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Nurse Gosling's book of verse


Thursday, 12 April 2012


Wilfred Owen memorial stained glass, Birkenhead Library

Wilfred Owen memorial stained glass, Birkenhead Library

From Belmont Road to Bethnal Green and lost poetry from the Great War

Liverpudlians of a certain vintage will remember Belmont Road Hospital. Previously a workhouse and latterly renamed Newsham General, it stood near Belmont Road's busy junction with West Derby Road and Sheil Road and closed for good in 1988 - one of urban Britain's network of small 'local' hospitals supplanted over time by giants like the Royal Liverpool and Guy's down in London.

The album's cover and frontispiece

The album's cover and frontispiece

During the First World War the hospital had its share of exotic inmates: American soldiers struck down by deadly influenza; 'coolies' from the so-called Chinese Labour Corps sick with mumps; and around 200 members of the British West Indies or BWI Regiment 'each suffering from the loss of either one or both feet resulting from trench gangrene' according to an October 1919 edition of the Liverpool Courier. 'Before being returned to their native islands [they] were provided with artificial feet', continued the newspaper. 'The difficulty of enabling such patients to obtain fresh air was very considerable, and it is to the credit of the children residing in the neighbourhood that they very largely undertook the duty of wheeling these patients into the parks in bath-chairs, which were specially provided for the purpose'. (Thanks to Merseyside Roll of Honour for the extract).

In praise of Nurse Gosling, from a wounded BWI soldier

In praise of Nurse Gosling, from a wounded BWI soldier

The BWI comprised volunteers, largely of African and South Asian descent, from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, St Lucia, Barbados and the Bahamas, and the Latin American countries of Honduras and British Guiana (now Guyana). They were tragically unprepared for the change in climate and conditions: some died from pneumonia en route to Britain, others developed measles and meningitis at their winter training camp in Sussex. Forbidden by the War Office to fight against Europeans, they served as garrison troops in ammunition dumps and gun emplacements.

But this story isn't about the BWI at Belmont Road. It's to do with their fellow countrymen, and their fighting comrades from all over the Commonwealth, who found themselves at Bethnal Green Military Hospital in East London. They left their mark in the pages of an album which has been in my family for decades, acquired by a great uncle who ran an antiques shop on Lark Lane (which in another time became the restaurant L'Alouette).

The album measures 9in by 7in. Its spine is beginning to disintegrate, but the leather-bound covers look good for their age - around 105 years and counting - and none of the 120 pastel-shaded pages have come loose. On one of them, in the faintest black ink, is a short verse from Corporal John Pestano of the 1st Service Battalion, BWI Regiment, (previously based at) Alexandria, Egypt: Your album is a garden spot, Where all your friends may sow, So I will plant forget-me-not, And see if that will grow. Like several other contributors he includes his home address: 44 High Street, Kingston, Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana, South America.

Wish you were here: postcard from Jamaica

Wish you were here: postcard from Jamaica

On another page there's a quaint postcard of Jamaica, hand-coloured from a black-and-white photograph showing a 'scene on a banana plantation', from RA Maguire, 2nd BWI, of Spanish Town, Jamaica. Elsewhere Paul O Gajadhar, 1st BWI, Egypt 'from 5.2.16 to 7.6.16', writes: You don't know me nor I you Miss, And will never, believe me, it's true, But my best wishes will accompany you, That your span of life be blessed with bliss. Home address: Sangre Grande, Trinidad.

Illustrations by a Lancastrian and Canadian respectively

Illustrations by a Lancastrian and Canadian respectively

The 'Miss' in question is a nurse whose name and address are decoratively inscribed at the front of the album: Louie Gosling, Briar Knolls, Hopton, Mirfield. This is in West Yorkshire, not far from Huddersfield and presumably her home sweet home. From what I gather Briar Knolls as a residence no longer exists but there is a stop called Briar Knolls House on a local bus route. At any rate it's a long way from Cambridge Heath Road in the East End where the hospital opened in 1900 to treat up to 669 chronically ill. By 1915 it was used solely for wounded soldiers before reverting to civilian cases five years later.

It consisted of six three-storey 'pavilions' arranged in two groups of three, either side of a central administrative block. In total there were 15 wards named after 'British virtues' as the London Evening Standard reported at the time: Courage, Truth, Fortitude, Loyalty, Justice, Honour, Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Mercy, Grace, Candour, Innocence, and Patience.

Four lines conjuring up another world

Four lines conjuring up another world

Beneath an illustration of a flower the album opens with this welcome: Within these pages you will find contributions each one signed, By a friend whose name is treasured, will you too at your sweet leisure, Fill up just a page or so, signing your name just below? So that in the future days should we together gaze, In this album, twill remind us of the happy days behind us, Let us hope these days will be always a sweet memory.

There's a neat touch of symmetry at the back of the album with the following entry added a later date: I hope this book in after years will give a little pleasure and remind you, Of the friends that have tried their hands in time of leisure, And left behind them, one and all, a something for to treasure.

In between is a rich anthology of handwritten poetry, prayer and epigrams, pencilled drawings and doodles, inky cartoons and even the odd small watercolour, donated by members of the Norfolk Regiment, Suffolk Regiment, East Surreys, Royal West Kent, London Scottish, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Gosforth, Borders, Highlanders, Scottish Rifles, Royal Scots Fusiliers, Coldstream Guards, Royal Irish Lancers, Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, Australian Field Engineers, New Zealand Expeditionary Force and Canadian Mounted Rifles, not forgetting the British West Indies.

Evidently it was fairly common for nursing staff to collect material from patients like this. In 2008 the University of Oxford's First World War Poetry Digital Archive went live with a repository of 7,000 items submitted by the public (trust me to miss the boat by four years), among them 'autograph books' belonging to nurses who worked at Moor Green Hospital in Birmingham, Edinburgh Military Hospital, Denmark Hill (now King's College Hospital) in Camberwell, South London, and Pembroke Dock Hospital near Milford Haven in southwest Wales.

I think it was the BBC's adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong that reminded me about the Bethnal Green album. Its piano score also recalled an interview I'd done with Adrian Sutton, who composed the music for the National Theatre's stage production of War Horse. Back then I was writing and editing stuff for a couple of London universities, one of whose alumni had published a book entitled Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq chronicling 'one of the British Army's most ignominious defeats' when an Anglo-Indian contingent in the Middle East was besieged by Turks, suffered heavy casualties and forced to surrender unconditionally.

In the album is an authentic and piquant frontline account of that same debacle by Sgt CT Boroughs of the 6th King's Own, who mentions that he was wounded at Kut on 1 May 1916. An A-Z, 26-verse epic over two whole pages, it's hard to make out in some places but here are the choice cuts:

D were the 'diplomats' who were so mean in their offers to Turkey in autumn '14,
If they were not so stupid we'd never had seen this unblessed Mesopotamia

F stands for Fritz who flies in the sky, to bring down the brute we've had a try,
But the shells that we shoot with pass him by and fall back on Mesopotamia

G is the grazing our nags do all day, in the desert we're hoping that some time we may
Get issued again with a bundle of hay although we're in Mesopotamia

I is the Indian Government - but about them I am told I must keep my mouth shut,
For it's all due to them we failed to reach Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia

J is the jam with the label that lies and states that in Paris it won the first prize,
But out here we use it for catching the flies that flourish in Mesopotamia

K are the kisses from lips sweet and fair, waiting for us in dear old Angleterre
When we wend our way homewards, au fin de la guerre, from internment in Mesopotamia

M is the local mosquito whose bite often keeps us awake all hours of the night
And make all our faces a horrible sight in the trenches of Mesopotamia

O are the orders we get from the Corps, thank goodness this time we're perfectly sure
That if issued by three they'll be cancelled by four by the HQ in Mesopotamia

T is the transport I'll no more than mention, since I have in the future the firmest intention
Of drawing my Army pension for service in Mesopotamia

Y is the yearning we feel every day to get back to Blighty and jolly well stay,
Till we're sent out to France which is heaven they say after fighting in Mesopotamia

The poem's mordant tone is the exception rather than rule - most of the album's verse is suffused with a happy ingenuousness at odds with the trauma that the contributors, by definition seriously injured, surely experienced but seem unable or unwilling to describe in any detail. In his collection of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, German writer WG Sebald characterises this fugue in the face of arbitrary, industrial carnage as 'the way in which memory (individual, collective and cultural) deals with experiences exceeding what is tolerable' - in this case the terrible churn of trench warfare from the Western Front to the Middle East. But really what do I know?

An illustration by Private WE Page of the 4th Canadians shows a mighty lion in a sailor's cap marked Britannia with a nut bearing the word Dardanelles in its jaws, the fangs of which are 15in shells. The caption reads: A hard nut to crack - but some teeth! WB Thompson of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force's 14th South Otago Company - named after a region on the country's South Island and embroiled at Gallipoli - writes simply: True friends is like diamonds seldom and rare, False ones is like autumn leaves you can find everywhere. Private George G Wolsey of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, wounded at the Somme on 10 October 1916, is more specific: I do not ask for much this Christmastide, But if you'll kindly see that I'm supplied, With these three items I'll be satisfied: A cosy corner where the lights are low, A pretty flapper with a bit of go, And overhead a bunch of mistletoe.

Doggerel like this might lack the lyric sublimation and technical finesse of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, but its simple pathos is arguably as effective. Rifleman AL Ruttock, 1st London Rifle Brigade, wounded at a village on the Somme on 10 September 1916: Far far from Combles I want to be where German snipers can't 'pot' at me, Dark is my dug-out, cold are my feet, nothing but bully and biscuits to eat.

There are extracts from Tennyson and Longfellow and an abridged version of The Shearers, originally composed in 1901 by Australian national poet Henry Lawson and repurposed here as A Bush Mate by Corporal JH Hall from New South Wales who calls it 'one of the Outback verses from the land of the free'. Odes to 'Sloggers' (slang for foot soldiers) and the Medical Corps are pleas for absolution from an undeserving cavalry and infantry respectively.

Private FJ Anderson's poem At the Dardanelles

Private FJ Anderson's poem At the Dardanelles

Judging by his handwriting, Private FJ Anderson of Australia's 22nd Battalion looks to have laboured with At the Dardanelles, contributed on 19th January 1916. By the sixth line it's clearer why - he had to re-learn to write.

On the fourteenth day of September, nineteen hundred and fifteen
I was doing my duty in the trenches where the terrible sights are seen
I was struck upon the shoulder by a high explosive shell
But all that happened at that moment is more than I can tell

I was taken on to the hospital ship and was operated on
And when I woke up in the morning I found my arm was gone
I said goodbye to the Dardanelles, the land we could not gain
Although we fought our very best and suffered many a pain

I was brought across to England, the land of evergreen
And placed into this hospital under the name of Bethnal Green
I was admitted into Candour Ward on September the twenty-sixth
And the nurses soon began their work for my dressing they had to fix

I was treated like a brother and the nurses they were kind
And a better class of nurses would be a job to find
So now I really thank you for the way that I have been
And for the kindness you have given in his hospital Bethnal Green

Headline from The Times, April 2008...

Headline from The Times, April 2008...

Four years ago there was a piece in The Times that painted nurses as termagants who 'inflicted pain upon wounded soldiers in the First World War to a scandalous degree, according to new research'. It went on: 'Military hospitals have traditionally been portrayed as havens run by caring, if overstretched, staff but fresh evidence suggests that the experience of patients was very different'.

Ana Carden-Coyne, author of a book called Men in Pain and co-director of Manchester University's Centre for the Cultural History of War, had researched 'hitherto untapped material' from diaries written by injured soldiers and concluded: "Military medical propaganda was about how well we cared for the wounded and that is acutely contradicted by this evidence. While there are examples of sympathetic relationships between nurses and patients, the system was often very brutal, and indeed some of the nursing staff were also quite brutal... The wounded did not enter the heroic mythology of the war. They have been locked out of the discourse of commemoration."

...and a rather different perspective from February 1916

...and a rather different perspective from February 1916

Sergeant Sapper David Harris, writing in the album on 4th February 1917, might be inclined to disagree: An Australian thanks the nurses at Bethnal Green Hospital for kind attention during his stay at the above hospital. May God bless them, grant them the happiness they so richly deserve. As might Private Purnell of the 1st Glosters, who received four bullets in his leg from a Maxim gunner at Richebourg near Calais: Many a mother will thank you with their hearts filled with joy, When they hear how you have looked after perhaps their only boy.

Cenotaph at St George's Plateau, Liverpool

Cenotaph at St George's Plateau, Liverpool

Sergeant Major J Rush of the Suffolk Regiment stolidly prefaces his own offering with 'wounded at Kemmel 23rd March 1915, ampt R Leg, One of French's Contemptibles'. Kemmel is a village near Ypres in West Flanders where the 1st Battalion of the Suffolks was virtually wiped out. 'Contemptibles', of course, recalls the Kaiser's apocryphal description of the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 under General French. And 'number nines' (see third verse below) were cure-all laxatives that gave rise to the bingo expression 'doctor's orders - number nine'. No 'buff' physiques and glamorous wives topping the charts back then, by jingo.

The hospital that we are in is called the Bethnal Green
Our ward is called Candour too, a name as nice as cream
But in this ward I must admit they are always busy too
And see the nurses flying round you would think you're in the zoo

They drill the 'bedsteads' every morn and bring them into line
The locker tops they dust and scrub and make everything sublime
You mustn't sit upon your bed or ramble in your sleep
For everything just so you know in Candour Ward they keep

They give you 'cough mixture' each day, some 'number nines' at night
And anything that you require to heal your wounds alright
The nurses they are very good, give credit where 'tis due
A better lot could not be found in all the whole world through

'Soldiers blithe are we, through the world we go'

'Soldiers blithe are we, through the world we go'

Bethnal Green closed completely in 1990 and today only the listed central admin block still stands as the centrepiece of a housing development, while many of the soldiers who died in its wards are buried at the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park five miles northeast. Last word goes to Private DW Rodgers of the London Scottish, wounded in September 1915 at the French coalmining town of Loos during a major British offensive which cost 50,000 lives - among them Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen Mother, and author Rudyard Kipling's son John, with the poet Robert Graves surviving to write about it in Goodbye to All That.

Pte Rodgers: Here's to Nurse Gosling, One of the best! And always ready to help a wounded soldier in distress, I wish her the best of luck in future with every happiness when war is over, For while in hospital at Bethnal Green she has helped to brighten my stay therein. It's nice to think that he, and Louie too, would be tickled to know his toast is now on something called the worldwide web.


'A rich anthology of handwritten poetry, prayer and epigrams, pencilled drawings and doodles, inky cartoons and even the odd small watercolour'


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