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.

 

 

“I have had a proud day…I have been awarded the Military Cross!”

On February 28, 100 years ago, Stephen Warner was decorated for his brave actions on the Front Line.

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For the centenary of the First World War Lowewood Museum is celebrating the life of Stephen Warner. Stephen was one of many unsung heroes of the war. Before fighting on the front line he spent over a year with the Royal Army Medical Corps and attended surgical operations as a theatre orderly, saving the lives of hundreds of men. He was an inspirational leader and much loved Second Lieutenant of A company, 9th Battalion, Essex Regiment, based I Arras, France. He won the Military Cross for organising successful raids on enemy trenches, taking prisoners and capturing a machine gun. This February it will be one hundred years since he won this prestigious award.

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Handwritten note from the Adjutant awarding Stephen Warner the Military Cross. The note dates from 18/2/1918.

 

 

 

Tuesday 5 February 1918 – “The raid is done! The raid is a huge success! Thanks be!… Congratulations have been showered upon me and the Brigadier has interviewed me…and expressed his satisfaction.”

 

 

 

 

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The Military Cross awarded to Stephen Warner. The reverse of this medal has Stephen’s name and regiment number inscribed

 

 

The Military Cross (MC) is a British military decoration that, at the time, was only bettered by the Victoria Cross and the Conspicuous Service Cross. It was introduced during the First World War and awarded to officers for “gallantry in the field.” Thousands of them were given out during the First World War and it, along with the standard issue service medals, was essential in recognising the immense efforts of British soldiers and volunteers in the war.

Stephen Warner assisted with a raid in January 1918 and led some of his own in February 1918 while based in Arras. Looking at the surviving documentation Stephen was given orders relating to the time, date and location of the task but it was up to him, as a patrol leader to decide who to take and how to carry out the task. On the 5th February Stephen and his patrol of 3 men crawled across ‘No-Man’s-Land’ in the dead of night. The conditions were muddy and treacherous while the men had to cut defensive barbed wire but they succeeded and leapt into the German Trench. Remarkably they managed to take two German soldiers as prisoners, capture a machine gun and get back behind their own lines with no casualties – except for ‘a couple of scratches’. For this effort and other successes he was awarded the MC.

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German soldier’s cutting wire in unknown location on ‘No-Man’s-Land’. Stephen and his patrol would have had a similar, uncomfortable experience while cutting the enemy wire. Source: The Daily Herald.

February 28 1918 “I have had a proud day. A letter has just come from the adjutant telling me that I have been awarded the military cross! I do not feel that I did anything very wonderful, but I suppose the standard to gain the award is lower than it used to be.”

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Mud-filled shell holes across ‘No-Man’s-Land’. This section of the battlefield is in Verdun, 1917 after the major battle there. Looking at this image it is possible to imagine the horrible conditions faced while crawling across the fields at night-time to attack the enemy trenches. Source: The Daily Herald.

It is testament to Stephen’s character that he is so modest when he receives the award, commenting that he thinks the ‘standard to gain the award is lower than it used to be’. He also talks in diary entries about how satisfying it is to finally do something he feels contributes to the war effort in an immediately gratifying way.

 

 

At Lowewood Museum we are delighted to have Stephen’s diaries, letters and other documents that record his unique experience. We are using these to create an exhibition which is due to open on 19 May 2018.

One Man’s Journey through War

Getting to know one First World War soldier’s unique experience.

Blog3.1Within Lowewood Museum’s collection are a set of five diaries written during the First World War by Stephen Warner, a soldier whose family came from Hoddesdon. The diaries offer a first-hand perspective of war, in a field hospital and on the front line. There are stories, drawings, pressed flowers, photographs and much more in them, which bring Stephen’s experience to life. Many quotes and images from the diaries have been shared on this blog in the past.

At Lowewood Museum we are working on a research project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, based on the diaries.

In May 2018, as part of our First World War centenary celebrations, we will be launching an exhibition and series of events focusing on this unsung hero and his war diaries.

Look out for more in the coming months and in the meantime keep reading to find out why Stephen is such an important character.

Local Connections and Family Importance

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Engraving of two gentlemen standing next to the newly cast bell for the Elizabeth tower. Source: Big Ben Facts.

Stephen Warner was the great grandson of John Warner, who owned Lowewood Museum when it was a domestic residence. The Warner family were well known locally and there are several institutions named after them, such as John Warner School and the John Warner Sports Centre.

 

John Warner also had a bell foundry and famously cast the first ‘Big Ben’, the bell in the Elizabeth Tower at Westminster (it was later recast at Whitechapel in London).

 

Stephen Warner

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Military Cross medal awarded to Stephen Warner on February 18 1918.

Stephen served the majority of his time in the First World War at the St John’s Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, France. He then went on to serve with the Essex Regiment on the front line. Stephen joined the 3rd Battalion and fought on the front line in France, going on to receive the Military Cross for his gallant and self-sacrificing work.

 

Thursday. 28 February 1918 “I have had a proud day. A letter has just come from the adjutant telling me that I have been awarded the military cross! I do not feel that I did anything very wonderful, but I suppose the standard to gain the award is lower than it used to be.”

He survived the war but was reported wounded in April 1918. After the war he graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with an MA. He had a keen interest in history and architecture and later published books on various historic buildings in England including Lincoln College.

In 1928 he moved to Alton, Hampshire and became the honorary curator of the local museum. The museum still has a significant number of artefacts and books that were donated by Stephen and by his wife after he died in 1948.

The Diaries

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A page from Stephen Warner’s diary with pressed flowers and Latin annotations.

His diaries offer us a personal interpretation of life in the war from a unique man. Stephen had a keen interest in the flora of his local area and pressed specimens in his diaries.

 

Throughout the war and especially when he had days off from the St John’s Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Stephen wandered through the countryside and villages, talking knowledgably about the landscape and flora. He also showed an interest in the local agricultural practises, comparing them to those in England.

 

Stephen was an intelligent man and took an interest in everything he came across. He describes in his diaries, detailed articles and notes about operations, infections, illnesses and treatments that were being carried out in the hospital. He had a close-up view of these things when he worked in the surgical theatre as an orderly.

Thursday 13 January 1916 “The chief feature is the church, which had a finely vaulted chancel and transept of late 1450. Nice carving on the pillar capitals including acanthus leaves and ivy with berries.”

World War One project – volunteers needed

Lowewood Museum has received £68,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an exciting project, ‘Stephen Warner – One Man’s Journey Through War’.

Made possible by money raised by National Lottery players, the project marks the centenary of the First World War by focusing on the experiences of serviceman Stephen Warner.

Through the narrative of Stephen’s diary, the project will explore his experiences with both the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Essex Regiment and will be presented through a series of community projects and an exhibition.

The project will enable local people to come together to preserve the memories and heritage of those who lived and served through the First World War. Design students from Hertford Regional College will create a graphic novel based on Stephen’s diary, held at Lowewood Museum, and copies of the new novel will be distributed to all Borough of Broxbourne secondary schools. In addition to this, pupils from John Warner Secondary School will read excerpts from the diaries, and finally volunteers will be recruited to help catalogue and research the Stephen Warner archive at Lowewood Museum, and material held at the Essex Regiment Museum.

The project will come together in July 2018 with an exhibition at Lowewood Museum marking 100 years since the end of the war.

As part of the project the team are looking for volunteers to help with Medical Research and Essex Regiment Research.

Here are the role profiles:

Please contact Rachel Arnold (Project Officer) on rarnold@eppingforestdc.gov.uk 01992 564993 to apply or ask for details.

 

Stephen Warner Diaries, Volume IV, August 2017

Wednesday 8 August

“Have just had two days of fine weather in which to pass the gas course and test.”

“The ordinary drill with mask and helmet with lachrymatory and chlorine tests and the rest – the first named had a delicious stench of pineapple but makes you weak like a child if you get it in your eyes.”

Friday 10 August

“Where at Felixstone we used to have the searchlight, during the night, here on the horizon other constant plastics from the guns bombarding the Germans.”

Saturday 11 August

“At mess in the evening the now common toast was given by our colonel, “gentlemen, I propose the health of these officers who are going to the front tomorrow – we wish them good luck and Godspeed!”

Monday 13 August

“They had been training at Etaples and Woody told me that the Portuguese were admitted to be very unsatisfactory and that owing to their quick temper, there had been more than one fracas involving bloodshed.”

Saturday 18 August

“On Thursday came the order for all officers of the 35th brigade to go up the line and I was told off to take up a draft of 30 royal Berkshire – a mixed lot of small drafts were joined up to us and we started off at 1.30pm on our 10 mile march into Arras.”

“Yesterday we went up to the battalion HQ about a couple of miles behind the firing and we were told that as they had so many officers at the moment we shall remain in Arras more or less for a time and begin some jobs somewhere.”

“and now into Arras itself! Well, to start with I think I may say that, on the whole, the place is not quite so battered as depicted – of course evidence of the bombardment meets the eye at every turn – a house here which has no roof, a house there which has a great gaping hole in the side and another nothing but a heap of rubble, but the majority are all standing and appear capable of being made habitable in the short term.”

“The houses immediately surrounding the Hôtel de Ville are absolutely obliterated except for a few heaps of grass grown rubble – the petite place has been so roughly handled that I could not see one single whole façade and on one side about 6 houses in a row had been entirely demolished – I do not see how this place can ever recover itself.”

“The cathedral, museum, library and student’s college all practically one enormous building are hopelessly gutted.”

Sunday 19 August

“As I write this at 11:45pm on a still and starlit night the flashes and booming of the guns are very evident and the Germans seem to be sending over some heavy stuff which is falling in or near the town but so far not at our end.”

Tuesday 21 August

“Our Battalion is in the 12th division and our distinguishing division mark is the ace of spades.”

Sunday 26 August

“I duly went up to the firing line and returned safely after spending about two hours there being shown round by Wardle, the officer on duty. And so I saw my first real life trenches – pretty much what I expected except that our front line in this sector has been much knocked about and so is in a bad condition.”

“meals: dinner last night – soup, stewed beef, potatoes and cabbage – a kind of bread pudding made in a basin with Jamades black coffee. The whole washed down with whiskey. Breakfast this morning – tomatoes and bacon with toast, bread butter, jam and tea. Lunch – tinned herrings (very good although they were tinned fish!) cold ham and hot potatoes, and to drink beer.”

Tuesday 28 August

“Last night was some night! Slithering and sliding about, dropping into shell holes full of water, slipping and launching against the sticky sides of the trenches, up to the ankles in liquid mud, squeezing past other parties in the narrow way, all amid drowning rain and ever strong wind.”

Stephen Warner Diaries, Volume IV, July 1917

Thursday 5 July

“The exam has been and come and I have passed with 199 marks out of 270. I have left Gailes (I trust for ever!) I’ve had a weekend at Oxford – I have acted as best man to ‘Lizzie’ Walpole and married him off safely.

“I’m now and given to understand the word Bughty so common on everybody’s lips nowadays is a corruption of the Hindustani word ‘bilat’ or ‘bagati’ which means house.”

Tuesday 10 July

“The great event has taken place and I am informed that I am now a tempy second lieutenant attached to the third special reserve Battalion of the Essex regiment I report on the 17th to the station at Felixstone!”

Monday 23 July

“We had just done with offertory when at 8:15am the anti-aircraft guns began firing followed quickly by loud explosions here and there which ____ the falling bomb.”

“Every night after dark the sky streaked is all over with searchlights – narrow bright beams of light piercing the darkness in all directions – it was a strange effect.”

Monday 31 July

“The great adventure has as good as begun! We are off on leave today as soon as we can get away and then report at Folkstone at 10.00AM with a view to joining armies in France.”

“I go overwillingly to strike my little blow at the Germans for what it may be worth – knowing that as I do so I am last doing my duty upon which I have more than once insisted in earlier pages of this diary.”