Sheffield Hospitals in World War I — Dr Michael Collins — 6th March 2017

Much of Sheffield’s part in win­ning the First World War, such as the man­u­fac­ture of arma­ments and the sac­ri­fices made by the city’s own sol­diers on the front line, has been well doc­u­mented.

Less well known, per­haps, is the huge con­tri­bu­tion made during the con­flict by the city’s numer­ous hos­pit­als in treat­ing no fewer than 70,000 wounded sol­diers from all over Britain — as well as coun­tries such as Belgium, America and Canada — who were trans­por­ted from the bat­tle­fields of France and Belgium by train to Sheffield’s Midland Station.

Dr Mike Collins, who stud­ied medi­cine at Galway University in his native Ireland but whose career was as a con­sult­ant radi­olo­gist in Sheffield until his retire­ment four years ago, is a member of the Sheffield Hospitals History Group, and he gave us a fas­cin­at­ing present­a­tion entitled The Treatment of Soldiers in Sheffield Hospitals During World War I – A story of chal­lenges and bene­fits.

Having listened to his thought-provoking present­a­tion, what for me was the sig­ni­fic­ant word in that title was ‘chal­lenges.’ They were huge – logist­ical and fin­an­cial, as well as med­ical .

The fig­ures are mind bog­gling. For the dur­a­tion of the war (and in fact until 1920), Sheffield became home to the 3rd Northern General Hospital, not as in the Northern General Hospital we know today, but as one of the main centres of treat­ment for wounded sol­diers in the north of England (Leeds, for example, formed the 2nd Northern General Hospital).

The ‘base’ hos­pital was what had been a teacher train­ing col­lege in Collegiate Crescent, better known today as the Collegiate Campus of Sheffield Hallam University, which was fitted out with oper­at­ing theatres and wards.

The base hos­pital, still very recog­nis­able today, at Ecclesall Road/Collegiate Crescent

Fir Vale Infirmary, which 50 years later would become today’s Northern General, was the biggest of the city’s exist­ing hos­pit­als — with 500 beds — to be used for the treat­ment of wounded sol­diers. Ecclesall Infirmary, later known as Nether Edge Hospital, had 150 beds, the Royal Hospital on West Street had 140, the Royal Infirmary on Infirmary Road had 133 and Winter Street Hospital (St George’s) had 120 .

But by far the biggest centre for the treat­ment and recu­per­a­tion of sol­diers, with no fewer than 2,000 beds, was the former Wadsley Lunatic Asylum at Middlewood which became known as the Wharncliffe Hospital. It opened as a war hos­pital in May 1915 and oper­ated until July 1920, lat­terly as a dis­persal centre, by which time there had been 36,665 admis­sions.

Staffing these centres of treat­ment, as Britain struggled to cope with the repat­ri­ation of two and a half mil­lion sol­diers, were officers from the Royal Army Medical Corps based at what is now the Yorkshire Regiment reserve centre in Glossop Road, exist­ing doc­tors and nurses from the vari­ous hos­pit­als, local GPs, uni­ver­sity staff and nurses from vol­un­tary organ­isa­tions such as the Red Cross.

The base hos­pital at Collegiate Crescent also con­trolled con­vales­cent homes in an area stretch­ing as far afield as Derby, with local centres such as Greystones School and Bramall Lane cricket pavil­ion (150 beds each), Lydgate Lane School (130 beds) and Carterknowle School (115 beds).

Commanding Officer of the whole set-up was Lt Col Arthur M. Connell, later pro­fessor of sur­gery, whose por­trait hangs in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital to this day.

Dr Collins accom­pan­ied his talk with slides of ori­ginal pho­to­graphs and excerpts from such items as house sur­geons’ day books from the vari­ous hos­pit­als, which he had gleaned from the Sheffield City Council Archives in Shoreham Street. Mike praised Sheffield as being one of the best cities in the coun­try for keep­ing his­tor­ical records. “The archives form a won­der­ful resource,” he said.

Photographs of wounded sol­diers arriv­ing in Sheffield are rel­at­ively rare, for the simple reason that the author­it­ies knew that the arrival of thou­sands of war wounded into the city would be bad for the morale of the local civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, so the move­ments were often car­ried out under cover of dark­ness.

A bus car­ry­ing wounded Belgian sol­diers from Sheffield Midland Station enters Collegiate Crescent from Ecclesall Road

Most of the arrivals would be at night,” Mike explained. “The cas­u­al­ties were trans­por­ted by train from the south­ern ports to the Midland Station, and from there taken to one of the hos­pit­als in either open-topped buses, in the case of the walk­ing wounded, or in four-person ambu­lances in the case of the more badly injured.”

Typical entries in the sur­geons’ reports were: “Today we received 20 sol­diers who have just been on active ser­vice in Belgium, some of them extremely ser­i­ously injured… We have received 400 sick and ter­ribly wounded sol­diers in four days… Because of the short­age of res­id­ent officers, ward sis­ters are to be trained to admin­is­ter anaes­thetic…”

Somewhat bizar­rely, a report from May 1915 com­plained: “We have the almost intol­er­able situ­ation of people coming into the hos­pital and hos­pital grounds, who have no busi­ness to be there but want to see the sol­diers.”

They would get their chance later when sol­diers — who might be suf­fer­ing from head injur­ies, burns or ampu­ta­tions — had recovered suf­fi­ciently to be allowed out to walk around Sheffield prior to their trans­fer to one of the recu­per­a­tion centres or, in less severe cases, back to fight­ing in the war.

While the city’s hos­pit­als were in danger of being over­whelmed by the influx of cas­u­al­ties, the situ­ation also brought fin­an­cial prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly for the Royal Hospital and Royal Infirmary which were both run by char­it­able bodies funded by dona­tions from the public. They were forced to appeal to cent­ral gov­ern­ment for help.

The situ­ation also had a major impact on the local pop­u­la­tion, who were unable to get into hos­pital for routine treat­ment. At Wharncliffe, the former lun­atic asylum, more than 1,600 inmates had to be trans­ferred out into the wider soci­ety, although just a dozen were retained to tend the hos­pital farm. More than 130 staff from the asylum were given med­ical train­ing at the Royal Infirmary over a period of just two weeks to pre­pare them for the influx of wounded sol­diers.

Perhaps it was more than coin­cid­ence that Wharncliffe’s spe­ci­al­it­ies included treat­ment — in what became known as the ‘mental block’ — for shell shock, or post-traumatic stress dis­order as we call it today, and other psy­chi­at­ric con­di­tions. Sheffield’s hos­pit­als and their staff played a cru­cial role in help­ing to heal the ter­rible wounds, both phys­ical and psy­cho­lo­gical, of what was optim­ist­ic­ally called the war to end all wars.