a great responsibility rest[s] upon the Railway Companies
– Meeting of the Railway Executive Committee, August 1915
In the years leading up to 1914, the British government was secretly preparing for war. They gathered the managers of Britain’s railways to design ambulance trains, ready for the mass casualties of a Europe-wide war.
Secret drawings were sent out to companies across the country. When war was finally declared on 4 August 1914, the rail industry was ready.
Carriage builders were immediately recalled from their holidays, and worked around the clock to prepare the ambulance trains. The first train arrived in Southampton just 20 days later.
Imagine a hospital as big as King’s College Hospital all packed into a train…
– Kate Luard, Nurse
Mass warfare meant mass casualties. Railway companies had to fit the facilities of a hospital into the confines of a train.
Ambulance trains were up to a third of a mile long, and included wards, pharmacies, emergency operating rooms, kitchens and staff accommodation.
Companies worked day and night to build the trains and fittings – from ladders and latrine buckets to operating tables and ash trays.
In 1915 I learned that it is possible to work for twenty four hours or more at a stretch… and to use my strength in helping others rather than merely in playing games
– Paul Cadbury, Orderly
Working on an ambulance train was difficult, dirty and dangerous. Staff regularly worked through the night to make sure their patients were given the care they needed. They ran the constant risk of catching lice or infectious diseases, and of being bombed.
For every new load of passengers, there was a long list of jobs to be done. Medical Officers checked each soldier on to the train and decided their treatment. Nurses gave patients skilled medical care. Orderlies fetched water, changed dressings, fed the passengers, and cleaned the train.
I remember the journey as a nightmare. My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the cramp, the bunk above me only a few inches away.
– Robert Graves, Passenger
For patients, a journey on an ambulance train could be a blessed relief or a nightmare. Patients were initially relieved to be on board and moving away from the front. Many hoped for a ‘Blighty wound’, which would mean a welcome return home.
However, travelling on an ambulance train could be an uncomfortable or even painful experience. The small bunks were claustrophobic, and men with broken bones felt every jolt of the train. Filled with men straight from the trenches, the trains quickly became filthy and smelly.
The unloading of an ambulance train is always a sad sight… They crawl along, moving very slowly. They are bowed and listless… These men left England fine, alert, young soldiers.
– The Times, 25 January 1915
It was at railway stations that the British public got closest to the war. They gathered there to wave off sons, husbands and brothers who had joined the army. They went back to see them return in ambulance trains.
The first ambulance trains were greeted with crowds, red carpets, brass bands and local dignitaries. But pomp and pride were quickly replaced by sorrow as battered and broken men were unloaded onto the platforms.