"Mental cases", parasites, brandy injections and food complaints: First World War hospital ship diaries go online

By Culture24 Reporter | 04 January 2016

More than 200 war diaries of hospitals and hospital ships for soldiers and animals have been put online, covering the First World War to 1920

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Setting up hospitals in battlegrounds and out at sea created a variety of challenges, not to mention the staggering level of logistics required to nurse thousands of soldiers and animals back to health so they could return to battle.

This war diary for HMHS Erinpura (above) reveals that, in just 15 voyages throughout 1918, the ship had carried "6,126 sick and 4,067 troops" – making a total of 10,193 people on board.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
One of the most famous hospital ships was the HMHS Anglia, sunk on November 17 1915. Just weeks before the ship hit a mine, it had the honour of bringing King George V home after he had an accident while visiting the Western Front.

The war diary for the Anglia reveals many details about the voyage including the list of officers on board and the final diary entry, dated October 31 1915, before the rest of the log went down with the ship. “Received order to prepare Officers Ward for the use of HM The King and make such other preparations as might be necessary for his comfort,” it records.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Those with physical and mental disabilities are often referred to as “invalids” and “mental cases” in the war diaries. This hospital ship entry shows how some of the injured were involved in concerts to motivate troops.

In the years following Armistice, as they attempted to return home from across the world, sometimes as late as 1920, there are what curators call “eye-opening” accounts of how people with mental health issues and other disabilities were treated, particularly between the different ranks.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Some, as this entry suggests, were confined in wire cages. “The wire cage for mental cases in F Ward is very satisfactory and the wired in exercise deck an improvement on the previous voyage,” it says.

“Lunatics 44 O.R. [other ranks] and 1 Naval rating. The 2 Mental Officers are placed in isolation self-contained ward with WC and bathroom – excellent for this purpose.”

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Various diseases were experienced on board, including small pox, scurvy and venereal disease. Many crew members died and were buried at sea, despite attempts to eradicate vermin from ships.

The diaries sometimes include complaints about hospital food, especially with the introduction of unknown local food. This entry, from just after Christmas, mentions “troublesome delusions”, a straitjacket being issued, a complaint about “very doughy” bread and a concert following extra dinner for all ranks on New Year’s Eve.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
There were, aboard the HMHS Kalyan, “some complaints by the RAMC details on the service of pumpkins."

“Thendis and Brinjals in lieu of potatoes...explained that locally purchased vegetables were the only kinds now available and any frivolous complaints would result in being put on strict rations for one week,” it reports.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
This war diary extract, from the Australian Veterinary Hospital, contains sketches of parasites that were studied in the parasitical laboratory.

Other international regiments covered by the diaries include the Indian, Canadian and New Zealand forces. Special catering was required for different religious ceremonies, such as facilities to cremate the Hindu dead.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Aboard the Hospital Ship Vasna, on November 29 1918, part of this entry reads: “The Medical Officer who has been in charge of the ladies at Basra informs me that that one of them (a Russian lady) is pregnant and that parturition may take place “any time within the next few days”.

“I am in possession of a pair of midwifery forceps”, it adds, before highlighting more “labour pains” on December 12 1918.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
July 25 1918 reads particularly grimly. “One Indian died during the night. Arrived in Bombay and disembarked sick,” it recounts.

“This has been a very heavy voyage, sever climatic conditions added to a heavy load and there has also been a great deal of sickness among the staff.”

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
An account from the Indian Convalescent Hospital in Marseilles speaks of playing football, hockey and quoits to motivate the troops.

But this extract has an officer describing the Indian Army as a “dumping ground” for the “dead weight” of 3,000-3,500 men, many of whom had self-inflicted injuries and resisted treatment in the hope they would return to India.

A photo of a First World War diary in black ink on light brown paper
© National Archives
Aboard the HMHA Ellora, where Major A D Jameson wrote of cases of cholera and malaria, there was a notably shocking alcohol-based treatment.

Jameson applied “injections of hot water and brandy per rectum”, as well as “numerous potassium permanganate pills”. They may have had some effect: the patient’s pulse and general condition, according to the Major, “improved considerably”.

  • The National Archives has digitised war diaries of 247 hospital camps, hospital ships, convalescent hospitals and veterinary hospitals in the First World War, making them available globally for the first time. Part of UK Disability History Month.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums and galleries to see First World War stories in

Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Wave is a sweeping arch of bright red poppy heads suspended on towering stalks; Weeping Window (to be shown at Woodhorn Museum, Northumberland and St George’s Hall, Liverpool) is a cascade comprising several thousand handmade ceramic poppies seen pouring from a high window to the ground below. Until January 10 2016.

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall
See artefacts recovered from shipwrecks and find out what sort of ships lie on the seabed and how they came to be there in the current exhibition, Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War. Until March 21 2016.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton
From December 1914 to February 1916, the Royal Pavilion was offered for use as a hospital for troops from the Indian Corps wounded on the Western Front in France and Flanders during World War I. See paintings, archive photographs, contemporary accounts and film footage recall in vivid form a remarkable and often forgotten story from Brighton’s history.
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