It is easy to forget nowadays that various sporting arenas have not necessarily been used as sporting arenas for their entire existence. Some might have been built on locations that had previously been used for something else, but one of the biggest reasons for venues to have had a previous life is the fact that many were commandeered during one of the two World Wars that Britain has been involved in in the past.
That is very much the case with Cheltenham Racecourse, which was used as a Voluntary Aid hospital during the First World War. Initially similar hospitals began to spring up around the country and were intended to operate as auxiliary hospitals to act as supplementary venues for the main military hospitals. It was part of a well-thought out plan to provide beds for the walking wounded who had returned from the front and were in need of a place to convalesce.
Voluntary Aid Hospitals Were A WWI Necessity
At the start of the First World War, many in England and the rest of the United Kingdom believed that it would be short-lived. As a result, the auxiliary hospitals that had been opened as convalesce homes were soon struggling to cope with the number of people being transported back to England from the front line. When there was a mass evacuation of Antwerp it became increasingly clear that the combination of civilian and military hospitals couldn’t cope with the influx of soldiers and others in need of urgent care.
The result was a decision to turn schools, private houses and other large venues into Voluntary Aid Hospitals, with Cheltenham Racecourse being one of the chief places chosen for the Gloucestershire region. Volunteers were quick to come forward to help run the newly set up VA Hospitals, with around 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments that were made up of trained nurses and volunteers from other areas of life providing close to 74,000 volunteer. Amongst their jobs was the need to organise transport, sort dressing and food for ambulance trains and set up emergency field kitchens.
The Hospital Opens And Develops
The Voluntary Aid Hospital at Cheltenham Racecourse opened its doors on the 28th of October 1914, with four others having opened in the county before then. A ward was opened upstairs in what had previously been known as the Ladies Drawing Room and thirteen Belgian patients joined two British ones in there. On the 29th of October the Old Luncheon Room was opened in order to accommodate another sixteen patients.
By early November of 1914 the Large Luncheon Room was also taken over, including its annex and veranda. This meant that the three ‘wards’ of Cheltenham Racecourse were able to provide an additional one hundred beds on top of the other civilian, military and VA hospitals in the region.
In the years that followed, the racecourse expanded further as and when it needed to. By April of 1917 it offered 150 beds, with that moving to 200 by 1918. There were also some emergency beds in the hospital, making it one of the largest Voluntary Auxiliary Hospitals in the region.
Cheltenham Racecourse As A Primary Hospital
The Voluntary Auxiliary Hospital at Cheltenham Racecourse was soon considered to be a primary hospital. That meant that it received soldiers and other wounded directly from the port that they had disembarked from, meaning that more than three thousand people passed through the doors by February of 1919. Remarkably, there were only eighteen deaths at the VA Hospital of Cheltenham Racecourse.
In terms of those patients that passed through the doors, the numbers were as follows:
- British: 2,677
- Australian: 249
- Canadian: 128
- Belgian: 101
- American: 7
There were also six pensioners and one member of the navy. On average patients stayed for between fifty and sixty days, with the average number of people in the hospital at any one time somewhere between 102 and 175. Eighteen members of staff worked there from the moment the venue opened its doors through to its closure on the 28th of February 1919.
WWII Cheltenham Racecourse Training Quarters
During the second world was the racecourse was not used as a hospital, as it was in the first world war, but rather it was commissioned to be used as training quarters for soldiers waiting to be sent into the field. Several regiments based in west Wales and central England used the facilities during the 6 year period.
Despite the fact the course was an active military center during WWII the Gold Cup was still staged in 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1945, only missing 1942 and 1943.