Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Life on an Ambulance Train in 1914

This is the first extract from 'Reminiscent Sketches' and is a brief, but vivid account of life on one of the early ambulance trains. All these extracts are written by trained nurses, most of them members of the 'Regular' Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service.


The ambulance trains in 1914 were not the trains of joy and beauty which they developed into later in the war, anything that ran on wheels and could be attached to an engine was utilized in the early days of 1914. They were chiefly trains composed of wagons bearing the legend “Hommes 40, Chevaux (en long) 8,” so that the staff of No.7 Ambulance train thought itself lucky. The front half of the train consisted of the 1st class French “couchette” or carriages fitted with sleeping berths, so that at least the patients had a comfortable couch on which to lie; the rear half of the train simply consisted of ordinary third class railway carriages with their hard narrow wooden seats, but these were always reserved so far as possible for “sitting cases.”

All the coaches on the train were entirely unconnected, and those nurses who have only carried out nursing duties on trains whose entire length it was possible to walk without once going outside, can hardly realize the inconvenience, sometimes amusing but at most times vexatious, to which one was put in 1914. Quite a number of teapots and cups and saucers came to an untimely end from the habit which the batman had of placing those articles on the footboard of the train when bringing the early morning tea; then, leaving them while he went back for something which he had forgotten – the train would start with a jerk – and “goodbye-ee” to tea for that morning. The greatest inconvenience of all was the difficulty of attending to the patients, and the vexation of spirit occasioned when you had settled up one coachful of aching weary men, by the knowledge that there were still hundreds to be attended to. Climbing from coach to coach by way of the footboard was a practice absolutely forbidden, though, like more than one other rule, it was more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Frequently this means of passing from one coach to another was an absolute necessity in the interests of the patients. No doubt a French stationmaster in a little out of the way French village will probably remember to this day the sight that met his amazed gaze in the very early hours of a beautiful September morning in 1914. An ambulance train was flying through his station with an English sister clinging like a limpet to the side of the train. She had, I remember, a moment of horror when the train dashed into the station, wondering whether the platform would be higher than the footboard; but luckily all French country platforms are very low. After the Battle of the Aisne the train was garaged for a few days in a little village called Crepy-en-Valois; while the British armies moved north. Movement of troops took place only at night, and whether the whole British Army passed through this little town, we, of course, did not know; but at least one member of the staff of the train will never forget the continuous, apparently endless, procession of men, horses and guns. The men never spoke a word, either to us or among themselves. The only noise was the low, deep rumble of the procession itself, seeming to fill the autumn night with fear and foreboding.

On the night of October 31 to November 1, No.7 Ambulance train had the luck, or ill-luck, to be on Ypres station – the date that marks the beginning of the wonderful first Battle of Ypres. The train received its baptism of fire that night – poor train – it could not have run away had it wanted to; the engine had returned down the line for water. A neighbouring improvised train loaded with minor wounded had better luck and secured an engine from somewhere, and, as it pulled out of the station into safety, I expect poor old No.7 heaved a small sigh of envy, although I like to think that even had a second engine been handy, No.7 would have stuck to her post; but with what feelings of great thankfulness and relief she hooked herself on to her engine the next morning, and gave him a graphic description of those horrid shells which had made holes in her sides and broken her windows, while he was away at Hazebrouck imbibing water.

After the establishment of Casualty Clearing Stations the work on ambulance trains was not nearly so arduous. In the first days patients were entrained with all the dirt, mud, and blood of battle on them. All were fully dressed. Many had not had their boots off their feet for five or six weeks. Only those who have experienced it, know what it means to undress a heavy man, badly wounded and lying on the narrow seat of a railway carriage. Never before had it bee brought home to me what a quantity of clothes a man wears. On many an occasion it has seemed a task worthy of a Hercules, but when the deed was done, the man undressed and in soft dry pyjamas, even though maybe there had only been time to sponge his face, hands, and feet – then indeed labour had its reward – the gratitude, the patience, the infinite endurance of the men was a constant marvel to behold. One felt that the utmost one could do was but a drop in the ocean of their discomfort, and their gratitude for that drop was sometimes more than one could bear. When the Casualty Clearing Stations were established the men came on board washed, fed, and in pyjamas; so that we did not have to begin on the bedrock of things as it were, but had only to carry on the good work already commenced. It was with very mingled feelings that the writer gave up that particular kind of “good work” after three months’ service on the train; three very happy months where such minor personal discomforts as difficulties with one’s laundry, and even sometimes with one’s personal cleanliness, were all lost sight of in the feeling that one was doing real work.

1 comment:

  1. These extracts are written by trained nurses, most of them members of the 'Regular' Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service and this article is interesting.