Memories of Aldershot’s Cambridge Military Hospital (CMH) will come flooding back for anyone reading Chris Buswell’s haunting novel.
The Grey Lady Ghost of the Cambridge Military Hospital is about an apparition said to haunt the upper floor of the historic building.
“Many hospitals have a grey lady ghost and the Cambridge Military Hospital had a very special one,” said 46-year-old Mr Buswell.
“She was thought to be a nursing sister of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service from World War One.
“There were many rumours as to how she met her death and came to haunt the wards and top corridor, and these are explored in my novel.”
The book tells the story of military nurse Scott Grey and his fiancée, Naomi Scarlet, a Royal Army Medical Corps combat medical technician, who are both serving in Afghanistan.
After their traumatic experiences in theatre, Scott buys a flat in Aldershot, on the site of the former military hospital, and tries to settle down to work at the Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit at Frimley Park.
But a head injury sustained during an emergency medical response evacuation while in Afghanistan still affects him emotionally and physically, and he starts to see visions of the Grey Lady ghost, who transports him to a casualty clearing station in France during the Great War and to the trenches as the Battle of Loos commences.
Here the Grey Lady’s fiancé, Hugh, goes over the top with his regiment, The Gordon Highlanders.
Though he survives, he is badly injured and becomes a patient at the CMH, where he has to keep his love for the nursing sister secret because her matron will discharge her from the Army: nurses in those days could not commit to their vocation and a husband.
Scott and Naomi fear the Grey Lady will part them and need to lay her to rest by letting her tell her story through Scott to its tragic end. Only then, they hope, will her haunting cease.
Mr Buswell said: “I’ve drawn on my experience of working at the CMH as an army staff nurse and it is the first in a series of novels that explores famous military hospital ghosts.
“It also describes life in Aldershot during the First World War and treatment of patients at the hospital.”
Mr Buswell joined the Army in 1987 as a combat medical technician and, from Keogh Barracks in Ash Vale, he was posted to 19 Field Ambulance in Colchester.
In 1988 he began RGN training and was soon posted to the CMH where he started hearing tales of the Grey Lady ghost.
He qualified as a staff nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in 1991 and was posted back to the CMH that year, where he worked on paediatric, intensive care, casualty and medical wards.
Other postings in his career included the Field Surgical team in Belize, Akrotiri in Cyprus and Haslar Hospital in Gosport.
So how did he come to write about the Grey Lady ghost of the CMH?
“I was researching the history of the hospital many years after it closed and discovered that the buildings and site were to be turned into flats and houses by a developer,” he said.
“This got me wondering if her spirit still walked her wards and how she would feel about not having patients in her wards any more, or indeed would she consider the residents as her new patients?”
Mr Buswell said he suffered a period of insomnia for a while when his wife was ill and in hospital.
“There is something about hospitals at night, especially during the solemn dark winter nights where unknowns lurk in the shadows,” he added. “Having an overactive mind, I found myself dwelling on the Grey Lady ghost, so much so that I could visualise her in my mind.
“Uncannily, when my daughter, an art degree student, painted the book cover several years later, she looked just like I had visualised.”
Mr Buswell, who now writes full time and lives in Aberdeenshire with his wife, said it was ‘a real privilege’ to nurse people from Aldershot and the surrounding areas.
“I always remember how friendly and grateful the patients and their relatives were,” he added.
“It was a good contrast as a nurse to look after civilian patients and learn new skills based on their ailments that weren't usually seen by army nurses.”
Mr Buswell said he loved Aldershot and Ash Vale, where he took his basic training and Corporal’s course at Keogh Barracks.
“I remember it always being so sunny and green compared to the Scottish weather I was more used too,” he added.
“I especially loved the long summer nights when I could go for runs with friends, or cycle.
“My wife and I loved eating at Johnny Ghurka’s restaurant and the Burger King just down the hill from the hospital.
"The cinema was great too, and just a short walk away.
“If we took the car we would practise golf on the grass by the stadium.
“But most of all I recall the great exercise that long corridor at the Cambridge Military Hospital gave us – it certainly kept us thin and fit.”
In his acknowledgments for the book, Mr Buswell states: “My thanks to the Grey Lady who did not haunt me when I served at the CMH.
“I would have run a mile had I seen you!
“I hope your soul will now be at rest, now that your tale has been told.”
For details on how to buy The Grey Lady Ghost of the Cambridge Military Hospital, visit www.cgbuswell.com.
History of the Cambridge Military Hospital
The CMH was famed for its supposedly mile-long corridor.
The original plan was to have a series of self-contained wards for regiments all joined on to the corridor, as it was hoped this would also reduce cross infection. But by the time the hospital opened it had been decided to run it as areas of treatment rather than type of cap badge.
It soon became a fully-functioning hospital and was the first in the UK to receive battle casualties directly from the front of the First World War.
It was also the first British military hospital to open a plastic surgery unit.
Over the decades it grew and treated not only soldiers and their families, but also the local population.
Departments expanded and included an accident and emergency unit, children’s, medical, plastic surgery, general surgery, burns, gynaecological, intensive care and orthopaedic wards.
There were also several theatres, an X-ray unit, an outpatients department and a large laboratory at the rear of the site.
The Louise Margaret Hospital (LMH) was annexed to the CMH and integrated with it in 1984.
It cared for both pre and postnatal women and their babies, and there was also a special care baby unit (SCBU).
Opened in 1898 and named after Princess Louise Margaret, the function of this unit was initially to care for the wives and children of servicemen.
The LMH continued to care for the spouses and children of the Army until 1958, when its function changed to a maternity hospital. It closed on January 18 1995.
The CMH closed on February 2 1996.
Reasons for its closure included the fact it was an historic building that cost too much to maintain and repair.
The Army Medical Services exercised its Freedom of the Borough of Rushmoor and marched through Aldershot on January 11 1996.
The Band of the Parachute Regiment, who served with members of 33 Field Hospital, which largely comprised staff of the CMH during the First Gulf War, led the march.
The saluting dais was located outside The Princes Hall and the salute was taken by the Director General of the Army Medical Services, Major General F B Mayes, and the then- Mayor of Rushmoor Cllr Mrs Pat Devereux.
Many CMH staff were posted to the newly opened Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit at Frimley Park when the old military hospital finally closed for good.