To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War we feature two novels which explore the effect of injury on the lives of returning soldiers and their families and friends. We also highlight the collection of The Southern Cross - the journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital. This Birmingham University based hospital was pioneering in treating the war wounded, a tradition continued to the present day through the work of the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young
My Dear, I wanted to tell you... So begins a message from Riley to his sweetheart Nadine. A standard-issue postcard allowed those injured on the battlefield to tell their loved-ones back home they had been wounded with a choice of 'slight' or 'serious'. In Riley's case he is less than honest. In reality "Half of my face is missing... Missing in action... still in the filthy mud of Passchendaele."
It is unclear whether their relationship, already threatened by their different backgrounds will survive such as devastating injury but hope comes in the form of renowned plastic surgeon Major Harold Gillies. This part of the novel takes the work of this real-life medical pioneer and weaves it into a profound story of heartbreak and bravery.
Novelist Louisa Young was drawn to the subject after researching the life of her grandmother, Kathleen Scott, wife of the Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Scott. As a sculptor, she was employed to make casts of soldiers' scarred faces so that they could be rebuilt.
Louisa Young's follow up novel, The Heroes' Welcome takes us on to 1919 and the repercussions of The Great War. While physical wounds may be healing, emotional scars run deeper. The bravery of suffering in silence, of not remembering are here transformed into another kind of battle.
Military Medicine in Birmingham - Past and Present
With the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 2010, Birmingham acquired a state of the art facility for military patients. This followed a city tradition going back to before the First World War. Plans for the 1st Southern General Hospital were established in 1909 when it was decided to use the new University of Birmingham buildings as a hospital in case of war. On 1 September 1914 the first 120 casualties of The Great War arrived. Over time other buildings were brought into use as outposts for the main hospital including Highbury and Uffcolme, former homes of Joseph Chamberlain and Richard Cadbury respectively.
The Archives, Heritage and Photography section of the Library of Birmingham holds a fascinating collection of the The Southern Cross journal produced by patients and including satirical drawings, poems and articles. These can be viewed by appointment in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research.
A major new exhibition, Voices of War, opens in The Gallery at the Library of Birmingham on 29 September 2014 as part of the 'Voices' season. The exhibition will explore the experiences of men at the Front, the war’s impact on children and families, the contribution of black and Asian soldiers from across the empire, the changing role of women on the Home Front, Birmingham’s industrial support for the war effort, and debates around patriotism and pacifism in the city. The exhibition will be complemented by a programme of talks and events, online resources, and an accompanying book.
The First World War online
Find out more about our collections with these selected online galleries including silk embroidered postcards and song cards.
Central image above
Cover of The Journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital
View by appointment in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research