“To restore to health and strength those who have done so much for their country” – the First World War and Aberdeen Royal Infirmary

Aberdeen Royal Infirmary quickly felt the pressure following the outbreak of war in August 1914, not least as a result of many of its staff leaving for military duty.  The annual report for 1914 begins with the statement that “owing to the wars the work has had to be conducted in circumstances unprecedented in the history of the Institution.  The Medical Superintendent, and practically the whole of the Honorary Medical and Surgical Staff, were liable for military duty, in connection with the R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps], Territorial Force, or a la Suite Staff of the 1st Scottish General Hospital.”

What the report doesn’t go into great detail about is that much of the Infirmary was set aside for use as the 1st Scottish General Hospital, which was spread across many buildings in Aberdeen including schools.  It’s clear that the high number of staff who were on military duty had a great effect on the running of the Infirmary, and the report notes that “considering the abnormal conditions, and the unexpectedness with which they arose, the Directors have reason to believe that the work of the infirmary has (as they earnestly endeavoured to arrange) been maintained with a minimum of inconvenience to all interests concerned, and they desire cordially to recognize the fact that this has been in large measure achieved by the zeal and willing co-operation of the various officials and staffs.  They desire in this connection to make special mention of the services of Mr. Scott Riddell, Senior Surgeon to the Infirmary, and of Miss Edmonson, the Matron.  Mr. Scott Riddell kindly undertook the duties of Interim Honorary Superintendent, and has rendered valuable service in the formulating and carrying out of the various arrangements which had to be made to meet the altered conditions.  Many extra duties have fallen to Miss Edmonson, and it is in a great measure due to her efficiency and indefatigable labours that the work has been so satisfactorily carried on.  Grateful acknowledgement is also due to owners of motor cars and ambulances, members of the Ambulance Corps, the Boys’ Brigade, Boy Scouts, and all others who in many ways have rendered assistance in the transport of sick and wounded to the Infirmary.”

What this demonstrates is the logistical side of how things were being dealt with on the home front, and that people from all aspects of life were assisting with the unprecedented events taking place far away from the front line.

Also mentioned in the report is that the Infirmary was also being used for out-patients from the Royal Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children, following their move from Castle Terrace to Kepplestone House.  This also added extra pressure onto the Infirmary, though staff from the Sick Children’s Hospital were used.

By 1915, while things were still difficult for the Infirmary things do appear to have settled, with the annual report for that year stating that “the conditions under which the work of the Hospital has had to be conducted have remained practically similar to those described in last year’s Report.  The prolongation of the war, and the great demand for doctors, have made it almost impossible to obtain qualified Resident Medical Officers, and the Infirmary, in common with other Hospitals, has had to be content with a greatly reduced number of qualified Residents and to accept the assistance of final year students.  With the co-operation of the Honorary Staff, however, this difficulty has not prevented the work of the Infirmary from being satisfactorily overtaken.”

GRHB 1 ARI Annual Report 1915

Beds in the Infirmary were being used by  the Admiralty, as well as by the 1st Scottish General Hospital, and the report notes that a number of sick and wounded soldiers from the Fleet had been treated.  As such, the Infirmary Directors resolved to request a payment of 2s 6d per day from the Government for the Naval and Military patients treated, a practice, the report records,  which was “made for all Service patients, and is being paid to all the large hospitals in London and the provinces.”
It wasn’t only the cost of treating patients which was being felt by the Infirmary, the cost of other provisions was also rising.  The report notes that “bur for the exceptionally numerous gifts of this nature, the increase [in payments for commodities] would have been substantially larger.  From among the many received the following call for special mention, viz., those – including highly-priced articles such as butter and eggs – from the Red Cross Commissioner N.E. District (Mr Scott Riddell), and the allocation made to the Infirmary from consignments sent by the Government of Queensland, and distributed by the Agent General in London.  The Directors wish to assure all who contributed in this form that their welcome gifts materially reduced the Hospital expenses.”

Donations also feature heavily in the report for 1916, with special mention being made of “£150 given anonymously to cover any expenses involved in complying with the restricted lighting regulations; £100 received from an Aberdeen lady, resident in Honolulu, towards the maintenance of beds occupied by wounded; and £125 from the Alexandra Day Committee.”

Costs were rising, and the report notes that this is most noticeable on “butcher meat, milk, sugar and coal – all absolutely indispensable for the Infirmary.“  They go on to note that “the receipt of numerous contributions of supplies from various sources has also again materially diminished the cost of provisions.”

Staffing problems remained, not least because “several members of the Staff, who a year ago were able to give part time to the Infirmary, have left for Military Service abroad. This further depletion has thrown much additional work on those remaining.  The readiness with which they have given themselves to the service of the Infirmary has afforded much gratification to the Directors, and they make very cordial acknowledgement of it.”

The 1917 annual report continued to mention the staffing problems and increasing costs, and there was a change to the paper it was printed on as a result.  By 1918, though the war had ended, the Directors note that “the Report is issued in a short form this year, the reason being that the Directors felt that they would be justified in curtailing its size, having regard to the continued abnormal cost of issuing it in the usual extended form.”

While the end of the war isn’t directly mentioned, the loss of Dr James Robertson in March 1918 “is recorded with much sorrow. Dr Robertson had been a member of the Infirmary Staff from 1st May, 1904, to 30th April, 1905, as a Resident Medical Office, and from 25th May, 1910, as an Assistant Anaesthetist. In both capacities he rendered excellent and much-appreciated work.”

The return of staff from military duty is noted, though many were still deployed.  The difficulties encountered during the war by the Infirmary were great, and the Directors record that “the carrying on of the Infirmary under war conditions has imposed a very severe strain upon the Officials and Staff in every department.  Their loyal co-operation with the Board and with each other has largely conduced to the successful surmounting of many difficulties, and the Board extend to them very cordial acknowledgement of what they have done.”

While the war may have been over, the work of the Infirmary towards service men continued, as they were “admitting Discharged Disabled Sailors and Soldiers for whom the treatment required could only be effectively given in fully-equipped hospitals.  Up to the end of the year 122 of these men had been admitted.  In thus associating the Infirmary with the efforts being made to restore to health and strength those who have done so much for their country, the Directors felt they would have the cordial approval of the Managers and Subscribers alike.”

The story of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary during World War One is only a small part of the North East of Scotland’s history at that time.  Over the course of November, more information on how other hospitals in the North East dealt with not only the lack of staff, but also an increase in patients, will be published as part of the centenary of the end of the war on 11th November 1918.



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