Monday, 16 June 2014

Sanctuary from the Trenches 1917-18

This weekend while staying in Cheshire, we visited the National Trust property, Dunham Massey, near Altringham. During the last two years of the First World War, this impressive house and its grounds became the Stamford Military Hospital which provided care and treatment for 282 soldiers sent home from the front following often horrific injury.

To commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the war in 1914 a special display Sanctuary from the Trenches had been set up in rooms of the house. I found this deeply moving. There was a graphic but simple introduction which described the horrors experienced by the soldiers in the trenches - the mud, the cold, the infestation by rats and lice, and of course the imminent danger of injury and death that haunted every man day and night.

In one room of the house, a ward had been set up as it would have been in 1917. There were quotes from injured soldiers as well as nurses and doctors printed onto the pillows of the beds or onto the wooden furniture beside them. I found the simplicity of this presentation particularly vivid and powerful.

The quotes were taken from various sources, including some from Forgotten Voices of the Great War. This is a compelling record put together by the Imperial War Museum and edited by Max Arthur. It records the events of the war in the words of those who experienced it and has become the most important archive of its kind in the world.

In the gardens surrounding the house, we found two simple but beautiful sculptures erected to commemorate the soldiers who found refuge in Stamford Military Hospital. The first we came across was a simple structure consisting of 282 individually cast concrete cubes, one for each soldier, and stamped with his admission number.

Further on, on top of a small hill overlooking the lake, was a wooden construction printed with poetry written by the soldiers who were treated at the hospital. The poems were written in autograph books belonging to two members of the Dunham family, Lady Stamford and Lady Jane Grey.

Despite everything he'd suffered, one soldier wrote these gentle and optimistic words ...

... an extraordinary display of faith and hope in unimaginably harsh and desperate times.


  1. The printing of soldiers words on pillows and the wood of the furniture, is brilliant ... I would love to see this one day. Thanks for showing this.

    1. It was a small exhibition, but very moving. The printing of words on pillows together with a sound tape activated as you approached the bed made the soldiers seem to be there ... and yet not there ... like the spirits of themselves echoing down over the 100 years to tell of the horrors they'd witnessed ... extraordinary. I won't forget it in a long time.

  2. Sounds like an excellent exhibition Charlton. Only wish I could see it for myself. Love the idea of the words on pillows and chairs - imagine it was quite a moving and engaging exhibit.

    1. It was very moving, especially as it was in one of the houses actually used during the war and actors were present in the house acting out small tableaux to give even more poignancy.


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