York & North Yorkshire

Somme centenary: WWI ambulance trains exhibition opens

Hospital train carriage Image copyright NRM
Image caption Ambulance trains were mostly filled with bunk beds for injured soldiers

An exhibition on World War One ambulance trains which whisked soldiers away from battlefields has opened.

The purpose-built trains bearing a red cross carried 2.7m passengers in the United Kingdom during the conflict.

Some carriages were filled with rows of bunk beds to hold recovering soldiers, while others served as treatment rooms.

The opening of the exhibition at the National Railway Museum in York marks 100 years since the busiest day of ambulance train traffic during the war.

Image copyright Willis Family Collection
Image caption George Owen Willis, an orderly on ambulance train number 18, served for the entire duration of the conflict and documented his experiences with photographs

The trains also carried people in the Western Front, the Mediterranean and Egypt, with medical staff living on-board.

Rest rooms were established at railway stations across the UK to deal with wounded troops coming back from the front lines.

Image copyright Willis Family Collection
Image caption The trains carried injured soldiers away from the battlefields

Several of the most renowned poets of the war, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, travelled on ambulance trains.


Image copyright NRM

Excerpt from Good-Bye to All That, an autobiography by Robert Graves

"That evening, the R.A.M.C. orderlies dared not lift me from the stretcher to a hospital train bunk, for fear of it starting haemorrhage in the lung.

So they laid the stretcher above it, 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."


Despite carrying a red cross, some trains were still shelled and hid in tunnels for protection.

Image copyright Willis Family Collection
Image caption Pictured is ambulance train number 7 being loaded with injured soldiers
Image copyright NRM
Image caption Medical staff lived on the trains, some for the entirety of the war
Image copyright NRM
Image caption Ambulance trains often had an extra coach carrying non-injured military personnel
Image copyright NRM
Image caption A carriage of an ambulance train is pictured being hoisted in Blackpool in February 1916
Image copyright Horwich Works
Image caption The pharmacy carriages were stocked with medicines to help the injured

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