Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital

 January 29, 1944


The war had not affected Captain Brown and his wife but for the deprivation of small luxuries. They had experienced no direct suffering. But tonight, taking the train from Southampton up the coast of southern England to Netley, Hants, Captain Brown could see that assumptions of safety, for him at least, had altered. What little could be glimpsed of Southampton, a port city and former seaside spa, was a gutted wasteland; he had been told its inhabitants slept out in surrounding fields at night, in fear of the Luftwaffe, their bombs.

Twelve minutes past nine, with his destination some miles away and the train compartment unheated, unlit, and, worse for him, without toilet facilities, Captain Brown could only hope that the cramping in his stomach would diminish and not worsen. Aside from his present staff, Captain Hayden, and Ensigns Breathwit and Poole, the compartment was empty. He looked out the window, not at the cold rise of hills or the ruins of Netley Abbey he knew were out there, but at his own reflection, patched and watery, a face exhausted by relentless travel, the two-week crossing on the Queen Mary from New York harbor to Gourock, Scotland, a ghost train to London, another from Euston and Waterloo stations to Southampton, and now this final leg to Netley, where he was to take command of a hospital he had never seen and prepare it to receive Allied casualties from a massive future operation in Normandy, France.

Captain Brown stared past his reflection, picturing the English countryside as he had almost sentimentally envisioned it for years. He was particularly interested in the medieval ruins of Netley Abbey, and wondered if he would have time during this post to visit the site. In his right hip pocket he felt the slim, maroon spine of the leather-bound volume of Shakespearean sonnets, a Christmas gift from his wife. Captain Brown was an unabashed Anglophile, and to relax from his grueling duties as a surgeon and hospital director, he took habitual refuge in reading English histories and literature, particularly the English poets, from Chaucer, Dryden, and Donne to Byron, Coleridge, and Keats, only sometimes favoring poets of the new century, like Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, or T. S. Eliot, a native-born American like himself. He had discovered his passion for things English as a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin, finding British poetry’s exquisite language, emotional restraint, and passionate inquiry deeply consoling. A man of no discernible emotion—others saw him as taciturn, enigmatic, even a bit forbidding—Captain Brown had learned to reserve his feelings, not to invest in them beyond those hours when he would read his poets, and even then, it was as if he were only glimpsing the possibilities of his own heart, camouflaged, protected, within the lyrical meter and verse of English poetry.

A descendent of German immigrants, farmers, teachers, and merchants who had settled in the rural village of Plum City, Wisconsin, Captain Brown had already risen beyond the modest expectations of his relatives. His impressive height, six feet three inches, and dark-featured handsomeness, in favoring him physically, had helped to propel him from a fate of farm labor or petty commerce into a promising career as a naval surgeon. He was initially assigned to hospitals in Haiti and Guam, then Florida and Philadelphia, but had now been given this post, which, judging by its secrecy and haste, had the markings of something major in the war.

He glanced at his watch; two hours to traverse only six miles. He could have bicycled to his destination faster. Perhaps the dyspepsia in his stomach was the active, acidic realization that not only had he been entrusted by the Surgeon General of the Navy, Admiral McIntire, with this command, but that how well he managed to acquit himself would determine his future, whether he would swiftly climb ranks or be sent to some sleepy backwater post never to be heard from again. Either fate depended on his surviving this particular assignment, and there was doubt as to whether he would, given the Germans’ relentless bombing campaign over Southampton’s coastline. As his marriage had provided him security but little true happiness, all Captain Brown had was his career to derive satisfaction from. The slim, calfskin volume, with its stamped gilt lettering, a wartime extravagance, curved to the shape of his hip, a rich pressure, as the train’s brakes squealed, signaling a stop. In the seats opposite him, his companions stirred. In just a few moments, he knew they would look to him, their commanding officer, for direction, instruction, morale. His bowels writhed and a cloudy, copperish taste crept into his mouth. Even as the train lurched clumsily forward, as if newly indecisive about halting, Captain Brown rose to his full height, his head grazing the roof of the train’s compartment. It was important to be the first to stand, to silently rehearse the few words he would say as they began their mission in England together. Hardly Henry V’s rousing speech before Agincourt, but more along the lines of: “Here we are, gentlemen. Netley, Hants. Let us see what awaits us, and hope it is not too bad.”

*

All Captain Brown knew was that he was to assume command of an English hospital that had been declared an unmitigated architectural disaster by half the British Parliament in 1863. The Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale, had condemned the vast stone folly as a meaner foe of England’s soldiers than the whole of the enemy’s combined artillery and force.

His first night spent on the property of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Captain Brown lay in all his clothes, save for his shoes, on the leather-upholstered, mahogany dining table that served as his bed, and shivered beneath a rough, military-issue gray woolen blanket. They were housed that first night not in the main building, but in a nearby Family Hospital, since its single room, besides the kitchen, was reliably heated, or so they had been told. As far as Captain Brown could tell, the heat was pure fiction. He listened to the wet, staggered snores of his companions, who were strewn about the room on hard sofas, and to Captain Hayden, twitching in dream, cur-like, on the floor beside the nonfunctioning hearth. Because of his height, Captain Brown had elected to sleep, laid out like a Christmas calf, on the Chippendale-legged table, and now, though his stomach seemed to have settled, his neck ached sharply, as though a blunt ax had been taken to it. He sat up, slipped off the table’s rounded edge, and, with his blanket shawled around him and shoes gripped in one hand, crept stocking-footed into the second room, a freezing, cupboard-sized kitchen.

From his years as a medical student, Captain Brown had trained himself to wake at least an hour before the world had any need of him and to study neither medical nor German language texts nor, later, military texts, but to read poetry or history, sometimes both, and indeed there were rare periods when he was compelled to write poetry of his own, though he never showed it to anyone and never dared to think he had any real gift for it. His poetry, he knew, was all vicarious imitation. So though he had hardly slept, he was still up in the predawn darkness of southern England, tiptoeing into the kitchen and finding a place to sit at a small table near an uncurtained window through which he could see a black, shaggy bulwark of trees, cedars, on the other side of which, he assumed, was the main hospital. Just as there was no heat, there was no electricity, so in the day’s first light, he attempted to read but found the print too small to make out. Even turning the thin pages, his surgeon’s fingers felt thick and stiff with cold. He returned the book to his back pocket, rose, and quietly searched inside the cabinets for a teakettle, matches, something to warm him, but found nothing.

He then wished he had a bit of paper on which to pen a letter to his wife. Augusta had made him promise to write daily; he had never gone so far from her before, and not during wartime. If his hospital fell to the Germans, he wanted her to have at least the consolation of a few letters from him, wanted to give her at least this remnant of himself, a few pages of his turbulent, sloping, half-graceful script, proof he had been thinking of her.

Captain Brown did not love his wife. They had met in medical school while she was training (though she would never practice) as a nurse. They were from neighboring rural towns in Wisconsin, both from German farm families, and from the beginning, though he had felt none of the soul-stirring passion he had read about and listened to friends suffer willingly over, still, theirs was an affectionate, near-filial bond. She nettled him teasingly, about his awkward height and a social temerity that looked like pride or, worse, arrogance, and he liked to watch her, indulgently, as one would any fey, charming creature—her diminutive near-frailty appealed to him, along with her marcelled auburn hair, ivory skin, and large gray eyes behind thick glasses. So a daily letter to “Dearie” would hardly be a chore, it would be an anchor on himself, a gauge of what he was thinking, a tether to a less violent world, a habit to calm and batten down his morbidly anxious mind.

But there was no bit of paper on which to write to Augusta, just as there was no light to read from the book of verse she had slipped into his pocket, a surprise parting gift.

Perhaps a walk would warm, or at least distract, him. He had a sudden desire to see his hospital, to view it from the outside at least, before the others woke, before the formalities of command and disciplines of wartime set in. A momentarily free man, he would walk the grounds, view the hospital, gain his own first, private impressions.

He slipped on and tied his shoes, buttoned up his jacket, and, snugging the rough blanket around his shoulders, ducked through the kitchen’s back door and stepped outside. To his right rose an inky scrim of windswept trees behind which loomed his future nemesis or triumph, grand edifice or imperialist monstrosity, depending on one’s politics—the Royal Victoria Military Hospital.

Given other choices or circumstances, Captain Brown might have been a professor, a scholar; his saturnine temperament, attuned as it was to beauty, might have led him to try his hand, more openly, at poetry. As a general surgeon in the United States Navy, as a military officer, he was admired and not a little envied for his meticulous preparation, his liberal use of libraries, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, journals, and quarterlies, relied upon, too, for his quick grasp of facts and his rather astonishing memory. So as he stepped out of his temporary quarters at the Family Hospital and busied himself with the comforting ritual of lighting the day’s first cigarette, drawing its resiny warmth into his lungs, into his bloodstream, he was already familiar with the history of the hospital, hidden on the other side of the clenched row of cedars, planted both as privacy screen and aromatic windbreak. Much like his wife, or, more precisely, the institution of marriage that included his wife, facts were essential to Captain Brown, serving as well-lit instruments of navigation to lead him from the dark, tangled wood of himself. He depended upon their solidity.

He knew, for instance, that the hospital had been commissioned by Queen Victoria following the Crimean War, a horrific debacle in which eight out of ten of the queen’s soldiers died not of combat wounds but of diseases exacerbated by filthy, unhygienic conditions, a disgrace exposed by that second iconic Victorian female, Florence Nightingale. In response, the queen commanded that a suitable place be found on which to build a hospital of the grandest possible scale and scope to tend all soldiers wounded in England’s cause. A government surveyor and architect, E. O. Mennie, was hired, and a site selected at Netley, across from the Isle of Wight, twelve miles up the coast from the port town of Southampton. Begun in 1856, the hospital took seven years and half a million pounds to finish. The Royal Victoria would be the largest military hospital in the world, over one quarter mile in length, made of red brick, the same Hampshire clay the hospital stood upon, faced with Portland stone and plinths of Welsh granite laid along the foundation. There were dozens of pillared porticoes, cupolas, spires, turrets, and an enormous verdigris dome set above the chapel and granite-pillared main entrance. Inside, 135 wards were intended to care for over one thousand wounded men. The Royal Army’s Medical School took up residence in the hospital, and a separate villa-like building, D Block, became the British military’s first lunatic asylum. Included on the two-hundred-acre estate was a horse stable, tennis and badminton courts, a swimming pool supplied with seawater by a windmill pump, a bakery, and a six-hole golf course. The Royal Victoria was the most ambitious, ill-conceived, impractical hospital ever built, an Italianate behemoth.
 
 
 
 
Photo: Alwyn Ladell
 
 
 
 
 

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