Berkswell Rectory Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital

Berkswell Rectory was used as an Auxiliary Hospital during the First World War. These hospitals for wounded soldiers were administered by the British Red Cross Society, and were used as convalescence hospitals – a stepping stone between treatment at a general hospital and discharge home.

The Red Cross had set up Voluntary Aid Detachments (V.A.D.) in each county to provide supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Services in the event of war. Members came to be known as ‘V.A.D.s’ and were all trained in first aid and nursing.

postcard of Berksell Rectory

The Coventry Herald of 22nd January 1915 reported that, thanks to the kindness and generosity of the Rector of Berkswell, the Rev. Hugh Cairns Alexander Back (who was Rector 1903-1924), half of the Rectory had been fitted out as an auxiliary military hospital, with 12 beds.

The first party of 20 soldiers arrived from the 1st Southern General Hospital, Erdington on Saturday 29th May 1915, according to the Coventry Herald of 4th June 1915 and 11th June 1915. The wounded men were transported in five motor cars loaned by Mrs Feeney and Messrs. Wheatley, Shephard, Clive and Harrison.

The staff of the auxiliary hospital were described as:

  • the Commandant, Miss Maud Watson (daughter of the previous Rector, Rev. Henry William Watson, who was Rector of Berkswell 1865-1902)
  • 17 nursing sisters in the charge of Sister Owens, who came down from the Headquarters of the British Red Cross Society in London for the purpose.
  • the 1st Medical Officer, Dr. Holmes, of Meriden, and the 2nd Medical Officer Dr Harvey Smith, of Meriden.
  • a staff of experienced cooks, under the superintendence of the Quarter-master, Mrs W. M. Wright

The Rector reported in the Parish Magazine that the wounded

have come from various parts of the war zone, and we are particularly pleased to do something for four of the Australian contingent who were wounded in the Dardanelles, and who so gallantly came to the help of the Mother Country, also a Canadian. Most of the cases are surgical, from bullet and shrapnel wounds, and all are doing well, though some will take a long time to make complete recoveries. The following are the names and regiments: Privates Akehurst (5th Sussex); Stones  (10th Ports. R.M); Hicks (R.M.L.I.); Devitt (1st H.L.I.); and Dutton (1st Warwicks); Bombadier Roberts (R.F.A.); Privates Paxton (6th Durham L.I.); Heyner (6th Seaforths); Gower (2nd Worcesters); Tweddle (5th Durham L.I.); Pratt (7th Cheshires); Driver Rowlands (R.E.T.); Private Heasil (30th Canadians); Bates (6th Australians); Clark (16th Australians); and Paul (10th Otago, New Zealand); Stoker Swinney (R.N.I.).

A photograph of one of the wounded men in this first intake, Private James Paxton of Eyemouth, Scottish Borders, appeared in his local newspaper, the Berwickshire News and General Advertiser 8th June 1915. It quoted a letter written from him during his convalescence at Berkswell, recovering from a head wound:

in the fighting near Ypres he thought that many a time his end had come, as it seemed impossible for a man to live in it. He was gassed as well, and describes it as a terrible feeling.

The Coventry Herald of 9th July 1915 reported on a visit to Berkswell Rectory Auxiliary Hospital under the headline “Soldiers in Clover”.

the situation of the hospital is a particularly lovely one, sheltered in the heart of typical Warwickshire county… Berkswell Rectory is an uncommonly good house to look upon… roomy and well-built… Berkswell Rectory is really a house in two parts. The newer half was added by a former Rector to suit his own rather large needs, for he was a distinguished scholar and had had pupils at the Rectory.
… the healthy character of the country, the fine air and abundant sunshine must materially help the recovery of the body. But hardly less important is the effect of such surroundings upon the mind. The men who come here have been through the stress and horror of war… the things seen and heard and the protracted strain of normal duty in the firing line must play havoc with the nerves of the men who are in the thick of the fight, and it is easy to guess that in many cases the sufferings of the body are small compared with the torture of the mind.

On the day of the reporter’s visit, there were 19 patients. The men had just had dinner and four of them were playing tennis on one of the lawns, despite their injuries which were described as “a kilted Scot had a badly injured jaw, another could only use one arm, and all were recovering from serious wounds”. In a large writing and recreation room several men were occupied with letters or other interests. Others were up in the airy wards preparing for a drive out into the country.  The article continued:

… it is the greatest mistake to suppose that the “Tommies” who are recuperating at Berkswell Rectory find life dull. On the contrary, there is a constant round of entertainment and change of interest… Almost every day there are invitations for groups of suitable size to go to this or that house for tea, and there is no lack of opportunities for seeing the country, as owners of motor cars and traps have come forward most readily and frequently to take the men for drives. Outdoor and indoor games can be played at the hospital, a gramophone plays the favourite airs of the soldier, and it may be said in geneal that there is so much to do that the time passes not only pleasantly, but quickly, and when the time comes to leave the hospital for a period of furlough there remains with the soldier a lasting memory of human kindness and of the beauty of Warwickshire.

By 3rd September, the Coventry Standard was reporting that the hospital, having been full for three months was now empty, having treated 43 men who “for the most part” had left fit for light duty. A few men were so badly wounded that it was noted they would not be fit for active service. Further patients arrived but the hospital was closed temporarily on January 8th 1916, as “at present the Base hospitals are fortunately not full”.

By the time of the hospital’s first anniversary, celebrated with a fete, almost 140 wounded men had been treated at Berkswell Rectory.

If you have any further information about the hospital, please let us know.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

tel.:0121 704 6977

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