In honour of the release of our first tranche of 30,000 Military Hospital records from the 51st Field Ambulance, part of a collection of 1.5 million records to be transcribed over the next two years from the National Archive’s “Military Hospitals Admissions and Discharge Registers WWI” (AKA MH106), here’s a little insight into the work of the Royal Army Medicals Corps. Being part of this Corps was no joke. When people think of medical care in the Great War, they often imagine doctors working in sanitary facilities in the main cities, far from the battlefield, or maybe even in luxurious convalescence centres back in ‘Blighty’, strolling daily with the pretty nurses and grateful patients beneath cool trees. The reality was far from this comforting picture, as these extracts from ‘Twenty Years After the Battlefields of 1914-18, Then and Now (Supplementary Volume)’, show:
‘In the night a cry: “Stretcher bearers wanted! Volunteers!” You crawl through the trenches, and find a group of men hit in a traverse, and apply field-dressings, and tourniquets – rough-and-ready work under fire. The first consideration is: to get them out. Going up with the empty stretcher, with shells “plonking” over and machine guns and shrapnel spraying the trenches, you feel shivery and shaky; but immediately you get your man on board you are steady as a rock…
‘… The procession moves off, four men to a stretcher, with four miles to go, knee-deep in mud most of the way. When the shells pitch over in salvoes you see bearers put the stretcher down and cover the wounded man with their own bodies…
‘… And there, with the MO, is an un-sung hero of the 21st London – Sergeant Heather of the regimental bearers, one of the finest, bravest men that ever went to war. There is a terrific bombardment outside as the infantry go over the top. Suddenly a man rushes in, eyes staring out of his head, yelling like a hurt kid. He has been shot through the face, and is bleeding out the mouth.
“Steady, pal!” says Heather quietly. “It’s alright. You’re out of it now.” He goes to a cabinet, patches up the chap’s face, talks to him as consolingly as might a mother. Another casualty is carried in. Heather, rough-looking with a week or two’s beard, talks to him, too, in his quiet, infinitely patient voice.
‘You’ll see field ambulance-men come up through shelled country to assist the regimental bearers, and arrive at the dug-out dead-beat. Thinking of the work ahead of them, they are jumpy, nervy. Immediately they come into the quiet, commanding presence of Heather they are at peace with themselves and inspired by his supreme example to give their best – go out and do anything demanded of them, whatever the risk.
‘The last you see of Heather in the ebb of that attack, is sitting crumpled at the side of the trench, a gash on his face, mouth agape, speechless, dead-beat and done, worked out to the bone.’
So, most of the men of the RAMC were not safe out of the fighting, were far from shirkers, and saw more than their share of horrifically injured, terrified men in their time at the trenches. A large portion of the doctors of the Great War were not Army men by profession; there were just 1,000 members of the RAMC at the start of the war, but by November 1915 that number had swelled to 9,626 (it would of course continue to grow). These were learned men trained as healers, and well-versed in all the most modern techniques. They knew the risks of infection, they knew the severity and prognosis of the wounds and illnesses that they encountered, and they were motivated by the chance to do good.
Imagine, then, the frustrations of working on the Front Line. Daily they came across injuries of a type and severity virtually unheard of in civilian life, inflicted by man upon his fellow men, and had to rack their brains for a solution and do their best, without books or more experienced colleagues to advise and with the pressure of knowing that not only the soldier and his regiment, but the soldier’s family back home, were depending on him to administer treatment brilliantly. Conditions were not sterile and never could be, and the doctor had to suffer the agony of frequently sealing wounds in full knowledge that they were dirty and the patient would likely die later. Simple conditions, which were absolutely treatable back in Britain, could cause a man’s death here due to lack of the equipment or medication needed to fix him. Every day the doctors fought the odds, seeing an endless parade of misery and destruction passing in front of them, and often feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the enormity of their task; yet the soldiers depended on them for comfort, and needed them to maintain a calm and cheerful demeanour.
All of that is without taking into account the danger the doctors faced while recovering men from the very jaws of the enemy, putting their own lives at risk. RAMC personnel have claimed two of the only three Victoria Crosses with Bar ever awarded. Surgeon Captain Arthur Martin-Leake had gained his first VC in the Boer War for dressing the wounds of two others under heavy fire only 100 yards away, being shot himself in the process; he was awarded the second as part of the RAMC in 1914 for rescuing a large number of men lying near enemy lines between 29 October and 8 November. Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse was awarded his first VC on 9 August 1916, when he saved the lives of 20 badly wounded men in one night, although heavily fired upon, and his second for refusing to leave his post for two days, from 31 July-2 August 1917, again venturing out many times in dangerous conditions to rescue his fellow soldiers and save lives, ultimately at the cost of his own. Heroes indeed.