Picture Postcards from the Great War

ww1 Ambulance Trains on Postcards

Tony Allen

Ambulance Trains on the Western Front
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.”

ww1 RAMC soldiers and early ambulance train postcard
This real-photographic card titled simply 'Guerre 1914', was published by J. Courcier of Paris. Originally in black and white, the image had been improved by hand-colouring. It depicted members of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  A black and white version of the image also appeared in an issue of  the popular The War Illustrated - with this caption, "Types of the men who daily risk their lives for stricken comrades-in-arms. Members of the British R.A.M.C. on their way to the front from a base in France where they have just arrived by train. The Red Cross on the French rolling-stock will be noted."
Phillip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle watched as a long ambulance train pulled up near the village of Choques and quickly fill up with men suffering all kinds wounds. The first to board were thousands of “lightly wounded”, he said, who “crowded the carriages, leaned out of the windows with their bandaged heads and arms, shouting at friends they saw in the other crowds. The spirit of victory, and of lucky escape, uplifted these lads...And now they were going home to bonny Scotland, with a wound that would take some time to heal”.

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...”
The scene depicted on this card, titled "THE START FOR 'BLIGHTY' " and published by the Pictorial Newspaper Co., Ltd., could well have been that described by Gibbs in his report in the Daily Chronicle.
ww1 ambulance train postcard
A British ambulance train has arrived at Treport. Royal Army Medical Corps personnel are off-loading a casualty into an ambulance provided by the Canadian Red Cross. The card was locally produced and would have been on sale to British and Allied soldiers at the large camp and the many hospitals in the locality.
ww1 postcard titled A CASE FOR BLIGHTY
 "A CASE FOR “BLIGHTY”’. The two female nurses depicted on this "CANADIAN OFFICIAL" card, were members of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service - known affectionately as QA's. When war broke out in August 1914, there were just under 300 QA's serving with the British Army, but by the end of the year the number had risen to 2,223 and when the war ended over 10,400 trained nurses had enrolled in the service. 
loading wounded aboard ww1 ambulance train
On the coloured card, a sign on the open door states that the accommodation in that carraige is for wounded officers.
Scottish Red Cross Motor Ambulance at work near the Firing Line in France postcard
"Scottish Red Cross Motor Ambulance at work near the Firing Line in France." This motor ambulance was probably bringing patients from a casualty clearing station to the ambulance train for transmission to a base hospital. The vehicle was donated to the British Army Medical Services by the Scottish Branch of the British Red Cross Society. The proceeds from the sale of these printed-photo postcards went to the Red Cross.

Interior Views of a Continental Ambulance Train

ww1 postcard interior of ambulance train ward car

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

ww1 postcard interior view of a carriage on an ambulance train

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

staff of ww1 ambulance train postcard
Ambulance Train number 30 with presumably its entire staff of officers, orderly's and nurses. There is no indication of the location or date of when the picture was taken. Although the photographer would probably have made a good profit (with around 50 people posing) if everyone had placed an order for at least one postcard.

Ambulance Trains in the UK

Early 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.



The card shown above features an "AMBULANCE TRAIN [of the] LANCASHIRE AND YORKSHIRE RAILWAY." This type of train carried wounded servicemen from the hospital ships to their home areas. The card was from a series depicting medical trains belonging to various railway companies. "The Locomotive Publishing Co., Ltd., 3, Amen Comer, London, E.", published them.
British ww1 ambulance train postcard
This card shows an "AMBULANCE TRAIN [of the] LONDON AND NORTH WESTERN RAILWAY." Another card by "The Locomotive Publishing Co., Ltd."

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."

ww1 UK ambulance train postcard

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.

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