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Ambulance trains were first used during the First World War in France and Belgium to transport wounded or sick soldiers to hospital. Ambulance trains were also called "first-aid trains", "hospital trains", "casualty evacuation train"s or "travelling hospitals". They were specifically designed so that nurses of the Red Cross and the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and army medical officer doctors and orderlies of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) could continue the care of evacuated soldiers. As can be seen in the drawing below, the interior of the ambulance train would be fitted with beds down each side to maximise the number of wounded that could be transported.

A hospital carriage being lowered to the track at Swindon

These trains, some 30 in all (some sources say 34), were assembled for the purpose of removing wounded from urban areas to hospitals in safer parts of Britain. Twenty of these trains were based in the London area, six in the provinces, and a further two in Scotland. All were made up from existing rolling stock which was modified by each railway company in their own workshops. The GWR provided 6 of the trains which were composed of 12 vehicles, made up of two corridor brake thirds (used for carrying food/medical supplies and staff accommodation), and 10 stretcher vans fitted with steam heating. These stretcher vans were mainly converted from "Siphon G" bogie milk vans.Some of the ambulance trains were also fitted out with an operating theatre. To ensure better hygiene and the ability to scrub down these theatres would be completely tiled. Emergency operations would be performed despite the movement of the train, the cramped conditions and poor lighting.

Eventually, one of the stretcher vans in the middle of each train was replaced with a special staff mess/recreation van converted from a gutted centre corridor third or restaurant car. When the time came to begin the work, the GWR located the vehicles, effected the conversions, and moved them to their wartime stabling positions - all within 3 days.

Nurse waiting at Netley for the arrival of hospital train patients

Ambulance trains were also used during the Second World War in England and Scotland to transfer the wounded to the many temporary and permanent UK Military Hospitals for further recuperation and treatment. Most of these military hospitals were located in rural locations so that servicemen would not suffer unduly from air raids by the German Luftwaffe. The main line train companies actively helped the Army, Navy and RAF with supply and conversion of the ambulance trains and during World War II this was sanctioned by the Railway Executive Committee.

By the time of the Second World War there were about 30 ambulance trains in operation. Each carriage was painted with a red cross on white background on the roof and side so that enemy planes would identify them as hospital trains and not troop or supply trains. Under the Geneva convention this prevented them becoming a legitimate target .

A typical ambulance train would have 14 carriages. The first carriage would hold the brake carriage and boiler, depending on the number of stretcher cases there would usually be six carriages made into bedded wards, one carriage for patients who could sit on seats and one carriage that was a combined operating theatre, pharmacy and medical store. Two carriages would be fitted into a cookhouse and dining room whilst two more carriages would serve as accommodation for the medical and nursing staff. The last carriage was the brake end and general store.

The staff carriages were usually converted from the first class carriages and compartments to ensure the comfort of the nursing and medical staff who would be stationed permanently to the ambulance train.

Work was arduous and many of the casualties came straight from the battlefield such as the Battles of Ypres in the First World War. QAs were kept busy preserving the lives of badly wounded soldiers until they could be evacuated to military hospitals.

In Britain civilian nurses worked aboard hospital trains during the evacuation of patients from cities that were bombed by the German Luftwaffe.

Ambulance trains were used during the Korean War in 1953 when wounded POWs were repatriated as part of Operation Little Switch.

Interior of No. 23 British Ambulance Train which entered service in France on 3rd March, 1916 showing one of the Ward Cars of the Ambulance Train, constructed by The Caledonian Railway Company, on the order of the War Office, for conveyance of Wounded British Soldiers in France from gthe Front to the Sea-board. The wounded were transported to Calais for transfer to a Hospital Ship bound for England.

For further information see Creating an Ambulance Train, QARANC - Hospital Trains and Swindon Web - Train Works both sources for this page.

Naval & Military Press Military History Books
Last updated 20 June, 2009
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