Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot
Army

The Proud History Of Aldershot's Forgotten Military Hospital

In recent years it could be argued that Aldershot's Cambridge Military Hospital has become better known for its state of disrepair than its...

Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot

In recent years, it could be argued that Aldershot's Cambridge Military Hospital has become better known for its state of disrepair than its proud history.

But you will not find many better examples of Britain's rich military history than this famous institution.

Here's a few facts that you might not have known about it...

1. It was the first base hospital to receive Western Front casualties during WWI

 

Western Front - British officer writing home
Picture: National Library of Scotland

Opened on 18 July 1879 and named after Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria, the Hampshire hospital was state-of-the-art in its day.

It was originally used to serve Aldershot's various Army camps but really came into its own in the First World War.

During this conflict, it became the first base hospital to receive some of the many casualties from the Western Front.

The new medical challenges that this brought about were to lead to pioneering advancements being made there. In fact...

2. It's been described as the birthplace of plastic surgery in the British Empire

 

WWII 'Guinea Pig Club' veterans
The treatment of 'Guinea Pig Club' members, who underwent pioneering reconstructive surgery in WWII, has its origins at the Cambridge Military Hospital

Although medical practitioners have shown an interest in plastic surgery since the time of Ancient Egypt, it was at the Cambridge Military Hospital that modern techniques were first pioneered.

British military doctor Captain Gillies (later Sir Harold Gillies) opened the Empire's first plastic surgery unit there in 1915, before treating troops disfigured in the catastrophic Battle of the Somme the following year.

New-Zealand born surgeon Sir Harold is generally considered to be the father of modern plastic surgery.

He persuaded the Army's chief surgeon, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, to establish the hospital's facial injury ward, where more than 11,000 operations were performed on more than 5,000 men.

Most were soldiers with facial injuries, usually caused by gunshot wounds. 

Other ground-breaking work is reported to include the supply of portable operating theatres and supplies for frontline duties.

And it did not end with the First World War. The hospital was also one of Britain's first military hospitals to have Army nurses on standby to care for the wounded and injured of World War Two.

3. Its pioneering past has left it with some interesting quirks...

 

Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot - main corridor

The hospital is reported to have been built on a hill because contemporary thinking was that the wind would sweep away infection and 'clean' the air. 

It's also famous for its extremely long main ground floor corridor (see above). Extending as far as the eye can see, it's a quarter of a kilometre from one end to the other.

The thinking behind the design was to have a series of self-contained wards for different regiments, all joined onto one corridor, with the hope that this could reduce cross-infection.

By the time the hospital opened, however, it had been decided to have areas of treatment based on patients' illnesses or wounds, rather than their cap badge. 

4. It was still helping to treat soldiers during the Gulf War

 

Gulf War oil well fires - Operation Desert Storm

The Cambridge Military Hospital boasts the impressive distinction of having treated troops from both the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Gulf War (1990-1991).

During the latter conflict, the hospital's staff were mobilised as 33 Field Hospital to Jubail, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, as part of Britain's 'Operation Granby'.

5. We don't know who built it

 

Blueprints

We know that the hospital was built by Messrs Martin Wells and Co. of Aldershot and opened in 1879.

It's also been reported that construction cost £45,758 (around £5 million in today's money).

But the identity of the architect responsible for designing arguably the town's best-known landmark is unknown - other than that they were probably a Royal Engineer.

6. It's reported to be haunted

 

The hospital is said to have a 'grey lady ghost' on its upper floor.

This type of spirit has been described as a 'ghostly apparition', appearing most often at night, with witnesses seeing a ghostly image briefly flit past.

The Cambridge Military Hospital's ghost is said to haunt the upper floor between wards 10 and 14, with nurses and car assistants on night shifts in years gone by reportedly taking the stairs and walking between certain wards to avoid the spooky section of corridor.

The story goes that the ghost was a member of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, who threw herself off the upper floor walkway after giving a soldier a fatal, accidental drug overdose.

Syringe

It's been speculated that the Grey Lady could be attempting to perform her nursing duties in death, helping the dying move on to the next life, as sightings always seemed to coincide with a very ill or dying patient.

Either way, witnesses often reported the corridor being freezing cold - no matter how high the heating was turned up - with one policeman reportedly having said that the hairs on the back of his head always stand on end when he patrols the now-empty hospital.

Want to see for yourself? This Halloween Forces Network will be running a live stream from the abandoned hospital to try to catch a glimpse of the Grey Lady...

If you are interested in finding out more, you can read some accounts of ghostly goings-on at the hospital here...

With thanks to Sophie Garrett for photography.

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