The first British ambulance trains, which operated on the Western Front, consisted simply of a few empty French goods wagons with straw laid on the floor. At the end of August 1914, the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.) were given three locomotives and a further number of goods wagons and a few carriages. They were converted and divided into three ‘trains’. Each consisted of wards, surgical dressing rooms and dispensaries and were designated British Ambulance Trains 1, 2 and 3 respectively.
The R.A.M.C. continued converting French rolling stock up to train number 11, and in November 1914, the first specially built medical train was sent out from the UK and designated number 12. No train was given the number 13 and near the end of the war, number 43 arrived in France.
As with the ambulance cars, several of the trains were built with voluntary contributions. For example, number 12 was Lord Michelham’s, No. 15 was Princess Christian’s and the United Kingdom Flour Millers donated No. 16.
This card depicts a scene early in the war, when French goods wagons were used to transport the wounded. Captioned “R.A.M.C. ENTRAINING WOUNDED FOR HOSPITAL”, the picture was painted by Harry Payne. It was one of a set of six “Oilette” cards (series 8821) showing the R.A.M.C. at work. Text on the back of the card reads: “The completeness and efficiency of the splendid work of the Royal Army Medical Corps demands and deserves a volume of appreciation. From the firing line to the hospital, from thence to the base. In the train, the Hospital Ship, and at home, everything that can sooth the suffers or heal their wounds, every agency, personal or material for this ameliorative work, is lavishly provided.”
Next to board were those who came on stretchers. “from which no laughter came”. One young Londoner, "was so smashed about the face", said Gibbs, “that only his eyes were uncovered between the bandages, and they were glazed with the first film of death".
Another young soldier "had his jaw blown clean away. A splendid boy of the Black Watch, was but a living trunk”, said the reporter, “both his arms and legs were shattered and would be one of those who go about in boxes on wheels”. A group of blinded men, “were led to the train by wounded comrades, ‘groping’, very quiet, thinking of a life of darkness ahead of them...”
Interior Views of a Continental Ambulance Train
The publisher of this card is not named. It shows "...two beds arranged for sitting up cases" and was known as a "Continental Ambulance Train" It was built at the G.W.R. Works in Swindon in 1915. Between August
1914 and December 1918, over 5,000,000 patients were carried by these trains on the Western Front
Another interior view of a carriage on an ambulance train. This was a 'Ward Car' built by the Caledonian Railway Company and although there are no details of printer or publisher on the back of the card, it was probably released by the company.
The Staff of a Continental Ambulance Train
Ambulance Trains in the UKEarly in the conflict, a group of regional railway companies donated 12 ambulance trains to the army medical services and very soon, they were carrying patients from Southampton to different parts of the U.K. As the home bound casualties mounted, four emergency trains made up of corridor coaches and dining cars came into service to accommodate ‘sitting’ patients. In addition, a number of North-Eastern Railway Company vans were fitted out for ambulance use and coupled to ordinary passenger trains. These special vans transported the wounded that had been landed on the northeast coast bound for hospitals at Selby and York.
The wounded from the Western Front and elsewhere, were carried by hospital ship to the UK and while still at sea, the ship would cable information ahead of the various categories of patients they had on-board and their estimated time of arrival at port. Each patient was labelled with details of his wound; another label was marked with one of five areas in Britain nearest his home. If a man was seriously injured a plain red label was also attached to him, indicating that he required ‘special consideration.’ Before disembarkation began, huge "reception sheds on the quayside were lit and heated." Beyond the sheds the ambulance trains waited.
This card published by "The Locomotive Publishing Co., Ltd." shows an "AMBULANCE TRAIN [of the] GREAT CENTRAL RAILWAY." It was mailed to an address in Maldon on 17th October 1917. A message reads, "Dear Georgie, Here is another card am so pleased you like them. I have got one more after this which I will send next week and see if I can get you another sort. You must keep them all and show me when I come home perhaps I will get you an album to put them all in if I can see one...From your loving Dad."
Another card by "The Locomotive Publishing Co., Ltd." of Amen Corner, London and captioned "Hospital Train, Great Western Railway."
The role of ambulance trains in the United Kingdom was different from those on the Western Front. There, patients were entrained from medical units scattered over a large area and their wounds only received emergency treatment. On the train to the base, patients received proper medical attention. This continued at the base hospital and in the hospital ships that carried them home. Consequently, when they arrived at home ports most casualties were already in a reasonably stable condition.