It’s Friday the 21st March, just after the Equinox. There is an odd camaraderie at New Headingley Club, between Leeds Rhinos rugby fans about to head off to cheer on their team, and LitFest fans here to listen in contrasting silence to Stories from the War Hospital, a performance and introduction to the book of the same name.
Headingley LitFest 2014 is sub-titled Surviving, and Richard Wilcocks’ painstakingly researched volume pays tribute not only to some of those who survived the First World War, but those of the 2nd Northern General Hospital at Beckett Park, Leeds, who tirelessly worked to save and rebuild the lives of those back from the front in a bad condition.
Richard introduces the book, a collection of true stories of sick and wounded soldiers, nurses, doctors and volunteers. There are clearly members of the audience who are very invested in this publication, as murmurs and even shout-outs about military acronyms and familiar names mingle with this introductory piece. One of the audience is introduced as an interviewee for the book. There is a sense of pomp and circumstance that belies the plain and basic trim of the wooden block stage and identical folding chairs; this volume has evidently been a labour of love and great effort, and the people involved are proud to see it come to fruition.
The performance itself is brought to us by The Vedettes, who are Richard, Katharina Arnold, Charlotte Blackburn and Hannah Robinson. The three women are in period nurse’s uniforms, although the wide range of roles they each take steps far outside this costume choice. The performance focuses on three of the stories from the book: the stories of Robert Bass, Dorothy Wilkinson and Margaret Anna Newbould. Imagine snapshots of the period brought to life for a brief moment; there is this sense that we are looking through a lens into the past, into tiny fragments of these peoples’ lives. I think this is accentuated by the fact that these are completely true stories; the events have been retold by descendants of the protagonists; the dialogue is from the retelling of those closest to the events.
Katharina introduces the performance with a piece on acoustic guitar. The guitar is then used as a break to indicate the beginning of each new story. Music of the time is also included as part of the stories, again creating this snap shot feel; people standing together and singing, people at Christmas sitting together carolling; all little snippets of everyday life that hammer home how real, how horrifyingly accurate the descriptions of the sickness, the suffering, the wounds and the wailing really are. At one point Hannah is rocking backwards and forwards screaming, and I shiver to think of how much worse the volunteers at Beckett Park must have had it; not just one screaming soldier, but hundreds, many with no hope except the consolation that kind words and the promise of a letter home can give.
We learn of Robert Bass, the soldier who survived wounds to the leg and shoulder, only to have a shell mutilate his jaw, teeth and face. The vivid imagery of this- severed lip, smashed jaw, destroyed teeth- is hard hitting and reminds us not only of the catch all phrase ‘horror of war’ but that conflict is not the large and faceless concept many of us presume it to be, but a visceral process that obliterates individuals’ hopes, dreams and souls; in short, everything that makes them human. My friend Jonathan notes that the often the numbers for ‘Dead and Wounded’ are lumped together, as these are all people who can no longer be fed into the war machine; in short, a wounded man is as useful to the military as a dead man.
Thankfully, this performance, and in turn, the book it comes from, shows us that lives can be restored, and that the de-humanising process is not irreversible in every case. Robert undergoes revolutionary plastic surgery at Beckett’s Park, and indeed finds something of a happy ending… Well, I won’t spoil the story utterly, go read the book!
Charlotte plays the role of Nurse Margaret Anna Newbould, a nurse at Beckett Park who became Acting Matron of the Formosa, a hospital ship that carried casualties from the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Vedettes create a gut wrenching image of the sweat, sickliness and overall sordidness of life on board a ship overfull of the dead and dying. You can feel the heat and the hopelessness. Margaret was much decorated for her service, and one can’t help but feel that a medal is the least someone deserves for being one of the only bright lights in these poor souls’ existence…
Katharina and Hannah play the couple Dorothy Wilkinson and Clifford Pickles: sweethearts torn apart by war, and then damaged further by Clifford’s onset of shell shock. This for me is the most heart wrenching story; psychological trauma is an enemy one cannot fight with bullets and aggression, and of course in the time of the First World War, little was known about how to treat it. Both performances here are strong, human and touching.
As the show finishes, I’m left with a conflicting set of emotions; once more I am shown the grim reality of war, yet to see these close ups of the people affected most strongly by it is something of a privilege. I feel like I have been invited to see behind the scenes of a great play, and am not disappointed by the backdrops and actors. Richard points out, that out of nearly 500 staff that would certainly have worked in the War Hospital, we know of only a very few in detail. Yet it gives me hope that these stories are now recorded for future generations; not only so we don’t forget the shocking reality of the effects of war, but so we can remember how great, how resilient the human spirit is, and how there truly are those who work tirelessly for the good of others.
If you are interested in obtaining a copy of Stories from the War Hospital please email firstname.lastname@example.org . A donation of £10 plus postage is recommended.
Picture credit in link.
(c) Mabh Savage 2014