Love in a time of War

The voices and antics of injured soldiers speak to us through the autograph books of two nurses working at Bristol’s Beaufort War Hospital during the First World War.

Almost 30,000 soldiers from around the world, seriously injured in World War I, were brought to Fishponds in Bristol to recover.

The War Office had refashioned the old Bristol Lunatic Asylum on Manor Road as the Beaufort War Hospital. Opened in May 1915 it could treat almost 1,500 patients at a time until its closure in February 1919. Later it would become Glenside Hospital.

Most of the men had broken bones or shrapnel wounds, some had been poisoned by mustard gas. There to greet and treat them was an equally international team of doctors and nurses.

J. H. Toovey sets the scene

Among them were masseuses Agnes Mary Witts and a Miss B. M. Williams. Inevitably, among so many men far from home and receiving intimate care, they caused hearts to flutter.

The autograph books the ywo women kept reveal the thoughts, thanks and yearnings of their patients, though plenty like J. H. Toovey approached their massage sessions with trepidation.

Irish seaman Private Daniel Lynn from New South Wales in Australia opened Miss William’s book with a warning
Steal not this book my honest friend
For fear the gallows will be your end
Up the ladder down the rope
There you will hang until you choke.

Later he would reveal his feelings for her.
When you read this think of the writer
Always bear him in your mind
Until you find one liked you better
And that is one you will never find.
(Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at
all)

Former Queensland miner Private J. M. Axelsen was similarly smitten
I cannot love my neighbours wife
His ox I must not slaughter.
Thanks be to God, it’s not a sin,
To Love Mr William’s daughter’

And there was clearly a twinkle the eye of Rifleman J. Maclean from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps on 7 April 1917
Some girls are sweet little dears
And some will give you deliriums
Now I don’t I wish to cause any blushes or tears
But have you ever heard of Miss Williams?

Not all of them were quite so enamoured. On 27 May 1917 Lance Corporal Albert John Tout from the Australian Imperial Force sounded a tad bitter with his ‘Warning to the Unwary’

Attend ye patients to my tale of woe!
(Miss Williams) of Beaufort, massaged me so
That my right foot, dislocated,
Assumed forms variegated
And tried, I assure you, the left t’outgrow.

In terror, dear reader, of such consequences
I sought to become a true amanuensis,

And save you, O patient,
From a Fate now grown ancient:
Do not be massaged by the masseuse in parenthesis.

Others were more cautious about expressing their feelings. On 1 July 1916 H.E. Stokes of the London Regiment had written
Remember, you remembered be
By me, with a remembrance true
And oft as you remember me
Remember, I remember you.

It was an oft-repeated sentiment, though Private P. Rosewell of the Kings Liverpool Regiment was not quite so romantic
When you are old and cannot see
put on your specs and think of me.

Several composed long poems about their masseuse, some slightly risque. Here’s an excerpt from the Manchester Regiment’s Private G. Folds
Still and this is confidential
And I don’t mind telling you
It is really rather pleasant
Those who’ve had it know its true

In comes sister like a whirlwind
That you’ve read about in tales
And she’s really rather decent
Even when the battery fails

There was much gratitude for the nurses. Lance Corporal Batchelor of the Bedfordshire Regiment signed off his thanks with a reminder that he was ‘The boy with the awkward finger. Caught naping by Shrapnell, April 11th, Arras.’ Alex Anderson of the 1st London Scottish regiment, who had lost the use of his legs, was lost in admiration of his carers, eulogising his masseuse:

With limb so stiff and full of pain You found me; yet took me in hand Gladly and readily; that I might again Be able on my two legs to stand.

You’d come and rub me every day With firm yet gentle touch And oh! what shall I say ! ‘Tis true I didn’t like it much!

You’d come, an angel, strength restoring, Well tricked in a masseuse’s art, But! … when I’d see you coming Then my knees would start to smart!

Yet I’d gaze upon those gentle hands
with wondering eyes and dim,
whose magic work would soon restore
strength to the shattered limb.

My thanks to you!; while man with hate
seek life and limb to kill, destroy;
Your chosen work to reinstate
for pain: life, health and joy!

Some simply inscribed the words of other poets and sages, from Rabbie Burns, Emerson, Charles Kingsley, Longfellow, Lord Macaulay, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to the Omar Khayyam, and even Goethe and the German philospher Kant. Others composed their own poignant ditties.

On 5 October 1916, H. H. Murray of the 18th Durham Light Infantry conjured a vivid picture of life on the front line.

A brazier fire at twilight, A thousand stars ashine, A searchlight sweeping heaven, Above the firing line. The rifle bullet whistles, The message that it brings, Of death and desolation, To common folk and kings. A sentry at his station, Upon the trench’s rim, Has thoughts that draw souls nearer, And you are there with him

Lance Corporal Watts of the Essex Regiment contributed ‘A Noisy Noise’ on 6 December 1916:

The bombs are hurtling here and there And bursting in wild wrath, The hissing shrieks invade the air And cannons, belching forth Their deadly missiles everywhere, Boom west, south, east and north, When yells arise from a thousand boys Who’ve won a trench – well, that’s a Noise!

Private 1573 from the London Regiment, glad to be away from the front, added a parody of a popular song ‘Sing Me to Sleep’.

Sing me to sleep where bullets fall Let me forget the war and all Damp is my dug-out cold is my feet Nothing but biscuits and Bully to eat Sing me to sleep where bombs explode Where shrapnel shell are ‘a la mode’ Over the sandbags helmets you’ll find Corpses in front and corpses behind

Far from Wipers I long to be Where German snipers cannot pot me Think of me crouching where the worms creep Waiting for something to put me to sleep

In a witty contribution Lance Corporal Ringwall appended a lock of his hair stuck on with the edge of a sheet of stamps.

You ask me for something original Something from inside my head But as there is nothing inside it Here’s something from outside instead.

In March 1917 Private Hellard of the 7th Royal West Kent Regiment wrote a sad but hopeful doggerel.

A kindred feeling to friends tends To[o] brief these days to be And I often think of the many friends That the war has lost for me

But this strife thank God Will sometime end War will not always be Then I hope to meet the many friends That the war has found for me

Safe at last
Eclipsing the negative
A fetching self-portrait

Others, like Vincent Allford (above left) and L. W. Glenn of the Australian Field Artillery (above right) preferred to express their optimism more visually. While H. G. Wright supplied a self-portrait.

Trooper F. Sperry of the 4th Auckland Mounted Rifles contributed a Maori War Cry, now familiar to us as the Haka performed by New Zealand’s rugby teams.

The sexism of the age was well represented. ‘You wish to spread your news quickly? Well! Telephone – or Telegraph – and quicker still – Tell a woman.‘ scrawled Private Everett of the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment.

And ‘ Never ask a woman for her reasons. If you sit still and wait she will give them to you.’ bemoaned Private G. W. Newton. J. G. Watts of B Company, 3rd Battalion Austrailan Infantry Force offered ‘a description of a ladies afternoon ‘tea party’ “Giggle, Gabble, Gobble, Get”.

A cheeky Private R. Stober (?) of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders stuck what looked like a tiny envelope on his page entilted ‘For Gentlemen Only.’ Anyone opening it up would find the legend ‘aint girls inquisitive’.

But it was hospital food that was on the mind of Private Lewis of the Submarine Guards with his account of the Breakfast Menu at Beaufort.

‘Monday morning breakfast – Catch it if you can Tuesday perhaps an egg – Exploding in the pan Wednesday we get burger with a dash of jam Thursday gammon sausages – Half a ring a man Friday bubble an’ squeak – Seasoned with the jam Saturday licking out the jampot – With the standard bread Sunday we get ham – Catch it if you can

There were plenty of laughs at the War Hospital, with soldiers and staff keeping morale high with all manner of entertainments. There was even a Gymkhana with music supplied by the Kingswood Reformatory Band.

One of the most curious diversions was the mounting of mock weddings. It was great opportunity for play-acting, cross-dressing and adopting funny names. Hymns sung included ‘When there’s a girl about’ and ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’.

An unsual wartime society wedding

They were written up with great relish in a newsletter, although some crucial details were missing:

‘We much regret that owing to our lady journaists being employed in munitions work a detailed description of the gowns cannot be supplied, such descriptions being beyond the power of mere man.’

After the ceremony the make-believe vicar would advise people to “behave themselves” at the wedding breakfast followed by an evening of music and dancing. Least said, soonest mended.

How many genuine nurses attended this wedding?

All in all the autograph books speak of good humour and fellow feeling in a time of terrible pain and distress. What better way to sum it up than with a Wilbur D. Nesbit quote from Lance Corporal Farrelly of Navan, in Ireland’s County Meath.

The thing that goes the farthest Towards making life worth while That does the most and costs the least ‘Tis just a pleasant smile.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

2 Comments

  1. excellent Mike, thanks. This passed an interesting and happy few minutes. A great find. Well done for shining a light on it for the rest of us.

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