WW1 The RAMC Stretcher Bearer

The Stretcher Bearers

Over the Top;  Medical Work in Practice

There were two ‘types’ of stretcher bearer; those appointed from within their own regiment and who would wear a SB band on the upper arm, and there were the RAMC stretcher bearers who were specialised medics. They wore the RAMC symbol, a red cross on a white, circular background on the upper arm.

The following is taken in most part from the diary of FE Reed, RAMC, stretcher bearer, with reference to reading the experiences of other RAMC personnel and online stories, and then edited with some detail and increased sentiment from a reading of ‘Wounded’ by Emily Mayhew. Elements of the RAMC training handbook 1911 edition, also find themselves upon the pages.

 

 

Frank stood nervously in the trench. He held the folded stretcher with both hands, resting the end of the poles on the floor. The three others in his bearer team of four stood next to him, waiting. They had been the first to assemble, moments before the infantry bundled themselves to the front pushing the softies with their stretchers out of the way. It wasn’t a bit like Blackpool beach where Frank had done his training. The sides of the trench rose up ominously above them. The horizon was not where the sea met the sky in a long, definitive line but it was the jagged line where the trench edge met the increasing  light of the dawn, obscured by the smoke of exploded shells. Frank had helped dig the trenches. There was always work to do if medical work wasn’t immediately required. Death was now waiting in great quantities to take the lives of so many of these men above his spadework. Once the infantry assault had commenced, it was the job of his bearer team to give a second chance of life to anyone that could be saved and brought back to the well organised structure of the Field Ambulances. Speed was of paramount importance. The faster a man could be delivered to medical attention, the greater chance he had of survival. No helicopters to give assistance, just a pair of tired but irresolute feet, blistered hands, a dedication to duty and an incorrigible sense of comradeship. He had checked his medical bag and in his head, he had an idea of the plan of the battlefield. His team had studied the sketch map that the MO had prepared the day before.

In front of him, the infantrymen took their nervous stance by the ladders of the relatively deep trench. Young David stood next to Alfred, butterflies in his stomach. Dawn had broken. The clock was ticking towards the hour. The creeping barrage of their own artillery behind them had moved further forward, leaving room for the infantry to attack the enemy defensive positions which had, if everything had gone to plan, been largely disabled. Alfred looked round at David. His eyes were a mixture of fear and excitement, but he tried to reassure the young lad next to him that everything would be alright, and they would be the ones that would make it through the assault and, bodily intact, they would command the bragging rights of victory.

Alfred had seen it before and had survived. For David, it was his first time. In a couple of minutes he would prove himself to be a man. He had lied about his age when he had attested. Nobody bothered checking. They were short of men. He looked the part, and that was that. He was sixteen, and a big lad. Soon he would be as much a man as any of the soldiers he was among. He couldn’t wait till he was officially called an adult at 21yrs of age, or a legitimate military age at 18yrs, he wanted to be a man NOW.

The whistle went. The troops scaled the ladders and, shouting amidst the deafening noise of the artillery which had been going on for hours to pound the enemy into submission, they hurled themselves forward.

‘Stick with me, lad,’ encouraged Alfred as he put his foot on the first rung, ‘you’ll be ok’. David thought it advisable to stick with the veteran, but it would be the last time he would be called a lad. A boy had gone to the war, but a man would be returning. All the girls, would have to respect him for that.

David followed Alfred up the ladder. Streams of men were pouring over the top, screaming and shouting and cursing amid the noise of gunfire. Some even succeeded in taking a couple of steps before they were killed by the spraying enemy machine gun fire which had escaped the artillery barrage. Men fell to the left and right of him all the time. He had to step over body after body in the forward rush to their objective. The smoke was thick but he was aware of Alfred, dodging and diving a little in front and to the left of him. The men were more spread out by now, and reduced greatly in numbers. The machine gun was having a field day. A mortar shell landed close to them. Their attack had been a disaster. It would be sensible to get into a shell hole, a large crater made by the high powered explosion from an artillery shell. Cover, was a necessity now. They needed to find it quickly.

David couldn’t remember finding a crater. Fear and its conqueror, adrenalin were locked in a battle within him. He lay there and looked up at the stars until they were covered by a dark cloud which turned out their lights. It was deathly quiet and pitch black, and there was no sign of the battle anymore. He felt cheated. He was just in his tented accommodation at the training camp back home. He hadn’t even received his draft yet. He was still a boy in the eyes of all around him. But then the moon decided to tell him otherwise. It popped out briefly from its cloud cover and behind which it had been safe from the machine gun fire which had killed everything else, but could not kill the moon.

He turned his head from where he was laid on his back. Suddenly a searing pain shot through his back and down his legs, but it was momentarily ignored as he saw the body of Alfred just a few feet away from him. He had no face. It had been completely blown off.  But he knew it was him since he could see the familiar tattoo on the severed arm which lay in a mangled pile a couple of feet away from his body. He tried to pronounce his name, but his lips were too dry to speak. He didn’t know it, but he had been here for 24 hours. The pain which wracked his body deflected any thought of thirst or the hunger that wrung out his stomach.

He suddenly felt so vulnerable, frightened and alone. The mother that he would have swaggered back to with all the pride and proof of being a man, was once more the mother he needed for solace, comfort and all-enclosing protection. He wanted to scream out to her but had no voice, and he didn’t want to invite the attention of the enemy who might arrive before his friends and who might shoot or bayonet him, not out of ascendancy or hate, but rather out of mercy and compassion.

He heard a movement. A laboured and hardly discernible voice whispered with all the energy it could muster through swollen, parched lips ‘Another one that made it through then? I’ve no legs.’ David looked down towards the man who lay just a few feet away from him. His legs were missing. ‘Looks like you’ll survive alright. At least you’ve got all your body parts,’ continued the man. He spoke in an accent that David didn’t recognise, but he spoke to him equally as a man. David had spent about two minutes as the man he had aspired to be when he signed up, and the man who had pumped his destructively excessive adrenalin forward like all the rest into the battle.

The man said nothing more. He died with a groan that was involuntarily forced through his lips. David was alone again. For a whole day, and into the next, he slipped in and out of consciousness with no awareness of where he was or even who he was. Occasionally he could remember, but that would bring too much pain into his head. He couldn’t move, though he tried. He waited to die like the others. There was nothing left to do but despair at the images from home, now seeming so real in the frightening hallucinations of hunger. The figures he saw of his mother, his father, his girlfriend and all his friends, but especially his mother, could not hold him in their ethereal arms. He wanted to reach out to each image but movement was denied his body. The cold and damp seeped through from the outside and met the pain which was screaming out from the inside of his immobile body. The couple of minutes of being a man. Had it been worth it?

Then, in one moment of reasonably lucid awareness he heard a careful shuffling approaching and noticed opposite, through the gloom, first one, then more, fully armed men slipping down the side of the steep crater.

They were Tommies, and they wore a red cross in a white circle on each of the upper arms of their uniforms. The bearer team had at last found the shell hole where they understood there might be survivors. It was now more than 48 hours since the battle had started and the team had had no rest since the fighting had begun. They would not stop until all the casualties had been brought in. They were probably only half way through the job up to now

 

FE Reed was an RAMC stretcher bearer. Originally from Liverpool, he was billeted at Cheltenham Rd Blackpool and after the war lived at his brother’s boarding house on Palatine Rd. At the beginning of the Somme battle, he and his comrades, as a team of four, worked for nearly three days with little sleep in between, to carry as many injured men as possible to the dressing stations for treatment. His brother, George Reed had conducted the amputations at Loos, and the operations in the dressing stations behind the lines. In these dressing stations, a great knowledge of medicine was required. Here, the nurses worked tirelessly, too. Frank spent over three years in France and was actively present at many of the great battles before being demobbed in 1919. One of his last jobs was to drive the Labour Corps, responsible for burying the bodies of the fallen. They would scour the ground to pick up various body parts and fill a bag with them. Friend and foe, young or old, in a single bag, in peace only in death.

 

Each of the four stretcher bearers was fully armed with a bag of medicines and bandages and most vitally a small flask of water and a tablet of morphine. They didn’t carry guns. They faced the bullets without a reply of their own. The last man pulled down the stretcher. A little clumsily. They were tired. But never tired enough to prevent them from rescuing a comrade. They examined the several men and they found that only David was alive and could be saved.

They moved in silence. An unnecessary sound could alert a sniper. One of their team had been killed yesterday. Now that a man had been found alive they whispered to him in kind words. Even the occasional curse was a kind word. They all fought the same horror together, which could be cursed in the same language of contempt. Through a partly opened eye, since he wasn’t able to open the other, David noticed that when the bearer opened the flask of water, his hands were badly blistered. The stretchers were rough, the men to be carried could be heavy, the terrain was difficult and the open ground was dangerous and continuously paroled by the snipers’ gunsights. The trenches were narrow when they had to be negotiated, and the load had to be lifted above head height in order to make progress. The sheltered ground was dangerous too. At any time a random shell could land by them and blow them to pieces. It had happened to other stretcher teams and would continue to do so.

Frank put the flask to David’s lips. The few drops of water that he could sip were indeed the very elixir of life. He was dehydrated, without this life giving water he would soon have become another corpse in the shell hole. The stretcher bearers, looking on, noticed a droplet of water issuing slowly from the left eye of the man they were attending to. Only one eye was open the other concealed by a mixture of mud and blood. It wasn’t a tear of self-pity, or even relief at his rescue.  It was both a tear of gratitude and remorse. These men before him were members of the RAMC who David had previously cruelly alluded to with his comrades as Run Away Mother’s Coming, Rob All My Comrades or, in reverse, Cannot Manage A Rifle. Now, in front of him, dressed in torn clothing, caked in mud, faces drawn with lack of sleep, eyes black and strained with the constant need to peer through the dark, every muscle in the body acheing, through dodging bullets, diving for cover when the whine of a shell was heard coming in your direction, scouring the battlefield, listening out for anyone who might be still alive and could be saved, a constant conversation to keep the casualty comforted during the carry which could take hours at a time, to reach the aid post.

‘If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of an ankle while you’re laid on the floor on your stretcher, waiting for attention’, one of the bearers encouraged the casualty. At the Casualty Clearing Stations, the front line nurses wore their dresses long. It was regulation attire in order to maintain a demure and proper manner in the presence of so many men, giving nothing away to volatile imaginations. They occasionally had to lift their skirts to prevent them trailing across the blood and the gore and the mud and the lice that lived in myriads upon the bodies of the soldiers. Their white aprons were covered in the blood of a severed artery from the operating table, or the caked mud from a discarded uniform or even soaked with the tears of a physically and emotionally broken man who wept upon them, seeking his comfort. But they could only lift their skirts if their hands were free, and they usually weren’t. The nurses were not only nurses, turning down several proposals of marriage per day in their role as women, but they were also drivers, mechanics, carpenters, bursars, innovators and many other things, in their role as human beings involved n the war effort.

 

George Reed and nurses in relaxed mode, shortly after arriving in France August 1915 and before their uniforms became sodden with the blood of severed, human body parts.
Some nurses were voluntary, some even put their own money into the work. Some nursing groups felt superior to others, naturally human, and as such, inescapable. The first casualty of the US involvement in the war in 1917 was a female medic. By 1917, women were increasingly needed to fill the traditional roles of men, but paid women volunteers were difficult to attract to work in France or in agriculture. All the well paid jobs had already been taken, and the volunteer work that was left needed to be filled. The army had tried to attract women to this work by designing a uniform dress wear in which they might enjoy looking sexy both in France and on the land at home in agriculture. However, the pay of 25 shillings (£1.25) a week was less than a man’s wage and less than the remuneration of much of the work already being undertaken by working women, and they would not be so easily duped. Women also had domestic responsibilities. The men could leave home because the women could fill their roles. But if the women left, then the home itself could dissolve. The 20th century would have to progress a lot more before female medics, as opposed to the long skirted and demure nurses, were employed directly by the military, and fatigues with trousers were to become the norm.

One of the men pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and, taking one out, offered it to the casualty. David had been smoking for a while. The carcinogenic fire sticks of the later decades of the century were at present the morale boosting, psychotherapeutic panacea, occasionally as valuable as a drop of water or a tablet of morphine. He managed to hold it in his mouth with a hand that he could use. He wasn’t aware of the other hand. David had felt a love for these men who had risked death to rescue him. He felt a deep sense of comradeship for these human beings who had exposed their own bodies to the bullets and the shells and the shrapnel and the mud and the hunger and the fatigue. Their blistered, bleeding hands carefully laid him upon the stretcher. ‘Mind how you lift this over the edge, lads. It’s not Blackpool beach any more. Blackpool, such a long way away now, on the northwest coast of Blighty. Three of the men had trained there and knew it well. The beaches weren’t mined with unexploded shells and the air above it was not filled with flying machine gun bullets and shrapnel. Only seagulls and the carefree sounds of holidays. When the tide was out, the beach was flat and extensive and when the sun shone it glistened off the green-grey sea and created beautiful sunsets in the summer evenings. If the occasional hard ripples of the sand could maybe twist the ankle, or the strong south westerlies could blow off your cap and send sand into all parts of your clothing and body, it was blissful compared to this. You could moan about your over-crowded billet or the cold and wet tented accommodation of Squires Gate or further inland at Weeton, but please, please take me back there!

It took three hours to get David back to the advanced dressing station where he would be assessed. Another successful carry, another life saved. To lose a man was a devastation. Here he would be further treated if necessary, or even possible, by the attendant medical officer. From there he would be taken in relative safety through the trenches and along the potholed roads to an ambulance which would take him to the casualty clearing station, the CCS. Here to the sound of the guns in the near distance and the screams and groans of the mutilated soldiers, not only mutilated but caked in mud and blood, bodies impregnated with shrapnel driven deep into the body by the high powered projectiles of modern warfare and taking with them the gas soiled, mud soiled military khaki tunic along with billions of bacteria from the highly fertile soil of the battleground of this, the Western Front, the medical teams would attempt to bring hundreds of men broken in body and spirit, back to as near normal a human being as they could achieve. For this was the place, and these were the people who reconstituted the life that had been destroyed upon the battlefield, sometimes only yards away. The battlefield took life in enormous quantities, as much as the weapons of modern warfare were easily able to do so with their vast and destructive ordnance, but here in the aid posts and the hospitals, life was protected, preserved and given back to seemingly hopeless cases by a small group of brave, innovative, practical, resourceful, resilient and tireless professionals and volunteers of both men and women.

Once the ‘carry’, as this task was referred to, had been completed, and the casualty had been delivered by the stretcher bearers, it was ‘long live the job’, and the job was started all over again, until every last man had been brought in. At one time, Frank had taken a drink of cocoa from an abandoned mug as he passed. It was cold. But the mouthfuls that were left were wonderful. He had let go of the stretcher for just a few seconds before he again took hold of the rough handle, now splintered and blood stained, and followed his team back through the trench and out into the open land, casually studying the sketch map of the area that the medical orderly had devised before the battle.

It was dusk. The smell of cordite and the rotting flesh of decomposing bodies filled the air. They moved on quietly, ignoring their discomfort. When the battle had ended for the infantry, it was only half way through for the stretcher team. A shell landed close to them. They dived for cover onto a ground of mud and corpses. A lonely padre, in his devotion to duty, and a respect for a fellow human being, could be seen tirelessly burying a corpse that was almost complete, and could be recognisable as human. The enemy snipers did not pick him out. He posed no threat. They respected bravery. Blackpool beach, with its healthy, fresh, salty air, was nothing like this. Nothing like this at all.

 

Frank survived the War, but his nerves were so severely shaken by the extended experience, that he was unable to lead a normal social life. He was able to work, and laboured on the construction of the new Garstang Rd, eastward out of the town, a relatively easy job now that there were no bullets flying around his ears or shells exploding close by. He didn’t marry, and lived in the cellar at his brother’s boarding house on Palatine Rd until his death in 1964. In later years he is remembered by his niece as a quiet, inoffensive tired, old man gently rocking in a chair by the fireside.

Lance Corporal Wilson, as regimental stretcher bearer (SB), didn’t survive, killed in action while carrying out his duties. He was from Rochdale, where his parents lived.  He was well known in local music circles as a French horn player and was a member of the Philharmonic orchestra. Married, his wife was living at 9, Trafalgar Rd Blackpool at the time of his death on October 7th 1916.

https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/war-wounded-and-the-ramc.php ;-

By the end of the Great War, the Royal Army Medical Corps medics had dealt with over 9,000,000 sick and wounded servicemen, of which 2,258,000 were evacuated from France to England in hospital ships. Of this number 1,600,000 were returned to the firing-line.

470 medical officers and 3,569 other ranks were either killed or later died from their wounds.

Their devotion to saving lives was indicated by the number of medals won by the RAMC. Seven Victoria Cross’s, 1,484 Military Cross’s, 3 Albert medals, 395 Distinguished Conduct medals, 3,002 Military Medals and 1,111 Military Service Medals. Early in the war, King George V, in a conversation with General Douglas Haig praised the regimental and RAMC medics and said, “It is the royal opinion that to carry a wounded man out of action justified the award of the Victoria Cross.”

It goes without saying that, had the Kings view been acted upon, tens of thousands of VC’s would have had to have been struck. To rescue wounded men under fire, obviously demanded extreme courage.  Field Marshall Birdwood, the Anzac Commander, and one who would flaunt danger himself by habit, once commented that if he had thousands of VC’s to distribute, “all would go to stretcher-bearers.”

The soldiers they rescued would have had the same opinion.

Me, too.