6th January 1917 Saturday
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“An ambulance train arrived in Perth Station at 12.30 on the morning of the 6th January. It was a bitterly cold night – freezing hard. The wounded and sick came rolling along to us in ambulance cars and private motors. We admitted 53 cases altogether, and I didn’t get to bed until nearly 5 o’clock. Some of the wounds were very serious, and the men were all very tired.”
Prior to the start of The Great War, Britain had made arrangements to deal with the mass casualties of such an event. Although the concept of the ambulance train owed its origins to the Crimean war of 1854, the main railway companies had been called together and asked to prepare hospital or ambulance trains. Drawings had been sent out for the requirements of such and plans were so well advanced that the first ambulance trains met the hospital ships arriving in Southampton just 20 days after hostilities began.
Men had joined up from all over Great Britain and of course needed to be returned as near to their homes or regimental bases as possible. The trains were made up of everything you would expect to have found in a contemporary hospital. Wards for the casualties, treatment areas and operating theatres. Beds for those that needed them and more casual accommodation for the walking wounded. Accommodation also for the many medical staff on board. Double entrance doors to the carriages to facilitate easy loading. The trains could consist of up to 17 vehicles that could be a third of a mile in length.
Working conditions for medics could be arduous. During difficult times, men with serious injuries by now infected after days of travelling and carrying lice and disease, made life harder for the railway medics than those dealing with it on the front line. Trains could become dirty very quickly working under such pressure. The stench associated with gangrenous infections and trench foot would make the confines stink unbearably. Journey times would be long, progress would be slow as paths for the trains had to be slotted in between regular traffic. Wartime passenger trains, freight trains now heavy with equipment for war, coal trains busier than ever to keep the railways and industry moving, munitions trains and trains full of fresh troops heading for the front to provide more fodder for even more ambulance trains. Long waits for passing prioritised traffic would have been common. It’s not hard to imagine the frustration as progress was halted yet again as the train was reversed into a siding to clear yet another path. Life for the men on the locomotive footplate was hard too with men working extremely long shifts, not knowing when they would arrive or be relieved.
Douglas having experienced life at the front, in the trenches and dressing stations, would be fully aware of what the patients in the Perth War Hospital had gone through. The train that arrived that cold night would have presented him with a scene he was all too familiar with, so was well placed to deal with it, but his understated version of the event almost betrays the chaotic order to which all were subjected to.
Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here