Colchester, Essex (‘Colchester Military Hospital’)

and its JULY 1918  PHOTOGRAPH

The Military Hospital, Colchester. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

The Military Hospital, Colchester. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

Colchester’s ‘General Military Hospital’ was built between 1894 and 1898, on a site adjacent to (to the east of the Sobraon Barracks) – it replaced a 20 hut complex.   The Barracks were named after an 1846 battle in the Punjab.  During peacetime, the hospital treated about 221 patients in 8 traditional wards plus various side rooms.  I will, more often than not, refer to the hospital as ‘Colchester Military Hospital’ as I grew up knowing it by this name.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Colchester Military Hospital was classed as a ‘UK Home Central Hospital’.    Central Hospitals admitted servicemen direct from disembarkation.

In May 1915, the King George Hospital (Ilford) became an approved military hospital with 56 beds – together with its neighbour ‘Valentines Mansion’.    Both institutions were affiliated with General Military Hospital in Colchester and provided 137 beds (119 of which were for military use).  Also affiliated, in 1917, were 240 beds at Whipps Cross Hospital.

Local Voluntary Auxiliary Detachment hospitals and convalescent homes, that had become established when the war began, were also affiliated to the Military Hospital in Colchester.  In a ‘1917 Home Hospitals’ list, there were 60 auxiliary hospitals in the region “under” the Colchester Military Hospital – of which, 42 were within a 20 mile radius of Colchester.

In total, the “sister” site to this (https://greatwarhomehospitals.wordpress.com/) covers 42 establishments within a 20 mile radius of Colchester – involved with treating and offering convalescence to service-men at some point, during the First World War.

In August 1917, patients from the Military Heart Hospital in Hampstead were moved to the Sobraon Barracks in Colchester.   By this time, the Hampstead hospital had become too small to cope with the numbers of soldiers needing treatment and the move saw the total beds, on the combined Sobraon Barracks and Hospital sites, increase from 150 to 700.  It is reported that 150 patients a week were admitted and, in total, 8000 soldiers were treated

Civilian Dr. Thomas Lewis was in charge of this Military Heart Hospital.    The book ‘Sir Thomas Lewis: Pioneer Cardiologist and Clinical Scientist’ by Arthur Hollmann, tells of Thomas Lewis: being a “pioneer cardiologist and clinical scientist”; being awarded with the CBE in January 1920; and being knighted the next year, in recognition of his services.  Sir Thomas Lewis died 17 March 1945.   The functioning of this ‘Military Heart Hospital’ in Colchester is another subject entirely and this is being researched separately.

The Colchester Military Hospital is also mentioned within the book ‘Britain and the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic: A Dark Epilogue’ by Niall Johnson.   Following on from describing how one of the first reports of large-scale influenza infection in Britain (July 1918) was when “nearly 1000 of 3000 German prisoners of war were reported to be ill” in a camp in Hampshire, the author wrote “Towards the end of 1918, a further report mentioned that at Colchester Military hospital a further twenty-eight German prisoners had died.

In the late 1950’s, the hospital began accepting civilian patients.   My father found himself a patient there on two occasions.    As I recall, there was strictly no more than two visitors per bed; strictly-adhered-to visiting times; and strictly no sitting on a bed! The Hospital was demolished c1995 and ‘Abbey Field View’ housing development now stands on the hospital and barracks site. No official archived records for the General Military Hospital have been discovered.

THE JULY 1918  PHOTOGRAPH (marked “No. 2656”) was taken by Panora Ltd. of 60 Doughty Street, London WC.

‘Staff, General Military Hospital, Colchester, July 1918’. Courtesy/© of Heather Anne Johnson

‘Staff, General Military Hospital, Colchester, July 1918’. Courtesy/© of Heather Anne Johnson

Below is a list of descriptions of hospital professions and posts which will be linked to the various 355 persons pictured in the photograph – together with some interesting post-card photographs of Colchester’s General Military Hospital:


The ‘regular’ arm of Q.A.I.M.N.S. was formed in 1902 from the old Army Nursing Service and, apart from hemlines slowly rising, ward uniform remained virtually unchanged until WW2.   Badge design was chosen by Danish-born Queen Alexandra – the symbol of the white cross from the Danish flag.

Q.A.I.M.N.S. REGULAR : MATRON:   Grey serge or alpaca dress, with scarlet cape and scarlet cuffs and white muslin cap. The oval silver service badge is worn on the right lapel of the cape.

Q.A.I.M.N.S. REGULAR : SISTERS:  Grey dresses of ‘washing’ material for normal ward wear, with scarlet cape and white cuffs and white muslin cap.  Two scarlet bands, one inch wide worn on the lower arm above the cuff signifies the rank of Nursing Sister. The oval silver Service badge is worn on the right lapel of the cape. Service stripes on the right forearm, denotes the length of overseas service.   N.B.  There is only 1 (one) ‘Regular’ Q.A.I.M.N.S. Nurse in the Colchester Military Hospital photograph:- a Sister: Front Row, No. 48.

Q.A.I.M.N.S. REGULAR :  STAFF NURSES:  The uniform of the Q.A.I.M.N.S. Staff Nurse was as for the Nursing Sister, except:  Plain sleeves with no scarlet bands.   The service badge (identical in size and shape) was in bronze – on promotion to Nursing Sister this badge was returned and replaced by one in silver.


A permanent reserve for Q.A.I.M.N.S. was formed in 1908 but, pre-war, it was never particularly popular and struggled for members. However, as soon as war was declared, trained nurses flocked to join the military nursing services and more than half of all those accepted became members of Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve.      All Sisters & Staff Nurses in the photograph are Reserves, bar one Sister.

Q.A.I.M.N.S. RESERVE : SISTERS : Seated on right hand side of group:    Grey dresses of ‘washing’ material for normal ward wear, grey cape with scarlet facings and white cuffs and white muslin cap. Two scarlet bands, one inch wide worn on the lower arm above the cuff.   Silver service badge, circular with letter ‘R’ in the centre, worn in the right lapel of the cape. 

Q.A.I.M.N.S. RESERVE : STAFF NURSES : Seated on left hand side of group:    The same description as for the Sisters, except there were no scarlet bands on the sleeves of the dress.  

Ward No. 7 at Colchester Military Hospital. Courtesy of Fabrizio Casale, Colchester Medical Society.

Ward No. 7 at Colchester Military Hospital.  Courtesy of Fabrizio Casale, Colchester Medical Society.


The women in the photograph are a real mixture but it is believed that many are one type or another of General Service nursing VADs.    General Service women took over men’s jobs in military hospitals from 1917 and did the same jobs as the ‘Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps’* – but within hospitals.    (*WAAC 1917–1918: later ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ 1918–1920).       

Voluntary Aid Detachments were first set up in 1909 – providing voluntary field nursing services, mainly in hospitals.  It is believed that VADs did not work in Casualty Clearing Stations – they were kept strictly for Base Hospitals, which were situated further back from the Front Line.  However, later on in the First World War, VADs did work in one or two of the Stationary Hospitals – but never nearer “the Front” than that.

There was a Base Hospital at Étaples in France, as shown in the original photograph below.  Such hospitals were not immune from danger though!  The message on the back of the interior view reads: “The Hospital at Étaples after it was raided.  Three hundred were killed in one night. 18th May 1918.”

A bomb damaged ward at Étaples Hospital. May 1918. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

A bomb damaged ward at Étaples Hospital. May 1918. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

The term ‘VAD’ came to be used for an individual member, as well as a Detachment itself.  Women VADs had to study for certificates in Home Nursing and First Aid during their first year as a pre-war VAD.   Men could be members but they only needed the First Aid Certificate.

After the declaration of war, the British Red Cross and the Order of St John were organised together, under the Joint War Committee.  There was an increase in the numbers of young women joining up as members of their local VAD.   Although all the VADs came under the Joint War Committee, members personally retained their original identity – they were either a Red Cross VAD or a St. John VAD – rather than a J.W.C. one.

After the summer of 1914, about two-thirds of volunteers were women and girls – this was logical, given that men were enlisting and/or being conscripted into the armed services.

VADs had to be between 21 & 48 yrs of age for Home Service and 23 & 42 yrs for Foreign Service.  They were required to live in Quarters provided by Hospital Nursing Staff, under the control and supervision of the Matron.

Initially, VADs were appointed on a month’s probation – a probationer’s salary was the equivalent to £20 per annum.   If approved, they were required to sign a six months’ contract and given an extra 10 shillings.

At the end of every six months, they were free to leave or to sign on for a further period.     Those ‘signing up’ for the duration of the war were eligible for further increment of £2 10s each half year, until they reached the maximum rate of £30 pa.

A VAD was entitled to 7 days’ leave during the first six months of service and 14 days’ leave during the second six months. Logically, leave was granted to suit the demands of the hospital.

If a VAD member was making their way to a Military Hospital or travelling home upon termination of contract, they would receive a First Class railway warrant.  However, if a VAD’s departure was due to misconduct (rather than “health, temperament, or any other reason”) a railway warrant would not be issued.

Likewise, if a VAD decided they wanted to leave part way through a period of service, then they would have to pay their own fare home. There wasn’t much the authorities could do to stop them leaving, but not paying their train fare home was something they could do.

The duties of a VAD were similar to those carried out by probationers/ward maids in Civilian Hospitals. These included nursing duties but also the mundane jobs of cleaning ward tables & patients’ lockers; cleaning ward sinks & ward utensils; dusting/polishing brasses; sorting linen; sweeping; and washing patients’ crockery etc.

VADs had to work alongside trained nursing staff and many later described their experiences with hostile Sisters and Matrons – some of whom found it difficult to handle the volunteers, when they had always been used to a more rigid system within civilian and military hospitals.  But, in the main, VADs proved themselves capable and earned the respect of the qualified nursing staff.

Women who were members of pre-war Detachments, usually had red crosses on their aprons. Some Detachments only sanctioned red crosses on aprons for those women who had already got their certificates.     Others were simply all kitted out in identical aprons – complete with red cross, whatever their status.   It’s never possible to identify nursing VADs solely on the point that they have a red cross on their aprons, as many did not possess them.

The British Red Cross and the St. John organisations retained their difference in uniforms too: the B.R.C. women wore mid-blue dresses and St. John VADs who wore the grey dresses.  The hat style was laid down by the B.R.C. – the army insisted that V.A.D’s did not wear their hats ‘Army Style’ (the floating triangular veils) but should wear the plain ‘Sister Dora’ hats (pre-summer 1915), and then the ‘handkerchief style tied at the nape of the neck’ style after that.  Linen cuffs & collars; and County ‘Arms’ badges & shoulder ‘titles’ were also worn.

During the autumn of 1917, a series of ‘stripes’ were introduced for VADs to wear on the sleeve of their dresses, and there were different colours to signify different things.  White stripes were issued to denote length of service for VADs working for the Joint War Committee, and red stripes to VADs under contract to the War Office to denote that they had been certificated as ‘efficient’ by their Matron and Commanding Officer.

In the Colchester General Military Hospital staff photograph, several of the nurses can be identified as having (what would be in reality) red ‘efficiency’ and white ‘service’ stripes.   N.B. for more information on this subject, please refer to the beginning of  Chapter 2, “2nd Row”.          

WW1 Volunteer Nurses "... In Great Demand". Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

WW1 Volunteer Nurses “… In Great Demand”. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.


The VAD Assistant Nurses usually wore the letters ‘A.N’ in metal on the right strap of their aprons in indoor uniform and on the shoulder straps of their outdoor uniform coats.   Only two “V.A.D. Nurses” and one “Assistant Nurse” have been found named as working at General Military Hospital.

Special Military Probationers and V.A.D. nursing members could be promoted to this post.  They were recommended on efficiency only – not for length of service.    Candidates had to have been already awarded the red efficiency stripe. 


Special Military Probationers were women who had little or no formal training as nurses, and they served under almost identical conditions of service to members of Voluntary Aid Detachments and did similar work.

However, these women were recruited and employed by the War Office, and had no ties with the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and St. John of Jerusalem.   They were ‘attached’ to either the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve or the Territorial Force Nursing Service.

There is evidence (within newspaper ‘mentions’) of Special Probationers working at Colchester’s General Military Hospital (see the Military Hospital chapter on our sister site https://greatwarhomehospitals.wordpress.com/).  They probably would look much like the VAD women.   They would have plain aprons i.e. no red cross.

As with VADs, they could be promoted to Assistant Nurse if they were in possession of two scarlet stripes and considered suitable.   At Colchester’s General Military Hospital, there have only been a handful of Special Probationers identified.

A Colchester Military Hospital ward, date unknown. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

A Colchester Military Hospital ward, date unknown. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.


A handful of nurses in the photograph may qualify as C.H.R. members

The Civil Hospital Reserve was formed in 1910 to supplement nursing services in military hospitals in wartime.    Some of the largest of the United Kingdom’s civil hospitals were invited by the War Office to maintain a register of their trained nursing staff who would offer their services to the War Office, and who would be willing to mobilize on the outbreak of hostilities, on the understanding that their jobs would be protected, and they would be able to return to their former roles at the end of the war.  These women served under the same conditions as, and wore the uniform of, the Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve but did not wear the service badge of the Reserve on their cape.

Many photos of military nurses show women with no service badge on the cape, but not all of these are members of the C.H.R.  Due to metal shortages during wartime there were several periods when service badges for the Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve were in short supply and nurses went many months without badges to wear.  The majority of members of the Civil Hospital Reserve transferred during wartime to Q.A.I.M.N.S. Reserve and finished the war wearing the Reserve service badge. 

With all the afore-mentioned said, identifying women by their uniform is a mine-field …


‘The Almeric Paget Massage Corps’ was formed at the outbreak of WW1, by one Almeric H. Paget and his first wife (American socialite & heiress Pauline Payne Whitney).  They offered the services of 50 trained masseuses to the British War Office.   The offer was accepted and, in September 1914, masseuses began to be appointed to Hospitals.  All had to have the qualification ‘Incorporated Society of Trained Masseuses’ (ISTM).  By November 1914, 50 women were employed in military hospitals.  

The War Office officially recognised the Corps in early 1915 and made it the official body to which all masseurs and masseuses engaged for service in military hospitals should belong.     A total of 56 masseuses/masseurs served in France and Italy between January 1917 and May 1919.

By the time the Armistice was signed (on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918), there were over 2,000 masseuses and masseurs actually at work.   In total, 3,388 men and women had been engaged by the Corps at some point or other during the war – with a peak of 2,000 in 1919.

The ‘Corps’ came to an end in January 1919, when a formal ‘Military Massage Service’ was formed under the auspices of the ‘Army and Pensions Massage Association’.     All members of the Corps were given the option to join the new Service – which was controlled jointly by the War Office and the Ministry of Pensions.

All Almeric Paget Massage Corps members had to possess the qualification ‘Incorporated Society of Trained Masseuses’ (ISTM).

(Much of the afore-given information is courtesy/© of the late Sue Light: 1947-2016)

Colchester Military Hospital postcard, postally used 01 December 1914 – depicting Belgian patients. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

Colchester Military Hospital postcard, postally used 01 December 1914 – depicting Belgian patients. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.


Uniformed soldiers in the group : Officers seated : Other Ranks standing

The Royal Army Medical Corps existed to provide medical services for the Army – at home and abroad.

http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/royal-army-medical-corps-in-the-first-world-war/   enlightens further.

ADDITIONALLY …  … there will be/are:-  Military and Civilian Physicians/Surgeons; Neurologists; Dental Corps dentists; etc.

WW1 Colchester Military Hospital: “Dinner Time” for the soldiers. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

WW1 Colchester Military Hospital: “Dinner Time” for the soldiers. Courtesy of Heather Anne Johnson.

If anyone can identify any person/s in any of the images, please get in touch.  Contact details can be found on the Contact page.