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Traveling back in time: exploring the Netley Red Cross Hospital during World War I

By Nestor Serrano-Fuentes RN, PhD student and Research assistant for the Long-Term Conditions Research Group, Health Sciences, University of Southampton

November is remembered as the month in which the First World War ended; a time to remember our loved ones who fell in battle. Between 1914 and 1918, many stories unfolded: stories of life, death, love, births, feelings and emotions. Those feelings flourish today when walking through the green park and woodland at Netley on the Southampton shoreline. I look at the sea, that little orange chapel in the middle of the great esplanade, I close my eyes and visualise the protagonists of this story, talking among themselves, laughing, shouting, touching and hugging…

My name is Nestor, I am a young man, nurse and researcher at the University of Southampton. Two years ago, while running on a cold winter morning along the south coast at Netley, something drew my attention. What was a lonely chapel doing here? I stopped to read some information panels and discovered that, in that place had been the Netley Hospital or Royal Victoria Hospital. According to some books, this was the largest British military hospital of all time. Furthermore, with the arrival of the war-wounded its capacity grew yet further Leading to the building of the British Red Cross Hospital just behind the main building and the recruitment of volunteers in the UK and overseas.

Netley Hospital in 1918
Sister Harvey and some of the patients from 41 Hut

A Japanese nurse who worked at Netley in 1918 - unnamed

I needed more information and began to browse the historical archives online. Later I came across a treasure; The Netley British Red Cross Magazine. It was December and I was combing the historical archives in Winchester and there in my hands were prints of those magazines from 1918. They were filled with poems written by soldiers and nurses, cartoons, real photos and countless stories told in the first person.

A few days later, I phoned my friend Elena Andina, lecturer of nursing at the University of Leon (Spain). She is a dreamer, humanist, and a person with whom I share a passion for the history of the nursing profession. I said: “You’re not going to believe what I have found! We’ve got some work to do!”

We decided to read those six issues of the magazine. We were filled with great affection for the people and stories. We set about starting to analyse and contextualise the data and information, and began to write an article on the history of nursing telling the story of how care was delivered to soldiers during World War I.

We were so lucky, it was like travelling in a time machine, an incomparable feeling. After a first analysis, we realised that there was a relationship between what was happening at Netley and the revolutionary thinking and ideas of Florence Nightingale, who is considered the creator of modern nursing. The focus on the environment on care - sunlight, humidity, fresh air, silence during a night shift, empathy, the smallest details that nurses took care of, such as the size of pyjamas for their patients, the use of small boats as a source of leisure for patients and nurses, are just some of the aspects that we glimpsed between those pages.

"Throughout history, wars and pandemics have shaped and changed the way nursing care has been delivered. If we look back, many of the measures that were applied we continue to use today. During this covid19 pandemic, the importance of open spaces and physical spaces between people, fresh air or sunlight are the same – echoes of the voices speaking from the pages of the Netley magazines in 1918."

They say history tends to repeat itself, for better or for worse. What can we learn from it? Let us continue to lovingly preserve it and keep it in mind to acknowledge our ancestors and as inspiration in the search for current and future answers.



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