Netley

Introduction

royal-vic-netleyLike most WFA members I consider myself as, at best, an amateur Great War historian and, as such, I like nothing better than to be entertained and informed by the erudition and the scholarship of the truly professional war historian. To have the events of the Great War explored and explained in a new and meaningful way is always a pleasant diversion.

However, from time to time I am intrigued by how circumstance and coincidence suddenly brings into personal focus a rather trivial series of events. I then and get an urge to explore it myself. For example, the name Netley.

The first time I heard this name was when I was in the Depot of the Royal Army Medical Corps, near Aldershot. A series of postings was put up on the Company notice board with my name listed under the said NETLEY. Since none of my group of neophyte National Servicemen knew what and where it was, I plucked up my courage and went to see one of the Regimental clerks I knew. He told me "It's Netley Hospital and its near Southampton." He then added, "But that's a mistake, you're not going there - you're going somewhere hotter." And so it transpired that, after the appropriate military machinations had taken their leisurely pace, two weeks later I found myself on a Hastings aeroplane bound for Gibraltar en route, eventually, to Singapore and points east. So, it was indeed 'somewhere hotter' and more humid too!

As far as I can recall, I never heard the name Netley again until around 1992 when I was researching my father's Great War service with the Northamptonshire Regiment. It popped again as a repatriation and convalescent hospital for casualties both from the Western Front and farther-afield; including my father.

Finally, whilst reading a short account of the life of the Welsh war poet Wilfred Owen I discovered that he was treated in 1917 at Netley for shell-shock or, as it was then more commonly called, neurasthenia. He didn't stay long and was soon transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he had his famous meeting with Seigfried Sassoon.

Use in Great War
So, of course, I had to find out more about this place. The Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley, was built on the shores of Southampton Water on the site of a 13th Century Cistercian Abbey. It was erected on the express insistence of Queen Victoria as a consequence of her concern for the treatment of the casualties of the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale fought long and hard to get it built in the more 'modern' open-plan continental style. But the Lady with the Lamp lost out to the Lady with the Empire. In 1863, the single-wing hospital was completed in a traditional and linear style that stretched for a quarter of a mile along the shore-line. Some idea of its monumental size can be appreciated from an anecdote from the Second World War, when it was taken over by the American Navy in April 1944 to house US Naval Base Hospital No. 10 in preparation for D-Day, it is said that jeeps were used to negotiate its long corridors. During the First World War Netley's capacity of 1,000 beds was greatly expanded by the construction of a satellite wooden hospital run by the British Red Cross and the use of its capacious corridors as additional wards. The hospital ships from France unloaded their casualties directly onto Netley's own disembarking jetty; there was also a dedicated railway spur. Special wards were established for the treatment of toxic gas (chlorine, mustard gas etc.) and shell-shock. Over 14,000 Great War soldiers were treated for the latter condition including, as stated earlier, Wilfred Owen. Our own vivid appreciation of some of the more bizarre signs and symptoms produced by shell-shock in the Great War, largely comes from a film made by Pathé Brothers, in 1917, in Netley's shell-shock wards.

Postscriptum
In 1963, soon after my own aborted posting to Netley, the hospital, except for its Royal Chapel, was bulldozed and the whole area is now a country park. A large quantity of its granite construction stone was recycled into local projects and thus it survives to this day, albeit in other forms.

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Last Updated ( Monday, 30 June 2008 12:11 )  

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