As early as 1912 a Railway Executive Committee was set up, which would run the railways if a European War broke out. As part of this, it was planned to have a system of ambulance trains to transport the wounded. Originally the plan was that France would operate trains on the continent whilst this committee would operate trains within Britain. However when war did indeed break out France was quickly overwhelmed, and by December 1914 orders were received to start building continental ambulance trains.
Remarkably as part of this initiative the United Kingdom Flour Millers’ raised enough money to donate two of these lifesaving trains. Numbers 16 and 17 were the first British trains to operate on the continent, and compared to the French converted rolling stock train they operated alongside were far more suited to their role. Indeed their success is what convinced the British Government to organise the construction of standard ambulance trains which by the end of the war had transported over two million wounded.
The first of these two trains No.16 was constructed by Great Western Railway, and the June 1915 edition of the GWR Magazine gives an account for its construction. It was made up of seven coaches, four were ward cars, two kitchen cars and one pharmacy car coming to a total length 330 yards. Each ward had thirty-six iron cots in tiers of three giving for 144 patients lying down, however, the middle cot could be winched up creating more room for sitting patients. This system was designed by Frank Marillier the carriage and wagon works manager at Swindon. However when actually running ambulance trains regularly took on far more. This all cost approximately £12,500.
The second train built by Great Eastern Railway was larger than this. It consisted of five cot wards, five sitting wars and five service coaches. It was to be staffed by three doctors, three nurses and forty-seven orderlies. Interesting Ambulance Train No.16 had the large red crosses painted on an oval background whereas all the other Ambulance Trains had them painted on a square background.
The trains themselves whilst painted with large Red Crosses to avoid attacks were often in highly vulnerable situations. Due to these risks of running close to the front lines the trains often sheltered under railway bridges. Furthermore, they were understaffed for the number of casualties, and to get between the ward cars nurses had to travel between carriages from footplate to footplate. This incredibly dangerous action particularly as they carried dressings and supplies whilst doing it was even worse at night when they also had to carry a lantern. Official regulations banned doing this whilst the train was in movement due to the dangers it imposed, but to care for the wounded this was usually ignored.
Despite attempts to keep the trains and their passengers safe, there is an account in the Official War Diary of the Matron-in-Chief for the British Expeditionary Force which commends the behaviour of the staff on No. 16 on their loading of the train the night of the 26th March 1918 at Amiens under severe bombing. Indeed on the 21st March 1918, No. 16 was hit by a bomb.
‘A couple of terrific explosions, followed by the crash of falling glass announced the arrival of two bombs opposite “H” kitchen. They fell in a shed, which took off some of their force, but the whole side of the coach was wrecked. By a piece of singular good fortune no one was killed. The mess-room was crammed with patients and every part of the train filled up, yet the only casualties were Gibson, who was cut about the head, and Stanley, who was hit in the back by a piece of wreckage.’
H kitchen was the victim of one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in history, with more than 3.5 million shells fired. This was the opening of the German Spring Offensive or Kaiserschalt (Kaiser’s Battle). Its aim was to force the allies to the negotiating table before American forces could be deployed. The resulting loss of life was the second worst day in British Military history, second only to the first day of the Somme. It resulted in 38,000 casualties and the capture of more ground then the allies had since 1914. Some of the wounded from this offensive would travel on this ambulance train.
Despite the risks involved, what makes the actions of the Ambulance Train staff even more remarkable was that they. Rather they came from the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). One such individual was J.W. Major, the father of Ken Major who is responsible for one of our foundation collections. In the picture adjacent, J.W. Major is shown second on the left in the back row.
Whilst the Religious Society of Friends are strict pacifists, there was still a feeling that they should help in what way they could without compromising on their religious ideals. With this in mind, a group of young Quakers set up an ambulance service to assist the wounded, as well as to run hospitals catering both to civilians impacted by the war and military personnel. Whilst never officially endorsed they proved to be a popular and lifesaving service. Ultimately when conscription was introduced they would be seen as a valid alternative to armed service.
A training camp for these volunteers was set up in 1914 in Buckinghamshire its first intake consisted of 60 young men. Their first arrival in Europe would be November 1914. Their journey itself was not without event as they came across the stricken cruiser Hermes, after rescuing the victims and taking them back to Dover, on their second crossing they were able to reach France. By 1915 the Friends Ambulance Service as it came to be known was heavily involved in the Ambulance Trains, particularly Numbers 16 and 17. Volunteers for the FAU were unpaid and originally had to cover the costs of their own expenses and uniforms.
Ultimately by the end of the war, it is estimated that close to 2.7 million wounded had travelled on the ambulance trains, and they were responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Some of which were saved on the very trains donated by the UK Flour Millers.
Photos of Ambulance Train Number 16 used with the kind permission of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon
Photos of Ambulance Train Number 17 used with the kind permission of the National Railway Museum