It was almost exactly 3 years ago that I first wrote about my Great Uncle Bert Mitchell. In an effort to submit a reasonable biography for him for the When West Grinstead Went To War publication, I had endeavoured to glean as much information as possible about his involvement in the WW1.
With no surviving service record it took me a little while to piece together, but I managed to discover that Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915. His Medal Index Card helped to a certain extent but it is apparently notoriously difficult to trace the movements of someone in the Machine Gun Corps. Whilst we do not know where exactly Bert served with the British Expeditionary Force, we do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.
Begun in the 1850s, the hospital was in its day the longest building in Europe! Seen from Southampton Water, the hospital’s architecture was most impressive, though Florence Nightingale was critical of the design and felt it had not been planned with the wellbeing of patients in mind. At the start of WW1 the hospital’s capacity was increased through the building of many wooden huts by the Red Cross.
I have known of the Netley connection for many years due to a good number of photos in my Granny’s photo album taken at the Royal Victoria Hospital during the First World War. One of the photos shows her brother, Bert Mitchell “in theatre”. After Bert was discharged from the army on 4 April 1918 due to wounds rendering him unfit for further war service, he stayed on at the hospital as a Red Cross orderly making and fitting artificial limbs. The Red Cross personnel records show that he worked there from June 1918 until June 1919.
I’ve visited Netley a number of times over the years, aware of the family connection. So it was with great pleasure a few weeks ago that I was able to visit the chapel again, newly reopened after the extensive conservation work which has benefitted from Heritage Lottery funding. The chapel is basically all that now remains of the former military hospital and the newly restored chapel is absolutely stunning. There is an extensive exhibition inside the chapel on the history of the hospital, with a number of interesting artefacts such as a huge ‘iron lung’. Entry to the chapel and exhibition is free, but you can also pay a small fee to climb the tower for a magnificent view across the park and across Southampton Water.
I was particularly interested to read in the guide book about the Japanese Red Cross nurses who worked at Netley between 1915 and 1916. Interested because they feature in two photos in Granny’s photo album. Since the guide book says that they left in 1916, I’m wondering if this could indicate that Bert was a patient there from perhaps quite early on in 1916, meaning that he possibly spent very little time in France or Belgium before being wounded. It could also mean that he was a patient at the hospital for as much as two years before being discharged in April 1918.
It’s strange to think that my Great Uncle Bert is likely to have attended services in that chapel both as a patient and as a member of staff. His future wife, Lily Loosemore, also worked at the hospital as a VAD clerk from July 1916. Separately or together they would have heard the organ played (which is again in good working order), looked up at the stained glass and admired the lofty ceiling. I very much enjoyed rediscovering my family connection with the hospital and would recommend a visit if you get the chance. https://www.hants.gov.uk/rvchapel