Life as a First World War Hospital Orderly

Life as a First World War Hospital Orderly

Inspired by the diaries of Stephen Warner

Helen Martin – Project volunteer

Stephen Warner, whose family lived in Hoddesdon during the First World War, worked as a hospital orderly at the St John’s Ambulance Brigade base clearing hospital in Étaples from 1915-1917. During this time he was stationed in the two operating theatres, and in the X-ray department. His diaries give us an insight into the work of the support staff at the hospital, and the hospital in general.

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A hand-drawn and coloured sketch of a view of Étaples where there were several hospitals including that of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and other training camps.
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Interior of the operation theatre in which Stephen worked showing the sterile floors and surface and the views outside of the windows. Both were things he talked about in his diary. (Source: Museum of the Order of St John, postcard book.)

The life of a hospital orderly during the war was a hard, and regimented, one, and orderlies were expected to react to constantly changing circumstances. They were responsible for a range of tasks across the hospital including transporting patients around the hospital site, preparing patients for, and assisting with, surgery, and running unit baths. They worked alongside doctors, surgeons, nurses, and Voluntary Aid Detachments (V.A.Ds) and would have been exposed to sights that they could never have imagined. Orderlies worked closely with the patients in the wards too, and many of them received ‘souvenirs’ of pieces of shrapnel pulled from wounds.

In Volume 1 of his diaries, Stephen outlines a typical day of light duties –

“While work is comparatively light I may as well take the opportunity of putting down as full a diary as possible as I may have less time later on so will now give a short description of one’s day here as now arranged:

            5:30am Reveille (or revally as it is usually called)

            6.00am Parade for early fatigue duty – whatever it may be. There are various  parties made up of various duties.

            7.15am Breakfast, tidy up bed and kit.

            8.30am Parade – for fatigue duty

            12.15pm Dinner + leisure

            2.00pm Parade for afternoon fatigue

            5.15pm Tea

            6.00pm Parade for next days orders. Free after this to walk out

            9.00pm Roll call in dormitories

            9.30pm Last post

            9.45pm Lights out” Vol 1, pg.

In addition to this daily routine, there are multiple instances in the diaries where Stephen describes being woken in the middle of the night to convoys of incoming wounded men. Lack of sleep and constant activity were normal. On Sunday the 2nd of July 1915 he wrote:

Sunday 2 July 1916 “Last night convoy of 79. Today another of 302!! So all of a sudden we are up to the eyes in it! 57,000 casualties so they say to date. The result was that having operated in the morning we started again at 8:30pm with eight cases, getting into bed at 3.00am!! Just as is was beginning to get light! Consequently I fell tired and sleepy today…” (Vol 2, pg. 85)

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Étaples Convoy Yard, Ernest Proctor, 1918. The painting is of the Étaples convoy yard showing the area where ambulance vans would arrive with wounded soldiers. Orderlies to unload them as quickly as possible. (Source: Imperial War Museum, ART 3353)

The work was hard, but there were also opportunities to socialise and relax away from the stress of the hospital. Stephen gives detailed descriptions of his days off dining in Étaples, bathing in the sea, and writing plays to be performed for the staff. He, and many of his colleagues, became avid collectors of flowers; pressing them in his diaries, and sending samples off the Kew to be identified. These activities helped to alleviate the stress and intensity of the daily work at the hospital, but the calm moments were few and far between.

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Diaries, Drawings and Dried Plants

Caring for a diverse collection

Rachel Arnold – Project Officer

 

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A snapshot of the variety of the Warner collection

The first time that I opened the box containing Stephen Warner’s First World War diaries I was amazed at the variety of material housed within.

This collection was compiled by Warner between 1914 and 1918, and added to by subsequent generations. It contains hand-written diaries with pressed flowers and plants, newspaper cuttings, photographs and medals. The contents are very well preserved, wrapped in layers of tissue paper inside an archival box but their storage could be vastly improved to stop conservation issues developing in the future.

Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery we now have money needed to achieve these improvements.

Why do we want to keep them?

The varied war collection once belonged to Stephen Warner, whose relatives lived in Hoddesdon, and it documents his unique war experience.

A first glance at the diaries and their physical properties already tells us several things about Stephen’s experience. For example: pencil was used more often than ink, implying that ink was more difficult to come by. Flowers were pressed within the pages; showing us that, despite the ongoing war, men in service continued with their hobbies and interests. Especially in these centenary years of the commemoration of the First World War it is important to ensure that this collection survives well into the future for generations to learn from and enjoy.

What are the problems?

Historical objects react in different ways with their environment and with other materials that they come in contact with. This often makes it difficult to choose the correct environmental conditions to preserve collections in storage.

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One page of pressed plants in volume 2 of Stephen Warner’s diaries. Note the yellowing of the adjacent page.

The diaries, which also act as herbaria (pressed plant collection), consist of paper and organic materials and prefer a relatively high humidity level. This prevents drying out, shrinkage and cracking.

 

The plants in the diaries have caused yellowing of several neighbouring pages which is likely to have been caused by acid degradation on the paper from seepage of residual organic material from the flowers.

 

 

 

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An example of the negative corrosive affects that a poor environment can have on the surface of coins. This is the damage that could be done if Stephen’s war medals are mistreated.

Medals benefit from low humidity levels to prevent damp and subsequent corrosion or chemical reactions. The metal of medals can also react to their environment and even the oxygen in air can cause the surface of the medal to change and corrode.

 

 

 

 

Photographs also prefer lower humidity levels and can react with their environment – resulting in spotting, loss of colour or fading (depending on the production quality of the photograph).

 

Already, you can see that we have conflicting environmental needs in this small collection of objects. Although it is normal practise at museums to separate materials in storage we would like to keep all of this material together at least for the duration of the project and the exhibition. This will avoid disassociation of any items and make them easily accessible.

The solution

Each diary’s pages will be interspersed with the finest grade Japanese paper (very thin and chemically stable) beside each pressed plant to prevent further acid degradation on neighbouring pages and subsequent yellowing. They will be placed in specially made conservation grade archival boxes that open to allow easy access to the diaries.

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Upgraded storage of some of the photographs in the Warner collection. They are now inside their own plastic sleeve allowing easy visual access, increased structural stability and protection from fingerprints.

Photographs will be placed in specially made chemically inert plastic sleeves that prevent them from touching other objects and make sure they are still visible. This has the added benefit of making them structurally stronger with a robust casing.

Medals will be put in conservation grade plastic boxes which are airtight. This keeps their environment chemically stable from the other pollutants in the box that might come from the organic material. We can also put silica gel packets in the boxes which absorb moisture and help to reduce the humidity.

 

The above is a simplified description of the environmental and conservation problems encountered. For more information on the topic, please consult the following online resources:

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The British Library

The British Museum

Preservation Equipment Ltd.