During WWI, wounded Allied soldiers were often sent to British hospitals to recuperate. Days spent in bed in a ward, away from family and friends, often led to boredom and many also suffered from PTSD, then barely recognised but generally known as ‘shell shock’. Rehabilitation was important, both for their physical and psychological well-being, and part of that rehabilitation included learning arts and crafts such as basket weaving, drawing and painting, and various types of needlework, including embroidery. Needlework of all types was particularly beneficial – it could be done in bed or while seated, and did not need any equipment apart from a needle and a pair of scissors. The work required coordination and the development of fine motor-skills, useful abilities for someone with the painful ticks and tremors that often accompanied shell shock, or for someone with upper limb injuries. Embroidering also created a calming, contemplative frame of mind, or enabled conversation if preferred. It was an activity that could be practised in a group or alone. Other hospitals in Australia, New Zealand and France also offered embroidery therapy.

Soldiers embroidered scenes from the French countryside, pieces of military heraldry, and cushion covers. A particular favourite were postcards embroidered on silk fabric to send back to family members or sweethearts. These were popular in Europe even prior to the war. They comprised a blank postcard onto which an embossed paper surround was glued to frame and hold a central piece of silk, onto which French and Belgium women hand-embroidered a design in coloured thread. These cards became very popular during the war, with soldiers who’d send them home as souvenirs, and it wasn’t long before injured soldiers made their own to send home. Examples of all types of soldiers’ embroideries can be found at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra, Australia, and the TePapa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand.

One very beautiful piece of embroidery was made not by one particular soldier, but by 138 British, Australian, Canadian, South African and New Zealand soldiers convalescing in hospitals all over Britain – an altar frontal for St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was organised by the Royal School of Needlework as a form of occupational therapy for recovering soldiers. Each soldiers worked on a bird, a flower, a leaf, a chalice and other motifs of the five panels or top border that made up the embroidery, between the summer of 1918 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The men who worked on the altar frontal are listed here – by clicking on each name, you can learn about that man.

The whole work is almost 3 meters [10 feet] wide. In the central panel is the chalice of the Eucharist, over a pattern of flowers, to represent Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness our sins. On either side of the central panel are two panels, each with two palm branches, which signify spiritual victory, and triumph over the flesh, peace, and eternal life, then the two outer panels have intricate patterns of flowers and birds. The panels were then stitched together by members of the Royal School of Needlework when the war ended, and it was presented to St Paul’s Cathedral, where it graced the front of the High Altar for decades. Details of the work can be seen here.

During the Blitz of WWII, the cloth was put aside for safe keeping – a wise move as St Paul’s suffered a direct hit in October 1940, which destroyed the High Altar. When the war ended, the newly built High Altar was of a different size, and as the frontal piece no longer fit, it was put away until the centenary of the beginning of World War I, where it was used at a special service which was attended by relatives of these soldiers from across the world, on Sunday 3 August 2014. It was then put on display in a glass cabinet within the cathedral and titled ‘Lest We Forget’, where it remained for four years until the centenary of the armistice. #StPaulsCathedral #WWI #embroidery #rehabilitation #PTSD