‘Where am I going next, doctor?’
The young trooper was lying in a makeshift hospital bed, about five miles back from the Front, superficial shrapnel wounds and lots of bandages around his left leg.
‘Summerdown Camp, in Eastbourne. You will be well looked after there, you’ll soon be back fighting fit.’
‘I wish you could sign me off, never want to come back to the Front.’
‘Come on now, lad, no need to have that attitude’, said the sergeant who was accompanying the officer doctor, ‘we all want to get back to we can get it all over and done with.’
Summerdown Camp, Eastbourne, became the main rehabilitation centre for troops injured during WWl. At peak times there could be as many as 3,500 men living in the wooden huts in three adjacent camps beneath the protection of the high cliffs of Beachy Head in Sussex.
It was opened in 1915 because so many men were injured, and required rehabilitation before returning to the Front. 80% of all men who came to Summerdown returned to the conflict, so their treatment must have been very effective. Men who walked around in civilian clothing were frequently handed white feathers, as a symbol of cowardice, by women whose menfolk had already gone to fight, so instead the Summerdown men all had blue uniforms, so they could walk into Eastbourne without problem, which was only a stroll of a mile away.
The men were still under military rule, which meant that their behaviour was strictly regimented, a subtle ruse by military authorities so the symbolic wearing of a uniform of whatever colour meant that the wearer knew they were still until army rules.
Physiotherapy was almost unheard of as part of recuperative treatment, but a man called Almeric Paget was a proponent of the newly popular laying of hands by a masseur. He and his American wife Pauline Page Whitney were leading lights in this field, and the army authorities were very keen on getting troops back to the Front as soon as possible. Mr Paget suggested that he could provide a team of fifty masseuse, an offer that was quickly accepted, so they were despatched to minister to the recovering servicemen.
Mrs. Paget was to be given the epithet the ‘Angel of Summerdown’, so successful was the programme. Muscular treatment was becoming increasingly necessary, the physiotherapy was intensive, so those administering had not only to be trained extensively, but also physically very fit. As well as this aspect, the treatment often involved electrical stimulation.
‘No, I’m getting better really fast, don’t bother about that electrical stuff nurse.’
‘You know it’s going to do you good, Just lie there and let me attach this lovely piece of equipment to where it’s not working.’
The patient would lie there, the initial waves would be mild, then the intensity would grow until the treated muscles would hopefully react. Quite barbaric, really, and these machines were pretty basic, with the electricity supply never constant. Sometimes there would be a steady flow, but if the power supply diminished because of extra usage elsewhere, then there could be a sudden surge on the patient.
The camp authorities had problems occupying the troops as they recovered, so a camp newspaper was started. It was never going to have a major print run, but it was full of gossip, war news, and anything relevant to the town that could be shared without libel. Some copies still exist in archives, showing it contained quite a few pages, many adverts for local shops, such as jewellers, chocolate, and photographic studio. Also as well entertainment venues, including the always popular Royal Hippodrome Theatre, which is still going today, the pier theatre, and cinemas showing the latest moving pictures.
Metal work was encouraged, but so were basket weaving and embroidery, hence the many postcards sent home with intricate needlework. Men suffering from shell shock were encouraged to try their hands at therapeutic basket making, which could possibly be the origin of the expression ‘basket case.’ Men being men, they also had their own entertainment, a comedy troop.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps took over a lot of the cooking roles, it was not unusual for one woman to prepare meals for three hundred men in one sitting. The sheer volume must have been exhausting for them, let alone the preparation and cleaning. Romance for the women would have hard to find in these conditions, as they would have wanted to crawl into bed alone at the end of their shift, in anticipation of another physically demanding day tomorrow.
The admission and discharge registers were destroyed when the camp was demolished, so no records of who received treatment exist. But a few officers were treated here as well as enlisted men. Having served its purpose, in 1922 the government started demolishing the buildings, the roads, removing all traces that the camp had ever existed. By the end of that decade nothing was left, the land had been sold for development, and houses now stood where thousands of troops had got better. Hopefully. Unless they were still full of electricity.