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  1. ITV Report

Hidden Histories: The Cambridge site that played a remarkable role in the First World War

The grand tower and impressive academic collection of the University Library in Cambridge has made it a building to be admired. But its grand architecture belies a fascinating history.

The University Library in Cambridge.

One hundred years ago on the very site stood Britain's largest military hospital. And yet, most of those who walk and cycle the backs of Cambridge are completely unaware it ever existed.

The First Eastern General.

The First Eastern General was mobilised just days after the First World War. The railway and existing hospital at Addenbrookes made Cambridge an ideal location for an emergency hospital.

The First Eastern General had 1700 beds and cared for more than 80,000 patients of the Great War.
The hospital beneath the cloisters.

To begin with the hospital was housed in the Leys School and then beneath the cloisters and on the meadows of Trinity College. But on the other side of the backs a 10 acre cricket field was being transformed into an extraordinary hospital complex. Just 10 weeks after the start of the war, the building was complete and ready for its first patients.

A 10 acre cricket field was transformed into an extraordinary hospital complex.

The series of wooden huts was to become a town within a town, complete with its own post office, shop, cinema, chapel and skittle alley. At its peak it had 1700 beds and more than 80,000 casualties of the Great War passed through its doors. And hundreds of local people volunteered to help.

But life within the hospital was tough. Many of the men had horrific injuries. Staff worked long, gruelling hours with little support and little training. Often medical students from the university were drafted in with no clinical practice to administer anaesthetics, carry out amputations and help with as many as 50 operations a day.

As many as 50 operations were carried out a day.
Patients arriving by train.

The wards too were open on one side in the belief that pure air and direct sunlight helped recovery. Patients, staff and volunteers alike told tales of turning blue with cold and of snow lying on the patients' beds.

Many of the men had horrific injuries.

But despite this, the hospital was heralded as a great contribution to the war effort and was visited by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and the royal family. King George V visited twice.

King George V visited the hospital twice.
The buildings became temporary housing.

When the war finished so too did the hospital. But with a chronic housing shortage and thousands of servicemen returning from the Frontline without homes, the buildings were to be used for another form of recovery. From December 1919 for the next decade, the buildings became temporary housing and 800 families lived on the site.

But by 1929, the tenants had moved out and the huts were taken apart. A new phase was beginning. In October 1934 the new University Library building was opened by George V. But in his speech the King made no mention of the hospital he'd visited less than 20 years before. It was a deliberate forgetting of a painful past.

As the next generations looked forward to a new age, stories of the hospital, its patients, staff and volunteers began to fade. This new iconic building had wiped away not just the huts of the First Eastern General, but the memories too.

Click below to watch Tanya Mercer's report:

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