Hampshire Archives holds many documents relating to military hospitals in Hampshire during various conflicts.

The document which has personally struck me is a diary of Victor Shawyer (reference 170A12W/D/2375).  In this diary he recalls his time spent at Netley Hospital in WW1.  Often amusing, sometimes sad, sometimes not what we would say PC, but a personal insight into how things were at Netley.  What follows are extracts from a Hampshire man of his time spent at Netley Hospital in the latter months of WW1…

‘Eventually my turn came around to be put on a hospital train the one proceeding to Netley Hospital….

Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/15

The journey was a short one.  On arrival at the hospital I saw splendid team work, and organisation so efficient that it could only have been perfected from long and bitter experience. There was no fuss, no bother, everyone appeared to be in the right place at the right time.

How can I hope to explain Netley as I saw it and experienced it after over three years of war? For some poor broken men it meant a new lease of life and for others a living hell of torture and suffering only to lose the battle for life in the end.  Amputations and double amputations were so common as to cause little comment.


A ward at Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/37

It is equally impossible for me to describe the suffering in Netley even if I wanted to, which I don’t. It will suffice by saying that the surgical wards were an everlasting hell of torture where men plumbed to the limit the depths of human agony, and in many cases won the fight for survival over maimed and torn bodies.


An operation theatre at Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/15

But there was one aspect of life in Netley Hospital which did not go down so well with many patients.  This was discipline, which was so stern and strict as to bring it very close to the level of the parade ground. As a soldier with nearly seven years service in a strictly disciplined regiment, as I was at that time, I am all in favour of a high standard of control among men; but in Netley some people’s notions of discipline and the enforcement of it was out of all rhyme or reason.

When the Doctor did his rounds “up” patients had to stand with their toes in line with the bed legs at the foot of the bed. Bed patients during the Doctor’s visit had to lie in bed, flat on their backs, with their hands crossed over their chests. As one hard bitten colonial solder in the ward said about this rule:-

“Well at least it helps in one way.  When you ‘snuff it’ cobber you are all ready laid out to go into your box”.

I almost regret to have to add that in enforcing these rules, the Matrons were among the most determined disciplinarians. They one and all seemed to delight in walking around looking for trouble, and if one looks for trouble then as sure as hell it can be found.  There was one matron in particular who filled the bill.


A ward at Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/10

She was a huge woman, nevertheless a very striking one, wearing medal ribbons on her cape, whose sole contribution to the welfare and recovery of patients was to push open the swing doors of each of her wards and like some prima donna in a mighty Wagnerian opera making her stage entrance, she would stride dramatically into the ward, halt, sniff the air and say –

“Sister! You have a man among your patients somewhere in this ward smoking, contrary to regulations. Find him and take his name for disciplinary report.”

A pipe smoking Australian in the ward, who at the time was a bed patient, one morning during sister’s absence, lit up his pip and proceeded to relax and enjoy a couple of puffs. Presently we heard sister steaming back along the corridor with Matron in tow.  “Aussie” sought to conceal his pipe under the bed clothes, at least until matron departed, but he was unlucky.  Some burning tobacco ash mush have fallen out of the pipe.  There was a sudden yell from the bed-ridden Colonial and panic stations followed whilst he was lifted from the smouldering bed. Matron was livid and Sister was very cross, but the latter lady was at least a good sport and when it was all over she enjoyed the laugh as much as any of us.

Thank heavens many of the sisters and all of the nurses managed to maintain their feminine sympathetic attitude towards us and remained women instead of becoming martinets, otherwise Netley Hospital in the year of our Lord, 1917-18 would have been a right good place to stay away from, and in saying that I have not lost sight of the fact that I was patched up good and proper by experts, and turned out as good as new when I eventually left there.  But oh how I have wished that I could have received this expert treatment in another hospital somewhere in England, far from Netley.


A staff photo of nurses at Netley Hospital, reference 92M91/2/36

By mid December I had made sufficient progress to allow me to go to one of the many convalescent homes supported by Netley Hospital, all of them in the countryside around Southampton.  I went to a home across the river via the famous floating bridge, a mode of transport all men attired in the ubiquitous hospital blue was allowed to use gratis, a gesture by the local corporation we greatly appreciated.


A photograph of the pier at Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/15 

February 7th 1918 This morning I said goodbye to Netley Hospital and went home to Winchester on sick leave, having had a couple of days earlier a final check up by the little specialist.  This date was also the anniversary of my enlistment back in 1911.  I had completed seven years service and also, a half that time had been war service….’


Postcard of views of Netley Hospital, ref 92M91/2/39

Gina Hynard, Search Room Team



2 thoughts on “The Home Front: a personal recollection of Netley Hospital

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