Much of the attention during the war was on the Western Front, where some of the fiercest fighting took place. The stories uncovered as part of the Richmond At Home and At War project illustrated the extent of the war, with local soldiers and sailors serving in India, Africa, and the Middle East. Although there was limited direct British involvement, the progress of the war on the Eastern Front was just as significant. While German forces were the Allies’ principal enemy to the west, the Russian armies were engaged with the Austro-Hungarian forces in the east.
The Busliov Offensive was a key phase in the war between those two armies, coinciding with the Somme Offensive in the West. Between 4 June 1916 and 10 August 1916, Austria lost 1.5 million men and 25,000 square kilometres of territory. Austria was unable to continue fighting on the Italian front and Romania was free to declare for the Allies.
In Richmond, the preoccupation in June 1916 was with the new hospital due to open. King George V had offered a twelve-acre site in Richmond Park between Bishop’s Pond and Conduit Wood for the South African Military Hospital. The setting and privacy created an ideal environment for recovery and rehabilitation. As one of the hospital’s patients wrote, “It would be difficult to imagine a more delightful place than Richmond in which to recuperate”.
Funds to meet the costs of building and equipping the hospital were raised by well-wishers, from millionaires to school children, in Britain and South Africa. The hospital received its first 300 patients at the end of June, with Princess Christian (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) being the first in a succession of royal visitors. Significant additions to the hospital followed over a period of six months.
The hospital was intended to serve as a home from home for troops from South Africa, which was then part of the British Empire. However, there were no Black African patients at the hospital. Discriminatory practice meant that although many brave Black South Africans had volunteered to help the empire, they were not allowed on active service. Instead they were relegated to non-armed, auxiliary labour corps. Despite this, many hundreds served with bravery and courage on the front lines, digging trenches, transporting munitions and similar tasks.
A film of South African soldiers playing rugby against New Zealand soldiers can be viewed on the BFI website. The match took place at Richmond Athletic Ground in Kew – spot the Kew Gardens pagoda in the background!