GREAT WAR CENTENARY: Making our boys feel better

This Is Wiltshire: A ward at the GWR hospital in the Railway Village during World War One A ward at the GWR hospital in the Railway Village during World War One

It may house a health hydro today, but the Milton Road baths were turned over to the Red Cross for the first year of the war...

THE Health Hydro in Milton Road is one of the Swindon area’s best-known landmarks.

Its website notes: “It boasts two separate swimming pools, a gym, Turkish Baths and a Natural Health Clinic offering a unique combination of therapies from qualified practitioners.”

What few of its users realise is that they are in a building which was once a place of comfort for soldiers wounded in the early months of the war which broke out a century ago.

It’s difficult to say how many people were wounded in the conflict, thanks to the passage of time and ambiguity over how to define a wounded person.

According to a 1922 War Office report called Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War, there were 702,917 British dead and 1,663,435 injured, from a total population at the time of about 45m.

The wounded were treated in hospitals all over the country, many of them either improvised or purpose-built when it was realised that predictions of the war being over within months were incorrect.

Some of the wounded were lucky enough to be treated in or near their home communities, where friends and loved ones could visit and raise their spirits, but countless more found themselves as isolated from familiar people and things as they’d been during the fighting.

Thanks to Swindon’s ‘other railway’ – the Midlands and South West Junction – the town was a marshalling and distribution centre for wounded troops landed at various points along the south coast.

Many were sent on to other places, but others remained in the town. Initially, many of the ‘walking wounded’ were sent to recuperate in private homes, with more serious cases billeted in schools and impromptu hospitals set up in larger buildings. There they were often tended by newly qualified first-aiders who had volunteered for service at the outbreak of war.

It was in October of 1914, only two months after hostilities began, that the Red Cross, armed with its own equipment plus blankets and other comforts provided by the GWR, took over the baths at Milton Road to use as a hospital.

Rows of beds were crammed into and near the space where until recently the exercise-conscious people of early 20th Century Swindon had taken refreshing dips.

When the people of the town realised that many of the patients had no loved ones living locally, there was an outpouring of compassion and generosity. The gifts included thousands of cigarettes.

By the following year, with up to 150 patients housed there at a time, it became clear that the hospital simply wasn’t big enough – and that the sun shining through the glass roof would cause discomfort as spring gave way to summer.

Milton Road closed as a hospital in July of 1915, a month after the establishment of a new military hospital at Chiseldon, which would eventually grow to accommodate more than 500 beds.

Chiseldon was the home of another military hospital, though, one which had about twice as many places for patients as the conventional one, and which was surrounded by a fence beyond which patients were sternly forbidden to roam without officers’ permission.

The public, especially young women, were equally sternly forbidden to cross the boundary from outside.

Nicknamed the ‘Bad Boys’ Hospital’ it treated some of the half million or so Allied troops who contracted venereal disease during their time in the military.

In the days before antibiotics and penicillin, such illnesses were a very serious and potentially life threatening problem.

They were certainly more than enough to make sufferers unfit to fight.

With many of the Allied personnel being young men, it was hardly surprising that their sexual urges should drive them to seek relief – often from prostitutes – whenever they were able.

There was another, more poignant, reason for soldiers seeking sex: a century ago it was unusual for people to have sex before marriage, and many men in uniform were desperate not to die as virgins.

Treatment for venereal disease in those days involved primitive drugs and eye-watering mechanical devices, but business at the hospital was still brisk throughout the conflict.

In 1917 another hospital for wounded troops was added to the local roster, this time using part of the workhouse in Stratton.

Chiseldon was laready home to a huge camp where soldiers were trained prior to deployment. At any given time, up to 10,000 were being made ready for the Front.

The camp would remain open until 1962, when the end of national service meant a scaling back of numbers.

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