By Abbie Wilson, Department of History & Archaeology, University of Chester
World War one brought a flood of minorities from all over the world to Britain for employment opportunities or through involvement with the Allied Forces. For many, however, it was not a matter of choice as thousands were pushed out of their native land by enemy occupation or organised deportation by the state. One circumstance that has perhaps been explored less in bringing different minorities to England is that of wounded soldiers who were brought to British hospitals.
At the start of WW1, Britain was chosen as one of the countries to send allied soldiers who had been injured on the front line. This was not only due to Britain’s geographical proximity to the Western Front, but because certain areas of Britain were deemed safer and less under threat of an air attack. British hospitals were also seen to provide a more sanitary environment than those in French or Belgian field hospitals.
These hospitals provided a meeting place for diverse groups of people who had come from near and far. One such hospital that became a military hospital at the start of the war is Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, which at the time was situated in the county of Cheshire. From the information we have about Stepping Hill, we are able to gain a great insight into the minorities who found themselves in Britain, and more specifically, Cheshire, during the war.
Discovered in a bookshop in Cornwall, a vital source that has enabled us to trace some of the stories of minority soldiers in Stepping Hill Hospital during the war is the insightful journal of Mary Hicks. Nurse Hicks worked as a nurse at the hospital and in 1906 and, like many nurses like her, she started a journal in which the patients that she cared for could write down their thoughts. The entries in this diary that are written after 1914 are mostly messages written by wounded soldiers. The messages reveal a mixture of happiness and sadness as the majority of the soldiers wrote poems and messages of loved ones, described the horrors they had encountered, or drew comical sketches.
The emotional journeys of the soldiers are revealed by the inscriptions of a more touching nature. Heart-wrenching poems illustrate that thoughts of loved ones, battle and death were never far from the soldiers minds. One soldier’s words, ‘For those I cherish far, far away, I earnestly pray we’ll meet again someday’ shows the harsh reality of the situation and that these soldiers were prepared for death and knew that there was a chance they may never return.
Many of the messages highlight the importance of camaraderie and solidarity amongst the soldiers. The impression that everyone saw themselves as one unit regardless of where they had come from can be inferred through the idea of being ‘one of the boys’. One soldier, ‘T.H. Toogood’, for example, captioned a doodle ‘a night with the boys’ which reminds the reader that these soldiers were just ordinary, and mostly young men who wanted nothing more than to be just that.
As well as their emotional experiences, we are also able to get a sense of the soldier’s physical journeys, particularly those that non-British soldiers underwent in order to find themselves in Stepping Hill. One clear example that enables us to build up a story from the information provided is in the contribution of Private A. Brown. Brown draws a humorous doodle entitled ‘Married Bliss’ to which he signs underneath, revealing that he was a soldier of the 8th battalion of the 1st Canadian Division, a formation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
To place Brown’s journey into context, it is known that the first body of the Canadian Expeditionary Force set off for England in 1914, where training commenced upon their arrival in the UK. By January 1915, the division was fully organised and after embarking for France to relieve the 7th British Division, they moved to Ypres in April. Brown notes that he was wounded at ‘Ypres, April 24th1915’. This tells us that during the second day of the Canadian force’s defence of St Julien, at the Second Battle of Ypres, which began on the 22nd April, Brown was injured after withstanding the German attack on the Western Front. We can assume that Brown was then transferred from Belgium to Stepping Hill; a safer place to heal.
Another soldier, Private A.H. Lange, records the precise journey that brought him to England. Lange’s entry reveals that he was a recruit of the Wellington B. Company, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. As a New Zealander, Lange is therefore another minority that found himself in Stepping Hill during WW1. Lange notes that his journey began on April 17th1915 when he left New Zealand and arrived in Egypt seven days later. Here, Lange refers to how the New Zealanders boarded ships, in his case at Wellington, to Egypt where they were trained.
The soldiers underwent a stormy journey that caused more than half of the men to get sick. From Egypt, as Lange notes, the N.E.F landed at the Dardanelles in Turkey in the hope of capturing the strategically vital Constantinople.  It was there during the Battle of Sari Bair, known to the British as ‘Hill 972’ as Lange refers to it, that he must have been wounded.
The land campaign was abandoned after a failed attack, and the invasion force withdrew back to Egypt. Lange notes that he left Egypt for England and arrived at the hospital on September 19th. Although we do not know what injury Lange sustained, it can be assumed that it was quite severe, considering that he notes that he was injured at the beginning of July and arrived at Stepping Hill in September, in need of further treatment.
As well as the minority soldiers who found themselves in Cheshire due to injury, the journal may also include messages from soldiers that lived in Britain before the war and served in the British army as a minority race, although most messages do not provide enough information to know for certain. Although we are only able to speculate, one of the entries in the journal is signed: ‘Darkey’, which may refer to nothing more than a nickname of a white, British soldier. It could be suggested, however, that ‘Darkey’ referred to a black male who signed up for the British army. ‘Darkey’ could have been a nickname given to a black soldier by his fellow comrades or even the way in which he referred to himself. This gives an insight into the significance of racial separatism for minorities fighting on the British side in what were predominantly white, British battalions.
Little is known of the experience of black Britons fighting in the British army during WW1. After Britain joined the war, black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces and throughout the war, around 60,000 black South Africans served in the uniformed labour units. As well as the black males already living in Britain, black African males travelled from the Caribbean, Nigeria and other African Colonies to be recruited.
The male who signed ‘Darkey’ leaves a message to Nurse Hicks thanking her for her kindness. He also tells her that ‘you’ve proved a friend to me on many a sad day’. In what was still a society embedded with racial prejudices, the non-white soldier could have been expressing his thanks to Nurse Hicks for treating him like any other soldier and not discriminating due to his racial difference.
Above all, the journal gives us the impression that the experience of a soldier recovering in Stepping Hill was a pleasant one. All that is written is positive about the treatment the soldiers received in Stepping Hill and the kindness the hospital staff showed them. One soldier, L.A Davies comprises a touching poem of how he found Stepping Hill to be ‘a new heaven to us’, where the nurses always had ‘something cheerful to say’, the matron who bears ‘a kind word to all’ and the food is described as ‘splendid’.
The experience of soldiers recovering in military hospitals in Britain during WW1 was generally positive, at least in the quality medical care that they received. Britain had made many technological advances in medical treatment including blood transfusions, control of infection, and improved surgical procedures. In addition, some of the auxiliary hospitals such as those in stately homes which were opened as the demand for hospital beds increased, had homely or picturesque surroundings, which assisted the soldiers in their psychological healing. An example of an auxiliary hospital of this kind which played a similar role to Stepping Hill and was also situated in Cheshire was Dunham Massey, a Georgian house set in a magnificent deer-park. The stunning surroundings certainly provided a pleasant environment for the shell-shocked soldiers. 
***For more on the diary of Nurse Hicks, please see this post***
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