Situated in old Cheshire, to the south-west of Manchester and just outside the town of Altrincham, is Dunham Massey - one of northern England’s great country estates. A thousand years ago, it was the property of a Saxon nobleman. Now, you’ll find a mansion, originally Jacobean but looking predominantly Georgian, sitting comfortably in about 300 acres of deer park and surrounded by attractive gardens.
But, for a brief period in its long history Dunham Massey became something else. In 1917, the third year of the Great War, it was turned into a military hospital, one of many of Britain’s country houses to do so. Indeed, more than 3,200 auxiliary hospitals were opened in Britain during the First World War to cope with the enormous casualties, which would otherwise have overwhelmed existing medical facilities.
The formidable Lady Penelope Stamford, mother of the 10th Earl, had originally proposed to open Dunham Massey as a hospital for officers only – but in the end had to cope solely with members of the hoi polloi, 281 (or 282 – accounts vary) of which passed through its doors between April 1917 and January 1919. So, the sumptuous Edwardian saloon became a hospital ward, its marble-effect columns boxed off for protection, its furniture put into store; the foot of the grand staircase became an operating theatre and the great hall became a recreation room.
The National Trust, which was given the estate on the death of the 10th Earl in 1976, has turned the clock back to those years and recreated the hospital in its original setting. And they have done a remarkable job of it. Good exhibitions aside, there are times when you feel as though you are drifting in and out of the past. Walking along a corridor, you hear a gentle hum of conversation, footsteps, someone whistling ‘Tipperary’; a patient sits at a table reading a paper, gets up and leaves the room; a nurse applies bandages whilst chatting to the soldier who talks of his friends at the front; she winds up the gramophone and puts a record on. Did you imagine that hospital smell in the ward? On each bed is an account of one of the real occupants of a century ago – what his condition was, how he was treated – and you can find out what happened to him. This is the real stuff of history – real stories about real people. The National Trust has pulled much of this amazing reconstruction together from two key sources – the scrapbook of Lady Jane Grey, Lady Stamford’s teenage daughter who trained specifically to nurse the men, and a log recorded by Sister Catherine Bennett, who was in charge of the hospital.
The wounds and medical conditions that needed to be treated by medical staff, including the huge army of volunteer nurses, during the First World War were enormous. Bullets that missed vital organs could still smash bones; shells blew off limbs or buried men alive; red-hot shrapnel tore hideous gaping holes in soft flesh; poison gas damaged throats and lungs, and caused exposed skin to blister. Infection – the risk of which was exacerbated by the agricultural land that most men fought over – was a real problem. Soldiers also suffered from debilitating, sometimes life-threatening, illnesses caused by the nature, circumstances and environment of soldiering and trench warfare, ranging from trench foot and fever to venereal disease. For the first time, the medical authorities were forced to deal with psychological wounds too – what was known as ‘shell-shock’ at the time, nowadays referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
There was, eventually, a complex chain of graduated care for British and Commonwealth casualties in the First World War. Initial treatment may have been provided by stretcher bearers or at aid posts at the front line, if the casualty could be recovered. Battlefield conditions meant that many wounded expired where they had fallen, often simply bleeding to death because no one could reach them. Advance Dressing Stations were established close to the line and those who made it that far would receive immediate help there, before being transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station if the condition warranted further treatment. With the humour of the time, three of these in the vicinity of the Belgian town of Ypres were christened, ‘Mendinghem’, ‘Bandagehem’ and ‘Dosinghem’. Inevitably, many of the cemeteries in Belgium and northern France are located on the sites of former Advance Dressing or Casualty Clearing Stations. A CCS was not designed for long stays; men that were deemed fit enough were sent back to their units, or to a Base Hospital for further treatment or possible evacuation to Britain. Those that arrived in Britain either needed an extensive stay in hospital for the treatment of serious wounds, or rest and recuperation whilst they recovered.
Dunham Massey was an ideal place for the latter providing, as the National Trust says, ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’. Here, the patients could convalesce in conditions that could not have been further removed from the horrors they had witnessed just 400 miles or so to the south. The surroundings would also have been completely unlike anything that most of them had experienced before – worlds away from the far more modest rural or urban homes they had grown up in. Dunham Massey must have been a very privileged place to be - the house continued as a family home for the Greys, but the men could play games like croquet and cricket in the grounds, take a boat out on the moat and even fish.
The recreated Stamford Military Hospital is a temporary exhibition so it really is essential that you visit Dunham Massey’spages at the National Trust website before you go. Entrance to the house is on a timed ticket; you can still tour the other parts of the house that are open to the public, as well as the gardens and grounds.