England

WW1: Eastbourne camp where war wounded got better to fight

Summerdown Camp Image copyright Eastbourne Borough Council
Image caption At its peak Summerdown Camp could house 3,000 injured soldiers

In 1915, a camp opened at the foot of the South Downs to treat soldiers damaged by trench warfare. Its aim was simple - make them well enough to face the horrors of war again.

At this task Summerdown Camp, in Eastbourne - the largest of its kind in the UK during World War One - was spectacularly successful.

Of the 150,000 injured and sick soldiers who passed into the camp, 80% were sent back to fight.

The camp opened its gates on 8 April 1915, primarily as a place to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock and the ill effects of gas attacks.

Its impact on the East Sussex seaside town a century ago would have been huge.

Hundreds of men, dressed in a distinctive blue uniform, would have been a familiar sight on the streets.

Image copyright Eastbourne Borough Council
Image caption The men were mainly British with some from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand

Katherine Buckland, heritage officer at Eastbourne Borough Council, said the men - who became known as the "blue boys" - were well treated by the people of the town.

"Wearing the blue uniform identified them as soldiers who had been to war and were injured," she said.

"It stopped them being confused with conscientious objectors.

"If they hadn't have been wearing their uniform - and looked like men of a fighting age - they may have been given a white feather.

"Most importantly, the blue uniform got them out of their lice-infested, blood-encrusted khaki uniform."

Image copyright Eastbourne Borough Council
Image caption The soldiers were a familiar sight on the streets of Eastbourne
Image copyright Eastbourne Borough Council
Image caption Soldiers would be kept busy to help treat them against the effects of shell shock

Ms Buckland said there were so many wounded soldiers coming back to the UK they had to be taken somewhere.

"But, it must be remembered that its primary purpose was to get soldiers fit again to go back to the trenches," she said.

"The problem was that the soldiers knew what they were going back to. When they first went to the front, they were positive, but the second time they had already experienced the horrors of that war.

"About 80% of the soldiers that were there were sent back to the trenches. For the army, their primary concern was to get them fit again as quickly as possible."

Image copyright Google
Image caption There are no traces left of the camp which has been built over with houses

To do this, the camp focused on occupational therapy to keep the men busy, with them taking up the likes of metal work, embroidery and basket weaving. A camp newspaper was created along with a comedy troop.

When the war ended, the camp continued treating soldiers for a couple years before closing.

By 1922 though, the government had started selling off the buildings, fittings and even drainage pipes.

The whole place was stripped and nothing apart from two road names - the Old Camp Road and Summerdown Road - remain today.

An exhibition about the camp is being held in Eastbourne until November to recall Summerdown's place in history.

Ms Buckland said: "It would have had such an impact on Eastbourne at the time, but by 1922 it was all gone."

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