First World War ambulance trains

The railways, and the men and women who worked on them, made a significant and varied contribution during the First World War. Some railwaymen joined up to fight, and others helped to run the railways in France and Belgium, delivering men and supplies to the front line. One requirement considered early on in 1914 was the necessity of having to treat sick and wounded servicemen urgently, and the task of moving them away from the Front to hospitals and other places of recuperation.

The answer was the creation of ambulance trains – hospitals on wheels. Such trains were not purpose-built from scratch but instead created from existing rolling stock. They are a striking example of how ingenious adaptation of railway carriages was employed to service a need widely different from the purpose originally intended.

The Great Eastern Railway Company built an ambulance train from nine coaches, five of which were brake thirds (a combination of brake van and third-class carriage), which were converted into hospital wards, each containing beds for up to 20 men. A luggage van was converted into a pharmacy, complete with operating room, while two further carriages were adapted to provide accommodation for medical staff, nurses and attendants, with additional space for stores.

The photograph on the left shows a hospital ward with bunkbeds along both walls of a long room. The photograph on the right shows a small pharmacy room with a basin and a wall of shelving.
Great Eastern Railway Magazine, 1914. Catalogue ref: ZPER 16/4 p.334

To build the ward cars the whole of the interior of each carriage was stripped of internal fittings, and most of the doors were screwed closed. In to this 50-foot-long ward two tiers of beds, or cots, were installed. Each bed would fold down from the walls of the carriage. In one of the cars fours beds were specially allocated for officers only. The walls were painted white, and green curtains were fitted to the windows. A lavatory and washbasin were provided, as was a strong steam jet used for sterilising equipment. The floor was lead-covered in certain areas, and had linoleum in others.

The beds along the wall are missing mattresses and are folded up.
Great Eastern Railway Magazine 1914. Catalogue ref: ZPER 16/4 p. 334

The Pharmacy car retained the original carriage corridor, but it was widened to allow stretchers to be carried through. There was also a frame of pigeon holes and shelves for storing medical and surgical equipment, and a gas heater for hot water.

Three men help another man on to a train.
Great Eastern Railway Magazine 1914. Catalogue ref: ZPER 16/4 p.352

Other adaptations included a dining car, fitted with collapsible tables which could be taken down and replaced with beds as required. The whole train was fitted with steam-heated ventilation, with a heater under every bed in the lower tier of each ward car. The lighting was gas powered, and the water supply was provided by a large water tank in the roof above the pharmacy. There was even a telephone system installed.

A large red cross on a white background was painted on the outside of every vehicle in the train, as a sign of the train’s mission of mercy to the sick, injured and disabled.

One invalid who may well have used the train was Francis Jervis, originally a booking clerk at Maryland Point (Stratford, East London) on the Great Eastern Railway (GER). He joined the Royal Engineers in February 1915, went to France and made it to Acting Company Sergeant Major before he was so severely wounded in 1917 that he lost the use of his lower limbs, and was partly paralysed in one arm. He was still in hospital when the 1921 Census was taken. However, as reported in the GER Magazine for May 1922 under the heading ‘Determined Invalid’, despite his great physical disabilities Jervis was ‘pluckily’ making the best of it.

1921 Census entry for Francis Jervis at the Gifford House Hospital, Roehampton

Bed-bound and residing at Gifford House Hospital, Roehampton, London, 35-year-old Jervis had obtained a small printing press which he managed to balance on the end of his bed. He had then proceeded to start a small business printing and selling visiting cards, wedding invitations and Whist Drive cards, taking orders from former GER colleagues and elsewhere. The new business provided a useful service, not only to his customers, but to Jervis who, it was hoped, would benefit financially, and to some extent help him forget the unfortunate position in which he found himself. He was producing sets of 50 Gentlemen’s Ivory Visiting Cards for two shillings (Ladies equivalent were 2s 6d), along with headed notepaper and matching envelopes at four shillings for 50 sheets. Requests would be supplied by mail order.   

Jervis was not alone in managing to find a useful occupation while confined to bed. Prior to the First World War a sailor named James Watts worked at sea for 12 years, during which time he was shipwrecked twice, once in the Mediterranean and once off the coast of China. Having survived these and other perils he lost the use of both legs in a street accident in London, and his sea-faring career was cut short.

A disabled sailor lies on a bed.
Great Eastern Railway Magazine. Catalogue ref: ZPER 16/5 p. 284

However, Watts did not let his disability stop him using his talents. When in Bombay (Mumbai) he had been fascinated by the skills of local needle workers. He would spend hours watching them, learning their skills, and copying their patterns into a notebook when he got back to his ship, adding designs of his own. He became something of an expert needleman without having received any formal training at all. Following his accident, and finding himself unable to continue a life at sea, he embarked on a new career, undertaking all sorts of needlework and specialising in drawn-thread work. On wet days he would work from his bed, but on sunny days he would wheel himself in his invalid chair to Southwark Park where he could be found working on a dainty brush bag, or a tray cloth in a tambour frame.    

It is not known whether he ever drank toast water, an ‘Invalid Drink’ suggested by the Great Eastern Railway Magazine in 1915:

A refreshing drink for invalids as printed in the Great Eastern Railway Magazine, 1915, p. 187

This is just some of the history of disability that the Great Eastern Railway Magazine Periodicals can help us shed a light on. These records are found in record series beginning ZPER here at The National Archives.

4 comments

  1. Adam Slater says:

    Hi. Fascinating article! Family lore has it that my great grandfather, a steam tractor driver, was employed as driving trains to and from the front lines in WW1. Apparently he came back a different person with frequent lapses into daydreaming. I’m not surprised as he would have been dropping off trainloads of fresh, healthy young men and coming away with a train load of dead, dying and injured men. Daily. For years.

  2. Robert Rudge says:

    This was a good way to get the injured back from the battlefield, I am a retired railwayman and in one location I know on the Solent at the Royal Victoria Country Park near Southampton the line used to run from a branch line all the way to the Hospital which was absolutely vast,now sadly mostly demolished,only the clock tower remains.

  3. Pauline Egan says:

    Eliza Wakelin was a St Thomas Hospital who was in charge of an ambulance train sent to the front in World War One to bring back the wounded to the Servicemen’s hospital In Berkshire.
    She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work.
    Reference to information held by London Metropolitan Archives.

  4. STUART TAMBLIN says:

    Were ambulance trains used other than on the Western Front?

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