Monday 16 March 2015

112171 Private Frank Gearing RAMC - Part two

112171 Pte Frank Gearing, RAMC, continues his narrative.  Read part 1 here.

We had cases of shell-shock but only during that period of transit from the CCS to the base but we didn't have anything to do with after treatments. Once they were off the train we got the train ready and if there was-a lot of action going on we were back up the line right away. All we did was just shake the blankets out of all the lice and back up the line again for another load.

We were operating all on the Somme. Albert I remember well, we passed that many times with the fallen Virgin. Mostly in my mind are such places as Rouen, Le Havre and then a place a few miles outside Rouen: Sotteville (?) That's where we used to lay in between voyages, a big marshalling yard there. 

In the quiet times, if we were lucky, we might have two or three days there and we were able then to come into Rouen for a bit of fun and a drink. As regards further afield: Amiens was one of our favourite spots. Course, you remember in the Somme there was two or three times when we were right up as far as Mons, Bapaume, Peronne, places like that. But then we'd be driven right back and we'd be lucky if we could get as far as Rheims and places like that. I would say the places I saw most would be Rouen, Abbeville, Calais and Boulogne; all fairly big places. 

Then there was a couple of occasions when the Indian Cavalry had been in action up at Bapaume and Peronne, — that was well up the line, up the front — and of course, it was our first attempt at using cavalry. They were massacred, assassinated, cut to pieces. It was no place for cavalry at all that war. We brought down trainloads of these poor devils from the Bengal Lancers, Jacobs Horse... Great big fellas, so tall and big that their heads were hanging over one end of the stretcher and their feet the other; fine big chaps. Well we had to take those down to the base and then some months later when there was a lull in the fighting, (just the occasional shell popping over), we were chosen to take the whole trainload of these Indians and Mongolians (who'd been acting as labourers and become sick) down to

Marseilles for transport home. Well on the way down we had the devil's own job. Lots of these chaps were put on the train in a more or less comatose condition, some still smelling of ether — not long out of the operating theatre. When they became conscious of their surroundings they found there was one, two of the occupants of their compartment who were not the same religion. We had to keep stopping the train, taking two out of here and putting them in there, one from here into there... all the way down this went on but eventually we got done with them and that was that.

Grape pilfering 

Then we came on the way back for another load and on the way down this second time we went a different route. On the way down the first time we'd done, like all soldiers did, a bit of looting. We'd stopped for signals and there was fields and fields of lovely grapes and I'm afraid everybody on the train had gone out and helped themselves to grapes. Well on the way back the second time we were halted at this place which I hadn't known the name of before because it was in the very early hours of the morning when we did this looting and there was nobody about and we moved on. I found out it was a little village called Entressin and we were halted on the way back that second time by the police who were demanding money for these grapes for the farmers.
Well we sorted that out and our commanding officer said, "Well I'm afraid we're going to have to deduct a few francs from each of you next pay day. Meantime we'll pay the farmer for what he wants for his grapes." (Oh, and some tomatoes I remember). Anyway, that was all sorted out but they didn't release us right away for some reason or other and we were still there that evening. The police allowed us all to go into this village in the evening for a drink — there was only one chappie as far as I remember. They uncovered the piano which had been covered up ever since the beginning of the war and we had a bit of an impromptu dance and all that.  

Down there in the First World War, in the south of France near Marseilles, they practically didn't know there was a war on. It was a very self—sufficient area as regards agricultural produce and they seemed to have pretty well everything except men. The men were all gone, it was only girls and women there, a few older men but we had a very pleasant evening there I remember. 

Talking about looting there was another occasion when we were held up and one or two of the more criminally intent lads on our train found we were alongside a goods train. So what did they do but open the locks on a couple of these waggons and help themselves into a case. By this time I was on a British made train — this is number 43. From number 12 (I should think),up to 43 was practically all rolling stock from England. A complete train would come out, as you would see it running in England: postal waggon, guard's waggon, the whole lot would be shifted out as one unit. In the middle, so that we could get stretchers in and out, was a pair of doors ‑ not just one like on my other train which was an awful business loading stretchers with only one door. Anyway, they were able to drag a great big case from that goods wagon into ours and when we got underway they opened it. Sighs of disgust and the two or three chaps that had done it were ostracized: it was bars of soap! Nothing of any value at all. 

New wine in old buckets 

Then on another occasion we came alongside a huge tanker which we knew was full of wine. Each of these carriages had two three gallon galvanised buckets which were used for food because there was no solid food meals on the trains bringing them down. One would be for the milk pudding and another one for the soup and then you'd wash that out and get tea and cocoa in it. But, everybody rushed for these buckets to get wine and it turned out to be red wine and it turned the insides of these buckets black. Every morning there was an inspection to see that the coach was clean and they spotted these buckets. "What's happened to these buckets they're all black? What sort of a food is this then?" So of course, eventually it got out that it was red wine. They just closed their eyes and said, well if there's any left bring some along to E coach which was the officers' coach. Yes, I'm afraid there was looting went on just the same as it does today. 

One coach on the train was equipped for operations. That would be one of these sleeping coaches or very nice coaches that was more comfortable than the rest. On my first train I could never understand until a long while afterwards why two of the coaches were so comfortable and quiet. They had hard rubber tyres on the wheels. I've often wondered whether that's so today on the French trains. You had no clickety-click or anything like that and the movement was so gentle, just like sitting in a limousine car. We were lucky to have such comfortable coaches, I don't think we had them on English trains at that time. 

One coach was for head wounds and the one next to it the operating bay which had just a few instruments and a qualified man. He was a pharmacist as a matter of fact but he'd learned operating theatre techniques: what tools they wanted and all that. But of course it was very rare and it would be an emergency operation carried out; not a full time job, just to tide him over and when we got to the base he would be the first man rushed off in ambulance to a hospital to finish the job.

"Hommes 40, Chevaux 8" were goods waggons which were used for the transport of troops and also equipment of course. That business of "40 men" was because they were carrying troops. There wasn't much rolling stock available for civilian travel or for the soldiers in comfort, not those days. There'd be the odd train running between cities perhaps maybe once a week. I know when I was transferred I left the train at Courtrai and I had to come down to Boulogne to get on the boat. I was lucky enough to be on an old French train and I remember at the same time there was one chap in civilian clothes ‑ I don't know who he was - and there was four WAAC girls, (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) - also coming an leave.

An innocent abroad 

Of course, I should never have been in that compartment but in my ignorance some of the things I did in those days being just a lad still! At nineteen years of age even in those days you weren't as sophisticated as they are today I can assure you. I was a very innocent lad. As I walked along the train looking for a place to get in, these girls called me, "Come on in here Tommy" and of course I realized afterwards that if an MP had come aboard I'd have been in real trouble. They'd been playing cards on the way down and this civilian man sat there and never said a word all the journey although he was quite interested in what they were all talking about. One girl had fallen asleep on my shoulder I remember. As they were about to get out of the train, (they were collecting their bits and pieces) they were a card missing from their pack and he reached down and saw it in the upholstery. He said, "Is this what you're looking for?" in perfect English so who he was I don't know.
I didn't play Crown and Anchor. It was forbidden of course really and I'm afraid I was a bit of a stickler for discipline and I didn't engage in that sort of thing. Two things stick in my memory that I could have been in serious trouble for. While still on the first train - Number 1 - I was chosen to assist the corporal in his clerical work because as soon as all our patients were aboard we used to have to go round and copy the details off their identification cards: the nature of their injuries, when and what operations they'd had. We had to copy that all off onto slips and those slips were handed in to the office and he had to transcribe from those onto some other papers and then those slips were landed with the patients. So, in between duties I had to go down and assist him a little bit. Well, one of my duties then was when we got to the base, to scoot immediately to the post office in the town where part of it would be commandeered by the British Forces Postal Service, and I was sent down to get our mail. I used to nip into a cafe for a drink before I returned to the train, always in a side street where it was quiet. Well I went into this cafe one day and sat down quietly and had my drink, nobody else about, only a young girl serving who couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen. Presently she called and said, "Will you come up Tommy, help me put this flag out." So I went upstairs and I said, "Where do you want me to put it?"
"Oh, out of the window and fix it here." 

I was busy doing that and I did it and I turned round. There she was laying on the bed half naked and I was down those stairs like hell. That called me to book, I thought, "My godfathers, if an MP had come in I'd have been court-martialled." I was already on duty and should never have gone for a drink never mind being found upstairs like that. 

Bonjour Tommy

That reminds me of a similar situation but not nearly so serious. As I've just explained: coming down from wherever I was to Boulogne to get on the boat we would sometimes arrive in the afternoon or evening and we would have to report to the RAMC DDMS headquarters which was just a private house. We'd report in there and then get our papers and things to go on the boat the next morning. Nine times out of ten apparently they used to say, "You can either sleep in the basement with your own blanket on the floor or you can go out and find yourself a bed in a cafe but report back here at a certain time in the morning." Well I chose to go out and get a bed in a cafe and have a drink. I went by myself, I was a loner always in those days, and eventually the patron of the cafe took me upstairs to a bedroom and asked me what time I wanted to get up. I told him and said, "Don't forget, it must be so and so." Next morning when I awakened there was a girl or woman, in her twenties, standing there having her toilet, fully dressed.
"Ah, bonjour Tommy. Vous dormez bien?" (You sleep well?). So I said "Yes" and I looked and it was obvious that she'd been in that bed with me all night. She'd come upstairs when the cafe closed at one or two in the morning, got into bed and me being dog-tired due to travelling down miles from somewhere and having a couple of drinks, I'd slept the sleep of the dead and didn't know that woman was there. Course, when I tell this to my friends they don't believe me but that's true. I must admit that sex didn't enter my head because there was so much venereal disease and that frightened the life out of me, being in the Medical Corps as well. I never indulged in sex in all the opportunities that I had. Eventually it got so had there that all the base places where the soldiers might come on leave had blue lamps alongside the red light districts.  

Very often the troops were given leave but didn't choose to come over to Blighty - perhaps single chaps - and spent it in France or Belgium or wherever they happened to be. They had the red light district of course but then alongside nearly every brothel would be the blue lamp where they could immediately go for prophylactic treatment it got so bad. That was where you go to get syringed and wiped and cleaned.

One time, some of the lads coming off leave onto my unit said, "You know that nasty captain in the ADMS headquarters at Boulogne? He's walking round on crutches. He was in bed with his mistress when her husband – an army officer in the French Army — returned and beat him up." You see, I think the officers had opportunity to go and seek their own enjoyment with some tart they'd picked up in a hotel or somehting like that. They didn't need to go into the brothels which were so cheap for the soldiers. 

“…if you could see an elderly Mongolian man or woman there's damned little difference in their features…” 

Talking of venereal disease I mentioned earlier that we were taking down to Marseilles for export back to their countries, some Mongolians. They were massive fellas. They could carry two or three sacks of flour weighing eighty pounds each whereas our lads could only carry the one. They were massive chaps but they were having a terrific outbreak of venereal disease. We couldn't make this out because they were never allowed out of camp in the evenings; they were more or less confined to camp the whole time except when they came out to work. Then they went back in at certain times in the evening (according to how busy they'd been) and they weren't out any more in the evenings.
They had continual "short arm" inspections and they never found where the devil these chaps were getting it until they discovered an old Chinese woman amongst them, rotten with disease. She'd always managed to elude these "short arm" inspections and if you could see an elderly Mongolian man or woman there's damned little difference in their features, (there would be in other things of course but I suppose this woman was dressed as a man and probably behaved as one and probably was hidden and fed by some of these Mongolians so that the authorities knew nothing about it). Now, I've got no first hand proof of this but it was a fairly general story told in France while I was there and this was a huge camp where these chaps were, what they called the Indian Labour Corps. I don't remember that we had them at the end of the war, I think they eventually did away with them when there was so many troops released for that sort of duty. I think they were all sent back home then. 

I was so innocent about sexual matters. I was only in Marseilles on two occasions and when we were there on one of those two occasions I went out, as usual by myself, a thing I should never have done in Marseilles, especially those days during the war. Nearly every morning soldiers were being fished out of the water; robbed and thrown in there. But I used to go in what I realize now were some of the dingiest, dirtiest cafes. I remember going in one where a woman was performing the most indecent acts I'd ever seen for the benefit of the old man sitting there. One very smart piece of stuff come and attached herself to me and said, "Come on, you come home with me." In my innocence I didn't realize she was a prostitute and wanted money. About half way home she said, "How much can you pay me?" I said, "Pay you? What for?" "Oh" She said, "You silly Tommy you." She called me every name under the sun and buggered off back to the cafe.

Only one case of gangrene came to my mind and of course, had we had better training I would have spotted that although it wouldn't have made much difference because as I say, we only had them for a few hours. The poor devil must have had this when he came on the train. Now it wasn't gas gangrene which was the one you got from the soil, this was due to constriction of the blood so his arm became dead. Of course, that is a form of gangrene because the flesh would ultimately putrify. It was one of these occasions when we had two nurses and she said, "Orderly, run down to the operating theatre, get a scalpel and a kidney tray and come back as fast as you can." So I came back and by this time one of the doctors was there because we had two doctors on the train, one for each end. I saw what he was doing; he sliced him here, sliced him there but of course nothing happened, no blood. This was because of a splint which they were using, to my knowledge, up to a few years ago: legs and arms, a Thomas' splint. That would be a circular leather covered iron rim with two rods down, fixed further down, and that would keep the limb straight and immobile. (That's contrary to wooden splints). Well, this chap being wounded, naturally the limb was swollen a bit and this constricted the blood.
That was the only case I saw funnily enough, mind you there must have been plenty. There were so many horses in use then and the army had thousands of horses out there so the soil would be highly vulnerable to the spores of blood. I suppose these poor devils either died in these base hospitals or they were transported over to Blighty, perhaps partly cured. I don't know whether they had a vaccine or anything against it in those days but even today with gas gangrene nine times out of ten it means amputation. Had I had more training I would have noticed that as I was feeding them, going from one to the other with a urine bottle, cigarettes or something because that was one of our duties. I was definitely taught to look out for haemorrhages because a secondary haemorrhage was a common thing. You would arrest the primary haemorrhage but very often a secondary haemorrhage would set up and a man could bleed to death if you didn't spot it because he would become unconscious. In any case, most of them were far too badly wounded or in a comatose state or, as I've said, some of them still not out of the anaesthetic and they couldn't point out their troubles to me. 

Shell-shock and self-inflicted wounds 

There would be two of us to a coach and if it was going to be a fairly long, slow journey one of course would have to take some rest, sleep, and the other one carry on duty. It was all according to the state of the battlefield. If there were lots of casualties coming down my coach would be full of badly wounded men. Another time when it was quiet they'd just be getting rid of some cases out of the casualty clearing station or the base so as to let them get home to Blighty; not very badly wounded men, chaps that they'd been able to keep there because they weren't expecting any fresh casualties. They didn't evacuate those so quickly as they might have done had there been some big battles raging. I would then perhaps have mostly sitting cases: chaps sitting up, able to look after themselves more or less: leg injuries, hand injuries, fingers shot off, things like that. If it was a self-inflicted wound that would be on the cards. I often mention to doctors I've worked with since about all those terms we used on those cards, you never hear them today: gunshot wound, shrapnel wound, self-inflicted injury. That would be on their records card by the time we got them.
I'm afraid there was quite a bit of that went on. There was a couple in this village [Hatfield Broad Oak] until recently and it was the talk of everybody that they were self-inflicted; they'd had their fingers shot off. It was always the right hand of course if he was a right handed man or they used to shoot their big toe off. Mind you, in this last war they took a vastly different view of shell-shock. In the First World War there was many a poor devil shot for cowardice who should never have been shot, never. You imagine a young chap like myself thrown into some of those conditions. It's enough to make any lad turn round and run away or refuse to advance perhaps. He may not run away but he would hang back instead of moving up with his troops, or he might feign some illness. But many a man was found in such a state of intense shock and stupor that he was automatically accused of cowardice because he wasn't with his unit. I feel sure that there must have been scores of men were shot for cowardice who should never have been. The hostels and places are full of shell-shocked men today from this last war.
Interview concluded here.

The image on this post is oil on canvas by Haydn Reynolds Mackey, copyright The Wellcome Library.

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Monday 2 March 2015

112171 Pte Frank Gearing, Royal Army Medical Corps

I see from my notes that I interviewed Frank Gearing at his home in Hatfield Broad Oak, Essex in June 1987. My aunt, who knew of my First World War interest and was a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, put me in touch with Frank. A meeting was arranged, I took my tape recorder along, and started listening.

What followed turned into fifteen pages of typescript which I'm going to publish in its entirety over three separate posts.

Frank Gearing was both lucid and interesting but, with the passage of seventy years, can be forgiven for getting some of the dates muddled. I've not corrected his narrative but his service papers do survive and from these we can see that  he attested (as he said) at Southwark on 13th October 1916 when he was still 17 years old, and was called up in April 1917. He subsequently served overseas between December 1917 and 14th December 1919. It was not until January 1920 that he was demobbed.  I'll leave the rest to Mr Gearing:


I was apprenticed as a leather cutter to a firm in South London near Waterloo Station and they were very annoyed that I joined up because they said they could have exempted me. I said that was the last thing I wanted as a lad of seventeen or eighteen and felt that I would be more wanted for the war. But the manager was so annoyed he wouldn't give me my job back after the war, like so many more who didn't get their jobs back.

Attesting under the Derby Scheme

There was such a thing called the Derby Scheme which came in just before they introduced conscription. The volunteers dried up practically so they had a loophole where chaps could join up before their age - say seventeen, eighteen - which I did, and they called this the Derby Scheme and we were able to wear a band, (I just forget what was on it) to show that we had joined. We had a very rough medical exam just to make sure you hadn't got anything very serious, and we were given the King's Shilling and took the oath and then went back to our jobs until we were called up at eighteen years of age. I enlisted at the Southwark town hall in September and was summoned in October.

Prior to joining this Derby Scheme I had tried to join the Royal Naval Air Service where the recruiting office was Crystal Palace, and they were so nasty to me - some old chief petty officers - because I was nicely dressed in bowler hat and kid gloves; "Oh, we'll soon knock them off you" and so and so, they were really horrible. So I said, "Thank you very much, goodbye. You've made a mistake. I haven't come because you've called me up, I've come as a volunteer to join so bye-bye:" Then I went to the Navy recruiting office to try and join and the recruiting man there was very good and he helped me but I was an inch too small on my chest. Even though the war was on they were so fussy about half an inch and said I couldn't join the Navy. So then of course I went along to the Army and tried to join the Transport Corps as a driver. My father had paid for me to be taught to drive a car or lorry or an ambulance so I went along specially and they said, "We've got far too many drivers." You see, all those that had been called up and volunteers, they nearly all could drive even though there wasn't many cars those days. So they said, "We're sorry, come back some other time." So then it was of course I joined the Derby Scheme, I had no other outlet.

Blackpool and the RAMC

Then, just about my eighteenth birthday I was called up to report to the Horse Guards Parade. There we were given sixpence for our day's ration ­food - and marched off to a train to Blackpool. Well Blackpool then, at the Squire's Gate, was a holiday centre; kind of a Butlin's Camp affair. We went into billets - as they called them - in different parts of the town but eventually they took us out of the billets and put us under canvas. By this time, without any knowledge of what I was going to go into when I reported to Horse Guards Parade, lo and behold I found myself in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I didn't know a thing until we got to Blackpool, we kept asking the sergeants and all that and they said, "Well we don't know till we get to Blackpool." I found myself in the RAMC because I'd been classed as B2 (which was a medical category) on account of this bad eye and the half inch shortening of one leg; they could afford to be so fussy over that. This, of course, wasn't serious but I suppose it did affect my using a rifle and other means of sights. I was a bit disappointed but strangely enough I got very well settled in, I was quite happy and I was satisfied. A lot of the chaps I was with said, "Oh, you're lucky. You could easily have been put in the infantry. You shouldn't grumble, make the best of it."

I was fortunate enough to go under the wing of an old soldier living in London. He'd done his army time when they called him up and he taught me how to carry on, how to stand on parade without fainting and all that sort of thing, so that made me very comfortable. But, we had an awful time under canvas as regards the army. It was a bad time - we had bad weather - and Squire's Gate is the Northern end of Blackpool and it's all sand. We had sand in our blankets, sand in our hair, sand in our food; it was a terrible thing. And we didn't have very nice non-commissioned officers either; one fella in particular was really nasty. Things got so bad in the food line that we were all having food parcels sent in. That got so bad - mountains of parcels were coming - that the Army stopped it because it was beginning to get known all round Blackpool and Lancashire that the troops in Squire's Gate were starving, (not starving but very poorly fed). So they stopped the parcels coming in and there was a different arrangement altogether. Instead of having army cooks where we were living under the tents they commandeered three of the biggest restaurants and we used to have to report there for our meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then of course things were much different and organized much better.
Squire's Gate

Squire's Gate was a camp just for the RAMC. What used to happen in Aldershot became too big and they transferred it all to Blackpool as far as I remember. There were other headquarters about the country of course, but not on the scale of Blackpool. All the RAMC had to go through Blackpool at that time. There was all categories there: some fit men of course, to be drafted into what they called the Field Ambulances. That was right in the front line; the same tough conditions as the infantryman so they had to be fit. There would be the A1 men - as they called them - the very fit, then there'd be the B1, the B2 and the B3. The B3 men well they were terrible, cripples absolutely. I never saw such a poor bunch in all my life, shocking state and not the least bit interested in the army at all. They'd been forcibly called up by this time you see - conscription - and some of them were over their forties, not interested at all in anything.


Anyway, we stayed there till April 1917, I did anyway. Then I was drafted and didn't know where I was going, just told we were on draft. First we were going to Salonika then we were going to some other place. So as to obtain utmost secrecy as to where you were going they even used to issue us with the appropriate equipment and kit. Now for instance, before I left Blackpool the last thing I was issued with was a tropical outfit and we were going to Salonika. But of course, we never saw Salonika. Instead of that we went down south: we were a few days in Cosham at Portsmouth, a few days in Winchester and then all of a sudden woke up early one morning and were told we were on draft and to go on ten days leave - final leave ­and still we didn't know where we were going. We were taken up to Waterloo station and there we stood outside the Union Jack Club for: I don't know how many hours so I managed to persuade one of the NCOs- to allow me to telephone my parents who lived just not far away from there. My father came up and saw me off to wherever we were going. Then we got down to the early hours of the morning and were put on a boat and then we knew from the crew where we were going: France. We arrived there at five o'clock in the morning.

I still didn't know what was happening but I had put in my pay book by this time, "Nursing Orderly". Now, the training given to the RAMC – from my experience - was disgraceful. All I'd had in those months in the RAMC in the way of any training at all was one lecture by a doctor telling us the main bones of our body; anatomy. Couldn't have cared less: I never had any more lectures or anything. We were given a book, (every RAMC man had what we called a green book, a manual) which was a very good First Aid book, or a little bit more than First Aid, a bit more advanced. But if you didn't have any brain at all it didn't mean a thing to you because you hadn't been told what these terms and names of parts of the body and the circulation and all that was all about, you just had to teach yourself.

Calais and Boulogne

When we got to Calais we were sent through to Boulogne and there we were met by the ADMS - Assistant Director of Medical Services - and the more he went down the line looking at our pay books the more he became annoyed. He said to me, "What training have you had? At your age how do you become a nursing orderly?"

I said, "I've had no training sir."

"No." He said, "This is what is happening with every batch that comes out. You're all put down as operating technicians or laboratory technicians and you've had no training. This is disgusting." Oh he was furious this colonel or whatever he was.

All our training had been was drill. Drill: morning, noon and night on the sands of Blackpool. In all that bad weather you hadn't been out there ten minutes and your buttons went green. I don't know how many of us lost our caps away over the ocean. It was disgusting conditions up there in that few months, nothing could have been worse even if they'd put us in the trenches of France. But medical training no.  I thought to myself, wow what happens? We were laying around there all day and I said, "Where are we now, what is this outfit?"

"This is the headquarters of the ambulance train section of the RAMC."

Number 1 Ambulance Train

So I was drafted then to Rouen to join in the marshalling yards there at Rouen an ambulance train which was made up of French rolling stock. That was the first one which the French had handed over to the British: Number 1 Ambulance Train. I hardly had any duties at all to perform in the way of medical. It was feeding the troops, keeping an eye on them that there was no secondary haemorrhages, doing a rough dressing over and above the existing dressing if necessary. But then occasionally they put on two nurses from the base hospitals as a kind of a rest. If they saw two who were becoming really exhausted through the hard, heavy work in the base hospitals – especially when there was a big push on and lots of casualties coming down - they took over any of that sort of work from us so that we became just ordinary duty orderlies.

The RAMC Field Ambulance was up with the troops: doctor, so many men. They probably had had a better training, I don't know, I never was sure about that but they were mostly regular RAMC men who probably were much better trained. And amongst those field ambulances they also had what they called surgical teams. Now those four men were definitely trained men and they could deal with any emergency. From there they came down to a casualty clearing station which was made up of RAMC of all sorts; in the beginning, I've no doubt, perfectly fit men, but as the war went on and there was a manpower shortage, so many troops being killed, any of those men in the RAMC who were rated A1, (perfectly fit men), were drafted to the infantry, artillery or any other combat regiment.
They took all the really fit men away so. then we were upgraded. Any B3 men were made B2 - without any examination. It was just automatically put in your pay book that you'd suddenly become a fit man. I was made from B2 to B1 and there I stayed, B1.

Now, from the casualty clearing station that was our job on the ambulance train. We were
taken as far up the line - in some cases as far as the railway existed, in other cases the railway lines would still be there but it wasn't safe to go any further. Trains were being shelled the same as everything else, despite having red crosses on the roof and on the sides you were still liable to be bombed or attacked. But we went up as far as we possibly could and that's where the casualty clearing stations were too. They were mobile, they were on the move up and down according to where the troops were. Sometimes you were within shelling distance, other times you weren't, it was all according to what had been happening on the Front. There'd be months when there wasn't much activity and there wouldn't be many casualties and there'd be no movement in the location of these stations. You might stay in one place for six or eight months and then all of a sudden move down and move back again. Anyway, we carried wounded men down on these trains to the base — either to Rouen, Calais, Le Havre; places like that.

Number 43 Ambulance Train

The ambulance trains were numbered and funnily enough I was on the first and the last. For some unknown reason I came home on leave and when I came back I was transferred to number 43 which was the very last train. From number 1 to 12 were French rolling stock made up of mostly second class carriages and some first class. The first class carriages were the most sumptuous, luxurious things I'd seen (other than a Pullman) and one of those was assigned to officers in each train. I think the one for very serious head injuries had been a postal wagon so it was suitable to have beds arranged down each side in two tiers: low and medium. That was for the very bad brain cases or very bad cases that we had to leave on the stretcher. Others we could get off the stretcher and put them on the seats which were used as beds. Over each seat would be put a stretcher with the handles sawn off so we were able to get four "laying down" cases in each compartment of the train. Or, if you didn't have many stretcher cases we'd have the stretchers in the top and the sitting men in the bottom. Each of those trains was numbered and each coach was called a letter: ie, B,C,D, and so on. Ourselves, by this time we were just part of that unit. When I first joined I was V Company, then when I was transferred to come abroad we were C Company. I remained in C Company attached to the ambulance train.

It did appear at times that we did come under the jurisdiction of a certain division. I remember one in particular: 29th. I remember all the standing orders came under the heading of the 29th Division. I don't know whether it was official or for the need to have us recognised as attached to somebody or the other, it may have been that. Otherwise I can't remember. We were companies, only companies. Letters to me would be addressed: Number 1 Ambulance Train, British Forces Overseas. and my regimental number of course: 112171. I never can forget that and yet other numbers I do forget. My pension number which I've had for forty four years, I still have to look at my paper for that number. But 112171, I'll never forget it. I did keep my discs but somehow or other they’ve disappeared. Every man overseas was issued with two discs made from some sort of plastic. There was a red one and a darkish green one and if you were killed one was buried with you and the other one sent to records. When I was demobilised they took the one away which would have been buried with me and left me with the green one.

Rob All My Comrades

As regards RAMC stealing we had very little to do with dead bodies, even in the infantry regiments. Any of the dead which they were able to recover from the battlefield — maybe while the fighting was still going on or even after they'd advanced or retreated — was done by the Pioneer Corps and if there was any stealing or looting I'm afraid I would blame mostly the Pioneer Corps. Originally, of course, it would be the Regimental stretcher bearers, they would have first choice naturally. But I don't think that would enter their heads up there, they would be far too busy looking after their own lives because they'd be in just the same dangers as the infantryman, they'd have to be with them in the trenches.
Read Part 2 Here.

Read Part 3 Here.

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