I currently have the pleasure of driving a meandering country route to work. The roads are often so narrow that I have to pull over to allow cars (and often tractors) to continue on from the opposite direction. My drive takes me past stone farmhouses, ancient forests, and a vista of gently rolling farmland that’s punctuated with the steeples of village churches.
The looming pale structure was largely hidden from the road, and I only spotted it today after reading an old Sawtry resident’s account of visiting “Whitehall” in 1949 near Archer’s Wood. Just before reaching the Wood, I peered around for a manor house that could be the one in the story. Sure enough, there was an “imposing building,” with “tall brick chimneys” as described by “V. Woodbridge.”
Whitehall was, in fact, Whitehall Convalescent Hospital, which took care of wounded soldiers who had slogged it out in the trenches of France in World War I, or The Great War, as it’s known. Although the hospital could only treat about 25 soldiers at a given time, it was reported to have taken care of upwards of 650 wounded servicemen in the span of three years.
Private J. McWilliams, a soldier from the 14th Canadians, recounted the action that landed him in Whitehall in a letter home dated March 16, 1918:
“…Got my wound in a bombing raid at Avion trench, near Lens. One of the German trench bombs fell within a few yards of me and I got several pieces in the legs and thigh. Fritz came over about four o’clock in the morning, just before daylight, after a preliminary bombardment by trench mortars and got quite close to our trench before we spotted him. His first bomb landed right square among the machine gun crew, wounding several of us. But we were able to spot where he was and get the gun in action before he could get into our trench…”
Many of the nurses came from nearby Sawtry village area and volunteered their time because the hospital reportedly did not receive much, if any in government funding. During the years it operated as a hospital, the staff and patients would perform in village halls to raise funds. According to Alan Bottell, a historian who has been researching Whitehall, these performing patients were called “Blue Boys” because of their distinctive uniforms, which apparently prevented the poor wounded blokes from getting into pubs.
“…There were times when soldiers also couldn’t go into pubs. In fact, the landlord at the George in Huntingdon was fined for letting soldiers drink. She was lucky not to lose her licence.”
Interestingly, The George was the same inn I stayed at in my April visit to the area, and while pleasant enough, may have relinquished a bit of its charm since 1918 as it is now part of a U.K.-wide chain of inns.
Whitehall is a good distance from Huntingdon and Peterborough, the two closest towns of note, and Whitehall is on a remote road in a very rural area. Even though the traffic from the bustling A-1 motorway is a short distance away, you can’t help but feel the solitude of the area. I can only imagine what it was like a hundred years ago.
“This is a fine part of England I am in, and I will be rather sorry to leave it,” wrote Pvt. McWilliams. “It is about 9 miles away from any town, so is rather quiet. The nearest town is a place called Huntington. Peterborough is the nearest large town, and is famous for its cathedral, which is one of the oldest in England… Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catherine of Aragon, were buried there. She was beheaded at Forthingay, which is not far from here.”