As far as National Trust houses go, Dunham Massey in Cheshire has long been a favourite of ours. As a young child, of course, you don’t take note of the family history, you don't linger enough on the gilt framed paintings, or the priceless silver collection. No, you run around the extensive grounds, wonder at the deer, climb on trees, and finally sit, satisfied, in the cobbled courtyard, with an ice cream. This is, of course, exactly what 9 year olds should be interested in, and I’m not disputing that for one minute. What I would say, however, is that had we been nine years old during the centenary, on a visit to Dunham Massey, we would have stopped, looked up, past the paintings and the ornaments, and paid attention.
That is because Dunham Massey has transformed itself for the centenary, swapping silver candlesticks for bedpans, drinks in the drawing room to rolling bandages, and grand bedrooms for iron framed dormitories. In its place is Stamford Military hospital, which took in 282 soldiers between April 1917 and January 1919.
Nurses making beds and soldiers hobbling around on crutches bring the exhibition to life, not least with their impromptu conversations about matron, or life at the front. Personal touches added to each bedside table, real stories about real men also bring home the truly devastating effect WWI had.
We didn’t just learn about the men at the front, but about their injuries too. From the splint, which revolutionised treatment and brought down the mortality rate of soldiers drastically, to the effects of gas poisoning, and the horrific truths behind shell shock. At the end of the day, what these men really needed was rest, and a good meal.
You also had to commend the nurses working tirelessly to help these men, their stories were equally as interesting. These women had all the courage and the determination of the soldiers themselves, simply fighting on a different battlefield.
The most haunting moment, for us, perhaps, was the makeshift operating theatre, set up at the bottom of the staircase, simply because it was the closest place to a sink, and running water. This is based on a real event, a young solider with shrapnel in his brain was operated on in this very spot, only to die later at a Manchester hospital. As a pool of red was slowly projected onto the white sheets, surrounded by models in surgical dress, you could do nothing but reflect on how it had come to this.
The reason I mentioned our 9 year old selves is because everyone can learn from this. I don’t think anyone will ever truly be able to comprehend the horror of the First World War, both in the trenches or in military hospitals. What Dunham Massey does is help us to understand that these were real men that suffered, fathers, sons, uncles, and brothers. It is a wonderful tribute to those that fought, but also to those men and women who worked tirelessly to bring comfort and peace.