From September 1917 until June 1918 Staff Nurse Susan ‘Susie’ Greaves of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve worked on No 22 Ambulance Train on the Western Front and in Italy.
The Newcastle Sun reported that “Sister Greaves found the train life most interesting. It made her realise … the devastation being almost beyond comprehension, especially on the Somme, where the train passed through miles and miles of ruin – only shell-holes and graves to mark where towns had once stood. What had once been a city was marked only by a pile of ruins … While in Northern France, early in 1918, it was impossible to get a night’s rest owing to the continuous air raids.”
Patient transport in wartime – motor ambulances, trains and ships – are protected under international law if properly marked. However, as train tracks were important military infrastructure and could be targeted by the enemy, working on an ambulance train could be both dangerous and uncomfortable.
Ambulance trains were a chain in the link of medical evacuation. Regimental medical officers patched up minor wounds and sent their patients back into battle. The more seriously wounded were given first aid then taken by motor ambulance to a casualty clearing station – a field hospital close behind the lines. These field hospitals were usually set up close to a railway line. When patients had been given emergency treatment and stabilised they were loaded into an ambulance train and transferred to a base hospital.
“Only those who have experienced it, know what it means to undress a heavy man, badly wounded, and lying on the narrow seat of a railway carriage.” (Nurse M Phillips, 1914 – quoted in Reminiscent Sketches 1914 to 1919, By members of Her Majesty’s QAIMNS, London, John Bale, Sons & Danielson Ltd, 1922). The photo shows the cramped conditions on a British ambulance train. Nevertheless Nurse Phillips said that her time on an ambulance train was “three very happy months where … minor personal discomforts … were all lost sight of in the feeling that I was doing real work.”
Service record Staff Nurse Susan Greaves, National Archives UK WO/399/3291
The Newcastle Sun, 5 November 1918
Reminiscent Sketches 1914 to 1919, By members of Her Majesty’s QAIMNS, London, John Bale, Sons & Danielson Ltd, 1922
Miss Bickmore, “Life on an ambulance train in France”, in Marlow, Joyce [ed] – The Virago Book of Women and the Great War, Virago Press, London, 1999
© Christine Bramble 2013