This weekend the nation will pause to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in conflicts throughout the decades. Churches and cathedrals, together with memorials in villages, towns and cities across Britain will become the focal point for remembrance. These war memorials stand as sacred sentinels; an eternal reminder of the valour and selfless dedication to duty of those who served on the front line. Their names are inscribed in stone for eternity and, in the words of Laurence Binyon’s poignant poem "For the Fallen": “We will remember them.”
Within our communities, though, there are often many other places that have a vital connection with the First and Second World Wars – even though they are hundreds of miles away from the battlefields. Usually we are unaware of the wartime history of these places and how they were involved in the conflict. When we discover this, it can often open our eyes to another aspect of the conflict; and this was something which happened to me several years ago.
Close to the Evergreen and This England office in Cheltenham is a magnificent Grade-II listed building called New Court. It has recently been converted into luxury retirement apartments. However, at the start of the First World War, the family who owned this grand mansion offered it to the War Office and it was subsequently used as a Red Cross hospital treating sick and wounded soldiers who were brought back from the horrors of the Western Front. For the injured and traumatised troops there could not have been a greater contrast in their surroundings than the grandeur of New Court, with its glorious light, airy rooms and tranquil gardens, and the dark, muddy, suffocating labyrinths of the trenches, with the deafening sounds of incessant bullets and shellfire.
Apart from the doctors and nurses at New Court, the hospital was staffed by the Voluntary Aid Detachment, women volunteers who helped to care for and nurse the soldiers. Today, a plaque in the porch of New Court records its place in wartime history and notes that the hospital, which was open for the duration of the conflict, treated 1,697 soldiers. I was told by Melissa Webb, who studied the history of New Court, and opened a temporary museum there in 2014, that out of all those who were treated at the hospital, only eight soldiers died, which is an incredible testament to the care they received from the dedicated staff.
New Court was the first of 10 VAD hospitals that opened in Cheltenham during the First World War. Another hospital that did such incredible work is also right on our doorstep, just around the corner from our office. Suffolk Hall was a former boys’ school and is now an office. Like New Court, this extensive and exquisite building treated injured troops for the duration of the war and into the first months of 1919. Again, a plaque commemorates its war service and records that 1,368 men were treated there. Sometimes the echoes of war are much closer than you think.
I have recently discovered a personal connection to these wartime hospitals although not in Cheltenham. My grandfather, who was injured on the Western Front, was brought home to receive treatment in a military hospital in Lancashire before going back out to France. He, fortunately, survived the conflict. This weekend just as we honour those who bravely served and gave their lives on the battlefields, we should also remember those dedicated medical personnel and volunteers who gave our injured troops care - and hope - amid the bleak devastation of war.
Image: VAD nurses and doctors with patients at Hilders Hospital in Haslemere, 1918. © Imperial War Museum