Love in a time of war: soldiers' messages to nurses at a Fishponds hospital

May 30 2022
Love in a time of war: soldiers' messages to nurses at a Fishponds hospital

Glenside Hospital Museum: Mike Jempson peruses the autograph books of nurses at the Beaufort War Hospital.

ALMOST 30,000 soldiers from around the world, seriously injured in World War I, were brought to Fishponds to recover.

The War Office had refashioned the old Bristol Lunatic Asylum on Manor Road as the Beaufort War Hospital. Opened in May 1915, it could treat almost 1,500 patients at a time until its closure in February 1919.

Most of the men had broken bones or shrapnel wounds, some had been poisoned by mustard gas. There to greet and treat them was an equally international team of doctors and nurses.

Among them were masseuses Agnes Mary Witts and a Miss B. M. Williams. Inevitably, among so many men far from home and receiving intimate care, they caused hearts to flutter.

The autograph books the nurses kept reveal the  thoughts, thanks and yearnings of their patients.

 

Irish seaman Private Daniel Lynn, from New South Wales, opened Miss William’s book with a warning: 

Steal not this book my honest friend

For fear the gallows will be your end

Up the ladder down the rope 

There you will hang until you choke.

 

Later he would reveal his feelings for her:

When you read this think of the writer

Always bear him in your mind

Until you find one liked you better

And that is one you will never find.

(Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all)

 

Former Queensland miner Private JM Axelsen was similarly smitten: 

I cannot love my neighbours wife

His ox I must not slaughter.

Thanks be to God, its not a sin, 

To Love Mr Williams' daughter’

 

There was clearly a twinkle the eye of Rifleman J Maclean, from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in April 1917:

Some girls are sweet little dears

And some will give you deliriums

Now I don’t I wish to cause any blushes or tears

But have you ever heard of Miss Williams?

One patient added a lock of hair to his message

Not all of them were quite so enamoured. In May 1917, Lance Corporal Albert John Tout from the Australian Imperial Force sounded a tad bitter with his Warning to the Unwary:

Attend ye patients to my tale of woe!

(Miss Williams) of Beaufort, massaged me so

That my right foot, dislocated,

Assumed forms variegated

And tried, I assure you, the left t’outgrow.

 

In terror, dear reader, of such consequences

I sought to become a true amanuensis,

And save you, O patient,

From a Fate now grown ancient:

Do not be massaged by the masseuse in parenthesis.

 

Others were more cautious about expressing their feelings.

In July 1916, HE Stokes of the London Regiment had written:

Remember, you remembered be

By me, with a remembrance true

And oft as you remember me

Remember, I remember you.

 

It was an oft-repeated sentiment, though Private P Rosewell of the Kings Liverpool Regiment was not quite so romantic:

When you are old

and cannot see

put on your specs

and think of me.

 

Several composed long poems about their masseuse, some slightly risque.

Here’s the Manchester Regiment’s Private G Folds:

Still and this is confidential

And I don’t mind telling you

It is really rather pleasant

Those who’ve had it know its true

 

In comes sister like a whirlwind

That you’ve read about in tales

And she’s really rather decent 

Even when the battery fails

 

Alex Anderson of the 1st London Scottish Regiment, who had lost the use of his legs, was lost in admiration.

Yet I’d gaze upon those gentle hands

with wondering eyes and dim,

whose magic work would soon restore

strength to the shattered limb.

 

My thanks to you! While man with hate

seek life and limb to kill, destroy;

Your chosen work to reinstate

for pain: life, health and joy!

 

There were plenty of laughs at the War Hospital, with soldiers and staff keeping morale high with entertainments and even a gymkhana, with music supplied by Kingswood Reformatory Band. 

One of the oddest diversions was the mounting of mock weddings (see top picture). It was great opportunity for play-acting, cross-dressing and adopting funny names. Hymns sung included ‘When there’s a girl about’ and ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’. 

After the ceremony the make-believe vicar would advise people to “behave themselves” at the wedding breakfast and an evening of music and dancing.

Least said, soonest mended.

*There is a permanent exhibition about the Beaufort War Hospital at the Glenside Museum. For more details visit www.glensidemuseum.org.uk.