York’s National Railway Museum has a stunning archive of material about the part played by the railways in the First World War. With the 100th anniversary of the war fast approaching, STEPHEN LEWIS finds out about the ambulance trains which ferried wounded soldiers back home from the front.

ON July 20, 1916 Robert Graves, a young officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was badly injured in the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, part of the Battle of the Somme.

His battalion was being held in reserve for an attack on a wood near the cemetery of Bazentin-le-Petit. “Withdrawing under heavy shellfire, he was badly hit inside the communal cemetery, a piece of marble headstone becoming embedded in his eyebrow,” reads an account on the Imperial War Museum website.

Graves, a poet and writer who went on to give an account of what happened next in his memoir Goodbye To All That!, was so badly injured he was thought to have no chance of recovery. He was effectively put on a stretcher and left to die.

The next morning, an orderly noticed he was still breathing. He was placed in an ambulance, and taken to a nearby casualty clearing station at Heilly, from where he was put on an ambulance train for the journey to Rouen, and ultimately back home to the UK.

He gave a vivid description of his journey by ambulance train in Goodbye To All That!

“The RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] orderlies dared not lift me from the stretcher to a hospital train bunk, for fear of it starting hemorrhage in the lung,” he wrote.

“So they laid the stretcher above [the bunk], with the handles resting on the head-rail and foot-rail. I had now been on the same stretcher for five days. 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.”

He wasn’t the only person to be shocked by the condition of the ambulance trains which ferried so many wounded British soldiers back from the western front in the First World War.

In the archives at the National Railway Museum is an ‘anonymous diary’ written by a nursing sister. She describes an ambulance train which was little more than a converted cattle truck.

“A train of cattle trucks came in from Rouen with all the wounded as they were picked up, without a spot of dressing on any of their wounds, which were septic and full of straw and dirt,” she wrote.

“The matron, a medical officer, and some (others) got hold of some dressings and went round doing what they could in the time, and others fed them. Then the …(censored) …got their Amiens wounded into cattle trucks on mattresses, with Convent pillows, and had a twenty hours’ journey with them in frightful smells and dirt … they’d been travelling already for two days.”

Fortunately, not all the First World War ambulance trains were so primitive. Writing of another experience on a train which had been properly converted, the same nurse said: “The twelve sitting up cases on each carriage are a joy after the tragedy of the rest. They sit up talking and smoking til late, because they are so surprised and pleased to be alive, and it is too comfortable to sleep.”

The NRM has an extensive archive of material about the ambulance trains used in the First World World. With the 100th anniversary of that war fast approaching, staff have been delving deep into the story of the ambulance trains, says the museum’s assistant archivist Alison Kay.

“We want to reveal what it would have really been like for patients, doctors and nurses to travel this way during wartime,” she says.

As well as a wealth of old photographs and diary accounts, the museum’s archive also contains “drawings of fittings, fixtures and layouts provding an insight into what it would really be like for those who lived on the train day in, day out,” Alison says.

Ambulance trains were used to evacuate the wounded or sick from casualty clearing stations near the front line to base hospitals or to a port of embarkation from where they were brought by ambulance ship to the UK.

The first hospital train, the Princess Christian, was used in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899-1902. It supplied clothing and toiletries for British casualties, and ferried the more seriously injured to Cape Town.

When the First World War broke out, the UK Flour Millers’ Association presented the Red Cross with two ambulance trains, specially built and equipped, constructed by Great Western and Great Eastern Railways.

The trains were working in France during 1915, with another train, converted from ordinary French rolling stock. Between them the three trains transported 461,844 patients Following the success of these trains, a number of ‘standard’ ambulance trains were built by various British railway companies to War Office specifications.

Thirty were eventually sent to the military forces overseas, mostly in France and Flanders, while a further 20 operated in the UK, taking wounded soldiers from UK ports to a network of local ‘receiving stations’ – including one in York – from where they were taken to hospital by road.

The ambulance trains were often greeted by queues of people when they reached their destinations, as a number of photographs in the NRM archive reveal.

The ‘standard’ ambulance train consisted of 16 cars, including ward cars, a pharmacy car which stored medicines, two kitchens, a personnel car and a brake and stores van. Each ward car contained 36 beds in tiers of three (the ‘home’ ambulance train had tiers of two).

Apart from feeding casualties and staff, the kitchens could supply 50 gallons of hot water at any time. The train generated its own electricity for lighting and driving overhead fans and all cars were steam heated.

Each train could accommodate about 400 patients both lying and sitting, as well as the Royal Army Medical Corps personnel and the train crew.

Boulogne was the principal port of embarkation for the wounded on the Continent, and on one occasion it took only 19 minutes to unload 123 casualties from a train.

The main disembarkation ports in the UK were Dover and Southampton. From February 1915 to February 1919, Dover dealt with 1,260,506 casualties, unloaded 4076 boats and loaded 7781 ambulance trains, which then went off to one of the 196 receiving stations scattered around the UK, including the one in York.

• If you would like to find out more about the First World War ambulance trains, you can visit the search engine archive and research area at the National Railway Museum.

Staff ask that you do make an apointment first: email search.engine@nrm.org.uk or phone 01904 686235. A member of staff will then be able to meet you at the Search Engine archive to help you with your search.

For more information about world war one-related archive material and events at the National Railway Museum generally visit nrm.org.uk/worldwarone