Picture Postcards from the Great War

 The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(17) Ambulance barges

The most peaceful and tranquil method of transporting wounded men from the battle areas of the Western Front - was by hospital barge. The system was introduced by the French in the first week of the war and in the autumn of 1914, the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.) began to do the same, and "soon a regular fleet of these useful little hospitals sprang into being and passed along the quiet waterways of France from the front, right back to the base", said The Times.

ww1 inland water transport division postcard

The Inland Water
Transport Division (I.W.T.D.) of the Royal Engineers was responsible for the movement and safe navigation of ambulance barges along the waterways of northern France. This coloured 1918 Christmas greetings postcard depicting a tug, also shows the connection between the I.W.T.D. and the medical services, by the depiction of a red cross emblem. By the end of the Great War over 70,000 casualties had been carried to safety by the I.W.T.D. barges.

About the size of a Thames lighter, the ambulance barges were roofed in and fitted out as a ward with 30 beds and an operating table. In the bow of the barge was a kitchen and store-room, and there were bunks for the staff in the stern. Each vessel was staffed by two nursing sisters, nine R.A.M.C. orderlies and three Royal Engineers (R.E.) from the Inland Water Transport unit.

The barges were towed in pairs by a small tug operated by the engineers. An onboard medical officer attended to patients in both barges. Transportation by this method was particularly suited to those suffering from head or chest wounds and gunshot fractures of the thigh, as the jolting usually experienced by any other means of transport only resulted in, "more suffering for the patient".

After stopping a ‘Blighty one’ and laying for many hours in a shell-hole in No-Man’s-Land, a severely wounded soldier described his journey by barge, "It was almost as if one had died and literally wakened in heaven. The peace, the silence, were unbelievable. One had glimpses of lovely country, and the scent of it drifted in. The nights moored up were so still - though sometimes one heard the distant gun-fire, but it didn’t matter any more - it seemed so far away."

R.A.M.C. men who landed duty on the inland medical barges would "bless their luck in being water-gypsies amid a countryside remote from the immediate horrors of war", said one of their number. Although the official war photographers took pictures of patients and staff on the barges, non it seems, were reproduced on contemporary picture postcards. However, the Inland Water Transport section of the R.E. - who managed the vessels - issued several colourful artist-drawn Christmas postcards in 1917/18.


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