First World War hospital diaries go online from UK National Archives

Almost 250 war diaries from hospital camps, ships and convalescent centres have been digitised, making them globally available for the first time.

Some of the entries highlight very different attitudes to patient care a century ago, especially those suffering from mental illness.

The diaries cover not only UK forces, but also units from Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand who fought as part of the British Empire.

Veterinary hospitals are included too, a reminder that hundreds of thousands of horses and mules were needed for the war effort.

William Spencer, military records specialist at The National Archives said: 'The diaries provide rare ‘behind the scenes’ accounts of the startling amount of logistics needed to run the war. That is why making these diaries available online is an important project, not just for researchers but for public understanding in bringing to light the full scale of the war.'

Pictures of the sinking of HMHS Anglia, a ferry converted into a hospital ship, sunk by a mine off the Kent Coast in 1915 ( © Crown copyright - image courtesy of The National Archives ADM 1-8443-367)

The documents offer a fascinating, and sometimes shocking insight, into hospital life during the Great War and in the months following the Armstice as ships brought home the wounded. 

There are 'eye-opening accounts' of the treatment of those with mental health conditions and other disabilities, points out The National Archives. 

A diary entry from the hospital ship HMHS Kalyan (WO95/4146/4) notes that a wire cage used to confine patients is 'very satisfactory.'

Elsewhere in the diaries, mentions are made of diseases such as smallpox, scurvy and sexually transmitted infections, as well as burials at sea. An army hospital in France requests permission (WO 95-4123-1 p.21) to provide a cremation site for Indian Hindu soldiers. 

A Russian woman was found to be heavily pregnant and close to giving birth (WO95/4151/2 p. 84).

There are complaints too about hospital food (WO 95/4146/4 p.19).

One of the best known hospital ships was HMHS Anglia, used to carry King George V home after a riding accident during a visit to the Western Front. 

The ship's final diary entry, for October 31st 1915, notes (WO95-4142-1 p.10): "Received order to prepare Officers Ward for the use of HM The King and make such other preparations as might be necessary for his comfort.”

Little more than two weeks later, Anglia, was sunk by a mine in the Channel while approaching the English coast.

The UK National Archives digitised the First World War Hospital Diaries as part of Disability History Month in December 2015. They are part of a large series of records, WO 95, which contains many more diaries scheduled for digitisation as part of The National Archives First World War 100 centenary programme.