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History of the First World War Hospital Barges used by the British Army on the River Seine and canals in France and Belgium to evacuate casualties:
During World War One casualties were evacuated by train, boat and barge. The hospital barges were much slower, but did make for a smoother and more gentle journey. Though the journey took longer it did allow for the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service nurses to tend to the injuries of the wounded soldiers and perform daily dressings and for the troops to recuperate from their wounds and the effects of war.
In the Company of Nurses: The History of the British Army Nursing Service in the Great War cites that by the end of 1915 there were four additional Ambulance Flotillas making the number of barges transporting the wounded to sixteen.
The war diary of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) staff nurse Miss Mildred Rees can be read in Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War which includes her time at No. 4 Ambulance Flotilla Barge 192 during the Battle of The Somme in France. She describes nursing up to 300 casualties during each trip that would take from 24 to 48 hours to evacuate patients to the hospital trains further down the line. During this time Staff Nurse Mildred Rees had to cut off the dirty clothing from the mud and blood of the trenches and then wash the soldiers, clean their wounds and dress them. She was also responsible for ensuring the soldiers were fed. Common wounds were fractures of the limbs, and abdominal and chest wounds.
The book Sub Cruce Candida: A Celebration of One Hundred Years of Army Nursing has photos of QAs, patients and the hospital barges used by the British Army.
The hospital barges were not specifically built or designed for troop evacuation or as a hospital until a few years into the Great War. Instead they were converted from a range of general use barges such as coal or cargo barges. Access hatches would be cut into the roofs and hand operated lifts built so that stretcher cases could be lowered to the hold. The lift would be operated by the cook when additional help was needed. The holds would be converted into 30 bedded hospital wards and QAIMNS nurses accommodation. These sleeping and living quarters were heated by two stoves and electric lighting was fitted to the barges and electric fans could be run in the French and Belgian heat of summer or the hatches lifted off areas of the roofs.
The book It's a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War by Yvonne McEwen has extracts from the war diaries of QA's who served aboard hospital barges.
The electric lights would be turned off at night to avoid being an easy target for German fighter pilots. Nurses would have to make their rounds in the pitch dark using a small torch. The nights could be long but did provide some rest for the other staff because the hospital barges would only travel during the daylight hours because they had to pass through narrow under bridges which often only had inches to spare. Negotiating these tight under bridges was much easier in the light of day.
From the outside the hospital barges were painted grey with a large red cross on each side to signify that they were non combatant and carrying wounded soldiers. The interior of each hospital barge was painted white. Ventilation was provided by ventilators in the side of the roofs and as the war progressed sky lights were built into the barges.
The sailing skipper of each hospital barge was usually a Royal Engineer (RE) sergeant and the barges would be towed by steam tugs.
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No 1 Ambulance Flotilla
The photos of hospital barges on this page come from the collection of Acting Matron Kate Read who served for 6 months in 1915 (May to October) on No.1 Ambulance Flotilla. Sister Kate Read also served for 6 months each at No.6 General Hospital Rouen, 18 Casualty Clearing Station and 32 CCS ending up with 3 months at No.6 CCS before leaving the army to marry.
The photograph above is the exterior view of No.1 Ambulance Flotilla being towed on the Seine by a tug with medical staff posing on the pair of barges at the rear, The photograph shows all three pairs of barges, each with their flagpoles flying the Red Cross and one red cross can be seen on the side of the nearest barge.
This next picture shows the interior of a ward with one of the stoves and the central electric light common to hospital barges of World War One.
This picture of the No 1 Ambulance Flotilla Staff show Colonel & Mrs Yate with medical staff. Sister Read has written the names of the staff, nurses and doctors, on the back of this photo. It reads from left to right
1st row as: M. Gossip med. Officer, Col. Yate M.P., M. Greenfield med. Officer, Capt. Bowles The skipper, M. Boyle M.P. (a bit of him only), M. Mulholland med. Officer and M. Grant M.P.
2nd row: Sister Coulson, Sister Mills, Mrs. Yate, Capt. OGrady, Matron [Acting Matron Kate Read], Sister Bayly.
3rd Row: Sister Cooke, Sister Draper, M. Sainsbury, Sister Cameron and Sister Gibbens.
The wooden deck of the barge could be slippery when wet and it was common for a QA to end up in the canal water! This was usually in the winter with the rain and ice and the awaiting canals freezing water. Many nurses and orderlies would solve the problem of the slippery decks by overcoming their embarrassment and crawling along on all fours.
Though there were happy times aboard hospital barges such as sing a longs when the gramophone was played or in finer weather when the soldiers and nursing staff would sit on the decks and the roofs with fishing rods in the hope of catching some fish for supper. Many QAs would enjoy the sunshine on the roof, still dressed in their ankle length ward dresses, stockings, capes and veils with only their faces and hands exposed to the French sun!
During periods of rain the roofs would leak and the nurses and orderlies would have to keep moving the patients beds to avoid the larger drips of rain water.
Some hospital barges kept pets to help keep up the morale of patients, nurses and staff. Cats were a common pet or mascot and It's a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War by Yvonne McEwen tells of a magpie that had been injured and was taken aboard a hospital barge and kept as a pet. It became tame and would wander about. The skipper looked after it and the magpie would wake him up each morning by pulling his hair or ear! Even the magpie fell overboard on several occasions and had to be rescued!
The hospital barges usually travelled in pairs down the River Seine and the French canals in the British controlled zones to the evacuation ports or to casualty clearing stations and base hospitals. There would usually be at least one QA Sister, staff nurse and Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) orderly per hospital barge. At the height of World War One there were five flotillas of hospital barges. Each flotilla had six hospital barges which would travel in pairs. Each pair of travelling hospital barges would be commanded by an RAMC Medical Officer, usually of Captain rank. The barges that sailed with a full load of patients would have a staff compliment of one QA nursing officer, a staff nurse, an RAMC sergeant, corporal, three nursing assistants, two general orderlies, a cook and a cook's assistant.
Staff would be stationed to the hospital barge and had accommodation on the barge. When the patients were offloaded from the barge there was no time to rest. The barge had to be thoroughly cleaned, especially since as the war progressed many soldiers were evacuated straight to a hospital barge rather than a field hospital or dressing station. These soldiers were often ridden with lice and were filthy coming straight from the trenches and battlefield.
There was often problems with the gas attacked patients. The smell of gas would remain on their clothing and breath and even in their wounds, especially when blisters burst. The lack of ventilation meant that nurses, other patients and staff would suffer a mild gas attack that caused problems such as sickness, watery or sore eyes and breathing problems.
The rations, general stores, medicines, dressing etc had to be restocked and when the opportunity arose staff would be sent to a nearby town to buy fresh food such as fruit and vegetables.
Forces War Records
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