Horror, humour and humanity... the untold stories of a hospital in wartime

Headingley LitFest has begun a project to find more about the patients, doctors and nurses at a First World War military hospital in Yorkshire. Chris Bond reports.

Richard Wilcocks and military staff sitting on the banking behind the James Graham Building. below.
Richard Wilcocks and military staff sitting on the banking behind the James Graham Building. below.

ACCORDING to local press reports at the time, a crowd of more than 6,000 stood and watched as 80 wounded soldiers arrived at the Midland Railway Station in Leeds, back in September 1914.

These men were among the first to arrive back from the Western Front before the full horrors of the war had dawned on people, when jingoism was still rife and many believed the fighting would be done and dusted by Christmas.

The returning soldiers had been involved in the first major battle in Marne in northern France, and were taken to the teacher training college at Beckett’s Park in Headingley, which had been converted into a military hospital following the outbreak of war. At its height the hospital had 3,200 beds and the Yorkshire Post reported at the time that more than 57,000 patients were admitted over the course of the war and remarkably, given the horrific injuries some men sustained on the front line, there were just 226 deaths.

Now, nearly a century after the war began, Headingley LitFest has been awarded £7,600 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project based around the wartime hospital, now part of the Leeds Metropolitan University campus. The event’s secretary Richard Wilcocks says the plan is to produce an illustrated booklet as well as a performance based on the stories they unearth, ready for the 2014 festival.

”We are particularly interested in personal stories,” says Wilcocks. “Thousands of men and women were involved with the hospital – soldiers of all ranks, doctors, surgeons, nurses and VADs [Voluntary Aid Detachments] – for the whole of the Great War and for several years afterwards.”

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, with David Cameron having already announced a major national commemoration including a £5m educational programme to take schoolchildren to battlefield sites including Verdun and The Somme, and Wilcocks says they wanted to do something linked to Headingley. “We knew there had been a wartime hospital here and we thought it would be interesting with 2014 coming up to find out more.”

He hopes the Wartime Hospital at Beckett’s Park project will reveal fascinating stories and is appealing to people to get in touch. “We are looking for good human interest stories rather than just medical records, which are good references but not necessarily enthralling. So we’re interested in letters, diaries and articles in newspapers, and we are also trying to trace the descendants of people who were there.

“I would guess that they are scattered everywhere, because the patients were from far and wide, but some of them must live in Yorkshire,” he says. “However, one of the problems is a lot of service records have been lost because some were destroyed in London during the Blitz in the Second World War.”

Despite such obstacles they have already been contacted by relatives of those who spent time at the hospital, including the son of an Australian nurse called Roslyn Rutherford who treated injured soldiers at Beckett’s Park. He has given them permission to use the letters she wrote during her time in Headingley.

Wilcocks believes it’s a chapter of history that interests ordinary people because so many were affected by it. “The people that I have spoken to so far seem grateful that we are interested in this, because everyone wants to know what their grandad or great-grandad did during both World Wars.”

Among the fascinating snippets of information is a registration form for wounded soldiers who arrived at the hospital in 1915. As well as being asked to fill in their names, regiments and injuries they suffered, a final questions asked “What would you do with Kaiser Bill?” Among the colourful answers were “burn him”, “dissect him” and “hand him to the Suffragettes.”

The soldiers who ended up at Beckett’s Park came from all over the country, having been injured in battles whose names have since gone down in history, including Mons, Ypres and the Somme. “If you look at their regiments you can see they came from all over the place, although a lot of them were local. But in the Liddle Collection at the Brotherton Library at Leeds University there’s also a reference to an Austro-Hungarian patient whom we’re hoping to find out more about.”

The hospital treated officers, who had their own ward, as well as rank and file soldiers and was at forefront of early pioneering work in plastic surgery. “It was well known for things like facial surgery as well as artificial limbs,” says Wilcocks. “Some of the injuries the men were treated for were fairly cosmetic, but others were quite horrific. There are references to the smell coming from the ‘jaw ward’ in the letters of one of the nurses who came here in 1916.”

The care was fairly rudimentary by today’s hi-tech standards, but as Wilcocks points out, it was the best available at the time. “Medical treatment had actually come on a great deal since the start of the 20th century, and doctors did their best with what they had and great advances were made in plastic surgery under the influence of Harold Gillies, widely regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery.”

One of the most interesting items they have received so far is a photograph of an engraved silver cigarette case that was presented to a patient in 1918 and includes the following inscription: “Presented by Douglas Longmate For 60 Yards Artificial Limb Race Beckett’s Park Hospital.”

This is 30 years before Sir Ludwig Guttman set up the Paralympics, and raises the tantalising question of what other events were held at Beckett’s Park.

Along with letters and newspaper articles there is also a fascinating photographic archive – including pictures of recuperating soldiers enjoying a spot of sunshine on the roof, while King George V was photographed visiting the wounded outside the James Graham Building in 1915, as was the then US ambassador Dr Walter Page. “The King toured the country and went to a lot of places like this, but Walter Page came to Leeds not long after the United States came into the war and his visit was probably part of the diplomatic liaison that was going on at the time.”

Wilcocks says that rather than being shunned, wounded servicemen were supported by local communities. “The Headingley Picture House, what is now the Cottage Road Cinema, was free to the wounded if they came to a matinee.” Other local cinemas would take films to the hospital and project them on the walls. “Cinema was very much on the minds of the patients because if you went to the operating table the soldiers’ slang for this was ‘going to the pictures’ because the lights went out,” he says.

“They were visited by local choral groups who put on shows and they were sometimes given free seats in Leeds theatres. There were also some singers who were quite famous in their day who visited the wounded and did special concerts for them.”

There are also several references to an entertainment group made up of 10 members of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), and known as the Cheero Boys. “They were very popular and in great demand and finding out more about them is a priority for us and we’d really love to find a script.” The festival team has also found three copies of a magazine written and produced by medical staff and patients at the hospital. “It’s a homemade magazine and it includes poems written by patients as well as topical articles and translations of two pieces by Charles Baudelaire.”

After the War, few people wanted to discuss what they had witnessed. “Quite often those who saw terrible things didn’t want to talk about them, it’s not like today where people can get counselling and are encouraged to talk about what’s happened to them, there was nothing like that in the First World war. You just had to get on with it.”

But Wilcocks believes personal stories are a great way of undertanding the past, and he is urging people to get in touch. “The Great War, as we will hear a lot next year, was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ but of course of we’ve had plenty since then.

“It was a conflict that involved almost the entire population, in every town and village you still see a war memorial. It’s something that must be remembered It’s not something we can forget.”

To find out more go to headingleylitfest.blogspot.co.uk or email [email protected]

A haven for the wounded

The teacher training college at Beckett’s Park, in Leeds, was built in 1913.

When war broke out in 1914, it was turned into a military hospital, called the 2nd Northern General Hospital, but was more commonly referred to as Beckett’s Park Hospital. The first intake of wounded soldiers arriving in September following the Battle of the Marne.

Among the VIPS who visited the wounded troops were King George V and the US ambassador Dr Walter Page – American doctors were based at Beckett’s Park after the US entered the war in 1917.

At its busiest the hospital had 3,200 beds, and by the time the war finished more than 57,000 patients had been admitted with just 226 reported deaths.