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How Longshaw Lodge moss treated World War One injured

By Greig Watson
BBC News

image copyrightIWM
image captionDuring battles, wounded would arrive in their hundreds and quick treatment was vital to prevent infection
In modern times a cut means a dab of antiseptic and a plaster. A hundred years ago during World War One it could still lead to infection and death.
On a battlefield defined by mud and steel, doctors fought their own war to prevent bacteria finishing what bullets, bombs and barbed wire had started.
And a former Derbyshire hunting lodge found itself part of a transatlantic medical industry based not on modern scientific discoveries but age-old traditions.
Longshaw Lodge, near Grindleford, was built in the 19th Century for the Duke of Rutland but during World War One it was offered as a convalescent hospital for soldiers.
Here, from 1915, dozens of injured troops were sent to recover, as far as possible, from their physical and mental wounds.
Nurse Doris Elliott not only tended to patients but performed another, significant role.
Her granddaughter, Beverley Hardy, recalls: "On one occasion we were walking on the edge of a wood and the ground was covered with springy green moss.
"She started to talk of her time at Longshaw as a voluntary nurse during the Great War and with such feeling I have never really forgotten it.
image copyrightBeverley Hardy
image captionLongshaw Lodge could hold 60 to 70 soldiers at a time, who were kept busy with a variety of activities
image captionThe lodge has now been converted to flats but the surrounding moors are open to the public
"(The moss) was gathered by local people, volunteers, and then it was treated and made into dressings to put on the wounds of soldiers."
Local historian Thelma Griffiths says: "They would have been cold, absolutely sodden, the women would have been trailing long skirts in the wet.
"It would have been back-breaking work and can't have been much fun, but they felt it was their patriotic duty."
In 1914, penicillin was still 14 years from being widely used, and while antiseptic acids were available, they were unreliable on infected wounds and difficult to use in the field.
image copyrightAndrea Pokrzywinski/Wellcome
image captionThe unique structure of Sphagnum Moss, with large, porous cell walls means it can absorb lots of liquid
Using sphagnum moss to dress wounds had been a soldiers' trick since ancient times.
By the start of the World War One it was widely adopted in Germany, but in Britain it had to be championed by Edinburgh surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart, who had become a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Professor Ian Rotherham, from Sheffield Hallam University, says the moss has unique attributes which attracted the army doctors.
"It has therapeutic, antibiotic, properties based on the acidity it naturally produces," says the professor.
"But the main thing is the plant has amazingly large spaces in its stems and leaves, and with those it can hold about 20 times its own weight in water.
"If you dry it out it becomes very adsorbent and you have a healing pad and it can handle large amounts of bodily fluids."
With cotton wool becoming more expensive due to its use in munitions, moss dressings surged in popularity.
In September 1916, the London Graphic - a weekly illustrated newspaper - carried the headline "Are You Collecting Sphagnum Moss?".
The article described how Sir Edward Ward, Director General of Voluntary Organisations, had set up depots all over Britain to receive and forward the material to war hospitals.
Across Britain, Ireland and soon the US and Canada, battalions of volunteers squelched into boggy areas to collect the moss.
In June 1916, about 20,000 dressings were being produced in Britain. By the end of the year this had risen to 200,000 per month, reaching 1,000,000 per month by 1918.
image copyrightWellcome Collection
image captionDressings were made from a variety of materials but moss dressings (below left) were the most effective
Mrs Griffiths says: "It was a curious situation. It was something which was vital to the war effort, done on an industrial scale but carried out mostly by volunteers, by hand.
"Doctors and nurses could not get enough of them. The dressings absorbed more liquid so they had to be changed less often, meaning less work for staff and less pain for patients.
"Bedding was less often soiled, cutting laundry work and wounds healed more often."
But when the war ended, demand for the dressings fell and the huge pool of volunteers disappeared.
Without these, the labour intensive pads became uneconomic and ceased to be used.
Despite small scale production during World War Two, moss dressings returned to the "alternative" medicine cabinet.
Longshaw Lodge itself was sold to the National Trust in 1931 and while the building is now private flats, the estate is open to the public.
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