Picture Postcards from the Great War

The Royal Army Medical Corps on ww1 Postcards

Early in the Great War, the activities of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) began near the Belgium mining town of Mons. Historian Redmond McLaughlin said, "it was here [on the Western Front] that the steadfast devotion of very ordinary men, doctors and orderlies, mostly quite young, was recognized. The Corps earned a remarkable number of awards for gallantry; although most were a tribute to unremitting devotion day in and day out."

Throughout the conflict newspapers and magazines praised the work of the medics and acknowledged the suffering of the wounded. Picture postcards did so too and some of them are shown here.

"ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS". A colourful and distinctive card from a set of six produced by the Art Advertising Syndicate - probably in 1917.

RAMC Badge
The vast military medical organisation which cared for sick and wounded servicemen between 1914-1918, grew from small beginnings. At the outbreak of the conflict about 5,000 medical officers and men - which was about half the required strength - were available to go with the British Expeditionary Force to France. However, numbers were quickly made up by giving commissions to civilian doctors who volunteered in large numbers and enlisting men whose employment in civilian life suited them for work in the Royal Army Medical Corps without further medical training.
ramc red cross shoulder patch
Before 1914, army medical service recruits were trained at the RAMC depot at Aldershot and it was from there that reserves and reinforcements were sent to wherever they were needed. Below is an example of a pre-war RAMC related picture postcard.
Pre 1914 RAMC postcard

This 'OILETTE' by Raphael Tuck & Sons, was from its "MILITARY LIFE - THE VOLUNTEERS." set. The set was number 9120 and comprised of six cards. This card was posted to Bath on 9th November 1911. The firm were proud to announce on the back, that it was "Art Publishers to Their Majesties the King & Queen."

ww1 ramc postcard
This card was published by G. H. Colfby-Clarke of 59 Poland Street London and Oriental Village, The Tower, Blackpool. It was sent by Private F. Hirst 187572, A Coy, 5 tent, 3 Training Batt, 2 camp R.A.M.C., Squire Gate, Blackpool, to an address in Barnsley, Yorkshire.
When hostilities began, new centres were opened to train the field ambulance units destined for Kitchener’s new armies. One large RAMC centre was in Blackpool where a headquarters was established and an Officers School of Instruction set up, which provided training in "the duties of a regimental medical officer, in army sanitation, in tropical diseases, in squad and stretcher drill", and later in "anti-gas conditions". The establishment also trained recruits, mobilised new units and prepared drafts for overseas service.
ramc private ww1
Dated '1916' on the back, this card of a RAMC medical orderly was produced by The Hudson Studios at the Great Western Arcade, Birmingham, who offered "Pictures and Picture Framing at Wholesale Prices."
During the Great War numerous photographic postcards depicting men of the RAMC were produced by camp and local high-street photographers. The pictures - sometimes taken just a day or two before the medics left for France - revealed that their khaki uniforms were indistinguishable from those of combat troops, except for a RAMC cap badge and a circular red cross patch, sewn onto each upper arm. The medics carried no weapons.

Cards were also released by commercial postcard publishers who incorporated into the design, pictures of medics and the corps emblem. For example, the Art Advertising Syndicate (thought to have been in existence for only two years - 1917-1919) produced a distinctive set of six cards depicting British Army Corps. They were designed and painted by Herbert Bryant. The RAMC card from the set is shown at the top of this page.

ramc postcfard
ramc ww1 postcard
Left: This card, from a short series published by Birn Brothers Ltd. of London, displayed on each card in the set, a gold embossed cap badge, a verse telling of the work the regiment or corp was involved in and a relevant sketch. Right: A Valentine's card from a series that displayed within an embossed gold border, a badge and alongside, a brief history of the named unit. On the back of the cards the company was proud to announce "VALENTINE'S is a guarantee of BRITISH MANUFACTURE."
Three studio portraits of soldiers wearing the cap badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The medic on the left is also wearing an Overseas Service Commitment badge, worn by territorial soldiers who had volunteered to serve overseas when required to do so. The photographic studio is not named on the postcard. The soldier on the centre card,  in addition to the usual circular red cross patch on both upper arms, is also wearing a Red Cross armband. The photographer was W.W. Winter of  Derby. The card was set to "Robbie from Edgar". The portrait of the sergeant featured on the right was taken by "The Hudson Studios, Ltd., Great Western Arcade and City Arcades, Birmingham." who also undertook "Pictures & Picture Framing at Wholesale Prices." "
While at Aldershot, a medic could have a photo of himself incorporated within a suitable RAMC design and reproduced as a postcard as a record of his time spent there. Examples are shown below.
ramc posrcard
ww1 ramc postcard
ramc postcard ww1
These cards, produced at Aldershot - usually after the recruits had finished their training - were a record of their time spent there before sent overseas on active service. The two outer cards were produced by J. B. Newby, 181 High Street, Aldershot and the centre one by George H. Olley - also of Aldershot.
Most of the colourful artist drawn/painted sets and series of cards depicting regimental badges and illustrations of uniforms and the like, contained at least one or two designs connected with the RAMC.
ramc history and tradition postcard
This card was number 109 in Gale and Polden’s ‘History and Traditions’ series which comprised of 120 cards. In 1908, J. McNeill did the first paintings for the set - they were mainly of foot regiments. A year later Ernest Ibbetson started on the cavalry illustrations. He also painted the picture for this RAMC card. There were at least two editions of the series and over the years many alterations were made to individual cards and several were completely repainted. With the coming of the Great War some of the variations depicted soldiers in khaki uniforms, as did the RAMC card above.

Field Ambulance Units arrive in France

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed to France between the 9th and 17th August 1914, and consisted of about 90,000 men. By the 20th it had completed its concentration near Maubeuge and started its march towards the Belgian frontier to head off the German invader.

Eglish soldiers enter france ww1 postcard
French people shouted and cheered and waved small Union Jacks as the BEF marched though towns and villages on its way north. With it were field ambulance units of the RAMC.

A Field Ambulance (FA) consisted of ten officers and 224 other ranks including several Army Service Corps personnel. A field ambulance column comprised of ambulance wagons, water-carts and forage-carts for carrying medical stores, a cook’s wagon, and GS wagons for stores and baggage, and 52 riding and draught horses. In addition, a soldier on a  bicycle carried orders and messages within the unit.

The printed photo-card left was published in France by L.V.G. The captions are in French and English and the latter version reads, "THE WAR - FRENCH PEOPLE OFFERING FLOWERS TO ENGLISH SOLDIERS." This was a typical scene as the BEF marched through France in the first days of the war.

The location of the scene depicted on the card shown below is not revealed. However, it is probably safe to assume that it was in the UK, as all that is shown on the reverse is the word 'POSTCARD'.
ww1 field ambulance unit postcard
This postcard depicts an unnamed field ambulance unit on parade. Some ambulance wagons are drawn by two horses and one wagon by four. In addition, there are several GS wagons and also limber-type carts on display. The date and location are unknown, but the photo was probably taken early in the war just before the unit left for France.
Each field ambulance was divided into three sections, designated ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’, and there was also a Bearer Division and a Tent Division. In battle conditions the tent division formed a main dressing station, at the same time, men from the bearer division brought in the wounded from front-line Regimental Aid Posts (RAP). During a big offensive, field ambulance units formed a chain of medical posts between the aid-posts and Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS).
Photographic postcards depicting field ambulance units can be found. However, a unit pictured thereon can usually only be identified with certainty - if it is named as such on the card.
68 FA unit postcard
Inscribed on the reverse of this real photographic postcard is the following, "No. 68 Field Ambulance 'C' Section". The photograph was taken at Cow Gap, Eastbourne, on 2nd August 1915 - just a month before the unit left for France.
ww1 29 FA unit postcard
Number 29 Field Ambulance RAMC 'C' Section. This FA together with 27 & 28 were units of the 9th (Scottish) Division (New Army). 29th Field Ambulance arrived in France on 12th May 1915, but on the 29th May left 9th Division - for Rouen. (Its place was taken by 1st SA Field Ambulance in the same month) No. 29 FA was disbanded on 27th February 1917.
Left: An RAMC man. His cap badge, shoulder title and red cross patch can all be clearly seen. Centre: This RAMC cyclist probably carried messages and orders within his unit. The postcard on the Right: dated 9th November 1914, carries a brief message that reads, "To dearest Mother, with love and best wishes, from your loving boy, Jack." No.103 Field Ambulance, (to which the medic belonged) together with No.102 and No.104, were the medical units of the 34th Division and went to France on 12th January 1915. The picture of the young medic was probably taken just before he left for France.

Right: This fine portrait of 'Jim' was taken at the "Van Ralty Studio" which according to printed information on the reverse, had branches in "Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Oldham, Bolton, etc. etc." Centre: Another studio portrait of a RAMC Private. Left: This is an officer in the RAMC.

On Friday 21st August the British Expeditionary Force crossed into Belgium. The local population welcomed it just as the French had done earlier. The force advanced to the town of Mons on the left flank of the French Fifth Army and took up positions on a 21-mile front. The next day, the 23rd, Von Klucks’ Army arrived, outnumbering the BEF two to one. At 5 p.m., after intense fighting, Sir John French the British commander, realizing that the enemy was advancing towards him in great strength, and worse, the French army on his right flank had began a general retreat, made preparations to do the same. The BEF fought throughout the night, but by dawn was forced to withdraw with over 1,600 casualties and over the coming days fought many rearguard actions as it retreated south.

Postcard artists used their imagination to paint the scenes they thought would occur on a retreat and two are shown below.
Left: "IN THE THICK OF IT." This Tuck & Sons card was painted by the great Harry Payne. Right: "A hot corner."  Gale & Polen Ltd., of London, Aldershot and Portsmouth published this card as number D33. The artist was W. B. Wollen.
Hard pressed  doctors, medical  orderlies and  stretcher  bearers  did their best to aid and comfort the wounded and dying, but were overwhelmed by the numbers. The difficulties involved in evacuating thousands of wounded men in the middle of a retreat and through hordes of refugees - threw all established plans into chaos.
Produced early in the war, this "Oilette" card by Raphael Tuck & Sons was No. 8821 and was one of a set of six titled 'Royal Army Medical Corps'. The caption on the reverse reads: "Amid all the horrors of the Great War, certain things shine out grandly conspicuous. Up there, next to the unquenchable cheeriness and undaunted bravery of the British soldier, nothing is more marvelous and thankworthy than the splendid organisation and equipment of the Red Cross Work, of which the Royal Army Medical Corps has charge, assisted by most valuable auxiliaries."
RAMC set of cards
In the temporary dressing stations scattered along the line of retreat, medics often had to abandon the worst of the wounded to the fast-approaching enemy. For example, during the battle of Le Cateau, doctors from No.8 Field Ambulance were working in a temporary casualty station in a small village school, when they were suddenly told, "You must leave now, in five minutes the Germans will be her". A doctor with a surgical knife in his hand, said "What about this poor chap on the table", only to be told, "Put him back on the mattress, we can’t take him away". As the doctor was leaving, a Major Thompson said to him, "Goodbye old chap, I’ve got to stop here". (Thompson and six orderlies stayed behind with 120 wounded men - there was no transport for them.) "I shook hands with him", said the doctor, "and I have never seen him since". 
ww1 wounded on street

 Left: A tented field hospital staffed by members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Inside, beds and medicine cabinets can clearly be seen.  Right: On this 1914 French postcard British walking wounded are "...waiting transport to hospital."

In the early days of the war, medics were frequently caught up in the chaos of the retreat and together with their fighting comrades were captured by the enemy. Below are two postal stationery cards sent from a German PoW camp by a member of a RAMC field ambulance.
ramc ww1 postal history card
ramc postal history
Left: Early in the war, Private Harold Moore was taken prisoner by the Germans. On 1st November 1914, he sent this card from Gottingen PoW Camp to his mother in Hove. Moore, a member of the RAMC, thought that as a medical man he should be sent home. He told his mother, "we are still looking forward to coming home, you need not worry about me for I am happy enough..." The Geneva Convention of 1906 required that all medical personnel who were captured in war, should be "treated with respect, protected and repatriated."  Right: This card, dated 18th March 1915, shows that three months later Private Moore was still in Gottingen camp. He had not been repatriated yet. However, three months later in June 1915, agreement was reached between Britain and Germany to exchange medical prisoners of war. Perhaps Private Moore was one of them!
As the retreat from Mons continued, the roads leading from the battlefield and then Landrecies and Le Cateau, "soon became a shamble", said The Times, as "thousands of men lay upon these roads...there was no adequate means of collecting them. Terrible rumours passed from mouth to mouth in England that the ambulance service had broken down and that help was urgently required". Three weeks after landing in France one in six of the 90,000 men which formed the BEF had become a casualty and many of them had died needlessly because of the lack of transport. The retreat from Mons, "In blazing sunlight through stifling August days, was of the character of an inferno", said The Times, "and the soldiers described it tersely as 'Hell on earth', and the medical officers had good reason to endorse that opinion.

"HELP THE WOUNDED." This card,  mailed by the British Red Cross Society in December 1914 - "to acknowledge the receipt of your contribution" - carried a picture first seen in The Sphere and in 1916 it appeared in THE TIMES HISTORY OF THE WAR above this caption, "WOUNDED HELPING THE WOUNDED. A pathetic episode between Le Cateau and Landrecies during the retreat from Mons, September, 1914."

After the almost total collapse of the army medical services during the Mons retreat, Sir Alfred Keogh was brought out of retirement and appointed Director-General of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and "from that moment", said The Times, "the old order changed and what can only be described as a new conception of military medicine was brought into being".

Three early cards showing the RAMC at work on the Continent

RAMC ww1 postcard

"English Wounded" A soldier is attended to by a RAMC man as a large group of medics gather round. A woman has brought out a jug of water for the casualty. A good quality early printed-photographic card by  "EDIA Paris - Marsailles."

"IN BELGIUM - Transporting a wounded." says the English caption on this bi-lingual printed-photographic card by E.L.D. of Paris. As RAMC bearers stretcher the wounded man - a concerned boy scout looks on.
"Ambulance Anglaise - English Field Hospital" Members of the RAMC attended to a wounded soldier brought to a field hospital by ambulance wagon. The figure in the foreground could be a doctor/surgeon. A printed-photo card by E.L.D. The card was mailed on 9th October 1914 from Havre by a member of  "5 Coy, A.O.C., Expeditionary Force,"

Types of Medical Transport

(1) Horse-drawn ambulance wagon

During the first weeks of the conflict, there were no motor-ambulances available for the army medical services in France and Belgium, and as previously mentioned, the only means of transporting the sick and wounded from the battle areas was by horse-drawn ambulance wagons and also a few commandeered motor-lorries. Ambulance-wagons Mark V and Mark VI were the ones in use at the time and a smaller version - the Mark I light ambulance wagon - was also available. These three types of medical transport were pulled by two - but sometimes four - draught horses and were used during the retreat from Mons and up to the battle of the Aisne in mid-September 1914.

Right: This real-photographic postcard depicts a Mark V horse ambulance wagon. It was introduced into the British Army in the 1880s and was built at a cost of £136 and accommodated 12 sitting or four stretcher cases.  Left: This card shows a light ambulance wagon. They were introduced into the army in 1905, and designed to carry eight seated persons. During the Great War they were used mainly to transport stores and medical equipment.
Left: Another Mark V ambulance wagon. Right: A convoy of horse ambulance wagons depicting "A Good Line at Longmore." says the caption on this real-photo card.

(2) Motor-ambulance cars

On 12th September - as the 'war of movement' continued - Lord Kitchener informed the British Red Cross Society (BRCS) that, "I see no objection to parties with Motor Ambulances searching villages in France that are not in occupation of the Germans,  for  wounded,  and  to  obtain  particulars  of  the  missing  and convey them to hospital".

In mid-September the first 50 motor-ambulances were sent to France. However, as the fighting continued and casualties mounted it became evident that more vehicles would soon be needed.

Within days the medical transport system had almost broken down. On Sunday 27th September 1914, The Times made this appeal to its readers, "A GREAT NEED OF MOTOR AMBULANCES - WOUNDED CONVEYED IN LORRIES. (From a correspondent in France). It has been my lot during the last few days to see something of the conditions under which our soldiers, officers and men, have been brought down from the clearing hospital under the hills on the other side of which our men are fighting their prolonged battle...it hurts to think of what suffering must be endured by these brave men on heavy lorries, even on a bed of straw. At present about 50 motor ambulances have arrived in this country...and less then 30 will be able to do at the front. They need there at least 100 and more if possible. Cannot something be done?"

As the front-line medical units were stretched to breaking point, The Times, the BRCS and the public, were soon to join forces to help them. On 2nd October the paper carried this announcement,

"The need which transcends all other needs at this moment is an adequate supply of properly fitted motor-ambulances...and if only the public knew of the urgency of the demand, the cars would be forthcoming."

A few days later readers were asked to donate money to an ambulance fund which the newspaper had set up in conjunction with the BRCS, and the "spirited way in which the public responded to the appeal was magnificent." Money and offers of help poured in and within a week donations had reached almost £9,000 and 143 motor-ambulances had been promised too. For several months a daily list appeared in The Times naming those who subscribed to the ambulance fund.

The public response to The Times appeal was tremendous, and soon charitable organisations and commercial companies, trade organisations and societies, schools and universities were raising money for the cause. 

This certificate was presented to schoolgirl Agnes Hall who had subscribed to a local ambulance fund to provide "a Motor Ambulance for use in the service of wounded Soldiers, belonging to our brave Lincolnshire Regiment."
Ambulance-appeal organizers frequently commissioned photographic postcards of their vehicle, which usually had displayed on it - in large black or white letters - the name or title of the sponsor.

In the early days of the appeal, one of the main raiser of funds and provider of ambulance cars was the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes (R.A.O.B.)

ww1 ambulance postcard
ww1 ambulance postcard 2
It was from companies such as ‘FIAT MOTORS LTD.’ of London, that people who gave vehicles to the ambulance funds obtained them. On 12th October 1914, the company placed a large advertisement in The Times, saying it was the ‘ambulance specialist’ and anyone with £350 to spare could purchase a "ready for the road, 12/15 h.p. FIAT AMBULANCE, specially designed and constructed to take two stretchers and two sitting cases".
penny flag
ww1 penny flag
ww1 ambulance postcard 3
One method of raising funds for war charities was that of selling penny flags and two from the Salvation Army are shown above.
The ambulance car on this postcard was presented to the British Red Cross Society and St. John Ambulance Assoocation by ‘The CLAN MACRAE.’ The caption reads, "The funds for this ambulance were collected from clansmen, clanswomen, and friends at home and abroad by Mrs. MacRae - Gilstrap of Eilean Donan 1914-16.’
Those wishing to spend £475, "to help the boys at the front", could send a powerful 15/20 h.p. motor, designed for use abroad. Probably mindful of a Times report published a few days earlier - in which several members of the public had expressed a desire, "to go over and help the wounded" - Fiat Motors said, it just so happened it had in stock a number of specially designed "ambulances for owner-drivers, who wish to take a vehicle abroad in order to assist personally". It was a "top of the range’, 35/40 h.p. motor, mounted on a fast and powerful chassis", and could accommodate four stretchers or two stretchers and and six sitting cases, and to compensate for the bad roads, "twin tyres are fitted to the back wheel", said the advertisement.

The vehicles also had many special extras including efficient heating, ventilation and disinfectant systems and suitable arrangements were fitted to, "enable the owner-driver, mechanic and orderly to travel with kit, food supply etc., independently of course, together with sleeping accommodation". This super-delux model would set its new owner back £500.

ambulance postcard 4
ambulance postcard 5

RightThis16 h.p. Sunbeam ambulance car was donated by "OLDHAM & DISTRICT TRADES & LABOUR COUNCIL" in December 1915. Left:  The lettering on the side of the ambulance tells us that it was "PRESENTED BY THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF ANGLERS FOR SERVICE WITH THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE FIELD." The sale of these postcards and similar ones would bring in more money for the ambulance funds.

As the war progressed, much of the ambulance work on the lines of communication and at the bases, was taken over by lady members of voluntary aid detachments, "who not only acted as driver", said the Official Medical History, "but also undertook the care and management of the cars."
ambulance convoy postcard
A French postcard showing an ambulance convoy at Le Treport.. Women drivers and mechanics are in attendance.

In the early days of the BEFs involvement on the Continent and before the horrors of trench warfare had evolved, a small number of private ambulance-car owners answered Kitchener's call and drove across open-country to aid and evacuate the wounded - wherever they could find them. As well as the obvious danger of doing this - there was another. On 13th October 1914 The Times reported the case, of the lady "who took her car up to [the front to] bring down four wounded men and was arrested as a spy and finally sent back with but two passengers [and] illustrates the conditions prevailing in certain districts a week ago", said the paper and went on, "spies are a curse certainly in this war, and the needs of the active army are paramount, but the wounded have sacred needs."

However, private ambulance car owners touring the battle areas was soon deemed unacceptable and the authorities stopped their activities and commandeered their vehicles and installed in them Army Service Corps (ASC) drivers. The army drivers were required to "have a pass and keep a log book and note down the amount of petrol received and the mileage run, The rules governing the conduct of ambulance drivers were strict and so were the speed limits.

The pen and ink drawing on this postcard depicted the chaotic conditions that motor vehicles and their passengers often had to endure near the front. Often, they did not even attain the speed limit of five miles per hour. The maximum limit was imposed "to prevent raising a dust that might inform the enemy that traffic was moving on the roads". In the back areas the maximum speed was ten miles per hour, "as this was agreed to be the most economical for the life of the car and the most comfortable to the patients", said the Medical History.

During the war, letters and postcards mailed by soldiers serving overseas, were subject to censorship. It was operated on a unit basis and was usually the task of a lieutenant, but sometimes a captain, who checked each days ‘posting’ before the unit censor stamp was applied, he then added his signature on the bottom left hand corner of the envelope.

The officer who censored the item below - posted on 16th November 1916 - was an RAMC man, Captain William Barnsley Allen VC, MC. Enclosed in the envelope was a ‘ambulance pass’ authorizing Driver Kilner, Army Service Corps - who was attached to the 1st/3rd West Riding Field Ambulance - to "carry 2 laying, 6 sitting [and] 1 wagon-orderly." 

ww1 ambulance pass
ww1 vc signiture
The above ‘pass’ was signed by Captain Allen who had earned his Victoria Cross two months earlier near Mesnil, France, "when gun detachments were unloading explosive ammunition [and] the enemy suddenly began to shell the battery position. The first shell...exploded the ammunition and caused several casualties." Under heavy fire Captain Allen ran across to the wounded and was hit four times by shrapnel, "but he went coolly on with his work until the last man had been attended to and removed."

Ambulances under fire

asc ambulance drivers postcard
This card depicts a group of ASC ambulance convoy drivers as they posed for the picture a few days before their departure to the Continent. One of the drivers took the postcard to France and shortly after arriving there in February 1915, he mailed it back to England with this message, "Last car just coming off the boat". The soldier then mentioned something about a gift of motor ambulances a well-known person had donated to the RAMC. "It is confirmed", he wrote, "that the beautiful column presented by the Maharajah Gwalior was blown to bits by shells a few days after it arrived. Only one car returning and that was a sight to see. You will, remember that this column was sent in our place, and although we grumbled, it was a bit of luck after all."
When motor ambulances were damaged or destroyed by enemy shellfire - like those donated by the Maharajah Gwalior - the propagandists were quick to exploit the situation and front-line soldiers sometimes made their feeling known too - as a postcard illustrated below clearly demonstrated.
damaged ambulance ww1
wrecked ambulance postcard

Left:  Motor ambulances on active service were occasionally damaged by shell- fire and according to the notice displayed on the ambulance depicted on this card, “Reprisals” were demanded. Right: This card of a damaged ambulance car was by Guilieminot of Paris. Around 90 motor ambulances on the Western Front suffered the same fate as those shown above.

In 1916, a card produced in colour (There was also a black and white version.) and intended to demonstrate the 'frightfulness' of the enemy was put on sale to raise funds for The British Ambulance Committee. (B.A.C.) It was a voluntary organisation formed early in the war that attached itself to the French Army. The B.A.C.  maintained that it had sent "British Ambulances for French Wounded" and said that; "we staff and maintain 120 at the French front…please help us to carry on this good work by subscribing to the BRITISH AMBULANCE COMMITTEE." Below is an example of The British Ambulance Committee's fund-raising postcard.

shelled ambulance car ww1 postcards
This card, mailed from London on 27th June 1917 carried this message, "Grandma saw this ambulance at Trafalgar Square." What 'grandma' would have seen in the Square was a mock battle display showing a shell-damaged French village complete with windmill, houses, captured German guns, tanks and the ambulance depicted on the card. The aim of the display was to encourage the public to subscribe to war charities and the War Bonds Campaign. The appeal was a tremendous success.
ambulance in trafalger square ww1 postcfard

This printed-photographic card shows "THE RUINED VILLAGE." in Trafalgar Square. The card was sold to raise funds for the "Y.M.C.A. HUT FUND."

Generally, cards which carried pictures of medical motors at work in the front areas were not common, however, there were several in the easily obtainable Daily Mail Battle Series. For instance, in addition to card number 107, captioned ‘An Advanced Field Ambulance’, card number ten - which was printed in colour - depicted ‘R.A.M.C. PICKING UP WOUNDED IN A CAPTURED VILLAGE’. Number five was a photograph of a group of soldiers, ‘HELPING AN AMBULANCE THROUGH THE MUD’. The aforementioned pictures were taken in 1916 - during the Somme offensive - by a member of the small band of official photographers.
ww1 helping an ambulance through the mud
This is card number five from Series 1 of the Daily Mail Battle Pictures. It was taken on the Somme and shows troops, ‘HELPING AN AMBULANCE THROUGH THE MUD.’ A caption on the reverse reads, "Heavy rains have often made the British front a quagmire, and our 'Tommies' have had to put their shoulders to the wheels of ambulances and other wagons." The image has also been described as the "16th (Irish) Div ambulance in difficulty, Somme 1916." In a sharper version of the photograph, a shamrock sign can be seen on the bottom right below the Red Cross.
ww1 ramc picking up wounded postcard
This printed-photographic card is number 10 from Mail series 2 and depicts the "R.A.M.C. PICKING UP WOUNDED IN A CAPTURED VILLAGE."  Both motor and horse ambulances are there. The caption on the reverse reads, "These are King's soldiers and our comrades who have fought and suffered. The best we can give them is their due. Such is the feeling of the devoted Red Cross Service." The location is Mametz, July 1916.
There were only about half-a-dozen cards in the Mail collection that were connected with the medical services and it was obviously thought prudent not to include images of severely injured soldiers, but instead, to portray pictures of the help they could expect to receive if wounded.

Battle Injuries

During the war, the RAMC did considerable research into the effects of battle injuries, such as loss of blood from wounds, shock, and the bacteriology of wound infection. For instance, the army medical service soon realized that the majority of serious wounds were caused by shell fragments and work was done to discover the shape and size and number of fragments produced when a shell exploded. Several were test-fired, including a German 77mm shell which fragmented into 500 pieces and gave medical researchers valuable data when they reassembled it.

Brig.-Gen. Frank Crozier - one of the few high ranking officers to visit the trenches during the conflict - recalled the damage which fragments of high explosive shell could have on a human body. He wrote,
"In the main communication trench we passed a man carrying a sandbag full of something. Thefts of rations and minor stores from the line are increasing. I therefore asked, 'What have you got in that bag?' 'Rifleman Grundy, Sir', came the unexpected reply."


Complete Detonation
shell fragments
Medical Services, Surgery of the War, Vol.1

 By 1916, the percentage of wounds suffered by men serving on the Western Front were as follows: Lower limbs forty per cent, upper limbs thirty one per cent, head and neck fifteen and a half per cent and chest and abdomen less than four per cent each. The low rate of chest and abdomen cases probably indicated a high mortality rate for men who suffered from these injuries, as most never reached a medical unit in time. The majority of chest wounds were caused by shell fragments which left a gaping hole and in the absence of adequate blood transfusions and the primitive use of anesthesia early in the war, most surgeons were reluctant to attempt chest surgery until later in the war. Abdominal wounds were also feared and the mortality rate was about sixty per cent, caused mainly through shock and loss of blood.

Nevertheless, there were great advances in medicine during the conflict. For example, in the treatment of head wounds. At the start of hostilities neurosurgery was still in its infancy and the two men most responsible for the high standard of improvement which followed, were Harvey Cushing an American from Harvard and Sir Victor Horsley - Surgical advisor to the British Army, who tragically died on a trip to Mesopotamia in 1916. Cushing however, continued his work in British hospitals until the end of the war.

Another great war-time medical advance was the treatment of limb injuries - bone-grafting became widespread and screw and metal plates were developed to repair damaged bones. (Pictures of soldiers who suffered from fractured legs and amputations can be found on photographic postcards.)

ww1 postcard amputees
A group of soldiers in hospital uniform. For them the war was over! The picture was taken in the grounds of a Manchester hospital. The photographer was a local man -  John Porter.

In the first weeks of the war, a fifty per cent mortality rate from severe limb injuries was considered alarming and the need for "efficient immobilisation of the injured limb before being moved from the battlefield, was not immediately recognised", said one of the official medical history volumes. Fortunately, the early use of the ‘Thomas Splint’ - consisting of a padded ring to fit around the top of the thigh, with two long lateral bars meeting beyond the heel - greatly reduced the mortality rate from badly smashed legs and "spared many men much of the agony of rough transport."

The convalescent soldier on the right-hand side of this photographic card is fitted with a shorter version of the Thomas Splint.


During the battles on the Western Front, a disproportionate number of soldiers died, not from their wounds, but from infection of them. Why was this?  Before the war, large areas of northern France had been cultivated and heavily manured for hundreds of years, with the result that much of the soil was contaminated with bacteria which caused severe infection if it got into open wounds. Tetanus and ‘gas-gangrene’ became quite wide-spread, as they thrived in deep wounds where there was little oxygen and lots of damaged tissue.

Tetanus infection was due to an organism known at the time as Clostridium tetani and caused repeated muscular contractions, making it almost impossible for the victim to take food or drink and pneumonia often developed. The incubation period was about 12 days and with no antibiotics, the only treatment to prevent the disease developing was "deep and wide surgical excision to remove all dead and damaged tissue" The wound was left open and kept well drained so air could enter it and speed the healing process. Although an anti-tetanus serum was available it had to be administered immediately after a man was wounded - to have any useful affect. In 1914 the mortality rate from tetanus was sixty three per cent, by 1918 it had dropped to thirty nine per cent.

Early suturing of wounds often resulted in infection been trapped which allowed  gas-gangrene to develope. It too, was caused by bacteria in manured soil entering a wound and the onset of the disease was rapid, usually two to three days. Caused by an organism known at the time as Clostridium welchii, it affected muscles at the site of the wound, resulting in the destruction of blood vessels and tissue and caused bubbles of gas to form. In established cases, severe toxemia developed and the patient became extremely ill and often died. A serum was developed but it had little effect and prevention of the disease became paramount. Infected wounds which were deep and ragged were subject to radical surgical cutting and the first sign of gas-gangrene in a limb - usually resulted in its amputation. In 1914/15 gas-gangrene appeared in eleven per cent of all wounds, but by 1918 - due to aggressive surgery - the figure had dropped to one per cent.

Eye Injuries

In 1915, the number of eye injuries suffered by trench fighters increased dramatically. Shell fragments entering a soldiers eye were frequently contaminated - which resulted in severe infection - and without the use of antibiotics, removal of the eye was often the only option. Some men lost their sight completely, simply because their eyes were shot away or damaged beyond repair. These men were sent to St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors in Regents Park - to "learn to be blind."

Captain Ian Frazer, who became second-in-command at St Dunstan’s, (and later its chief) lost his sight during the 1916 Somme offensive - when he was hit in the head by a bullet. Frazer later said of his injury, "Medically I was a simple, straightforward case. I was not the subject of prolonged consultations and treatment, because there was nothing to consult about, nothing much to treat. The bullet had caused no serious harm to anything except my sight, and it had damaged that beyond repair. I was completely blind."

As the war progressed and the number of blinded soldiers increased, most of them were sent to the previously mentioned St Dunstan’s Hostel. (It was a voluntary organisation and one method it used to raise funds was to sell artist-drawn picture postcards to the public. Most were in colour and depicted dramatic scenes of battle-blinded soldiers.

In the late summer of 1916 - as the Somme battles raged - St Dunstan’s issued a set of five pictorial fund-raising postcards. They were printed in colour and sold for 6d. a set. The first card, “BLINDED FOR YOU”, was a splendid and moving picture by R. Caton Woodville, which brought to life the noise and confusion of battle and the unseen danger lying in wait for a blinded soldier. Woodville a painter in oils and watercolours, travelled extensively, often reporting from the battle-front. He observed the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the Egyptian War of 1882, the Boer War and the Great War. His illustrations regularly appeared in The Illustrated London News.

Gas Casualties

When the ‘war of movement’ in the autumn of 1914 turned into a stalemate of trench warfare, both sides were desperate to find a new ‘war-winning’ weapon. In the spring of 1915 the Germans thought they had found it, and also a way of getting around one of the internationally recognized rules of war.

In 1899, a Hague declaration had laid down the principle that, "there were certain methods of combat that were outside the scope of civilized warfare", and the use of poison-gas was one. Germany, one of the signatories to the declaration, had pledged to "abstain from the use of projectiles, the object of which, is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases". In spite of her promise, Germany was the first to use chemical weapons in the Great War, claiming that, by not using projectiles, but instead by releasing the cloud of gas from cylinders, she had avoided breaking the Hague agreement.

gas attack postcard
This German produced postcard - by an unknown publisher - shows gas released from cylinders and presumably blown by the wind towards the Allied lines. Earlier, the cloud of gas in the center may have blown back towards the German positions.
As terror weapon poison-gas was very effective, but was later regarded as less so as a means of causing casualties. The three main categories of gas were (1) Asphyxiating gases such as chlorine, which caused its victims intense irritation to eyes, nose and throat and severe coughing and vomiting. Inhalation of the gas often resulted in lung damage and death from asphyxia. It was first used by the Germans on the evening of 22nd April 1915, when allied troops noticed, "two greenish-yellow clouds rise from the German lines, catch the wind, and billow forwards...five feet high and hugging the ground." Within a minute the acrid green cloud had enveloped thousands of men, who seconds later, "were clutching at the air and at their throats, fighting for breath."

This first large scale gas-attack took the Allies by surprise and punched a gap four miles wide in their front-line. (The Germans failed to take advantage of the breach and it was later suggested that had they done so, they could have reached the channel ports and possibly won the war.) The German ‘experiment’ caused  the death of 5,000 men and left 10,000 wounded. At first doctors had no idea how to treat the casualties and simply diagnosed them as suffering from ‘air hunger’. Fortunately, chlorine was quickly dispersed by wind and weather.

"GASSED"  This image by John Singer Sargent of blinded men, is one of the most memorable pictures of the war. The original measured 20ft by over 7ft and later appeared in miniature on this postcard published by the Imperial War Museum.  In 1918, Sargent, then over 60 years of age, went to France and did several paintings of life in the back areas including this one - which became famous. One day on the Doullens‑Arras road, he came across a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which was busily treating victims of mustard‑gas. Around the CCS were several hundred men lying or sitting on the ground. Many of them had recently been blinded and were being led in groups of six to a treatment area, each patient with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. Seeing the potential for a great painting Sargent started to record the distressing scene and as he did so Douglas Haig rode by and stopped and watched for a while and "went away impressed."

(2) Blistering agents such as mustard-gas dispersed less quickly than chlorine and was first used against British troops defending the Ypres salient in 1917.  It was oil-soluble and quickly penetrated woolen clothing and skin, on which large blisters formed. Eyes, nose and upper air passages were severely irritated and temporary blindness frequently occurred. The gas gave off a smell which was often described as ‘like garlic or mustard’. Death occurred from damage to lungs and throat. Captain Ramsey, RAMC, who treated gas victims said, "The men’s bronchial tubes were stripped of their mucous membrane by the gas". Another medical officer wrote, "The victim has died with his windpipe clogged from top to bottom". The gas was so potent that "men standing around the dismembered corpse of a victim at an autopsy could still feel its effects ten days after the initial poisoning." Mustard-gas usually took a long time to disperse and was known to hang around the bottom of shell craters for months.

(3) Tear gas such as benzyl bromide was released in several ways, including mortar, special projector, shell and cloud. The gas was introduced in late 1915 and was used mainly to incapacitate enemy troops in areas which the attacker hoped to occupy and was an ideal gas for this purpose - as it dispersed completely within 12 hours. Although the Germans were the first to use poison-gas on the Western Front, and were condemned by the British for doing so, it was not long before the latter were using it too. By the end of the war the RAMC had a well established system of treating gas-casualties and much research was done into the best methods of protection against gas warfare. 

"GAS HELMETS OFF" The rest of the caption appears to read "CLASS 4 WELSH Div RE's"
Although the Germans were the first to use poison-gas on the Western Front, and were condemned by the British for doing so, it was not long before the latter were using it too. By the end of the war the RAMC had a well established system of treating gas-casualties and much research was done into the best methods of protection against gas warfare. 

Evacuation from the Battle-field

ww1 postcard to Blighty
While suffering the horrors of trench warfare, some soldiers hoped that if they were hit by a bullet or shrapnel or affected by poison-gas, the result would be a "Blighty wound" - a wound not serious enough to leave them permanently disabled, but sufficient to get them out of the line for a time and perhaps back to England for a period of convalescence.

"LUCKY DEVIL!" On the left is a postcard comment expressed by many soldiers during the Great War when seeing a walking wounded comrade.. The artist was Dudley Buxton and the card was number 1775 in the Inter-Art Company's "COMIQUE" Series.
What happened to a trench-fighter immediately he was hit?  It rather depended on where he was at the time. Each man had sewn into the lining of his uniform jacket, a field-dressing and a phial of iodine wrapped in a waterproof cover. If he was injured while in the trenches, but not seriously,  a comrade, or one of the medical orderlies stationed there - applied the iodine and the dressing to the wound, but if the injury was life-threatening a Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) was summoned, who dressed the wound and made the man as comfortable as possible - often with a shot of morphia.

On-the-other-hand, if a soldier was wounded while crossing No-Mans-Land, but could still walk, he usually got back to his own lines fairly quickly, but if badly injured, he had to wait until the regimental bearers got to him. They stopped the bleeding, performed basic first-aid, and carried the casualty to a regimental aid post - usually located in a dug-out or in a deep section of a trench. There, he came under the charge of a RMO who ‘checked him over’ and got him to the rear as quickly as possible.
first aid postcard ww1
"FIRST LINE HOSPITAL." The extreme forward position of regimental aid posts, resulted in the death of more than 1,000 medical officers and orderlies and postcard number nine in The Daily Mirror ‘Canadian Official Series’ clearly demonstrates the danger to which they were exposed. In the foreground, as he attends to the wounded, a regimental medical officer is distracted by a nearby explosion. Two-wheeled stretcher carts, bandages and equipment litter the area.
first aid postcard ww1 2
At the aid post, the injured man was given an anti-tetanus injection and his wound was properly dressed or splints applied if he had suffered a fracture. It was then that he came under the care of a field ambulance unit. RAMC bearers carried the casualty to an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) 500 yards in the rear, but sometimes it was up to two miles away, along communication trenches, over duck-boards, and through mud and shell holes full of water. An ADS could be in a cellar of a ruined house or under canvas or simply in a large dug-out, but always next to a road accessible to motor ambulances.
"PATCHING UP THE 'PIPPED'" Another card from the Daily Mirror Canadian Official Series, published by The Pictorial Newspaper Co., Ltd. This commercial real-photo postcard  depicts regimental stretchers bearers attending to the wounded at a first-aid post near the front-line trenches.
daily mail ww1 ambulance card
This picture - a painting taken from a photograph - is Daily Mail card number 107 and shows motor ambulances waiting for casualties at a ADS at Fricourt on the Somme The original photo was taken in August 1916. In darkness the waiting ambulance convoys were loaded up and then set off along roads littered with obstacles and shell holes. There was no light there, except for that provided by bursting shells and verey lights.

 At the dressing station the patient was examined again, and often stayed there until nightfall as any movement of motor vehicles during the day was sure to attract the attention of the German guns.

The two sepia-coloured cards shown below were "printed under the authority of His Majesty’s Stationery Office" and depict walking "WOUNDED RETURNING TO DRESSING STATION AFTER AN ATTACK." The pictures were "Taken by permission of the C.-in C. of the B.E.F." and according to the small print on the front of the cards - which are numbered ‘S.219’ and ‘S.220’ respectively - they were both an "OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH Censored at G.H.Q."  Both cards were sent to England by soldiers on active service.
walking wounded pc
back of card 2
Endorsed in pencil 'MILITARY' and 'ON ACTIVE SERVICE', this card was mailed from A. P. O. S.12. - on 18th July 1916.
walking wounded card
back of card
On 5th July 1916, this card was mailed from A.P.O. S.17 by a disappointed wounded soldier, recuperating at No. 6 Convalescent Dept. in France. He wrote, "Alas my chances of Blighty have been blighted. I was very disappointed too, as the M.O. said I would be going alright, but my luck did not hold." The  photograph was probably taken
seconds or minutes after (or before) the photo on the card above this one.
ww1 field medical card
A Main Dressing Station was the next stop on the patients journey of evacuation. There, he was examined again and a field medical card carrying details of his wound was placed in a waterproof envelope and fastened to his uniform jacket. This Field Medical Card - dated 3rd May 1917 - carries details of a soldier who had suffered a wound to his left hand, and was taken to No.46 Field Ambulance for treatment. Number 46 are thought to have been in the Arras area with No.12 Advanced Dressing Station on the date entered on the card. The field ambulance was attached to the 15th (Scottish) Division, involved in fighting at Arras in April 1917
ww1 wounded card
This card is number five in the Daily Mirror series and two of the ‘walking wounded’ depicted thereon, have a waterproof envelope containing a medical card, (similar to the one shown above) attached to their tunics.

After treatment and processing at a main dressing station, the patient went by motor-ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), situated about eight miles behind the firing line. Usually they were in pairs, one receiving patients and the other, next to a railway line taking them away. A CCS was a fairly extensive unit and during a big battle a large one often had as many as six operating tables in constant use and up to 2,000 patients a day would pass through it. In 1916, a young subaltern Stuart Cloete, after a long and rough ride by motor ambulance arrived at a CCS and recorded his first impression of it.

"It was a large tent and coming in from the dark, the glare was dazzling. It was lit by a number of acetylene flares like those used by costers to illuminate their wares in the London slums. Under each flare was a doctor dressed in white. The white was scarlet with blood from waist to neck, their hands and forearms dripped with blood. Their faces were streaked where they had wiped the sweat away from their foreheads. They were attended by male orderlies also dressed in bloody white. In the corner of the great marquee there was a heap of severed legs and arms as tall as I...I was fed into the assembly line that led to the meat-grinder." 

ambulance train and ambulance car ww1 postcard
"Scottish Red Cross Motor Ambulance at work near the Firing Line in France." This motor ambulance was probably bringing patients from a CCS 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 BRCS. The proceeds from the sale of these printed-photo postcards went to the Red Cross.

Regimental Stretcher bearers

Those most at risk during the evacuation of wounded from the immediate battle zone - were Regimental Stretcher Bearers (RSB). A regimental bearer was not a RAMC man, but a battalion man, usually a bandsman or pioneer and sometimes a Quaker or even a conscientious objector, who unarmed, and with great courage, followed the infantry into battle and was often known personally to some of those moving forward. The uniform of a regimental bearer was the standard khaki field service uniform and the only thing which identified him from an infantryman was a white armband bearing a red cross or the letters ‘S.B.’
reg stretcher 1
ww1 postcard soldier with gas mask
reg stretcher postcard 2
Left: This studio photographic study of a regimental stretcher bearer was taken in France in 1915. During a battle, there were 32 regimental bearers per 1,000 men. Their task was "to deal with the 60 per cent of the fighting force estimated likely to become casualties." Centre: The young soldier showing his gas-mask to the camera is possibly also a regimental stretcher bearer even though his armband is not positioned to indicate that. The photograph was taken and produced as a postcard by "A. H. Hart. 10 Worchester St., Wolverhampton."  Right: "Somewhere in France" proclaims the notice at the bottom of the pot-stand. This soldier wears an armband bearing the initials 'S B'.  He is not wearing a circular Red Cross patch on his upper sleeves and his cap badge - although indistinct - does not appear to be the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps, therefore, he is most likely to be a Regimental Stretcher Bearer.
In September 1915, regimental bearer Private Harold Edwards, was at the battle of Loos and described going ‘over the top’ on the 25th, with men of the 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment. He said, "As soon as the men who were making the attack got over the parapet, the stretcher-bearers went after them with the stretchers. My chum with my stretcher was Private Pymm. The men of our battalion...went straight into a hellish fire - no other word will describe the storm of shells and bullets that met them. It seemed impossible for anyone to live through it...as we got over the parapet the men began to fall, and we began to bandage them up...We did the best we could for them...then we went on and tackled a few more. We had dropped our stretcher and were hurrying about, each of us doing the best we could." A few minutes later Private Pymm was killed. Private Edwards was later awarded the DCM for helping the wounded that day.

Cards which depict RSBs following troops into battle are not often seen, but there is one in the popular Daily Mail ‘Battle Picture Series’. It is number 172 and carries a picture captioned "AN ATTACK:RESERVES MOVING UP". The photograph was taken during the 1916 Somme offensive and among the combat troops going forward is a regimental bearer.

SB into battle
This photogravure card is number 172 in the Daily Mail collection and carries a picture captioned "AN ATTACK:RESERVES MOVING UP". The photograph was taken during the 1916 Somme offensive and among the combat troops going forward is a regimental stretcher bearer.
In theory, two bearers could carry a wounded man from the battlefield, but frequently - due to the appalling conditions  - four were needed to lift a stretcher, and "ten to carry it more than a short distance", observed Medical Officer Kenninton in 1917, who at that time was saving lives at Passchendaele.
stretch bearers
Regimental stretcher bearers, "BRINGING IN WOUNDED - AN EARLY MORNING SCENE." This is Daily Mail Battle Picture No.66 and printed on the reverse is the following text, "Saddest of all, those wounded who can only come on stretchers...some able to move an arm or look up and smile - they always smile.  Special correspondent of The Times."
ww1 medics postcard
Four regimental bearers living under canvas - but ready to go into action. Displayed are stretchers, first-aid satchels and field medical chests containing medicine and surgical instruments. Each man wears a white "S.B." armband
St Dunstans postcard

Most wounded men walked back, or were brought back from No-Man’s-Land fairly quickly - but not always and some lay trapped between the opposing lines for two or three days or longer before being rescued by stretcher bearers.

Doctor W. Herringham, RAMC, remembered an officer "who was hit in the chest during the battle of Loos [and] lived in a shell-hole for four days, keeping himself alive with rain-water he was able to catch in his cap." A private with a broken leg was not found for a week. Another with a broken thigh spent two days dragging himself backwards with his hands, until he reached his own trenches. A soldier shot through the chest at Arras remained near the German lines for eleven days and nights...Amazingly, all these men eventually recovered.
Left. "WHEN NIGHT SETS IN THE SUN IS DOWN." One of a number of fund-raising postcards released by St. Dunstans.

German PoW's Detailed to Stretcher Wounded Allied Soldiers

When regimental and RAMC bearers were under immense pressure, for example during a big offensive, German prisoners were sometimes detailed to ‘stretcher’ wounded men from the aid-posts to the rear and several commercial postcards recorded this. There were two in The Daily Mirror ‘Canadian Official Series’. The first was captioned, "FRITZ IS GLAD TO BRING IN THE WOUNDED", the second was captioned, "FRITZ CARRIES ONE OF CANADA’S WOUNDED". The Daily Mail issued a similar card, it showed four German PoWs carrying a wounded British soldier. Below the picture was this caption, "WOUNDED TOMMY TO THE PHOTOGRAPHER : “I’M NOT A GERMAN.”

ww1 posrcard german bearers
german stretcher bearers postcard

After the Daily Mail released its hugely successful series of 'battle' picture postcards in 1916, the Daily Mirror  decided to do the same and was granted permission by the Canadians  to use some of their official photographs. Again, like the Mail, the Mirror produced the cards in three printing formats.

After treatment or surgery at a Casualty Clearing Station, the wounded were taken by either ambulance train, motor ambulance or ambulance barge to a base hospital. 

Base Hospitals

Early in the war, the British Army established hospitals in existing hotels and casinos and other large buildings on the French coast, and as the conflict progressed, more were built to meet the growing demand. Most were simply large groups of large huts. A Main Base group comprised of surgical hospitals, general hospitals and convalescent units. (Organised and run by the RAMC, British Red Cross, and St John Ambulance Brigade, many of these medical establishments were photographed and recorded on picture postcards.) On arrival at the base, the patient was again examined and if his wound was expected to heal quickly - so that he could be returned to the Front within a few weeks - he was kept there to recover. On-the-other-hand, if his injury was expected to take several months to heal - or worse leave him permanently disabled - he was sent by hospital ship to England with his ‘Blighty-wound’.

st john hospital ww1 postcard
This black and white printed photographic card - captioned "ST. JOHN AMBULANCE BRIGADE HOSPITAL, FRANCE." - depicts a ward in a typical voluntary base hospital on the Western Front and this one was located at Etaples on the French coast. In December 1914, the War Office had accepted an offer by St. John’s to set up the facility and by July 1915 the hospital was ready to accept patients. It was designed as a pre-fabricated building, set around a central square with covered interconnecting paths between the 16 wards of 30 beds each and two wards of 20 beds - making a total of 520 beds. Each bed cost £100 a year to maintain and was covered "by a blanket with the order’s badge on a black circle." The hospital had x-ray machines and  electro-cardiograph facilities - which were thought to have been the first in use on the Western Front. Staff there, consisted of 19 officers, 78 nurses and 141 orderlies - the latter were all brigade volunteers. In 1916 as the numbers of wounded mounted, "a further 64 [beds] were needed for the casualties from the Somme." and by 1918 there were nearly 750 available. On 30th May 1918, the hospital "came under very heavy air attack when the German Luftwaffe bombed and machined-gunned the complex", severely damaging ten wards. Sixteen people were killed and many more wounded. In June, the  pre-fabricated buildings were dismantled and moved to the hills above Deauville where they were re-erected and in October the hospital was open again to receive patients. By the end of the war, the staff there, had dealt with over 35,000 casualties. The hospital’s commandant - Colonel Trimble - in his last report of the war said, "...it built up a reputation and this it sustained to the end."

The Blue Hospital Suit

When he arrived in England a battle casualty was sent either to a hospital specialising in his type of wound or to one of the numerous convalescent establishments scattered throughout the UK. There, he was issued with a special hospital uniform consisting of a blue single-breasted jacket with a white lining - worn open at the neck, blue trousers, a white shirt and a red tie. To complete the outfit he wore his own khaki service cap with its regimental badge. The suit was also known as the ‘blue invalid uniform’, ‘hospital suit’ and ‘hospital blues’. Curiously - it usually had no pockets!  Officer casualties did not have to wear the blue suit, but instead, retained their service uniform.

Numerous contemporary picture postcards survive today which depict British and Empire soldiers wearing hospital uniforms. Commercial photographers in the UK visited both military and civilian voluntary hospitals and snapped pictures of single and group gatherings of the convalescents there. The pictures were reproduced as postcards and each man would usually buy a few copies to send to friends and relatives.

Commercial postcard publishers soon had their artists producing illustrations of the suit - complete with verse.

the hospital suit ww1 postcard
the hospital suit poem ww1 postcard
"THE HOSPITAL SUIT." Verses penned by Kate Rawlins - printed and published by J. Salmon. The profit from the sale of the cards went to the Red Cross.

On 12th August 1918, a letter appeared in The Times signed by ‘F.D.M.’, who asked, "At the present time we are all unhappily familiar with the blue uniform of wounded soldiers...Can any of your readers tell us the origin or history of the blue invalid uniform?’ On 12th September readers provided some suggestions. Lieut-Col Walter H. James provided the most simple and practical answer for its existence. ‘The uniform...was probably introduced because it could be easily washed", he said.

hospital suit postcard ww1
This card - praising the men in blue - was published by Pucka Poppets Ltd., 53c Terminus Road, Eastbourne, Sussex.
Not everyone who wore the suit was happy with it. On 20th October 1916, The Times recorded that a Mr Randell "is to ask the Secretary of State for War on Tuesday whether he is aware that the blue uniform supplied to the wounded soldiers seems to be defective, in the outer skin of the garment, which is of flannelette, when washed shrinks at a rate from the lining, and that this problem produces an unsightly and bad-fitting garment; and whether flannel clothes cannot be given to the wounded instead."
a bad fit of the blues ww1 card
It seems Mr Randell’s suggestion was not acted on and complaints of the sometimes ill-fitting suit continued to be voiced and one or two postcard publishers joined in the protest. For example, a 1916 card illustrated by R. Stoddart, commented on "A Bad Fit of the “Blues.”’

Complaints were also made by patients who found the suit was too large. For instance, in November 1915 Private Dolden was sent to No.26 General Hospital, and said that after a few days there he was, "given a suit and what a suit! The hue was oxford blue, with white facings. Judging from the size of the particular suit that was handed to me it must have been intended for a Life Guardsman. I had to turn the trouser legs up till the turn-ups nearly reached my knees, so that the white facings were quite a spectacle. The bagginess allowed plenty of room for bending... A flaring red necktie added quite a socialistic touch."

In 1916, artist-drawn postcards appeared which depicted convalescent soldiers in humorous situations or praised them as heroes. Among the artists who made contributions were Donald McGill, Reg Maurice, Archibald English, Douglas Tempest, and Fred Gothard.

Left: The illustration on this card was by the master of comedy and innuendo - Donald McGill. Published by the Inter-Art Company, Red Lion Square, London, it was number 1243 in its "TWELVE-THIRTY-EIGHT." series.  Centre: Doug Tempest created this postcard illustration which was number 536 in the "WITTY COMICS" series by Bamforths and Company of Holmfirth and New York. It was mailed from Birmingham to an address in Norfolk on 1st September 1917. After commenting on the weather the writer said "Have got a Protection Card (red) at last." Right: Archibald English initialed this card. Unused - it was number 1062 in the "S.B. Series".  
3 fred gothard ww1 cards
Three cards showing the gentle postcard humour of Fred Gothard. Left: Published by E. Mack of King Henry's Road, Hampstead, London, the card was number 1397 and was sent from Seaford to Catford on 9th September 1917. The writer was complaining about trains and buses not departing and arriving on time. Centre: This card was unused and was number 1398 in the E. Mack series. Right: On the reverse of this Gothard card, 'Jenny' asks 'Amy' "Have you ever seen this boy at the cinema - ???"

Fred Spurgin was a popular postcard artist who in his distinctive style praised the ‘men-in-blue’ and wished them ‘Good Health!’     

3 fred spurgin ww1 postcards
Three cards by Fred Spurgin - praising the men in blue uniforms. Left: This card was by the "ART and HUMOUR Publishing Company, Chancery Lane, London." It was number 326 in its "A & H CONVALESCENT" series. Centre: Another card by Art and Humour publishing - number 325. Right: This was number 323 and was mailed from Ilkley to Needham on 13th September 1917.

When he had sufficiently recovered from his wound, a patient was allowed outside the hospital grounds and often with his new found pals would visit a local photographic studio. Some of the results of those excursions are shown here.

ww1 convalescent postcards
Left: Four convalescent soldiers with various cap badges. The man seated on the right is a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Centre: This photographic postcard was taken by Herbert of Lancaster and shows five convalescent soldiers each wearing a different cap badge. The men are identified on the back of the card as: Private Fox, Taylor, Hayes, Lawrence and Corporal Dickenson.  Right: Three convalescent soldiers pose for the camera. The seated men are from the Royal Artillery - while the man at the back is a member of the 20th Hussars.
wouded mans kit label

When a man was wounded, a label bearing his regiment, number, rank, name and unit, was attached to his kit-bag which was later returned to him in hospital. Inevitably, in the fog of war some went missing or were stolen before they could be returned to their owners. This caused some men to vent their frustration and anger on the RAMC and say rather unfairly, that the Corps initials also stood for (R)ob (A)ll (M)y (C)omrades. Some even said that the corps initials placed backwards meant (C)annot (M)anage (A) (R)ifle.


The Wound Stripe

On 6th July 1916, ‘Army Order 249’ introduced a new ‘distinction in dress’ for both officers and men. Known as the ‘wound stripe’, it was a narrow strip of gold Russian braid two inches long and could be worn on the service jacket of any man who had been wounded after 4th August 1914. To qualify for the award the wound had to be recorded on a War Office casualty list. (Perhaps it was no coincidence that five days before the announcement of the new award, the British Army launched its Somme offensive and suffered its worst defeat ever - by the end of the day 20,000 men were dead and 40,000 wounded.)

Officer casualties wore the stripe on the left sleeve above the cuff, other ranks had it sewn onto their left sleeve three inches from the bottom. A stripe was issued for each additional wound a man received and was placed half an inch either side of the original one. Accidents, self-inflicted wounds and injuries resulting from shell-shock or gassing did not qualify as a wound.

Left: This Lance Corporal had been wounded three times as indicated by his wound stripes.. Centre: In this group of three, one of the two corporals had been wounded once and the other - three times. Right: This officer was a member of the Machine Gun Corps and had been wounded once. The photograph was taken by J. Campbell Harper who had his studio at 131 Leith Walk, Leith. The photo was taken in May 1917 and a message on the reverse reads, "With best wishes, Wm. J. Beaton."

During the Great War, the work of the Royal Army Medical Corps was outstanding and by the end of it, medics had dealt with over 9,000,000 sick and wounded servicemen, of which 2,258,000 were evacuated from France to England in hospital ships. Of this number 1,600,000 were returned to the firing-line.

Those RAMC members who served at the front were in as much danger from bullet and shell as their fighting comrades, and 470 medical officers and 3,569 other ranks were either killed or later died from their wounds.

Their devotion to saving lives was indicated by the number of medals won by the RAMC. Seven Victoria Cross’s, 1,484 Military Cross’s, 3 Albert medals, 395 Distinguished Conduct medals, 3,002 Military Medals and 1,111 Military Service Medals. Early in the war,  King George V, in a conversation with Haig praised the regimental and RAMC medics and said, "It was the royal opinion that to carry a wounded man out of action justified the award of the Victoria Cross."

Needless to say, had the Kings view been acted upon tens of thousands of VC's would have had to have been struck. To rescue wounded men under fire - obviously demanded extreme courage.  General Birdwood once commented that if he had thousands of VC's to distribute, "all would go to stretcher-bearers." The soldiers they rescued would have thought so too.

In December 1914, a grieving sister used picture postcards to commemorate the life of her dear departed brother.
RAMC verse card ww1
This postcard - printed and published by J. Salmon of Sevenoakes, England -
reveals a sister’s grief for the brother she lost. On the front of this patriotic card - praising the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps - she wrote the following, "Poor dear Alex  gave his life 12 months ago, 1st Dec. 1914." On the back she continued, "Dearest Will, I am sending this card in memory of my dear Brother Alex. I thought you would like to have a card of the corps he belonged. I am sending one to each of my Brothers. Love to you my dear Son. From your loving mother."
A Final Card
ww1 hospital card
ww1 hospital notification card
Army Hospital  Postal Stationary Card. These were used to notify a soldier's next-of-kin of his arrival in hospital in the UK. This soldier - in the Machine Gun Corps - knew at this time that he would never again be sent back to the trenches.

The postcard was mailed to his relatives on 12th November 1918 - the day after the Great War ended!

Copyright © 2014 Picture Postcards from the Great War 1914-1918. All rights reserved.