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The 24th (1st Wessex) Field Ambulance

The Keep Museum, Dorchester, holds, immaculately transcribed in blue-black ink and carefully preserved by the author in a five-ringed binder file covered in dark green buckram, a unique manuscript telling the story of the First World War in France and Flanders as lived by the Wessex-based 24th Field Ambulance, written by its Sergeant-Major, Albert House.  It has a foreword, dated 1936, by Lt-Col Ransom Pickard, first and longest-serving commanding officer of the 24th from its formation as the 1st Wessex Field Ambulance in 1908 until he was posted away from the 24th in 1917. 

Albert House ‘Myself’

Pickard, a GP in Exeter from the early 1890s, reminds us that it was the medical units which had to deal with “the most terrible effects” of that war on human beings. “Sad as it was to see what had been flourishing towns and villages razed to the ground, to see fair fields desolate and seamed with trenches, the worst and most tragic results were those upon the bodies and minds of the combatants.”

Pickard also took the opportunity offered by his foreword to set down his opinion of the personnel of the 24th Field Ambulance. “They were not all saints, there were some not quite 100% efficient or hard working; but they were a fine lot of men.  I have a picture in my mind of a stretcher squad during the time the 8th Division was in action at Bouchavesnes, when the Field Ambulance was getting the overs and shorts of the German artillery bombardment, marching along, carrying a wounded man shoulder high, as if they had been on a ceremonial parade.  The memory of such sights stays with one, vivid recollections which focus the splendid work the bearers did during action.  Nor was the unit less good in nursing.”

As clerk to the 24th, Albert House was used to recording the day to day work of the unit “and having kept a rough diary of events that came our way, it seems a pity to let them fade into obscurity”, he wrote.   During the years following the war, a number of Royal Army Medical Corps Field Ambulances produced books or booklets proudly detailing the part they played in that war.  Clues in Albert House’s account show that it, too, was meant to be published for the benefit of future generations. Now, a new research project by the current author aims to bring the story of the 24th Field Ambulance out of the archives and explain its context in the development of the medical services during the Great War.   

The 24th (1st Wessex) Field Ambulance was part of the Territorial Force and, like other Territorial Force soldiers, the officers and men were part-timers who came together for regular training sessions and annual summer camps on army training grounds like Salisbury Plain where they followed the same instruction manuals, exercises and drills as their regular RAMC counterparts. The unit had its headquarters in Exeter and recruited from across Devon and beyond. Those, like Albert House, who were among the first to go overseas with the unit in November 1914 had addresses in Exeter but also in towns including Exmouth, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Weymouth, Bournemouth, Truro and Penzance.  Thus, in his history of the 24th Field Ambulance (T.F.), 1914-1918, Albert House gives us, as Lt-Col. Pickard says in his foreword, “the point of view…of the civilian who had become a soldier lest his country wanted his help in time of need”.

24 FA. Pickard to the front. Entitled by House ‘Off we go’

When the decision was made, in September 1914, to send the Wessex Division, Territorial Force, to India without its three Field Ambulances these, renumbered the 24th, 25th, and 26th Field Ambulances, joined the mainly regular troops of the 8th Division, one of the divisions being created to increase the size of the original British Expeditionary Force. Many of these troops were recalled from overseas to join the 8th Division as it assembled for training at Hursley Park in Hampshire during October 1914.  Initially the weather was fine but, as the division marched out for Southampton and the Channel crossing, the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which had been stationed in Egypt before the war, recorded leaving the camp at 2.30am on November 5th in torrential rain and a sea of mud.

Field Ambulances were self-contained units of around 240 men, including medical officers, stretcher-bearers, nursing orderlies, wagon orderlies, cooks and clerks. The Field Ambulance marched with its own transport, including stores wagons, water carts, and horse-drawn and motor ambulances. Field Ambulances were divided into stretcher-bearer and tent sections. The main task of the bearers was carrying the wounded whereas the tent section specialised in nursing the wounded and sick.

Stretcher-bearers could render first aid, but the priority was to remove the wounded from the firing line and get them to a place of comparative safety as soon as conditions permitted. Before any attack began the Regimental Medical Officer of each battalion identified what he hoped would be the most suitable position near the front trench system for setting up his Regimental Aid Post, the first link in the evacuation chain for a wounded soldier.  This post was primarily for providing first aid and a preliminary diagnosis. From this Aid Post a Field Ambulance would assume responsibility for the wounded soldier and, unless the soldier was a walking wounded case able to make his own way to a medical post, he would be carried by its bearers to the next link in the chain, the Field Ambulance Advanced Dressing Station. The wounded were not retained here, but instead their needs were assessed, immediate treatment given as appropriate and evacuation arranged if necessary. Thus, depending on the severity of his wounds, the soldier might begin a journey which could lead him through a Field Ambulance Main Dressing Station, where treatment could include an operation or the stabilisation of surgical shock, to a Casualty Clearing Station, where the Field Ambulance’s responsibility ceased, to a base hospital in France or to a hospital in the UK.

For the Field Ambulances, periods of intense activity during battles alternated with the day-to-day task of helping to maintain the operational medical efficiency of the army in the field.  Albert House explains: “During the long periods of trench warfare two Field Ambulances were usually in the line, the other one running a Divisional Rest station, a sort of “open house” just behind the line, and dealt with all the Divisional sick and slightly wounded, the idea being not to let any of the Division go out of the area if possible.  The Medical Officer decided that if the soldier would get well in a few days he was kept, if not he was evacuated”. From these Field Ambulance rest stations men could be returned to their battalions, which may otherwise have lost them completely as they proceeded down the evacuation chain. Thus, the Field Ambulance rest stations were important facilities not only for the repair of men but also for the maintenance of battalion strengths, coherence and spirit.

Albert House organised the clerical side of the 24th’s operations during its four years of service in France. Efficient administrative work by a Field Ambulance was vital. The details of all cases admitted to or discharged from the Field Ambulance were recorded. These were used to inform relatives of casualties, to compile statistics, to gauge the health and effective fighting strength of the army and also to ensure that the correct quantities of rations were being supplied to any unit.  It was House’s responsibility to ensure the smooth running of this clerical system and Lt-Col Pickard writes warmly of his abilities: “The organisation of this fell mainly on him; its efficiency may be gauged by the fact that the DMS [Director of Medical Services] sent other units to see the way in which the office work was carried out.”

The 24th sailed from Southampton to Havre, and, recorded House, on “Nov 6th 1914 we disembarked at 11am, but slept again on board that night as the vessel was not unloaded”.  Disembarking “without a Regular officer, N.C.O. or man” they were, wrote House, “the innocents abroad”.  They reached the front, on 12 November, via a transit camp on the hills above Havre and spent the winter battling the elements and dealing with diseases as well as the medical problems caused by the cold and wet conditions. “Four inches of snow on the ground and snowing up to the 22nd [November] it was nearly impossible to sleep with only one blanket.  Barn we occupied last week blown up by shell fire. Had over nine hundred sick and wounded in a week.  The men having come straight from India &c went right into the trenches, owing to the shortage of troops, the snow and intense cold was playing havoc with them, and the bulk of the frost bite cases were quite helpless with swollen feet and had to be evacuated”. It was in this context of dealing with disease that the 24th lost its first man: Private James George Pedrick contracted meningitis whilst treating a patient and died in the hospital at St Omer on 17 February 1915.

For House the 1915 battle of Neuve Chapelle was “the severest trial we had all through the war”.  This first major action for the 8th Division began a steep learning curve for the 24th as it dealt with 1700 walking and stretcher cases, including German and Indian troops in addition to divisional wounded, during four days and nights of intense fighting.  “Considering what a shambles it was we did wonderfully well, we had a convoy of Ambulance cars continually taking away stretcher cases and as many bad walking cases as possible.  Four or five Medical Officers amputated and patched up all these cases until they could be properly dealt with elsewhere, working practically continuously day and night as everyone else did.

One night we received a signal message that we could send all the walking wounded to the station, as a train had managed to get up pretty near, we got gallons of hot cocoa ready, & biscuits & filled up their pockets.  It was about midnight before we were ready, and getting on to a G.S. wagon I shouted to them to fall in “in fours” facing the door in the large courtyard – and they moved away, helping each other, some fainting, but everyone doing their utmost to get away from the horror.  Three hundred were got away, and this helped us considerably.

It is just as well to put on record that the German wounded took their turn with our troops to have their wounds dressed, and appease their appetites.”

As July 1st 1916 dawned, calm and misty, the 24th waited, preparations complete, to collect the wounded across an area stretching between the villages of La Boisselle and Ovillers, south of Thiepval.  At 7.25am Lt-Col Pickard’s first entry for the day in his War Diary reads: “Troops attacked. Many casualties in “No Man’s Land” from machine gun fire”. As noon approached, the number of wounded arriving at the 24th’s Main Dressing Station at Henencourt Wood increased dramatically and the flood of cases continued for the rest of the day. As the afternoon wore on the number of cases arriving threatened to overwhelm the Main Dressing Station and the whole evacuation chain. The reception room for the wounded proved far too small. Patients filled the huts and about 200 lay on straw outside. The vital importance of the work of Albert House and his clerks in keeping track of casualties and their movements had been emphasised by Lt-Col Pickard before the attack began. For House, the scale of the suffering, and one case in particular, would be unforgettable: “This was a terrible slaughter, our Division instead of advancing about 6 miles (their objective) hardly reached the German trenches, and was practically wiped out, we dealt with 1702 wounded, and gassed cases, our own gas cylinders were hit by the enemy, and we had a lot of casualties that way.  The gassed cases were a terrible sight, writhing and gasping for breath, groups of them sat on the ground and we could do very little for them.  The clearing station behind us could not deal with the abnormal number of wounded, and we could not get cars to take them away, hundreds lay out in the open all night on stretchers.  One man on a stretcher in a hut screaming for food and water, on examination we find his intestines torn and protruding and he must not be fed, on returning later he is standing at the door of the hut ravenously eating a huge piece of bread and jam he has got from somewhere, he has on only a shirt and the bandages are hanging about his knees, a short time after we carry him away and he is buried next day with others in a temporary graveyard under the hill.”

There would be much more work for the 24th before peace came; wherever the 8th Division fought following its first day on the Somme Albert House and the 24th were heavily involved, including during the quagmire conditions of the Battle of Passchendaele where on 31 July 1917 the unit was evacuating troops via the Dressing Stations it had set up in Ypres. By August 1st eight men were needed to carry each stretcher and House writes of the efforts to bring in wounded who had been left behind on the battlefield: “Aug 3rd. The appalling conditions of the front line brings the offensive nearly to a standstill, and we are notified that a large number of wounded are lying about in shell holes, volunteers are called for to go up and search for them. 75 N.C.Os & men start off in the dark to carry out what seems an impossible task, they work through the night under a hail of shells, many are wounded, and on their return are one mass of mud.”

The men of the 24th acquitted themselves with distinction, and the 24th became one of only twelve units in the British Army, and the sole unit from the Royal Army Medical Corps, to be awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government. This medal, according to Pickard the “crowning episode for the 24th”, was presented to the unit in recognition of the medical treatment and evacuation of around 2,000 French civilians from the town of St. Amand in October 1918 whilst it was under bombardment by the Germans.

24 FA. Flag showing Croix de Guerre

Albert House, who had been with the 24th since its formation as the 1st Wessex in 1908, was awarded the Military Medal in 1916 “for bravery in the field”. He returned to his native Devon at the beginning of January 1919.  Ransom Pickard was awarded the CMG in 1916 for “military operations in the field” and made a CB in 1919 for “valuable services rendered in connection with Military Operations in Italy”. He left the 24th on appointment as Assistant Director of Medical Services to the 48th Division on 24 July 1917. Thus in commenting on the award of the Croix de Guerre he writes “so [I] can speak freely about this distinction, nothing in the war made me so proud as to know that the unit I had had the honour command had thus distinguished itself.”  Those who did not return are remembered, by name, on a plaque in Exeter cathedral.

Medals of Pte. Herbert Henry Constance 24 FA.

From the “the innocents abroad” arriving at Havre through their “severest trial” at Neuve Chapelle and the “terrible slaughter” of the first day of the Somme to the “crowning episode” of the Croix de Guerre the Territorials of the 24th had come a long way since their pre-war training sessions in Exeter and their annual summer camps on Salisbury Plain.

© Katherine Seymour B.A.
(The author would be pleased to hear from any relatives of the men of the 24th, with stories to tell or photos to show.  She can be contacted via the curator at The Keep Museum.)