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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