In June 2018 the Mills Archive was very kindly donated two very special Gems from the collection of John Cannons, a lifelong railway enthusiast, donated by his son Stephen. This exciting donation comes in the form of a pair of oval plaques which once decorated two railway carriages of a First World War Ambulance Train. These two carriages (numbers 16 and 17) were on one of the earliest ambulance trains, which played a crucial role in the support of troops on the Western Front. The trains, which transported wounded soldiers from the trenches to nearby hospitals where they could be properly cared for, were equipped with bunks for casualties and treatment rooms where nurses could provide vital immediate care from life-threatening injuries sustained during battle.
In an unexpected connection to the Archive which makes these plaques even more intriguing, we discovered that they were in fact donated to the war effort by the United Kingdom Flour Millers Association, who paid for them to be converted and fitted out.
Whilst researching Ambulance Trains, Mildred unearthed yet another link from the Ken Major foundation collection: a book called A Train Errant, within which is a bound collection of newsletters called The Orderly Review which were published on board Ambulance Train Number 16 – from which one of our plaques originates! The Orderly Review was quite a varied publication, describing itself as ‘Illustrative, critical and literary’, with handwritten contributions ranging from essays on Gothic architecture, adverts mocking pastries and reports of the nature that could be seen from the train windows.
A particularly interesting addition is a sketch of an incident that occurred on the 21st March 1918, when two bombs landed squarely on the ambulance train whilst it was boarding wounded soldiers at Agnez. The trains were painted with red crosses on the outside to show that they were carrying the injured and should be exempt from shelling, but the enemy were not always merciful, and there were reports of trains having to hide in tunnels to escape the bombs. This train didn’t make it to shelter in time, but the article describes how although the whole side of the coach was wrecked, miraculously nobody was killed and only two people sustained very slight injuries. The incident must have been quite a shock to those on board, but luckily they lived to write about it in the paper!
By the end of the war, close to 2.7 million wounded had travelled on the ambulance trains and many thousands of those lives had been successfully saved – including some famous names such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
If you’re interested in finding out more, the book A Train Errant is available in our library, and the symbolic Ambulance Train plaques are now on display on in our Founders’ Room at Watlington House, where visitors to the Mills Archive may view them in person.
Both the Ambulance plaques and the book are to become part of our upcoming Gems of the Archive collection, a series of articles which will explore the hidden stories behind some of the documents and artefacts we hold at the Archive. Look out for the Gems launch coming on our website very soon!
Picture 1 used with kind permission of STEAM – Museum of the GWR, Swindon. www.steampicturelibrary.com
If you'd like to find out more, the West Somerset Railway has a display about Ambulance Trains, and the Locomotive 5542 Society has the wooden WWI coach that served in France - click the links to visit their pages and find out more.