Hospitals and Nursing in the First World War

Women in the Humber During WW1

At the outbreak of war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem formed a Joint War Committee to set up temporary hospitals. These were needed for the wounded men who soon began arriving from France and Belgium. 

The auxiliary hospitals were housed in a variety of buildings, from schools and town halls to private houses.  

Normanby Auxiliary Hospital
Sir Berkeley and Lady Julia Sheffield offered their home, Normanby Hall in Scunthorpe, as an auxiliary hospital during the war. Men were transferred there to recuperate after receiving initial treatment in Sheffield. The hall must have been barely recognisable to its pre-war visitors, with much of the ground floor converted into ward space and recreation areas for recovering troops. 1,248 wounded servicemen were sent to Normanby during the four years of the conflict. Patients included men from Australian and New Zealand regiments, as well as from all parts of the UK.  

Lady Sykes’ hospital at Dunkirk
Lady Sykes of Sledmere House, East Yorkshire was also active in setting up hospitals alongside her other wartime charity work. She established a hospital, the ‘Villa Belle Plage’, with the French Red Cross Society in Dunkirk. A doctor who worked there described it as 'one of the most advanced hospitals at the French front' in December 1914. Judging by the receipts that survive at the History Centre in Hull, Lady Sykes seems to have done all her hospital shopping at Harrods in London, even buying ambulances there! 

Auxiliary hospitals relied upon women volunteers and paid staff to nurse patients and undertake a variety of other roles, such as cooking and housekeeping. The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), managed by the Red Cross, trained women in first aid and nursing to staff auxiliary hospitals like the one at Normanby. VAD nurses wore badges (pictured above) on their uniforms to identify them. Lady Julia Sheffield herself took on a hands-on nursing role at Normanby Hospital, working alongside women from the local community.
Women were also the driving force behind many of the charitable organisations that raised funds to pay for ambulances, first aid equipment and other essentials such as clothing for the troops. 

Curriculum links:

KS3/4 History – World War One
KS3/4 Citizenship – dealing with conflict, types of conflict

Learning objectives: 

Knowledge of the different ways in which women contributed to the war effort
Understanding that women’s experiences were varied and diverse
Skills in analysing and interpreting historical evidence

Discussion ideas:

  • Why were so many hospitals set up and run by private individuals and charities? 
  • Read the letter from Dr Tweedy, published in the Leamington Spa Courier, about his experiences in the hospital in Dunkirk (see Downloads links below). What kind of impression do you think Dr Tweedy was trying to make on his readers? 
  • What would be the impact on those staffing the hospitals of seeing the effects of war at first hand?  
  • We have limited evidence available about First World War hospitals and those who worked in them. Why do you think this is? 

Activity ideas: 

  • Imagine it’s 1914 and you are going to plan and fit out a hospital in your local community for men returning from the Front. How will you do this? 

    Students will need to research different aspects of nursing care during the First World War, for example: 

    What kind of medicines and equipment would the hospital need to have? Read Dr Tweedy’s letter to the Leamington Spa Courier (see Downloads links below) to find out what kind of injuries were most common.

    - Research a suitable building and find out what buildings would have been available locally in 1914? What adaptations would you need to make to turn a building into a hospital?

    - How many beds will you need? Find out how many casualties were being sent back to England in the early years of the war.

    - Decide what supplies you will need – what kind of medical care was available in the early years of the war? 

    - How will you recruit and train doctors and nurses? 

  • Research the healthcare system in 1914. How did it differ from the healthcare system we have today? 

  • Research the impact of the First World War on medical treatment and innovation.


Auxiliary - used as a substitute or reserve in times of need
Recuperate - recover from illness, regain strength

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