Straddling the border, near Whitchurch in Shropshire and Wrexham in Wales, lies one of the biggest and best raised bogs in Britain. Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses were to play a key part in the First World War.

Some 1.7m soldiers from the UK were wounded in the course of the First World War. When the war broke out, there was soon a critical shortage of cotton wool. Supplies from Egypt were disrupted and priority was given to gun cotton for shells. Some eighteen months into the war the Director General of Army Medical Services gave his approval to the use of sphagnum moss for surgical dressings. Thus a small, unglamorous bog plant began its life-saving role. When the war ended monthly output of sphagnum dressings had passed one million.

Wet Feet for the collectors
To produce the dressings was labour-intensive. The call went out for volunteers! In September 1916 a weekly illustrated newspaper ran the headline “Are you collecting Sphagnum Moss?”  James Allmark of Whixall Moss near Whitchurch was. James was one of the 90,000 civilians who signed up nationally with the Joint War Committee Voluntary Aid Detachments. His record shows he was a “collector of sphagnum moss for Mr Stapleton-Cotton’s depot in Wem.” According to the Red Cross records of voluntary aid work carried out in Shropshire [Shropshire Archives ref XLS2633], the President and organiser of the Wem Depot was in fact Mrs HR Stapleton Cotton. She was ably assisted in the production and distribution of dressings by a team of women workers including the Misses Kynaston and Weever, Miss Forester, Miss Wilson, Mrs Clay, Mrs Evans, Mrs James, Mrs Morris, Mrs Ohm and Mrs Pye.

Women, children and men over-the-age of military service accounted for many collectors. Schoolchildren, scouts and girl guides were expected to do their patriotic duty by getting their feet wet. (When the Chief Scout, Sir Robert Baden-Powell visited one group, he was told they had given up working for their tenderfoot and efficiency badges in favour of this war work.) The collection of sphagnum was restricted to the cooler, wetter parts of Britain. The main centres for the production of dressings were in Edinburgh and Dublin. However, collections on a smaller scale were made wherever there were significant sphagnum bogs, such as in Shropshire. The whole process of producing dressings, from collection of the moss to the despatch of prepared dressings, was labour intensive.  The volunteers collected the moss by hand – back-breaking and wet work – or using rakes. A group of collectors would need just one ‘expert’ who could identify the most useful moss for dressings – sphagnum papillosum.

This moss is permeated with minute tubes and spaces, a system of delicate capillary tubes, having the effect of a very fine sponge. These cells absorb water readily and retain it. The water can be squeezed out, but the moss does not collapse and is ready to take in fluid again. The moss might be picked clean of dirt, leaves and twigs in situ before taking to the local collection point, where the sphagnum would be passed through a mangle to remove excess water and then dried on trestles outside or on special trays inside.

There were three grades: –
First Grade – the more absorbent varieties were used entirely for surgical dressings
Second Grade – thinner, less absorbent varieties were used for dysentery pads
Third Grade – inferior moss was used in filling cushions of all sizes

Importance of the humble sphagnum
Trench warfare brought with it a shockingly high rate of infected wounds from soil and sewage bacteria. The filthy conditions meant that fragments of contaminated uniform, could be carried deep into the body by bullet or shrapnel. The result was infected, suppurating wounds. For fear of septicaemia many amputations were undertaken.

Sphagnum moss leaves are only one cell thick. They are made up of large empty, dead hyaline cells (the water containers) and narrow, living green cells containing chloroplasts. Like the leaves, the stems have large, empty hyaline cells with numerous pores to allow water movement up the plant. Sphagnum moss had important advantages over cotton-wool. The wounds of our men at the front were of such a suppurating character as to require the most absorbent dressings. Nothing could compare with sphagnum moss in its power of absorption. It could absorb blood, pus, lymph, or other bodily fluids. The best dried moss could absorb 20 to 22 times its weight in fluid before dripping. It was at least twice as absorptive as cotton wool.

A pad of sphagnum moss absorbs the discharge in lateral directions, as well as immediately above the wound, and held it until fully saturated in all parts of the dressing before allowing any to escape. This even absorption was one of its chief virtues, since the patient’s dressing did not require to be changed so frequently. The stressed doctors and nurses were grateful for a dressing that lasted longer than cotton-wool. Unlike cotton wool it also had antiseptic properties, something of inestimable value. The absorbent pads of moss were soft, elastic and very comfortable, easily packed and convenient to handle.

The absorbent properties meant the moss could be used not only in wound dressings and as surgical swabs but also as larger and less compact cushions, which kept beds dry while wounds were being irrigated, to wash bacteria out of deep wounds. Dakin’s solution – a mixture of hypochlorous acid and boric acid – was pumped through perforated rubber tubes inserted into deep wounds.  An experienced nursing sister explained how the method required lots of equipment and hard work on the part of nurses; “the beds have to be arranged in the way of pads and mackintoshes to prevent a wet bed from the overflow of fluid. All this, however, is fully compensated when one sees how very quickly the wounds improve under the treatment, and how painless the dressings are. For keeping the beds dry the Sphagnum moss dressings are invaluable, and we are very grateful indeed to the workers who make them” (The Scotsman, 12 September 1917).  There was one further use for moss pads, which was cushioning broken limbs.

Getting it to the field hospitals
The moss would be picked clean of dirt and any adhering leaves and twigs on the spot before being partially dried, put into sacks and sent to one of the central depots set up all over the country to receive and forward the material to war hospitals.  The more specialised activities of washing (‘sublimating’), drying, and weighing, and the final preparation of dressings – sometimes incorporating antiseptics – were conducted under expert supervision in these depots. Whereas most military hospitals in Britain and the large base hospitals in France chose to sterilise their own dressings, smaller and more distant hospitals preferred ready-prepared dressings.

The Wem Sphagnum Moss Depot despatched 10,000 dressings and 250 pillows during 1917. Hospitals which it regularly supplied included the Royal Salop Infirmary, Lady Ridley’s Hospital for Officers at 10 Carlton House Terrace, London, and one in Belgium named after King Albert’s sister, HRH the Duchesse de Vendôme. Wem also supplied a variety of VAD Hospitals.

Lady Forester Gift Book, Much Wenlock

Ina Taylor treated me to an insight into supplies donated to the Lady Forester Hospital. The 963 men treated there in the 43 beds devoted to military patients benefited from local generosity. The bountiful Mrs Clegg donated canvas for an awning, Gillette safety razors, gooseberries, rhubarb, strawberries, spinach and eggs. Archdeacon Stanhope sent cigarette papers, Lady Gaskell could be relied on for regular supplies of cakes and fruit. How she recalled amongst this cornucopia that the Shrewsbury Red Cross Depot had sent “sphagnum pads” I shall never know, but it provided me

Fenn’s & Whixall Mosses History Trail – Natural England