Stories from the War Hospital

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Stories from the War Hospital , written and compiled by Richard Wilcocks, is a book illustrated with historic photos, the result of an eighteen months-long research project based on the military hospital which was at Beckett Park, Leeds, during the First World War. Archive material was used, but much of the information came from interviews by the author with the descendants of staff and patients.

The City of Leeds Training College had been built not long before hostilities started, and in 1914 it was established as the 2nd Northern General Hospital. Wounded soldiers replaced trainee teachers, and the Red Cross flag was hoisted above what is today the James Graham Building, part of Leeds Beckett University.

Some of the stories are simply extraordinary. To give half a dozen examples:
Private Robert Bass joined up in 1914, was wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), patched up in England, then sent back to the Front to have his upper lip and most of his teeth shot away during the Arras offensive in 1917. His mouth was slowly reconstructed over the period of a year at Beckett Park and it was there that he met the woman he was to marry, Ada Porley, who was working on uniforms in Leeds.

Dorothy Wilkinson lived in Boston Spa with her musician father and German mother. A musician herself, she was an active suffragette, and in 1914 became the fiancée of Captain Pickles, an RAMC medic who was sent to work in a Casualty Clearing Station near Ypres. He was brought back with severe shell shock. She married him, but he died of influenza months later. Dorothy became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) or ‘Vedette’ and joined the staff at Beckett Park.

Nurse Margaret Newbould was a cook in Headingley when she decided to train as a nurse. At Beckett Park, she was admired for her dedication, and in 1915 became the assistant matron of the hospital ship Formosa, which helped evacuate the huge numbers of wounded during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign on the Turkish coast. She later worked near the Front in France, and was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal, First Class.

Masseuse Roslyn Rutherford from New South Wales wanted to do her bit for King and Country, so she trained in Sydney in massage and electrical treatment, which today comes under ‘Physiotherapy’. When she arrived in England, she joined the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, worked at Beckett Park, and lived in Grimthorpe Terrace., Headingley. She became disillusioned with the Corps, however, and joined a women-only group running a hospital near Paris..

Lieutenant Leonard Rooke was first wounded at Arras in 1916. His left forearm was hit by grenade fragments. After he recovered, he was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, but while under instruction in a biplane taking off from Doncaster aerodrome, the engine failed and the machine crashed. Both of his legs were badly broken in several places. Whilst a patient at Beckett Park, he met Nurse Violet Trafford-Towers and fell in love. They married in 1923, after Violet had worked in the British Military Hospital in Basra, Iraq.

Corporal Robert Leyden of the Northumberland Fusiliers was struck by a shrapnel bullet in 1915 at Ypres, which ended up embedded in a heart muscle. It was discovered during an X-Ray at Beckett Park, but it was thought to be much too risky to remove it, so he was discharged. A year later, while working as a linotype operator in Otley, the bullet moved, so he was readmitted. He agreed to an operation by the great surgeon Sir Berkeley Moynihan, which was successful. For the newspapers, it was remarkable, and a big talking point for a long time afterwards at the hospital.


The Hawk in the Rain

It’s the weather for it – this poem by Ted Hughes, well over half a century old now…  

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up

Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,

From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle

With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.


Rigoletto in Skipton

Company outing to Skipton to see an excellent production of Rigoletto by Heritage Opera, a pocket company which operates on that shoestring we keep hearing about nowadays. Sarah Helsby Hughes was brilliant as Gilda. We’ll have to get out more to productions like this!


Il Postino

One of the highlights of the Headingley LitFest in Leeds (yes, we produced the brochure for this) was the Italian film Il Postino. This charming, funny and touching study of the effect of the exiled Pablo Neruda on a poor, near-illiterate island where fishermen vote communist and also dress up to take part in a procession with a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is about naivety and fundamentalism as well as about the use of metaphors and the wooing of women with poetry. Lingers in the mind.