The full story of the Exeter War Hospitals has yet to be told. Between 1914 and 1919 more than 35,000 wounded troops were treated and cared for in a group of temporary hospitals in Exeter. Unlike other Red Cross hospitals around the county these were not just for men convalescing, but provided surgery, active treatment and rehabilitation. The patients stayed on average for 25 days, and the hospitals discharged or transferred about 100 men a week to make room for more arriving by train, usually from Southampton. The hospitals started as a Devon Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment initiative, but were taken over by the War Office in 1916 and run as military hospitals on a par with those in Plymouth until the last patients left well after Armistice Day.
An astonishing array of Exeter buildings were used as hospitals, stores and staff quarters, most of which still remain, although ‘recycled’ for modern purposes. Temporary Hospital no 1 was the Eye Infirmary, now the Magdalen Chapter Hotel; no 2 was the Episcopal Modern School, now a set of student flats; no 3 was in the Workhouse’s Children’s Home, now the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (Heavitree) Occupational Health Department; no 4 was at Topsham Barracks and no 5 at Bradninch Hall.
Exonians supported the five (ultimately seven) war hospitals in many ways. Some came to work as hospital staff. Others grew and supplied fruit and vegetables, baked cakes, bought cigarettes to hand to the soldiers, lent their cars to pull trucks loaded with wounded soldiers from the railway stations, raised funds for comforts, made and mended extra clothing, prepared dressing packs for front-line staff, offered hospitality to relatives, kept the soldiers and sailors cheerful by entertaining them with concert parties or seaside trips and, if a patient died, laid them to rest in a dedicated portion of the Higher Cemetery where now a war memorial stands.
The War Hospitals project aims to produce information about the seven hospitals, their specialisms and their staff, and to show the way in which this magnificent Red Cross effort was supported by the whole community of Exeter and the villages around it.
For further information about the project, please contact Dr Julia Neville via email: email@example.com