Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Life on an Ambulance Train 1917-18

This is the second part of the account of Ambulance Train life - this one during the later years of the war, when things had become a little more sophisticated.

by J. Orchardson

I joined an Ambulance train at Rouen in December, 1917, proceeding up the line to the Somme Valley. My first impressions were the extreme cleanliness, order, and brightness of everything on the train. The sisters’ mess, planned out of an ordinary railway carriage, was cosy and pretty, and our bedrooms most comfortable. Each train carried three sisters, usually a happy and contented trio. Our life was never dull, for those railways were the highroads of the war. Wherever we went there were troop trains, ammunition trains, food supplies, guns, tank stores; the never-ending accompaniments of a great campaign. Seldom were two days alike, no one knew where we might be sent next, or what adventure awaited us on the road. Our train might be in garage somewhere up the line, awaiting orders. All day nothing would happen and we would retire to bed at the usual hour. Suddenly there would be a bump, the signal that our engine had come on, and away we would go into the night wondering as to our destination. Wonder, however, soon gave place to sleep and we were content to leave place of call for the morning to disclose.

On loading at a Casualty Clearing Station, I was always struck by the rapidity and ease with which the patients were taken on and put to bed. I marvelled at their unfailing good humour, even when seriously wounded. They seemed to be so delighted to be on their way to the base, or perhaps to England, that they never failed to don a brave disguise. Somehow, I always felt more sorry for the walking wounded – that slow procession of pain with their white tired faces – but never a grumble or complaint. When loading was finished, our immediate duties were to inspect all the medical cards, diet the patients, and take a not of all treatments to be given during the journey; after this had been carried out, cigarettes, sweets, and books were handed round, and the sisters usually had time for a chat with the patients. On reaching the base the train was quickly unloaded, beds changed and made up again, wards scrubbed out and everything made ready for the next journey. The train usually remained for a few hours to take on stores, which gave us the opportunity to go shopping for our mess. Then up the line again, or best of all load up with patients for England. The latter was a joyous thing. We would take them to Calais or Le Havre and see them safely aboard the “ship that was bound for Blighty.” Our train life was often very exciting, air raids were frequent and not seldom we had narrow escapes, when the windows of the coaches were shattered with the concussion of the explosives. Upon running into an air raid, all lights which were always well shaded, were put out and the train brought to a standstill. We could not help tremendously admiring the splendid bravery of the poor wounded men. They never once appeared afraid or complained, all they wanted was a cigarette. Their wonderful spirit gave us the courage to carry on. Had it not been for their dauntless spirit I feel certain that we should often have given in. Although badly wounded, they never seemed to turn a hair amid the most awful bombing and shelling. It was truly magnificent.

Our train was in the Somme Retreat of 1918, when the roads were crowded with retreating French civilians, leading their horses and cattle, and taking away what household goods they could carry. Old men and women, young women and children made a pathetic spectacle in that picture of retreat. The retreat began on March 23rd, 1918, and on the 25th the train was sent to Edgehill – a few miles from Albert – to load. We took the last patients from the Casualty Clearing Station at Edgehill and many straight from the field. The train was loaded to its full capacity; stretchers were put on the floors, in the corridors, in the two kitchens, and in the medical officers’ and orderlies’ beds. The train was held up for thirty-six hours but eventually reached Rouen. In April, the train was up north when the German offensive began and on several occasions took down a number of French civilians. ON incident was most pathetic. When the enemy broke through at Merville there was the usual retreat of French people. The train was stopped by some soldiers who asked us to take an old French woman whom they had found lying on the roadside. She must have walked many miles and was in a pitiful state. She said she was eighty-two years of age, and we recalled the old Hebrew’s saying about the years that only bring labour and sorrow. In June the train was sent to the Marne to assist the French, and took several loads of French wounded, with a few British, from the French advanced hospitals. The poilu is a most grateful patient and so appreciative of the smallest thing done for him. When they came on to the train and were given English cigarettes their delight was great. I asked a few if they would like to write home, and soon was busy supplying pencils and paper, so keen were these men to write to their people. Late June found the train at Charmes, near Nancy, and as this was the first khaki train to do this trip, we had a wonderful reception the whole of the way. Everywhere the French people were most enthusiastic. On the return journey the train stopped at a junction for an hour or more, and several French ladies asked permission to visit the patients. They brought baskets of fruit and sweets for the patients and presented the sisters with a bouquet of crimson roses, tied with the colours of fair and gallant France. Although at times a strenuous life, it was always a bright and happy experience, with just a touch of sadness when “good-bye” was said at the journey’s end. Looking back on those unforgettable days, I shall always see their faces, even as the faces that look out of some old and treasured picture book.

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