September 1914 – Britain had been at war for a month. The military authorities were still assuring the Red Cross that there was enough accommodation to deal with the wounded of the British Expeditionary Force, and that the “temporary hospitals” which the Red Cross were offering were not likely to be needed short of the country being invaded. The Red Cross and its VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) were getting frustrated. The British Red Cross Society was formed in 1870, but the Dorset Red Cross had only been operating since 1911. It was the War Office that had launched the idea of using VADs, in 1909, inspired by events in the far-off Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5.
During September 1914 the Poole detachment of the Red Cross was busy setting up the Bournemouth and Branksome Voluntary Relief Hospital as one of the temporary hospitals, even though it was sited in neighbouring Bournemouth. This was renamed Crag Head Military Hospital, receiving its first patients in October. The nearest official military hospital was also in Bournemouth, but no patients were admitted there until November.
Cornelia Hospital was Poole’s general hospital, a voluntary hospital only established in 1889 and set up on its Longfleet site only 7 years before the war started. This was a small hospital of only 17 beds, but it was to play a big part in Poole’s war. In September 1914 there were no plans in place for any military patients to be admitted to the Cornelia Hospital – the major worry was probably whether their local doctors would leave to join up. All this changed in a few days, whether plans were ready for war casualties or not. The exigencies of war did not wait for plans. Cornelia suddenly became the first local hospital with wounded soldiers from the Front.
The story of how the Cornelia Hospital dealt with a sudden and unexpected influx of war casualties is told, albeit succinctly, in the hospital’s Annual Report for 1914:
In the month of September your Committee received a most urgent appeal on behalf of sick and wounded Belgian soldiers, and at short notice, the out-patients waiting room was furnished as a ward, and accommodation offered to ten patients. Beds were provided by friends, and certain structural additions of a temporary nature were made to that part of the Hospital. Subscriptions were received for the special purpose of meeting the expenditure on this account, but the total cost has not been provided for, yet the Committee believe that they would have failed to anticipate the wishes of the subscribers if they had refused what treatment and comfort the Hospital could afford to these brave soldiers, whose patient courage under their sufferings have won for them so much affection and respect.
The Belgian soldiers had been brought into Poole by sea, and the Cornelia was the only possible place available for them to be taken. Suddenly a hospital of only 17 beds managed to set up another 10 beds in its outpatients department, sending out to benefactors to supply the beds and presumably bedding. There were rarely beds to spare in its two wards – average daily occupancy of its 17 beds was 16.46 in 1912 and strangely 18.01 in 1913. The largest space in the small building for extra beds was the busy outpatients room. How it dealt with outpatients for the next few weeks is not known. This was a hospital with no resident medical staff and normally only 5 nurses under a Matron. There were 23 Belgian soldiers admitted in all. No arrangements could be made beforehand as to how what was a very financially shaky voluntary hospital would pay for their care and maintenance.
One person affected by the sudden arrival of the Belgian soldiers was the much-decorated nurse Charlotte Paterson. She was due to leave for France from her post at the Cornelia Hospital, but the arrival of the wounded men at 11pm the night beforehand meant she changed her plans. She carried on at the Cornelia and it wasn’t until October 1915 she finally reached France.
The hospital had plenty of space in its grounds. It had been built on a site with a specific purpose of having enough space for future expansion. The result was that the Red Cross were able to create 2 new wards from scratch and opened them in the November of that year. Later extra tented wards were used in Summer months. The original plan had been to use local schools as hospitals, but the Council would not allow that. The way Cornelia rose to the occasion for the Belgian soldiers may have influenced the decision to build military wards on the Cornelia site. The hospital was jointly run for the rest of the war, albeit remaining under the Cornelia Matron, Helen Milne. Cornelia Hospital went on to have 140 beds and admit a total of 2583 military patients in the war, whilst still caring for its local patients.
By 1918 11 auxiliary military hospitals had been opened in Poole, with the Poole Red Cross detachment still staffing Crag Head Hospital in Bournemouth. Some had been originally established as private convalescent units, but by 1918 they were all run by detachments of the British Red Cross. They employed some trained nurses and cooks, but were mostly staffed by VADs in both nursing and support roles. The majority were convalescent units, but others, like Cornelia, offered full medical and surgical treatments. The story of all these hospitals, and the people who worked in them, will be told on a new website being created by Poole Museum with the help of a Heritage Lottery Grant: Poole, the First World War and its Legacy .