Article from Stand To! Number 27, 1989

The chart in 'Get the Medics, I've been hit!' shows that ambulance trains evacuated the wounded or sick from casualty clearing stations to stationary or base hospitals or to a port of embarkation from where they were conveyed by ambulance ship to the UK. In the early weeks of the war, a number of ambulance trains were improvised by the French railways and placed at the disposal of the British Army. By April 1915, however, three ambulance trains had been made in Britain and supplied to the BEF at private cost. It was then decided that a number of 'standard' trains should be built by various British railway companies to War Office specifications and altogether thirty were eventually sent to the military forces overseas, mostly in France and Flanders.

The 'standard' ambulance train consisted of sixteen cars, including a pharmacy car, two kitchens, a personnel car and a brake and stores van. It accommodated about 400 lying and sitting cases in addition to the RAMC personnel and the train crew.

n27-1Each ward car contained thirty-six beds in tiers of three (the 'home' ambulance train had tiers of two). The middle bed folded back to enable sitting cases to use the lower one, thus ensuring flexibility. Apart from feeding casualties and staff, the kitchens could supply fifty gallons of hot water at any time. The train generated its own electricity for lighting and driving overhead fans and all cars were steam heated.

Temporary or improvised ambulance trains were pressed into service when big battles were being fought and during 1916, they and the regular ambulance trains conveyed no fewer than 744,616 sick and wounded from the front areas to the base, making 1581 journies to do so. During the same period, 16,918 cases were evacuated by ambulance barge.

Boulogne was the principal port of embarkation for the wounded and on one occasion it took only nineteen minutes to unload 123 casualties from a train; on another, 264 casualties were similarly cleared in fifty-three minutes. The main disembarkation ports in the UK were Dover and Southampton. It was reckoned that at the former, the average time to unload a ship of, say, 200 stretcher and 300 walking cases, and place them on board two trains was only two hours. From February 1915 to February 1919, Dover dealt with 1,260,506 casualties, unloaded 4076 boats and loaded 7781 ambulance trains. No fewer than 1,234,248 casualties were handled at Southampton from 24 August 1914 to 31 December 1918 during which period 7822 ambulance trains were despatched. The patients were then sent by one of the twenty 'home standard' ambulance trains, or by an emergency ambulance train, to a 'receiving station'- there were 196 of them-where they were transferred to road vehicles, usually by volunteer first aiders, which took them to their destination hospital.

Sources: E. A. Pratt British Railways and the Great War.
J.E. Edmonds Official History, 1916, Vol 1.

Back to top