First World War hospital diaries now online

Diaries of 247 First World War hospital camps, hospital ships, convalescent hospitals and veterinary hospitals are now available to read online. The National Archives digitised the documents as part of Disability History Month.

These war diaries reveal different methods of treating injured and disabled soldiers, and give insight into life in hospital during the First World War.

Image of a hospital dormitory, with men in beds and nurses standing up

The diaries give fascinating details about daily routines, operations and special events, including Christmas services: on board Hospital Ship Vasna in December 1918, ‘a generous supply of gifts were obtained from the Red Cross Depot in Basra and were distributed by the Matron to all patients, passengers and staff.’ Read more about Christmas aboard hospital ships on our blog.

They also illustrate the challenges involved in setting up hospitals in battlegrounds and at sea, and the logistics of nursing thousands of soldiers and animals back to health. The war diary for HMHS Erinpura reveals that in just 15 voyages in 1918, the ship had carried ‘6126 sick and 4067 troops’.

Treatment of disability

The diaries record how people with both physical and mental disabilities were treated on board hospital ships, particularly in the years following Armistice as they attempted to return home from across the world. People are often referred to as ‘mental cases’ and ‘invalids’, and on some hospital ships were involved in concerts to motivate troops.

There are accounts of the treatment of people with mental health issues, which differed according to rank, including instances of confining them in wire cages. Fatal incidents are also recorded, such as one patient throwing himself overboard.

Disease on hospital ships

The hospital war diaries note the various diseases experienced on board, such as small pox, scurvy and venereal disease. They also include details on eradicating vermin from ships and sourcing local food.

The diaries sometimes include complaints about hospital food, especially with the introduction of unknown local food.

The full scale of war

William Spencer, author and military records specialist at The National Archives said:

‘The diaries provide rare ‘behind the scenes’ accounts of the startling amount of logistics needed to run the war. That is why making these diaries available online is an important project, not just for researchers but for public understanding in bringing to light the full scale of the war.’

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