Posted in Event, History, Maritime History, World War One, World War Two

Beatrix Brice Miller & “The Old Contemptibles” – Stories From The Great War Part 5

Memorial plaque dedicated to 'The Old Contemptibles' who sailed from Southampton Docks in 1914.  Located at the crossroads of Platform Road and Central Road on the building to the right of Dock Gate 4, Southampton Docks. The plaque was unveiled on  Poem inscription is by British war poet Beatrix Brice-Miller (1877-1959) and is reprinted in full below. ©Come Step Back in Time.
Bronze memorial plaque dedicated to “The Old Contemptibles” who sailed from Southampton Docks in 1914. Located at the crossroads of Platform Road and Central Road on the building to the right of Dock Gate 4, Southampton Docks. The plaque was unveiled on 9th April, 1950. Poem inscription is by British war poet Beatrix Brice Miller (1877-1959) and is reprinted in full below. ©Come Step Back in Time.

Oh little mighty Force that stood for England !
That, with your bodies for a living shield,
Guarded her slow awaking, that defied
The sudden challenge of tremendous odds
And fought the rushing legions to a stand
Then stark in grim endurance held the line.
O little Force that in your agony
Stood fast while England girt her armour on,
Held high our honour in your wounded hands,
Carried our honour safe with bleeding feet
We have no glory great enough for you,
The very soul of Britain keeps your day !
Procession ? – Marches forth a Race in Arms ;
And, for the thunder of the crowd’s applause,
Crash upon crash the voice of monstrous guns,
Fed by the sweat, served by the life of England,
Shouting your battlecry across the world.

Oh, little mighty Force, your way is ours,
This land inviolate your monument.

‘To The Vanguard’ (1914) by Beatrix Brice Miller (1877-1959)

Regular readers will know my penchant for finding unusual historical objects. I recently came across the above bronze memorial whilst taking a Sunday stroll along Southampton’s waterside. I stood reading the poem inscription by Beatrix Brice Miller and was intrigued to find-out more about the plaque’s back-story.

I identified three questions which would need further investigation:

  1. Who were “The Old Contemptibles”?;
  2. Who was Beatrix Brice Miller?;
  3. Why was this memorial plaque commissioned in the first place?

Before embarking upon my research quest, I first needed to correctly identify the memorial. I consulted the War Memorials Archive (managed by the Imperial War Museums) which is easy to use and publicly available on-line.  Armed with dates, facts and figures, I then spent several months conducting further research which included visiting local archive collections. Finally, I had answers to all three questions. I am glad this object piqued my interest, the back-story is really rather fascinating.

Who Were “The Old Contemptibles”?

In August 1914, Southampton was designated No. 1 Military Embarkation Port under the command of Major General Charles Guinand Blackader (1869-1921) CB, DSO.  By the end of November 1914, Southampton had embarked 359,417 officers and men to the Western Front.

At midnight on 12th August, 1914, staff at the London General Headquarters of The British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) were requested to report to the Polygon Hotel, Southampton before embarking the following day for Le Havre. On August 13th, Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson (1859-1914) and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) arrived at Southampton’s Dolphin Hotel. Apparently, Haig’s sister, brother-in-law, Chief of Staff, John Gough and two aides-de-camp also arrived at the Dolphin the following morning and partook in a ‘sumptuous champagne lunch’. Later that evening the military men embarked on the Comrie Castle bound for Le Havre.  Southampton become an important gateway to the Western Front.

The Dolphin Hotel, Southampton. ©Come Step Back In Time.
The Dolphin Hotel, Southampton. ©Come Step Back In Time.

In 1914, the B.E.F. were made-up of seven divisions of British regular army and reserves. The B.E.F fought at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, Aisne and Ypres. On 26th December, 1914 the B.E.F. were divided into First and Second Armies (further divisions were created later on in the war). B.E.F. remained the official name of the British Army in France and Flanders throughout World War One.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) is thought to have made a number of dismissive comments about the B.E.F. including the infamous Order, issued on 19th August, 1914 (the original of which has never been found), to: ‘..exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s [Field Marshal John J. P. French – 1852-1925] contemptible little army.’ Survivors of the B.E.F. decided to call themselves and their post-war veterans’ association, “The Old Contemptibles”. For more information about the truth and myth behind this nickname, see the veterans’ website.

According to the veterans’ website, the qualifying criteria for calling oneself a member of “The Old Contemptibles“, is:

To qualify as an “Old Contemptible” the soldier would have to have seen active service actually in France and Flanders between 5 August and 22 November 1914. For this he would qualify for the medal known as the 1914 Star. This medal was introduced in 1917. In 1919 a clasp bearing the qualifying dates was authorised and given to soldiers who had actually been under fire between those dates. It was also known as the “Mons Star”.

At the very top of Southampton’s memorial plaque, there is a relief detail depicting the “1914 Star”/”Mons Star”, identifiable by its distinctive colours of red, white and blue.

Who was Beatrix Brice Miller?

Beatrix was born in Chile, South America in 1877. Her mother was Kent-born Mary Louise Brice Miller (née Walker). Beatrix enjoyed all the trappings of a privileged upbringing, including a private education. When her father died, she moved back to England where she lived in Goring-on-Thames.

When World War One broke-out Beatrix, who was now in her late thirties, travelled to France alongside her mother to serve with the B.E.F. The women became Red Cross VAD ‘Lady Helpers’.  They were amongst some of the first women to arrive in France at the start of the War. They would have had to obtain special permission from the War Office to make such a journey. Travelling to France was a dangerous experience, even in the early days of the War. Brice Miller and her mother sailed across the Channel and continued their journey by motorcar. Women who undertook these self-funded trips, were usually from very wealthy and influential backgrounds. The experience had a profound effect on Beatrix and when the War ended she dedicated herself to supporting “The Old Contemptibles”.

Brice Miller was a prolific writer and highly regarded poet. Her first poem, ‘To the Vanguard’ was published in The Times on 2nd November, 1916. The poem was written to remember the first soldiers who went to fight in France in 1914. This is the poem that features on the Southampton memorial plaque. Brice Miller also organised a commemorative event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1917 with General Sir William Pulteney (1861-1941) GCVO, KCB, KCMG, DSO to honour the B.E.F.

In August 1939, the BBC broadcast a documentary that Brice Miller had worked on several years earlier. The programme explored B.E.F’s involvement in World War One, particularly in relation to the fighting which took place from Mons to Ypres. Brice Miller died on the 25th May, 1959, aged 82, 9 years after the unveiling of “The Old Contemptibles” memorial plaque.

Printed below are some of Brice Miller’s poems which were published in the slim anthology (date unknown), To The Vanguard and Other Songs To The Seven Divisions . She dedicates the publication: ‘To The Fallen, the Disabled, the Prisoners, and those still Fighting.’

‘Army of August’

Five score thousand men at arms marching in
the van.
Bare your heads and stand aside !
See them in their tragic pride
Swinging grandly down the way.
Bandaged feet that never stay ;
Aching eyes that may not sleep
Watch and ward unceasing keep ;
Fighting to the blood-choked breath,
Fighting through the gates of death
See, beyond your praise or tears,
Leading ever down the years,
Salute the men who died.

Where e’er we march they lead the way,
We follow on the beat,
The drum beat of a marching host
Re-echoes from the farthest post.
The endless tramp that calls beyond
Till throbbing heart, and will respond.
Oh, follow, follow, none may stay,
They blazed for us the scarlet way
To track their unseen feet.

Where e’er we fight they fight ahead,
We feel their ghostly shield,
The force that never knows defeat
Is with us where the Armies meet
And men go up to battle, then

We know our strength, the Souls of men.
We see them fighting swift and strong,
We hear them cheering us along,
On every shell swept field.

Five score thousand men at arms marching in
the van.
Bare your heads, and stand aside!
Immortal, though for you they died.
England, our Land, awake at last,
Across thy heart they’re marching past.
Living, they suffered all for thee,
Dying, they led thy sons to thee,
Thine everlasting pride.

‘Guns of Le Gateau’

Guns of the Fifth Division on you depend this day
The destinies of Europe, you cover here the way,
If you go, then the army goes,
And Paris lies before her foes.

WE have fought since early morning
And the end is drawing near;
They knew we had no warning
Of the odds that face us here.
We have fought since early morning,
They knew we had no warning
Of the trap before us yawning,
But we’ve pulled the army clear.

We have fought the fires of hell,
My guns, O my guns !
Fought together what befell,
My guns, O my guns !
We have fought the fires of hell,
Fought together what befell,
And you served our need right well,
My guns, O my guns !

The glorious Line are fighting
Like tigers all the day;
And the gunners firing, sighting,
Steady to be slain or slay.
The glorious Line are fighting,
With the gunners firing, sighting,
And we’ve stunned that host afrighting,
And we’ve saved the Force to-day.

For our men don’t know defeat,
My guns, O my guns !
And they’ll give you glory meet,
My guns, O my guns !
For our men don’t know defeat,
And they’ll give you glory meet,
For you’ve covered the retreat,
My guns, O my guns !

There’s a zone of death around,
Where the hail of shrapnel streams ;
And behind they’ve trenched the ground
So we can’t get up the teams.
There’s a zone of death around,
Where the lydite blasts the ground,
So there’s no way to be found,
To break through and bring the teams.

But there’s not a round to fire,
My guns, O my guns !
And the dead are piling higher,
My guns, O my guns !
But there’s not a round to fire
And the dead are piling higher,
And the orders to retire.
My guns, O my guns !

You are battered, smashed and shaken,
And the foe will profit naught,
All your sights and breech-blocks taken
Left, the havoc they have wrought.
You are battered, smashed and shaken,
All that we can carry taken,
And we leave you here forsaken,
By the dead with whom you fought.

But I swear by God’s own name,
My guns, O my guns !
I will bring you back again,
My guns, O my guns !
From Berlin, across the slain
Every yard of fire and pain,
I will bring you back again,
My guns, O my guns !

‘Their Job’

When Regulars went on their regular job
To fight in the regular way,
When every munition of war was short
And a laggard land at bay.

When every Platoon did Battalion’s work,
While Officers fought till they fell,
Fought through the day but to fight all night
The fresh flung horde of hell.

Fought when the guns were overwhelmed
In number, size, and power,
Fought while the column dealt out shells
Reckoned in sums per hour.

Fought while they marched the nightmare leagues,
Or crawled when their feet were done,
Fought while they scraped a shallow trench
They fought and by God they won !

Now Divisions hold what Battalions held
With an army in strong support,
And cover is found in a world underground,
In the land where the vanguard fought.

For every gun that speaks from the East,
A giant shouts it dumb,
For every shell that rips our ranks,
Tenfold revenge doth come.

Why was this memorial plaque commissioned in the first place?

An Epic That Will Never Die – Great day at docks or Old Contemptibles.

Nearly 36 years ago, the men described by the Kaiser as a “contemptible little army” marched through the gateway of Southampton Docks on their way to France. Many who had not set foot in the town since then came back to the Docks yesterday afternoon to revive old memories, when a commemorative tablet was unveiled to recall the sailing in 1914 of the Old Contemptibles.

(Southern Daily Echo, 10.4. 50)

“The Old Contemptibles” memorial plaque was unveiled on Sunday the 9th April, 1950 on the side of the former Docks’ Post Office and Telegraph building, Southampton Docks. It is mounted on the front of the building which stands at the entrance to Dock Gate 4 (the same location where the Titanic sailed from in 1912). It is through this Dock Gate that “The Old Contemptibles” marched in August 1914, en-route to the Western Front.

The suggestion to erect this memorial was first made before World War Two by Hector Young, O.B.E., J.P. Young was patron of the Southampton branch of “The Old Contemptibles”. The last remaining survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce and an “Old Contemptible”,  Alfred Anderson, died aged 109 in 2005.

In April 1950, over six hundred veterans from the association were in attendance at the ceremony and the plaque was unveiled by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis, G.C.B, K.B.E, D.S.O, R.N. (1889–1976). The association paid for two-thirds of the plaque and one-third was paid for by Ms Beatrix Brice Miller. Brice Miller was also part of the unveiling ceremony. It must have been a proud and poignant moment for her to be able to witness such an occasion.

Thirty-six years ago they were the officers and men of the B.E.F. on their way to France and Belgium, to take their place on the flank of the Allied battle-front. They covered themselves with glory in the late summer and autumn of 1914, and played a decisive part in checking the advance of the German hordes. In particular, the B.E.F. saved the Channel ports. Had those ports fallen into enemy hands the threat of invasion would have been very real.

(Southern Daily Echo, 10.4. 50)

The former Southampton Docks' Post Office and Telegraph building, south side of Platform Road, Dock Gate 4. The memorial is located on the side of the building. ©Come Step Back In Time.
The former Southampton Docks’ Post Office and Telegraph building, south side of Platform Road, Dock Gate 4. The memorial is located on the front of the building. ©Come Step Back In Time.

Posted in Aviation History, Event, Exhibition, Film, History, Maritime History, Museum, World War One, World War Two

The Royal Marines – Stories From The Great War Part 4

'Yomper' statue located outside the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
‘Yomper’ statue located outside the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea. Statue was unveiled by Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven OM, PC, FRS, 8th July 1992. Inscription on plaque reads: ‘To commemorate all the Royal Marines and those who served during the Falklands War of 1982’. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

The Royal Marines Museum – Eastney, Hampshire

This year, the Royal Marines celebrate their 350th anniversary.  There are currently seven thousand Royal Marines and 40% of Britain’s Special Forces originate from the regiment. I recently visited their Museum in Southsea, Hampshire, located in Eastney Barracks, former Royal Marines Headquarters for training, reserve and special forces until its closure in 1991. The Museum opened at Eastney Barracks in October 1958 and charts the regiment’s history from its beginnings in 1664, right the way through until the present day.  I was fortunate to be shown around by an extremely knowledgeable member of staff who pointed-out some of the more unusual exhibits in the collection as well as their fascinating backstories.

Minstrels’ Gallery  - two images showing the doors onto the Musicians’ Gallery and a view of the Minstrels’ Gallery No numbers © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Minstrels’ Gallery showing the east wall and doors onto the Musicians’ Gallery.  Interior of The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire. © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Minstrels’ Gallery  - two images showing the doors onto the Musicians’ Gallery and a view of the Minstrels’ Gallery No numbers © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Minstrels’ Gallery inside The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
© Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Mountbatten Dining Room showing the Musicians’ Gallery No Number © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Mountbatten Dining Room showing the Musicians’ Gallery inside the Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire. © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum

The Royal Marines – Fascinating Facts About Their History

Although primary focus of my visit was the First World War gallery, I also explored the rest of this superb Museum, discovering so many interesting, as well as rather surprising facts about the regiment’s history. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

  • Britain’s first Marines were called ‘Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot’, established by Charles II (1630-1685), on 28th October, 1664. The Duke of York was The Lord High Admiral and the regiment became known as the Admiral’s Regiment;
  • One of the first ever female soldiers was a Marine called Hannah Snell (1723-1792). In 1745, she enlisted in Portsmouth-based Colonel Fraser’s Regiment of Marines under the name of James Gray;

    Hannah Snell, c1750 Daniel Williamson Oil on canvas Accession number: 1988/51 © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
    Hannah Snell, c.1750 by Daniel Williamson (Oil on canvas). Accession number: 1988/51 © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
  • Marines took part in the first battle of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) at Bunkers Hill, Boston, June 16th, 1775;
  • When the “First Fleet” sailed from Portsmouth on 13th May, 1787, to found a prison colony in New South Wales, Australia, on ship were two hundred and forty-six Marines together with their wives and children. The journey took eight months and this very difficult tour of duty lasted three and a half years. Australia was founded on 26th January, 1788;

    Tapestry interprets the painting by Algernon Talmage (1871-1939) depicting the founding of Australia, 26th January, 1788. The tapestry was woven at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop by Irene Creedon, assisted by Joy Smith. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Tapestry interprets the painting by Algernon Talmage (1871-1939) depicting the founding of Australia, 26th January, 1788. The tapestry was woven at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop by Irene Creedon, assisted by Joy Smith. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
  • Marines travelled with Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on his three voyages to the Pacific, Antarctic and Arctic Oceans. They served to protect the ship’s crew and scientists when landing upon unfamiliar shores;
  • The Marines Forces became ‘Royal’ by Command of King George III (1738-1820) on 29th April, 1802;

    Copy of a coloured aquatint showing a Private of the Royal Marines c.1807 by I.C. Stadler. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Copy of a coloured aquatint showing a Private of the Royal Marines c.1807 by I.C. Stadler. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
  • Royal Marines travelled both with Charles Darwin (1809-1882), aboard the ‘Beagle’ (1831-36) and Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) on his expedition to the Arctic (1845);
  • Alongside The Royal Navy, Royal Marines were involved with The Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), notably participating in the capture of Peking (1856);
  • Shortly after the Second World War began, Royal Marines Aviator, Captain Guy Beresford Kerr “Griff” Griffiths (1915-1999), was captured by Germans. He spent the rest of the war in POW camp Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), made famous by The Great Escape (1963). He helped with colleagues escape attempts by forging documents and concealing tunnels. Griff was a talented artist who would produce cartoons to amuse his fellow Prisoners and also painted fake British planes that confused the Germans. You can view (silent) footage of Captain Griffiths during his early years in German captivity. Click Here;
  • Royal Marines Commandos were established in 1942. Commandos are identifiable by their distinctive green beret emblazoned with its Globe and Laurel badge bearing the wearer’s original regimental insignia. Royal Marines Commandos are an elite fighting force whose members are made-up of Army, Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel.

  • Above film, The Royal Marines at War: Jungle Mariners (15 mins 17 secs) is produced by the Crown Film Unit and shows the harsh life of Royal Marines on a tour of duty in the jungles of the Far East. (Video uploaded onto You Tube, 31.12.2012 by the Royal Marines);

  • Above film, The Royal Marines at War: Commando – The Story of the Green Beret (1945) (59 mins 38 secs) was made for the Admiralty and is a drama-documentary covering Commando training in Wrexham, Anchnacarry and St. Ives. Fascinating archive footage shows wartime Commando units on amphibious assault exercises, perfecting cliff-top assaults and practicing both armed and unarmed combat techniques. (Video uploaded onto You Tube, 31.12.2012 by the Royal Marines).

    Objects used by Royal Marines Commandos during the Second World War. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
    Objects used by Royal Marines Commandos during the Second World War. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
A member of the Royal Marines Commandos during the Second World War. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
A member of the Royal Marines Commandos during the Second World War. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

Recruitment During The Regiment’s Early Years

The regiment’s recruitment policy has always been quite fair. Even in its early years, recruits were never press-ganged but instead volunteered. Marines joined for life or long periods and when not on ship, returned to barracks for further training. In other areas of the military, personnel would often find themselves unemployed in-between periods of active service. In times of war, additional Marine volunteers were encouraged to join by the offer of a bounty payment which in 1794 was eight guineas (£8.40) and in 1808 thirty guineas (£31.50).

I have no rupture, nor was ever troubled with fits, and am in no ways disabled by lameness or otherwise, but have perfect use of my limbs, that I am not an apprentice, and that I do not belong to the militia, or to any other regiment or Corps, or to His Majesty’s Navy.

(A Marine’s oath on enlisting c.1800)

Copy of the telescopic bed used in the 1890s by the Royal Marine Artillery based in Eastney Barracks. The beds had no foam or springs. The 'mattress' was called a 'Palliasse' and similar to a large pillow case filled with straw which was changed every three months. Exhibit from The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
Copy of a telescopic bed used in the 1890s by the Royal Marine Artillery based at Eastney Barracks. The beds had no foam or springs. The ‘mattress’ was called a ‘Palliasse’ and similar to a large pillowcase filled with straw which was changed every three months. Exhibit from The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

During Victorian and Edwardian eras, living conditions for Royal Marines and their families stationed in barracks were fairly good. Eastney Barracks, built between 1862 and 1867, was home to the Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) training. Married quarters were also provided and wives helped out with laundry, sewing and any other domestic tasks that needed doing on site. A strong community bond developed amongst the military personnel and their families.

Royal Marine Artillery filling beds with straw in Drill Hall of the Royal Marine Artillery Barracks, Eastney, c1910. Kalamazoo number: 2/7/6 (48). © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum.
Royal Marine Artillery filling beds with straw in Drill Hall of the Royal Marine Artillery Barracks, Eastney, c.1910. Kalamazoo number: 2/7/6 (48). © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum.

Recruitment During The First World War

Your King and Country Needs You. Will you answer your country’s call? Each day is fraught with the gravest possibilities, and at this very moment the Empire is on the brink of the greatest War in the history of the world. In this crisis your country calls on her young unmarried men to rally round the flag and enlist. If every patriotic young man answers her call, England and her Empire will emerge stronger and more united than ever. If you are unmarried and between 18 and 30 years old, will you answer your country’s call? JOIN TODAY.

(Extract from a First World War recruitment poster, on display at The Royal Marines Museum.)

Recruitment poster from the First World War on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney.
Recruitment poster from the First World War on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney.

During the First World War, the Royal Marines ran a highly successful recruitment campaign. Right across Britain, tents were erected in public places including local parks. Attractively designed posters, urging men to enlist, appeared everywhere and the Corps had quadrupled in size by 1918. Divisional Headquarters for the Royal Marine Artillery was based at Eastney and Divisional Headquarters for the Royal Marine Light Infantry was split between Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Their Depot was in Deal, Kent. The Museum’s Curator, Ian Maine, explains:

During the First World War, over sixty thousand men served with the Royal Marines, rising from a peacetime establishment of around fifteen thousand men, so the Corps quadrupled in size.  There were around six thousand one hundred and fifty men who were killed during the war. Unfortunately, we don’t have any figures for the number of those injured.

The Royal Marines ran a very successful recruitment campaign in World War One resulting the Corps quadroupling in size by the time hostilities had ended in 1918. Exhibit from The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea. Image
The Royal Marines ran a very successful recruitment campaign in the First World War operating from tents pitched in local parks and other public places. Exhibit from The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire. Image © Come Step Back In Time.

Young men between the ages of 17 and 23 are eligible for the Corps of Royal Marines, provided they produce satisfactory records of character. Each recruit is subjected to a medical examination; he must be strong, vigorous and healthy, and free from bodily infirmity, and be able to read and write fairly well and have a fair knowledge of the first four rules of arithmetic. Men enlisting for the duration of the war will be discharged with all convenient speed when the war is over.

(Extract from a First World War recruitment notice, on display at The Royal Marines Museum.)

World War One recruitment poster for The Royal Marine Labour Corps. On display at the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
First World War recruitment poster for The Royal Marine Labour Corps. On display at the Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.

In 1917, The Royal Marine Labour Corps was established which continued until it being disbanded in 1919. Members were raised from volunteers aged over forty-one along with those who were deemed unfit to serve on the front-line. Their main duties were to oversee the distribution of war materials arriving at French ports, en-route to the Western Front. Approximately four thousand nine hundred and ten officers and men joined this Corps.

Wrns
WRNS (The Womens Royal Naval Service or ‘Wrens’), when serving with the Royal Marines they were known as ‘Marens’. Figure on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

Also in 1917, women were allowed to enlist in the Auxiliary Services with WRNS (The Womens Royal Naval Service or ‘Wrens’), when serving with the Royal Marines they were known as ‘Marens’.  Wrens and Marens were stationed at each of the barracks and undertook a wide range of shore-based duties, such as clerks, mess waitresses, cooks, wireless telegraphers and boat crew members. They were disbanded in 1919.  The Wrens reformed in 1939 and played an important role in World War Two.

Map case, 1915. Used by Lieutenant (Later Major-General) C Lamplough RMLI during the landing by the Plymouth Battalion Royal Naval Division at “Y” Beach, Gallipoli (25th April, 1915). On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
Map case, 1915, used by Lieutenant (Later Major-General) C. Lamplough RMLI during the landing by the Plymouth Battalion Royal Naval Division at ‘Y’ Beach, Gallipoli (25th April, 1915). On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

The First World War – Military Campaigns

Shortly after the First World War began, the Royal Marines were sent to Ostend and later Antwerp. The regiment suffered heavy casualties early on in the war. Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then First Lord of the Admiralty, formed a Royal Navy Division of the Royal Marines which was in fact a combination of Marines and naval reservists who were surplus to Fleet requirements. In 1916 and 1918, the Royal Marines with the Royal Naval Division fought in the trenches of France.

Food Warmer c.1915 used in the Gallipoli campaign. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
Food Warmer c.1915 used in the Gallipoli campaign. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

The conditions on Gallipoli were appalling. The fighting was fierce and the heat quickly decayed dead bodies lying in the battlefields. A plague of flies caused disease. There was no source of fresh water and sanitation was very basic. There was no rest area and the Allies were constantly under shell fire.

(Extract from exhibition panel in the First World War gallery at The Royal Marines Museum.)

Royal Marines formed a sizeable part of the Royal Naval Division involved in the battles at Anzac Cove and Cape Helles as part of the Gallipoli campaign. Lance Corporal W. R. Parker RMLI received the Victoria Cross for his bravery in rescuing wounded in daylight under heavy fire at Gallipoli on the 30th April, 1915.

By the time war broke-out in 1914, Britain was relying heavily on food imports, particularly from Canada and America, two thirds of our food was imported. Keeping the shipping lanes open in the Atlantic and North Sea became vital. Germany were determined to starve Britain into surrendering and consequently sent many submarines to sink supply ships operating along these routes.

Between 31st May and 1st June, 1916, one of the greatest sea battles in naval history took place, The Battle of Jutland.  The result was a draw but fighting resulted in the death of nine thousand six hundred and forty-six sailors, including five hundred and thirty-eight Royal Marines. The regiment’s second Victoria Cross of the war was awarded (Posthumously) to Major F. J. W. Harvey RMLI.

Watch case worn by Private W J Harris RMLI, 1915. This saved Private Harris’s life when he was hit by a bullet at Gallipoli. He was later killed at the Battle of Jutland, whilst serving on board HMS Black Price. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. ©Come Step Back in Time.
Watch case worn by Private W J Harris RMLI, 1915. This saved Private Harris’s life when he was hit by a bullet at Gallipoli. He was later killed at the Battle of Jutland, whilst serving on board HMS Black Prince. On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

The Royal Marines also played a vital role in The Zeebrugge Raid (23rd April, 1918) in which the Royal Navy tried to block the Belgian port. The aim was to destroy German U-boat bases at Zeebrugge. Two Royal Marines were awarded Victoria Crosses, by ballot, for their part in The Zeebrugge Raid, Captain E. Bamford DSO RMLI and Sergeant N. A. Finch RMA.

The Lewis machine gun used by Sgt Norman Finch VC on board HMS Vindictive during The Zeebrugge Raid (23rd April, 1918). On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney
The Lewis machine gun used by Sgt Norman Finch VC on board HMS Vindictive during The Zeebrugge Raid (23rd April, 1918). On display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

Both Bamford and Finch were serving aboard HMS Vindictive (an Arrogant Class Cruiser). When the ship arrived at Zeebrugge it came under very heavy enemy fire, particularly along her upper works. Finch together with another colleague, Lt Rigby, remained at post despite witnessing many of their colleagues being either killed or wounded, Finch also received severe injuries. Finch and Rigby continued until their gun was finally put out of action. The Lewis machine gun used by Finch is now on display in the Museum.

Display of historic instruments belonging to the Royal Marines Band. Exhibit at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
Display of historic instruments belonging to the Royal Marines Band. Exhibit at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.

The Royal Marines Band

There are several galleries at the Museum dedicated to the Royal Marines Band. Established towards the end of the nineteenth century, The Royal Marines Band Service is the musical wing of the Royal Navy. There are currently five bands and one Corps of Drums. Headquarters are the Royal Marines School of Music at HMS Nelson in Portsmouth. This is the only branch of the Royal Marines which is open to women. The Royal Marines School of Music (originally known as the Royal Naval School of Music) was founded in 1903 and its base was Eastney Barracks until the Corps moved to Deal in 1930. Primarily, members are trained musicians but they also serve as stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers and in logistics when required.  The Captain-General of The Royal Marines Band is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.

One of the most famous individuals in the history of the Royal Marines Band is Sir Vivian Dunn (1908-1995) KCVO OBE FRSA. He served for a total of thirty-eight years. At the age of just twenty-two, he became Director of Music, Portsmouth Divisional Band and was the last civilian musician to be appointed into such a post.  He encouraged close collaboration between the various units of the Royal Marines Band Service and his Portsmouth Divisional Band.

During the First World War, Royal Marine Bands served in ships of the Royal Navy and also the Royal Naval Brigades including the campaign at Gallipoli. The Divisional Bands all did a tour of duty with the sixty-third Royal Naval Division on the Western Front.

  • To commemorate this year’s 350th Anniversary, the Royal Marines Band will be performing in The Mountbatten Festival of Music which takes place at the Royal Albert Hall (13th, 14th and 15th March, 2014). To book tickets call the box office on 0845 401 5018 or see the website for booking details www.royalalberthall.com.
Published sheet music for the George Miller composition "Soldiers of the Sea" (1896). Exhibit at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney. Image ©Come Step Back in Time.
Published sheet music for the George Miller composition “Soldiers of the Sea” (1896). Exhibit at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney.

The First World War – The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”. Since its introduction on 29th January, 1856, Royal Marines have been awarded ten of them, five of which were earned during the First World War. The last Victoria Cross awarded to a Royal Marine was in the Second World War (Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, 1923-1945). The Museum has a dedicated Medal Room, formerly the Officers’ Mess Billiard Room, showcasing all of the regiment’s medals, including Victoria Crosses.

Listed below are details of the five Victoria Crosses awarded to Royal Marines during the First World War:

  • Lance Corporal W. R. Parker RMLI. Gallipoli, 30th April, 1915. Displayed conspicuous bravery in rescuing wounded in daylight under heavy fire;

    Parker. The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Lance Corporal W. R. Parker VC, Royal Marine Light Infantry. Medals awarded to him on display at  The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
  • Major F. J. W. Harvey RMLI (Posthumously). The Battle of Jutland, 31st May, 1916. Ordered the flooding of his turret’s magazines although mortally wounded, thereby saving his ship;

    Harvey, The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Major F. J. Harvey VC, Royal Marine Light Infantry. Medals awarded to him on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
  • Major F. W. Lumsden DSO RMA. France, 3rd April, 1917. Led a party to recover six enemy guns under heavy fire. He is the oldest Royal Marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross;
    Lumsden. The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Brigadier General F. Lumsden VC CB DSO, Royal Marine Artillery. Medals awarded on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.

    Captain (Brevet Major) Edward Bamford VC DSO Royal Marine Light Infantry, c1918. Kalamazoo number: 9/2/F2 (7) © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
    Captain (Brevet Major) Edward Bamford VC DSO Royal Marine Light Infantry, c1918.  Kalamazoo number: 9/2/F2 (7) © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
  • Captain E. Bamford DSO RMLI. The Raid on Zeebrugge, 23rd April, 1918. Led his company with initiative and daring in the face of great difficulties (medal awarded by ballot);

    Bamford. The Royal Marines Museum Southsea
    Major E. Bamford VC, Royal Marines. Medals awarded to him on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.
  • Sergeant N. A. Finch RMA. The Raid on Zeebrugge, 23rd April, 1918. Maintained continuous covering fire from the exposed foretop, although severely wounded (medal awarded by ballot).
    Lieutenant N. A. Finch VC, Royal Marines. Medals awarded to him on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea.
    Sgt. N. A. Finch VC, Royal Marines. Medals awarded to him on display at The Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Hampshire.

    Sgt Norman Finch Royal Marine Artillery wearing his Victoria Cross, c1920. Location unknown. Kalamazoo number: 9/2/B5 (1) ©Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
    Sgt Norman Finch Royal Marine Artillery wearing his Victoria Cross, c1920. Location unknown. Kalamazoo number: 9/2/B5 (1) ©Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
  • For visitor information about The Royal Marines Museum, Click Here;
  • For more information about forthcoming events at The Royal Marines Museum, Click Here;
  • For a round-up of events taking place this year to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of The Royal Marines, Click Here;
'Per Mare, Per Terram' - by Sea and Land. Moto of The Royal Marines.
‘Per Mare, Per Terram’ (by Sea and Land). Moto of The Royal Marines.
Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Country House, Exhibition, Film, History, History of Medicine, Maritime History, Motoring History, Museum, World War One, World War Two

Very Adaptable Dames & The Crimson Field: Stories From The Great War – Part 3

Uniforms worn by the British Red Cross Nursing VADs in both World Wars. Left-hand side is World War Two and right-hand side is World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.
Indoor uniforms worn by the British Red Cross Nursing VADs in both World Wars. Left-hand side is World War Two and right-hand side is World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire. Photograph ©Come Step Back In Time.

Later on this Spring, a new six-part drama production The Crimson Field (previously known as The Ark) will be aired on BBC One.  Written by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations, Eastenders) and directed by David Evans (Downton Abbey, One Night), Richard Clark (Doctor Who, Life On Mars) and Thaddeus O’Sullivan (Silent Witness, Single-Handed).

Set in a field hospital on the coast of France during The Great War, The Crimson Field, features a team of doctors, nurses and women volunteers (Voluntary Aid Detachments – VADs) battling against the odds to save the lives of men wounded in the trenches. The hospital becomes a frontier between battlefield and home front where class and gender frictions are rife amongst a group of men and women thrown together under extraordinary circumstances.

The cast includes: Oona Chaplin (The Hour, Quantum Of Solace), Hermione Norris (Spooks, Cold Feet), Suranne Jones (Scott And Bailey, The Secret Of Crickley Hall), Kevin Doyle (Downton Abbey, Scott And Bailey), Kerry Fox (Shallow Grave, An Angel At My Table) and Marianne Oldham (WPC 56).

Actress Oona Chaplin, who plays VAD Kitty Trevelyan, comments:

‘The War To End All Wars’ – unfortunately that wasn’t the case. We keep fighting each other and committing horrific acts of violence. Although the technology of war may be different, the people have hardly changed, which Sarah Phelps has captured here so beautifully. In The Crimson Field we follow men and women on their journey of survival, their struggle with meaning and love, and the small victories that mean so much.

(From Press Release issued by BBC for The Crimson Field, 4.2.2014)

Actress Hermione Norris, who plays the field hospital’s Matron, Grace Carter, adds:

The emotional and psychological impact World War One had on a generation and beyond has always held a deep fascination for me. Sarah Phelps has crafted a compelling script with rich and complex characters who really explore the depth and impact of love and loss in this heroic, yet tragic period in British history. It’s a privilege to be involved in this BBC production 100 years on, bringing the drama of World War One into the hearts and minds of this generation. ‘Lest we forget.’

(From Press Release issued by BBC for The Crimson Field, 4.2.2014)

In the firm belief that prevention of distress is better than its relief, and that employment is better than charity, I have inaugurated the Queen’s “Work for Women Fund”. Its object is to provide employment for as many as possible of the women in this country who have been thrown out of work by the war. Mary R.

(Queen Mary’s Message to the Women of Great Britain, August 1914)

World War One was a time of unprecedented change in the roles of women in society. Before the outbreak of war, opportunities for women to obtain paid work were limited, apart from obvious roles in domestic service. Approximately four hundred thousand domestic servants left their jobs in order to take-up roles as part of the war effort. Once war had been declared, in August 1914, wider employment opportunities slowly materialised, attracting thousands of women to volunteer their services.

Trade unions agreed that, for the duration of the war, women could be employed in roles previously occupied by men. This agreement was known as ‘Dilution’ but came with the strict understanding that once war was over, women would leave their jobs thus creating re-employment for returning servicemen. However, many firms went on to retain their female workers after 1918. A shortage of able-bodied men returning from war necessitated this course of action.

Women in the factory of Taskers metal works and engineering company, Andover, Hampshire.
Women working in the factory of Taskers metal works and engineering company, Andover, Hampshire during World War One.  Image from the collection at Milestones Hampshire’s Living History Museum, Basingstoke.

Production at Hampshire-based metal works Taskers, thrived during World War One and many of its employees served in the armed forces. Women were recruited to Taskers in large numbers to fill the workforce gap and some were retained after war had ended. A number of men, who had previously worked at Taskers, died or were seriously injured in the conflict. The Managing Director’s son, Henry, was shot dead. A former apprentice who worked at Taskers during this turbulent time, recalls:

Some who returned to work suffered or were handicapped as a result of being gassed or injured in some other way. ‘Sab’ Hallett was invalided out and came here to work as a turner in the erecting shop. He had been gassed. Our Managing Director had lost his oldest son Henry shot, but his second son Cyril returned from the Navy to the firm here at the end of 1919.

Girls and women workers were brought into the firm and apart from Shell work were employed working shaping machines, painting and in the saw mill and carpenter’s shop. I well remember the fun getting the two in the carpenter’s shop to know how to handle the woodwork tools….It was generally felt that our cause was a righteous one, and that our mates on the front-lines in France would expect us to be really behind them. After the Armistice many of our girl and women war workers remained working at Tasker’s works and were called ‘The Hangers On’.

(Unknown oral history interviewee, recorded 1964. Transcript on display at Milestones Hampshire’s Living History Museum, Basingstoke).

Below are statistics showing the number of women employed, across a variety of different roles:

  • 113,000 women joined the Land Army;
  • Around 950,000 women worked in the munitions industry;
  • 38,000 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs) staff were women and girls;
  • Over 57,000 women served in the Women’s Auxilliary Army Corps;
  • First Aid Nursing Yeomanry won 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d’Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre;
  • 9,000 women were recruited into the Women’s Royal Air Force;
  • Over 5,000 women served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service;
  • Nearly 200,000 women were employed in government departments.

(From, The First World War, 2014, p.21, published by Hampshire Record Office: Archive Education Service)

According to historians, Neil Storey and Molly Housego:

Many ladies had taken over the vacancies to carry out simple clerking and shop work in local businesses, factory work (such as boot making or tinned foods) and light agricultural work (such as fruit picking or helping with the grain harvest) since August 1914…On 17 March 1915 the Board of Trade issued an appeal to women to register for ‘war service’ work at their local Labour Exchange…After the first week of the announcement over twenty-thousand registrations were received the take-up by employers was slow…

(Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 31, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

Following the introduction of the Military Service Act and conscription in 1916, the window of opportunity for women seeking employment changed dramatically. Initially, the Act specified that all single men aged eighteen to forty-one years old were liable for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion. By the Summer of 1916, conscription was extended to married men and eventually the age bracket extended to fifty-one. This meant that by 1918, more than a million women were employed in previously male-orientated occupations:

Far more women were taken onto the national workforce in 1916 after the introduction of conscription saw thousands more men leave their places of work to serve in the forces. More women were becoming drivers of horse-drawn delivery carts as well as motorised vehicles and vans. Many upper-class women could already drive, and a number of them owned their own cars drove for the Royal Automobile Club Owner-Drivers’ War Service Corps.

(Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 33, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

Mary Sangster, a Hampshire VAD.
Mary Sangster, a Hampshire VAD. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) played a significant part in the war effort. Formed in 1909, in every country, with the aim of providing assistance during time of war. Both men and women could join a detachment to undertake a variety of roles such as cooks, kitchen-maids, clerks, house-maids, ward-maids, laundresses, motor-drivers and of course nurses. When war broke-out, the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John formed the Joint War Committee in order to pool both monetary and human resources. Members of both were organised into Voluntary Aid Detachments. The term ‘VAD’ later come to be used when referring to both an individual member as well as an entire detachment:

There is not, and never has been, any reasonable doubt as to what constitutes a fully trained nurse…In every large hospital there is a matron, and there are sisters, staff nurses and probationers. The matron and sisters are addressed by their titles, but staff nurses and probationers are alike addressed as ‘Nurse’. A probationer of only one day’s standing would consequently be called, for example, ‘Nurse Jones’…It was, therefore, in accordance with the usual practice that a VAD member engaged in the nursing department of any hospital should be called ‘Nurse’.

(Notice issued by the Joint War Committee, reprinted in Storey N. R., and Housego M., 2011, p. 22, Women in The First World War, Shire Publications)

All VADs were trained in basic first-aid and others would then go on to specialise and receive further training in nursing, cookery or hygiene and sanitation. All VADs had to pay for their own training, food, sleeping accommodation and uniform, which for a nurse cost £1  19s  2 1/2d.  It was not surprising then that many VADs came from middle and upper-class families who had plenty of free time on their hands, financial resources and could work for free.

1915 VAD recruitment poster. It was so successful no other design was needed.
1915 VAD recruitment poster. It was so successful no other design was needed. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The iconic 1915 VADs recruitment poster was so successful that it was the only one ever needed and by 1918 there were twenty-three thousand nurses and eighteen thousand nursing orderlies that had joined a detachment. At end of the war, ninety thousand people had joined the VADs. When peace returned the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John became two separate voluntary aid societies once again but the VAD scheme continued until the 1930s.

There’s no Xmas leave for us scullions,

We’ve got to keep on with the grind:

Just cooking for Britain’s heroes,

But, bless you! We don’t really mind …

We’re baking, and frying, and boiling,

From morning until night’

But we’ve got to keep on a bit longer,

Till Victory comes in sight…

Yes we’ve got to hold on a while longer,

Till we’ve beaten the Hun to his knees:

And then ‘Goodbye’ to the kitchen;

The treacle, the jam and the cheese.

(From: Christmas 1916 ‘Thoughts in a VAD Hospital Kitchen’, featured on an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

VADs could and would turn their hand to almost anything, earning the female contingent the nickname, ‘very adaptable dames’. However, according to historian and former nurse, Yvonne McEwen, (speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 17th February, 2014), there are a number of myths surrounding the role of VADs in World War One. The nursing VADs did not replace the professional nursing corps (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service – QAIMNS) but assisted them in their daily duties both on the front-line and in military hospitals across Britain. The QA nurses were highly trained, unmarried women over the age of thirty who had chosen the nursing profession as a career for life. However, as the war progressed demand for trained nursing staff grew and recruitment restrictions, such as age limits, were relaxed. Even these changes did not attract the numbers of professional trainees required and VADs became even more vital to the war effort, taking-on increased duties. All nurses faced harsh working and living conditions in the various theatres of war:

By 1915, the role of the VAD had actually moved in to military hospitals both at home and on the fighting front. Having said that, VADs never, ever worked in Casualty Clearing Stations which is another mythology…Base hospitals were relatively comfortable but as the war escalated the bombing raids became more and more frequent. It is interesting that 1917-18 is when the highest rates of death [amongst nurses] occurred because of the shelling and bombing of hospitals and clearing hospitals.

For those who worked on the front-line and of course it was not just on the Western Front, we had nurses working in Mesopotamia, Germany and East Africa. It was a global war and nurses were deployed in a global war. In the Gallipoli campaign, the nurses slept on rocks on blankets because there was no accommodation to put them in. In fact there was no proper accommodation for anybody when they first arrived, no tents erected for the sick and wounded, everyone was sleeping on blankets or mattresses on rocks and gradually over the months on the island, tented hospitals were constructed.

(Historian and former nurse Yvonne McEwen speaking on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 17th February, 2014)

Yvonne is also keen to point-out, that nurses from Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America all worked alongside British nurses. Her research has also revealed that in both World Wars, a total of one thousand seven hundred nurses were killed on active duty. The first nurse died in November 1914. However, this total is expected to rise as further fatalities, from both wars, come to light. For the purposes of these statistics, there is no distinction being made between professional and volunteer nurses both are equal upon death. Yvonne is campaigning for a nurses war memorial to be erected in their honour. You can read more about this appeal on The New Cavendish Club website.

I got a very septic hand, because the VADs didn’t wear rubber gloves…and if you got the slightest prick it always went septic.

(Gladys Stanford, VAD, Highfield Hospital Southampton. From an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

I was called for during the Battle of the Somme. At Southampton the men were in a terrible state, straight from off the ships. There was no question of VADs not helping because everyone just had to.

(A Hampshire VAD, from an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

During World War One, auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were created right across Britain to treat sick and injured military personnel from the front-lines. Large private estates and houses were also transformed into hospitals. By 1918, in Hampshire alone there were fifty-nine such facilities and VADs were the lifeblood of these establishments. One of the most important military hospitals on the mainland was the former Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, Hampshire.

Postcard showing the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley.
Postcard showing the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

Built in 1856 and opened in March, 1863, this once imposing red brick complex provided the very best medical care to wounded service personnel throughout World War One. In addition to the impressive medical facilities, there was a theatre, extensive gardens, comprehensive range of outdoor activities and endless craft activities for servicemen undergoing rehabilitation.  In 1966, the army demolished all the buildings save for The Royal Chapel which still survives and houses a heritage centre, gift shop and exhibition about the history of the former military hospital.

  • Silent film, from a series of five made in 1917. Each one features a range of ‘War Neuroses’, including the horrific effects of shell shock. Filmed mainly at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley. Warning, this film contains images that some viewers may find upsetting. (Uploaded by the Wellcome Library to You Tube, 2.11.2009. For more information about their educational catalogue, click here.)

The Royal Victoria Hospital was located by the shores of Southampton Water. There was once a steel and wood pier connecting the hospital to Southampton Water. Troop ships and hospital ships could unload their wounded before docking in Southampton. However, the water levels by the pier were too shallow to accommodate some of the bigger ships and as the war progressed these vessels only came into Southampton Docks, where the wounded would be transferred to either ambulances or trains for their onward journey.

Bandages, cotton wool and gauze used in World War One.
Bandages, cotton wool and gauze used at the Royal Victoria Hospital during World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

The hospital was serviced by a railway which in World War One brought a succession of ambulance trains directly there from Southampton Docks. It was said that a soldier could be injured in France on a Friday and be on a ward at the hospital by Monday. Following the Battle of the Somme (1.7.1916), one hundred and fifty-one ambulance trains transported thirty thousand casualties from Southampton Docks to mainland hospitals. A majority of the casualties ended-up at the Royal Victoria. In total one thousand two hundred and twenty ambulance trains arrived at the hospital throughout the duration of the war.

A short while after war broke-out, the War Office requested that a further five hundred bed, Hutted Hospital, be erected on a terrace behind the main building. Netley’s Hutted Hospital consisted of three separate hospitals, the Red Cross, the Irish and the Welsh. One of the conditions of erecting these temporary structures was that, if required, they could be easily dismantled and moved to France. Due to the high numbers of casualties coming through Netley as war escalated, huts were increased in number to accommodate a total of one thousand patients. The Hutted Hospital had a staff of three hundred and fifty including many VADs. Despite their temporary nature, the Hutted Hospital complex contained some very modern facilities, including x-ray equipment, electrical equipment and whirlpool baths.

We young nurses on night duty used to sneak off to the soldiers’ wards. They loved us coming down…I think it cheered them a lot…They’d say ‘Give us a kiss, lassie’. We didn’t think it was wrong at all.

Of course you felt like crying, you had a heart, you had feelings.

(Memories of Hampshire VADs, from an exhibition panel in Heritage Visitor Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park)

One of the Hutted Hospitals behind the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley during World War One.
One of the Hutted Hospitals behind the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley during World War One. On display at the Heritage Centre, Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley, Hampshire.

Last month it was announced that a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £102,000 would be given to Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley. The funding will enable the county council to team-up with local organisations to restore the Royal Chapel and undertake further research on the former Royal Victoria Hospital. Development is expected to last a year.

The Royal Chapel. Only surviving building of the former Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley.
The Royal Chapel. Only surviving building of the former Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley. Photograph ©Come Step Back In Time.