History, storytelling and song

On Saturday 21 June, history came to life through storytelling and song. I’ve written of my work with the Northwood VAD Hospital before and 21 June saw all the work come to fruition when a selection of the stories were shared with the community in an afternoon of storytelling and song.

As a purist when it comes to history, I must admit that I was a little anxious about how this was all going to work out, but under the guidance of Dvora Lieberman, storyteller and oral historian, and singer Vivien Ellis, I had nothing to worry about. Both artists took the stories and worked with young and old alike to mould an afternoon of theatre, poetry, song and history. Watching the process unfold made it appear seamless and although I knew what was coming, I was still taken by surprise at the little additions which put the pieces into context and rounded off the performance. Hopefully, you’ll be able to catch video snippets of the event on www.northwoodcommunityarts.co.uk in due course.

This has been an incredible journey for me as an historian. I’ve a network of enthusiasts and academics who have been researching the First World War in Africa for years and whom I really value. However, we all tend to work individually. This project enabled me to watch individuals interested in the past learn how to do research (thanks to a session at the Institute of Historical Research) and come together as a team ferreting out information in order to tell the story of the VAD Hospital.

In addition to the experience of working as part of a research team, looking at a completely different aspect of the war has led to new insights and possible avenues to explore in Africa. Looking at local county papers has shed some light on men who served in Africa and even a comment that there were African (ie Black) soldiers from East Africa being treated in French hospitals in Europe – this is something that will need to be investigated as the French were not involved in fighting in East Africa and the French soldiers who fought in Europe were from West Africa. Perhaps they were from French Congo? In addition, there were hospitals in East Africa and the natural place to send those who needed to be evacuated would have been to South Africa, Egypt or Britain. Why send soldiers to hospitals in France which would have been pressed with men injured in that theatre? But all this discussion is diverting from song and theatre…

What I haven’t seen too much of concerning the wars in Africa is whether there was any entertainment for the men in hospitals, convalescent or base camps outside of South Africa and possibly Egypt. We know the men went hunting (with gun or camera), wrote poetry, diaries and on the odd occasion when paper and facilities allowed, printed local newspapers. Sport was played as recorded by Floris van der Merwe but song, theatre and other activities remain elusive.

 

Women in WW1

Before I get too far into this posting, let me declare up front that this is not my usual sphere of study nor interest… However, in preparing a short (10min!) talk for some 200 7-11year old girls at a local school on women in WW1 as part of the Northwood VA Hospital project I have been working on (@northwoodArts), I’ve taken a whirlwind trip through various books and the internet to find something suitably real (and not gory) to share with the girls. And as I have been a little slack in posting recently due to travels between East Africa and the UK, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up sharing with you…

I knew women had been quite involved in the war and that as a result, those fighting for the vote strengthened their position until in 1918, women over the age of 30 were granted the vote. They had shown themselves responsible enough to have a say in Britain’s future…  I also became aware, through listening to the findings of the VA Hospital research team that women had various roles to play within the hospital. We always hear about the nurses – but how much has been said about the cook or person who swept and washed the floor or scrubbed those millions of dishes? Then there were those who entertained the men, recognising that psychological health was just as important as medical treatment to improving physical health. We hear of concerts, musical and theatre, sewing competitions which the men participated in having been taught how to embroider and so forth. Women volunteers were dashing between their shifts in the hospital and the local supply depot to roll bandages and prepare other packages to go out to hospitals, whilst others delivered milk and did the laundry. The local Girl Guide Company helped with delivering messages. And what was really an eye-opener, although it probably shouldn’t have been, was that many women also had young families they were looking after at the same time. (You can find out more about the Northwood VA Hospital at www.northwoodcommunityarts.co.uk (the findings of the research team will be exhibited at Northwood Library from 19 June with a commemoration and interpretation event on 21 June 2014. And if all goes to plan, the painting which inspired the research will make an appearance before it returns, restored, to its home at St John’s URC Northwood. It is believed to have been painted by Louisa Holdsworth-Sampson (aka Roger Hilton‘s mother and Rose Hilton‘s mother-in-law).

In many ways, the work women were undertaking in Britain (and other European countries) was very similar to what they were doing in the Africa campaigns although the emphasis might have been slightly different. Women in Africa looked after and managed farms whilst their unmarried male owners were away fighting. Women transported food and other supplies to their men-folk particularly in the early days of the war and there were women camp followers who saw the whole war through – particularly those following the German Schutztruppe and askari through the East Africa campaign. Women in Africa were known to make bandages out of different materials and to refill shells so they could fit the guns that were available. In South Africa, young girls moved off the farms into the towns and cities to work in factories for the first time whilst others knitted and fund-raised for gifts for the men. And a few took to nursing in the hospitals as part of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.

And alongside all of this, men who were not fighting because of their age, health, beliefs or reserved occupation, were doing their bit in delivering the bread to hospitals, servicing vehicles, transporting patients, delivering post and all the other myriad of functions that keep a country and community operational. The Boy Scouts, too, did their bit, in Northwood challenging the recuperating soldiers to a shooting competition – which the scouts won!

The word ‘war’ tends to focus one’s attention on the fighting and battle fronts (the dark side of war) and although we shouldn’t forget that in order to try and avoid future conflicts, it’s little encounters such as giving a 10minute talk on women in war that reminds us (me) about the humanity of mankind and the continuity of life.

 

Crimson Fields – an intro to the medical services of WW1

The Crimson Fields, for readers who don’t know, is a BBC docu-drama on nurses during the First World War. From what I have read and heard about it, the setting is a British front-line hospital on the Western Front. This is not surprising though, given that that’s where most British blood was spilt during the war. What attracted me to it as a concept, is that it provides an insight into a previously hidden aspect of World War 1 and an opportunity to introduce some other related hidden aspects of the war.

From the Front, wounded and ill soldiers would be transported to hospitals and recovery stations away from the fighting to destinations in Europe for those who would not take long to recover or back to the UK for those needing more specialist or long-term treatment. This required a transport system including hospital trains and ships.

Once back in England, soldiers would pass through port hospitals such as those at Dover and Southampton. The book Spike Island by Philip Hoare gives a wonderful insight into the military hospital at Netley and the early days of military nursing as it evolved after the Crimea. From the ports, the men would be transported to receiving hospitals generally in the main cities such as London and Manchester. They would be allocated to hospitals, where possible, best suited for their ailment. Initial thoughts of sending men closer to home disappeared due to the huge numbers requiring to be transported. On 7 July 1917 (1916?) there was a special rush on trains as 6,174 sick and wounded were transported in 24 hours.

From the receiving hospitals, men were then sent to convalescent hospitals, often country houses which had been converted, and in one case, the local church. St John’s Presbyterian Church in Northwood, Middlesex gave up their sanctuary a year after it had been built thereby enabling a total of 100 soldiers to be nursed on the premises. Researching this Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital has brought to light many other facets of war-time life: not all those who were called nurses were necessarily nurses – there were amongst others cooks and cleaners, messengers, drivers, entertainers, therapists, equipment packers working in the supply depots and many others. Often people did more than one thing such as the male VAD units which transported patients and then carried out bed baths in the evening and helped with the night-time nursing. The issue of logistics and keeping Britain moving was a mammoth task and one which still needs to be explored. (@NorthwoodArts)

Moving further afield to Africa, the hospitals and medical services there had quite a different challenge.

Comparatively speaking, battles were few and far between when compared with the Western Front. The challenge was being able to service a mobile front where there was little or no existing infrastructure, no defined battle field and an environment as tough, if not worse, than the opposing forces. There are records of men having to walk for 9 hours or so to access medical treatment or lying for days unattended. Comparisons have been drawn with the German forces which seemed to have a doctor in each contingent, or at least they did until the last months of the war.

Nature proved the biggest enemy to all the forces. The admission records to the Wynberg Military Hospital in Cape Town kept at the SANDF archive in Pretoria, highlights that the major ailments requiring treatment were Malaria and Blackwater fever. These are also regular features in the Medical War Diaries @UKNatArchives.

A perusal of the Medical War Diaries at The National Archives in London for East Africa again, sheds light on the extent of medical support available to the men. The information in the diaries is variable, depending on the person recording, but as a collection they provide a fascinating insight to another side of war. In addition to the men, there were women serving in both the British and German hospitals. And when transporting men back to Europe became difficult and leave was cancelled, special arrangements were made for convalescent homes to be set up in the Kenyan highlands. The Bundesarchiv gives some insight into what a field hospital looked like.

As with the Western Front, there is a great need for more work to be done on the medical aspects of all the African campaigns of the First World War, and for those interested in what is available, there is the Official History of the medical services, Francis Brett Young’s memoir Marching on Tanga and William Boyd’s fictional An ice-cream war to start. One wonders if Boyd based his story on the account of a British soldier nursed in a German hospital for 9 months as recorded in Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My reminiscences of East Africa (pp45-6).