NOSTALGIA: Piecing together the jigsaw of Graylingwell War Hospital

Writing about Graylingwell War Hospital in the first world war is a bit like trying to do a 500-piece jigsaw when more than half the pieces are missing.

Some of the missing pieces will turn up, but many are lost forever.

Among the ‘lost forever’ items are all the official records. These were destroyed, along with the records of most other war hospitals. Only a small sample was kept, from particularly significant hospitals.

No official records means no list of patients.

It’s not as though there were just a few hundred patients at Graylingwell – there were more than 29,000 in the four years from May 1915 to March 1919.

It’s possible to gather some names from postcards, autograph books and relatives, but there’s a long way to go.

Sometimes a source becomes available on the internet, although not necessarily where you might expect.

Patients in Graylingwell came from countries outside Britain, including Australia and New Zealand.

The Australian War Memorial website was an unexpected source of information.

In the course of the war, many men were missing in action.

In order to confirm what had happened to them, the Red Cross had official searchers.

These people visited war hospitals, armed with a list of missing men and their units.

They interviewed patients from the units to try to establish whether the missing men were in fact dead.

Violet, Lady Beaumont of Slindon House, was the official searcher for missing and wounded soldiers for the Chichester division of the Red Cross.

By April 1916, she had spoken to 4,000 men. Each interview was typed up and sent to the Red Cross so reports could be compiled.

Apart from providing the name and address of a number of Australian patients in Graylingwell, the eye-witness accounts are a reminder of the harrowing events they had been through.

An example can be seen at https://www.awm.gov.au/research/people/wounded_and_missing. Enter Egan (name) and 1671 (service number).

A more recent internet source is the British Red Cross database of first world war volunteers.

Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses worked at Graylingwell to supplement the professional nurses.

The VAD nurses can be distinguished by the red cross on their apron, but until now there has been no means of knowing their names.

Personnel records for surnames A-D are now accessible, on www.redcross.org.uk/en/About-us/Who-we-are/History-and-origin/First-World-War.

As it is also possible to search by hospital, you can see the ten records (so far) for Graylingwell.

Postcards are great survivors.

Hundreds were taken at the war hospital, inside and out, of patients and staff.

These were then bought, and either kept as souvenirs or sent to family and friends.

They travelled all over

the world.

Some are donated to the record office, some turn up in postcard sales, and a few (often wildly-expensive) appear on eBay.

They show injured and convalescent men, but almost never give names.

There are well over 100 at the record office, but there must be many more.

At least they let us know what the wards looked like – how neatly the counterpanes were tucked into the end of the beds, and how many flowers and plants there were.

Graylingwell was fortunate in that it already had greenhouses and flowerbeds to provide cut flowers.

This contrasts with the heart-rending story of a London hospital where there was only one hyacinth in a pot in the whole ward, and the patients took turns having it by their bedside for ten minutes, after which it was passed on to the next bed.

Occasionally there is a surprise.

A man who had seen a record office photograph of his grandfather’s car in the Observer’s Looking Back section came in with several dozen of his grandmother’s photographs of Graylingwell War Hospital.

She had been a nurse there. Nurse André’s photos are assorted sizes, many much smaller than a postcard and most with no information on the back. They were a very welcome addition to the war hospital collection.

Sometimes Graylingwell War Hospital material turns up in the most unexpected places.

Just a month ago, one of my colleagues was cataloguing a recent deposit from St Agnes & St Michael’s School in East Grinstead.

An autograph book, belonging to two pupils who were sisters, turned out to have five entries from patients in the hospital.

All we could think was that one of these men was a relative the girls were visiting, and some of the patients in nearby beds also signed the book.

If you have anything relating to Graylingwell War Hospital, including names of patients, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Items can be donated, or scanned and returned. I hope a few more of the ‘jigsaw pieces’ will appear!

Contact details: write to Katherine Slay, West Sussex Record Office, County Hall, Chichester PO19 1RN; telephone 01243 753602; email record.office@westsussex.gov.uk

:: Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about Graylingwell War Hospital and seeing some of the pictures, I’m giving a talk at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester on Tuesday, January 27 at 7pm.

Tickets are £7.50, either from the record office, 3 Orchard Street, or on 01243 753602.