Sir Alexander Ogston’s role in the First World War was remarkable for the fact that he was seventy years of age when war broke out in 1914. Despite a long and distinguished career as professor of surgery at the University of Aberdeen from 1882-1909 and his role as a surgeon at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary he was quick to offer his services at the outbreak of hostilities.
He initially served in the Southall Auxiliary Military Hospital as operating surgeon during the winter of 1914-1915 but in March 1915 agreed to take charge of the British Belgrade Auxiliary Hospital, a hospital detachment for the British Naval Force on the Danube. After returning home from Belgrade in July 1915, he made several requests to join the army medical services before he was appointed surgeon with the 1st British Ambulance Unit in Italy in September 1916. In between he remained busy as a member of the Central Medical War Committee, the Aberdeen County Branch of the Red Cross, the Aberdeenshire Territorial Association, the City War Work Association and the County War Work Association. But he remained anxious to return to duty. As he records in his journal, “After a year of home activities of various kinds… I was beginning to feel that the world had no more need of me".
Ogston served with the 1st British Ambulance Unit for almost 15 months at the Villa Trento hospital near Gorizia in north-east Italy. He recorded his experiences with great enthusiasm, extolling the virtues of the Italian soldiers and his medical colleagues under such trying circumstances. He returned to Aberdeen on furlough for a short period in September 1917, returning to Italy in November only to find that the hospital had been abandoned following an Austrian counter-attack and learned that the unit was to be disbanded. He returned home on the 22 November 1917, and was awarded the Italian long service medal.
Ogston’s desire to play some part in the war was driven partly by his natural abilities and experience as a surgeon but also had deeper roots in his interest in military medicine. He had taken part in the Sudan Campaign in 1885, and visited military medical facilities in Germany and Russia, before he courted controversy with the army medical establishment when he criticised the care and facilities afforded the army during an address to the British Medical Association in 1899. With the outbreak of the war in South Africa in 1899 his eagerness to observe conditions in South Africa for himself meant he had to pay his own expenses and secure a letter of introduction from Queen Victoria to overcome the obstacles put in his way.
Ogston recorded his experiences in Serbia and Italy in two journals, including numerous sketches, plans, photographs and correspondence. These journals formed the basis of his book Reminiscences of three campaigns published in 1919, and describe in detail his work during the war, his impressions of his medical colleagues, the patients he treated and the events of the war as they affected the hospital and surrounding area.
Further information about Sir Alexander Ogston and his papers can be found here.