Stop 5. Broken Bodies, Muddled Minds: York’s War Hospitals

Walking down Castlegate, turn right into Friargate and look for the Quaker Meeting House at the white-painted porch.

 At 3.30am on Friday September 6th, 1918, a convoy of 160 wounded soldiers arrived by train into York Railway Station. They were met by members of the newly-formed Women’s Department of Stretcher Bearers, who, under the supervision of Colonel F.W. Lamballe, assisted in the transport of 30 of them to York County Hospital. A further 50 men were sent to the Central Military Hospital on Fulford Road, which extended its buildings to meet this additional demand. The majority of the incoming patients however – 80 in total – were transferred to a makeshift hospital which was created in the Dining Block of the Rowntree’s Chocolate Factory. Haxby Road Military Hospital, as it came to be known, was run by the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. This volunteer ambulance service was founded following concerns raised by Arnold Rowntree about the need to provide opportunities of non-combatant service to young male Quakers. The Haxby Road hospital offered 200 beds, along with emergency care for soldiers and citizens injured in France and Belgium, and the Friends Ambulance Unit went on to work with the British Red Cross at the Western Front, as well as a number of other locations across the UK.

In the aftermath of The Boer War in 1909, the War Office set up male and female Voluntary Aid Detachments or ‘VADs’, to fill the gaps  in territorial medical services which had been identified. By early 1914, almost 2000 female detachments and over 500 male detachments had registered. VAD staff worked on a voluntary basis. During peacetime, they would meet regularly and work towards training certificates in Home Nursing and First Aid, learning the basics of bandaging, cookery and hygiene, and they sometimes shadowed doctors and nurses at local hospitals.

Soon after the outbreak of the war, civilian hospitals suddenly found themselves struggling to accommodate service patients requiring medical assistance who were returning from the front. We’re now standing outside the Quaker Meeting House off Clifford Street, the site of one of a number of Red Cross and Auxiliary hospitals, which were quickly established in public buildings in York during the First World War to cope with the influx of war casualties from the front. Another was set up on the site where York St. John University now stands, off Lord Mayor’s Walk.

Of course, the treatment of physically injured servicemen was only one type of medical care which was required. The war also had an effect on provisions in the city for treating psychological illnesses. Before long, soldiers serving in the front lines were returning home from the front with a range of nervous disorders, the effect a new kind of organised, mechanised warfare. These included mutism, memory loss, insomnia, flashbacks and muscle complaints. In York, Naburn Hospital, then known as the York City Asylum, and Clifton Hospital both accommodated ‘service patients’: soldiers and sailors suffering from mental breakdown. Many remained there for several years after the war.

Bootham Park Hospital, just outside the city walls, treated a number of patients who represented advanced cases of the condition that came to be referred to as “shell-shock”. In 1919, the Medical Superintendent at the hospital delivered a report to the British Medical Council on the casualties who were under his care and were suffering from what he referred to as “the psycho-neurosis war”. “Never before in history has the human frame been exposed to such ordeals and strains”, he observed, “and if in civil life shock is capable of producing a nervous breakdown, all the more would it do so under the truly appalling trials our men had to face”. One of the case-studies he outlined was that of a young officer in the Royal Air Force, who was left unconscious for three weeks after his plane crashed during a hostile raid over London. Once discharged, he was given leave, during which time he got married. Not only, however, did he not remember the marriage ceremony or the church, but he did not marry the girl to whom he was already engaged. He also recollected having many strange ideas, including the conviction that he was a cuckoo or a cow. He was finally re-admitted to the hospital, “intensely confused and emotional, with complete loss of memory”.

Stop 5. Broken Bodies, Muddled Minds: York’s War Hospitals


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