By Judith Phillips
Last Saturday we had a fascinating presentation about the work of the Red Cross during the First World War. Anne Wall and Eileen Brereton were both nurses and, about ten years ago, became interested in a Red Cross hospital in North Yorkshire. From that, their research has reached out far and wide. Today I think they have enough material to start their own Red Cross hospital! We had a chance to try the bandage-winder, inspect sphagnum moss used for dressing wounds, read recipes for wartime food, remember (well, some of us did) some of the now old-fashioned medicines, and admire the knitting skills that produced everything from eye-bandages to socks to pan-holders to balaclava helmets with earflaps (very handing when using a telephone).
Anne and Eileen put it all in context. Most of the ‘home’ hospitals were for convalescent troops which meant they covered a wide range of conditions. There were separate hospitals for officers and men. Each hospital had two trained nurses allocated to them as well as the services of a local doctor, and then there was a large number of support staff – cooks, orderlies, drivers, porters, clerks etc. We tend to think of the Red Cross being entirely female but Anne and Eileen pointed out that men were needed to help with the heavy work, especially handling patients.
Looking after convalescent troops meant more than treating their medical conditions. Wounded soldiers and sailors weren’t necessarily sent to a hospital near their family, so they probably didn’t get many visits from family and friends. Men were taken out on trips, often to houses and village halls that provided them with food and entertainment. For some men, it was their first experience of the countryside, especially if they came from industrial cities.
The photographs Anne and Eileen have used on their pop-up banners were an immediate way of appreciating the range of work done. And I was very pleased to find in their book of reports from local hospitals some names that have already cropped up in research for Teesdale – Mrs Bell-Irving from Rokeby Park, for example. Clearly, we have an area of overlap with Anne and Eileen’s work, as several Teesdale townships were in North Yorkshire, so there’s more work to be done.
After the talk, two people reminded me that the Red Cross nationally is digitising and putting online record cards from the First World War period. We have already found cards for some Teesdale women we know worked for the Red Cross and I’d be delighted if anyone would be willing to help us do more. This is work you can do at home if you have access to the Internet. Just drop me an email if you’d like to know more.