In our series The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye, we’re following “The Private Diary of Edward Hampton” to learn about life as a child in London 1916, half way through the First World War.
Special ambulance trains were built by the railway companies to carry sick and injured soldiers to safety throughout the Great War.
Ambulance trains were very long – up to a third of a mile in length!
They would have had sixteen carriages, in which doctors and nurses could undertake a wide range of jobs:
- Wards were designed to carry as many soldiers as possible, often with thirty-six bunk beds in tiers of three – the middle bed often folded back to enable sitting patients to use the lower bunk. They were cramped and uncomfortable. Officers were separated from ordinary soldiers, and on some journeys were given luxuries like champagne. However, in the chaos of large battles, everybody was quickly loaded into the trains together.
- Pharmacies were fully stocked with morphine, medicines and bandages – everything the staff needed to keep their passengers stable on the journey to hospital.
- Emergency operating rooms
- Accommodation for the live-in staff of medical officers, nurses and orderlies
- Brake and stores vans
Working on an ambulance train was difficult, dirty and dangerous.
Staff regularly worked through the night to make sure their patients were given the care they needed. They ran the constant risk of catching lice or infectious diseases, and of being bombed.
For every new load of passengers, there was a long list of jobs to be done:
- Medical Officers (professional army medics) checked each soldier on to the train and decided their treatment.
- Nurses gave patients skilled medical care.
- Orderlies fetched water, changed dressings, fed the passengers, and cleaned the train.
For patients, a journey on an ambulance train could be a blessed relief or a nightmare. Patients were initially relieved to be on board and moving away from the front. Many hoped for a ‘Blighty wound’, which would mean a welcome return home.
However, travelling on an ambulance train could be an uncomfortable or even painful experience. The small bunks were claustrophobic, and men with broken bones felt every jolt of the train. Filled with men straight from the trenches, the trains quickly became filthy and smelly.
The British public gathered at railway stations to wave off sons, husbands and brothers who had joined the army. They went back to see them return in ambulance trains.
The first ambulance trains were greeted with crowds, red carpets, brass bands and local dignitaries. But pomp and pride were quickly replaced by sorrow as battered and broken men were unloaded onto the platforms.
If you would like to explore an ambulance train, there’s one to see at the National Railway Museum (click to find out more)
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The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye is supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.