Yesterday a new World War One Gallery launched at the Army Medical Services Museum, at Keogh Barracks in Aldershot, and we at Forces War Records were delighted to be among the invited guests for the evening.
Refreshments were handed out by volunteers dressed in period uniforms for the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), and the celebratory cake featured ‘Percy Pigeon’, the cheery Great War carrier pigeon specially designed to help guide children around the new displays (he may soon be rolled out in the rest of the museum!)
The new display featured an in-depth look at the Royal Army Dental Corps (RADC), which played a vital part in ensuring that keen would-be recruits, who were barred from the Forces on grounds of poor dental health alone, were restored swiftly to full fitness and sent off to war. There were also displays of the uniforms and tools of the trade of all the key medical services, including those of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC), tasked with the care of the many war horses. Medals won by members of the Army Medical Services made a colourful exhibit, while extracts of first-hand accounts from the battlefields of the Western Front and historical outlines of the work of all the services ensured that visitors grasped the significance of the Services’ work in any conflict.
Helen Martin-Leake was given the honour of cutting the cake in recognition of the achievements of Arthur Martin-Leake, one of the two Royal Army Medical Corps soldiers who have received a Victoria Cross with bar (only three people in history have ever been awarded the VC twice over, and of those Martin-Leake was the first afforded the distinction). There is already a display in the main museum dedicated to him. He was awarded the first VC during the Second Boer War, on 13/5/1902, after brave action at Vlakfontein on 8th February that year when he was in the South African Constabulary. The London Gazette entry said at the time, “Surgeon Captain Martin-Leake went out into the firing line to dress a wounded man under very heavy enemy fire only 100 yards off. He then attended a badly wounded officer, and while doing so was shot himself. He only gave up when thoroughly exhausted and then refused water until other wounded men had been served.”
The Bar was awarded for his cumulative actions from 29th October-8th November 1914 near Zonnebeke, Belgium, while he was attached to the 5th Field Ambulance as part of the RAMC. The Gazette entry on 16/02/1915 this time said of the 40-year-old, “Lieutenant Martin-Leake showed most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing, whilst exposed to constant fire, a large number of the wounded who were lying close to the enemy’s trenches.”
Of course, Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake is just one of many, many brave personnel who have served with the Army Medical Services. An information board in the World War One Gallery explained that working as a stretcher-bearer was THE most dangerous employ in the whole of the army during the Great War. You can read more about Army Medics- The Unsung Heroes of World War One in one of our previous blogs, or discover the story of ‘Martyr Nurse’ Edith Cavell. The Times described the difficulties of life in the RAMC nicely on 10th August 1951, as quoted in ‘Medical Officers in the British Army 1660-1960’ by Sir Robert Drew: “Army doctors are members of two professions, and unless they have mastered them both they fail in their duty. They must be soldiers knowing something of the structures of armies and of their ways in peace and war; lacking that essential knowledge they cannot give their full service in keeping troops healthy at all times and in saving life under fire.” No pressure, then!
The mention of ‘saving lives under fire’ takes on particular significance when you consider the double-edges sword that is Rule 25 of the 1864 Geneva Convention: “Medical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they commit, outside their humanitarian function, acts harmful to the enemy.” So, in theory medical personnel were not to be harmed in the Great War; however, enemy soldiers were certainly not about to stop firing if a medic moved onto the battlefield, as proven in both accounts of Martin-Leake’s brave deeds. The Convention also didn’t account for the fact that shells were usually launched out of sight of the Front Line, so that the enemy had no way of knowing if medical personnel were in the area. The rule about ‘acts harmful to the enemy’ too, whilst ostensibly inserted for the medics’ own protection, meant that often RAMC men walked into No-Man’s Land unarmed, something no other personnel would dream of doing. ‘Firing only if fired upon’ is all very well, assuming that the first shot is not on target. If it is, you’ve had it.
The Army Medical Services Museum holds a lot of valuable information for anyone whose relatives were in the RAMC, the RAVC, the RADC or the QAIMNS, as well as for anyone whose relatives were injured during the Great War or other conflicts. It also provides educational packages for children studying Florence Nightingale, and the First World War. Secondary schools are encouraged to contact the museum for available sessions. Even if you’re not looking for anything in particular, it’s a good day out, and well worth a look for anyone who wants an insight into the hardships and innovations of the Great War. If you’d like to learn more about ‘Trench Traumas and Medical Miracles’ right now, you can download our e-book for free. You may also wish to search our new exclusively transcribed MH106 collection of ‘Military Hospital Admission and Discharge Registers, World War One’ to find out if your Great War ancestor played a part in medical history.