Thursday 31 May 2007


'Canaries' is the title of this often seen image, but I've never been sure whether the canaries were carried on ambulance trains as gas detectors, or simply for the entertainment of both staff and patients. I suspect the latter is more likely.

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.

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.

Reminiscent Sketches

About a year ago, I managed to get hold of a copy of a book called 'Reminiscent Sketches, 1914 to 1919', published by John Bale, Sons and Danielsson in 1922. It's a small collection of personal accounts written by members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, and gives great insight into day to day life during the war; in hospital, on trains and boats, and in many different locations. Over the next few weeks I'll include a selection of them here - they make a very enjoyable read for anyone with even a small interest in nursing during the Great War.

Sunday 13 May 2007

Back to Heilly again for a moment...

A recent comment on my previous post about Heilly Station Cemetery led me to return there for a moment. In the past, I've done some research on my local war memorials in Sussex, and about five years ago, long before my first visit to Heilly, I started a website to record the results - it's at:

Unchanged By Time

I added snippets of poetry to many of the pages, choosing each one to reflect some aspect of the man's life or service, and for the front page of the website I chose some lines which I had seen used in the 'In Memoriam' column of a local newspaper:

And now they are sleeping their long last sleep,
Their graves I may never see;
But some gentle hand in that distant land
May scatter some flowers for me.

I thought it summed up the feelings of families all over the world, particularly those who would never have the money or opportunity to visit the last resting place of their loved ones.
On my first visit to Heilly, a year or so later, the weather was stormy. The sky was ever-changing, with huge black clouds and heavy squalls accompanied by thunder and lightning. My daughter and I ran into the cemetery, and sat on the seat by the screen wall, sheltering until the current blast of rain had passed. Suddenly it stopped, and the sun broke through, shedding shards of light across the cemetery. I suppose my natural instinct was to follow the sun, and walked up to where it picked out vividly two or three headstones. As I stood in front of them I realised that I was looking at MY inscription [or a version of it] on the grave of Sapper David Simpson of the Australian Engineers:

in that distant land/will some kind hand/lay a flower/on his grave for me

I've visited a lot of cemeteries, but that day I did feel a very emotional attachment to Sapper Simpson, and hoped that for the sake of the family who left that message, I would remember on future visits to the cemetery to honour their wish.