Memories of Brighton during the First World War

This week, to commemorate Remembrance Day, our Heritage Volunteers have been researching what life was like for ordinary people in Brighton during the First World War and the Second World War – and the part that Brighton Dome played.

During a period of the First World War, the Royal Pavilion Estate including the Palace, Brighton Dome and the Corn Exchange were converted into a state of the art military hospital for the treatment of Indian soldiers injured during combat. From 1914 to 1916, over 2000 soldiers were treated there, after which the hospital was given over to the care of British soldiers who had lost their limbs in the war.

But what was life like for the people of Brighton during this time? Here, excerpts of the memories of local residents and visitors help to paint a picture of the thoughts and concerns of ordinary people during extraordinary times.

Taken from Brighton in Diaries:

Henry Peerless, Brighton resident, 1866-1930

23 June 1915

''For some months now, we have lived in a world of war. The piping days of peace, seem a faraway dream of the past. All over England are soldiers training and we have raised an army of three million men."

"Brighton is full of soldiers. The Pavilion has been transformed into a hospital for wounded Indians. The Workhouse and York Place School have been acquired for the same purpose. For hospitals for our own soldiers, we have the New Grammar School and St Marks School. Camps have sprung up all over England. Life has changed and we all have war on our minds. I, hitherto a peaceful citizen, was, on 31st of August 1914, sworn in as a special constable of the Brighton Borough Police, and am now Special Constable no 111 of A Division, and in company of a colleague, patrol the streets three evenings in succession and worry the citizens, principally about obscuring their lights. Also I have become an amateur soldier, having enrolled early in September in the Home Protection Brigade, 1st Battalion, Sussex, and have been drilling and route-marching two or three times a week ever since. We now have uniforms and look like soldiers, and in case of invasion, shall do our bit.''

Lady Cynthia Asquith, visitor, b.1887

During the war, Cynthia was often in Brighton where her children could benefit from the sea air and where she herself loved to bathe.

7 July 1916

''Polly [her maid] and I went down to Brighton by 3:10, the first sort of excitement gone and succeeded by the dreary stage, with sense of desolation gradually soaking through and through. Every wounded soldier here too, seems to have one and often both legs amputated, a perfect nightmare. Had breakfast-dinner in a cafe, and went to bed in horror and misery.''

1 November 1916

''Conscience told me I must do some war work, so I went up to Sussex Square and Lady Seymour introduced me at the depot and I was instructed in the art of swabs, sitting between rather grim Brighton ladies in caps and aprons.''

Author Virginia Woolf, visitor, 1882-1941

''We went to Brighton today; and thus added a pounds worth of pleasure to life.''

7 August 1917

''Queer misty day ---went to Brighton after lunch, German prisoners working in a field by Dod's Hill.''

3 September 1918

''Written on return from our great Brighton Treat… A perfect treat must include a visit to the second hand bookshops, sweets, lunch at Mutton's, the band on the pier, tea at Cowley's, a trail past shops. All these things we did, and we too had a feeling of lightness because of the villages won in France.''

From The Tale of a Boy Soldier, Brighton resident George Parker, 1898-1973, tells his story of joining the army

''One Wednesday on my half day off I suddenly made up my mind, and went into the Recruiting Office which had been opened in Church Road. I do not think I can say that it was patriotism, but my mates had gone, and had the feeling that I was regarded as a kid, too young to do what the others were doing. Inside the Sergeant, asked my age and I boldly said '18 years'. He looked at me with a smile and said, '’Does your mother know that you are 18?'’ He passed me to the Medical Officer, who passed me, the Officer made me take the Oath of Allegiance and I was a soldier at 15 and three quarters."

Having served with The Sherwood Forresters in the trenches of Ypres, the Somme, and been badly wounded twice, he was finally demobalised in 1919:

''I arrived at 74 Hanover Terrace at 2:30am. Of course they were all asleep. Selfishly I suppose, I knocked and knocked, until Dad's voice called to know who was there. I shouted through the letter box,'it's George!' Mum and Dad tumbled out of bed, down the stairs, and what a welcome I had. Poor old Mum said 'I'm so glad you are safe’ and hugged me. Dad was not usually one to show his feelings, but even he was nearly in tears. Yes, it was nice to be wanted!''

Brighton resident Albert Sydney Paul, 1903-1917, describes what childhood in Brighton was like, in Poverty, Hardship but Happiness

''The First World War was declared August 4th 1914 [my age then being 11 years.) Several schools were converted into hospitals for wounded soldiers, the old workhouse in Elm Grove, was converted into 'the Lord Kitchener Hospital'.”

''Brighton Station was the scene of great activity when hospital trains drew up from France, via Dover full of wounded soldiers and a great many stretcher cases. Us school children would get as near as we could to the platforms and see the Royal Medical Corps attending the wounded and loading up the vast number of Red Cross ambulances with stretcher cases etc. All these wounded were still covered in mud and filth from the trench warfare. As these ambulances sped on their way to the various hospitals, us children plus the general public, would clap our hands and cheer the wounded. The Royal Pavilion was converted into an Indian Hospital and a great many soldiers were treated for their wounds. A great many died of their wounds. Their bodies were taken on to the hills of Patcham and cremated. All round the Pavilion were ornamental railings, and fixed to these was a closely boarded wooden fence about 8 feet high [for privacy], to stop the general public from peering in. As some of the Indian soldiers got better ,[a good many had arms and legs amputated], they wanted their freedom and so it became a familiar sight to see a crutch flung over the fence and then another crutch, followed by an Indian soldier with one leg scrambling down the high fence. He would gather up his crutches quickly and off he would go, possibly to visit some friends he had made."

"I would like to add that all wounded soldiers, British or Indian, were dressed in blue, and also red ties. The reason being that they were not allowed inside the public houses. Any publicans found serving beer to any wounded were fined and also liable to have their licences taken away.''

Albert describes a school visit to the military hospital at the Royal Pavilion:

''Us schoolchildren were all lined up in our playground and then marched four-deep through the various streets, down to the Indian hospital. The large iron gates were opened and in we all marched. We were met by a military guide and taken into the hospital wards and received a great welcome from the wounded Indian Soldier , some very badly wounded, others sitting up in their beds and a good many pushing themselves around in wheel chairs. We gave them sweets and cigarettes. From the wards we were taken to the operating theatre and met some doctors who kindly explained to us some of the various implements and gas cylinders etc. From here we were taken to the kitchens and as we passed through we were given a round flat piece of pastry, all nicely rich and brown. This was called chu-pattie, or Indian bread. We were very proud of this, also our visit to the hospital.-When we arrived back at school the next day we had a shock, because we all had to write a composition of our visit. But apart from this, it was a wonderful experience that I have never forgotten.''

Written by Heritage Volunteer Alison Glasheen

For further information on subjects relating to the history of Indian soldiers in Brighton please visit the following resources:

The Royal Pavilion military hospital:

The Sikh Museum:

The Chattri Memorial erected on Brighton Downs: