely places—from hospitals and local dance halls, to English air bases and outback camps—none as unlikely though as on the side of the road near Salonika.

In 1916, a broken wheel spring left Australian ambulance driver, Olive Kelso King stranded on the side of the road until a polite but commanding voice enquired if she needed assistance. She had repaired her own ambulance many times before but on this occasion it was not an easy fix and she was grateful for the help of the handsome Serbian soldier, Captain Milan Yovitchitch

Captain Yovitchitch had already heard of Olive’s bravery—saving many wounded Serbian soldiers from certain death in a dramatic night-time escape from advancing enemy troops in the mountains at Gevgelija, for these actions she was awarded the Royal Serbian Memorial Medal.

It was this adventurous spirit that led her to volunteer as an ambulance driver when the First World War broke out. Despite being told it was ‘men’s business’, she bought a second-hand lorry and converted it into a 16-seater ambulance.

A black and white photo of a woman leaning on a vehicle used as an ambulance in the First World War

Olive King (1885-1958) in France with her motor ambulance, which she nicknamed 'Ella the Elephant' because it was so big and cumbersome.

At first, Olive worked for the Allies Field Ambulance Corps (AFAC), and transported wounded soldiers from the front back to British military hospitals. At one point, she was captured by the enemy and had her ambulance confiscated, but because she spoke fluent German and knew a number of influential German families, she was soon released.

In 1915, Olive offered her services to the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH), which staffed field hospitals and ambulances with female volunteers. The formation of a new SWH unit in Greece led to Olive’s transfer to Salonika. She revelled in the danger and excitement of service, and in her ability to make a difference, until that fateful day when a large pothole had brought ambulance springs unstuck. That misadventure changed Olive’s life forever.

Before long, friendship with Captain Yovitchitch turned into romance. She shortened his name to ‘Yovi’, and he called her ‘Olinka’ – the Slavic version of her name. Whenever they could, they spent time together, exploring ancient historic sites of Salonika, dining together and giving each other language lessons. After long hard days—sometimes driving for 16 hours—surrounded by misery and suffering, Olive drew strength from their relationship. But a ‘happily ever after’ ending was not to be.

One day, Yovi confessed that he could not marry Olive, as he was promised to someone else. His parents had arranged the match to a girl with ancestral links to the royal family, and the plan was for them to marry after the war. Undeterred, Olive and Yovi remained friends. The future was very uncertain, and only their immediate situation seemed important. All that mattered was staying alive each day. When some of her colleagues scolded her for her behaviour in public, she promptly resigned from the SWH and, at Yovi’s suggestion, joined the Serbian army as a driver with the rank of corporal.

In late 1917, Yovi received word that he was to replace the military attaché in the Serbian Embassy in London. Olive put on a brave face and congratulated him on his promotion, but her heart was breaking. Work took them both to a final meeting in Corfu, and it was here that they said goodbye. Later Olive wrote of wanting to ‘howl my eyes out’.

A sterling silver rectangle shaped cigarette case with a handwritten inscription and small medals on the front.

This sterling silver cigarette case was given to Olive by Yovi as a momento. The medals on the case are copies of her Serbian awards for bravery and there is also a personal message reading: ‘To my dear little pal Jo, Milan, Salonica, 1916–18’ (AWM REL/18757).

After six long hard years away from her family, Olive returned home to Sydney in 1920. She visited Serbia only once more in 1922, when she and her father and stepmother were invited back for the king’s wedding. Of course, the handsome Captain Yovitchitch was also in attendance, being a long-time friend of the king. As he and Olive waltzed around the dance floor, it was for a moment as if nothing had ever come between them.

They never met again, and Olive never married, but she treasured the memory of Yovi in her heart for the rest of her life. She died in Melbourne, Australia, in 1958 at the age of 73.

To read more about Olive and discover more stories of love and friendship experienced during times of conflict visit the Anzac Portal or read the book  ‘We’ll Meet Again' on the education resources page.