This is a hand-tinted image from the 1930s which adds a lot to this wartime photograph of a group of Stretcher Bearers carrying in a casualty on the battlefield.
There were two types of Stretcher Bearers (SBs) in the Great War; Regimental SBs and those in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The ones at regimental level were in infantry battalions; traditionally in peace time these men were part of the battalion band and were musicians as well as SBs, but following the formation of Kitchener’s Army in 1914 that gradually began to change and men were selected for the aptitude rather than their ability to play an instrument, with the medical training coming second. Regimental SBs were the first port of call for battlefield wounded; they would search the battlefield for casualties and take them to the Regimental Aid Post for treatment by the RMO – the Regimental Medical Officer – usually a Lieutenant or Captain from the RAMC. From here they would be taken to a collection point where SBs from the RAMC would take over and transport them back to the nearest Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) or Main Dressing Station (MDS).
The weight of a wounded man was something to be reckoned with and while in pre-war training SBs practiced in pairs, the reality on mud-soaked battlefields was that it would take more personnel to evacuate each casualty even on relatively good ground; as illustrated here.
As Indian units began to engage on the battlefield in Flanders and Northern France in 1914 they suffered casualties. The dead were cremated or buried on the battlefield according to religion and when that was possible, and the wounded were evacuated to Britain for treatment in a number of hospitals. One of the best known was the use of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which were rapidly turned into an Indian War Hospital in the autumn of 1914. Indian soldiers died here and those whose beliefs dictated it were cremated on the Sussex downs above Brighton. Today the Chattri remembers them and is the scene of an annual service of remembrance for the men of the Indian Army.
This image I purchased in a Brighton junk shop more than thirty years ago. The old man who sold me it remembered the Indians as a boy in the town, and like other parts of Britain there was great local interest in these Indian warriors; stories of them filled the local newspapers. In this photograph walking wounded are out in one of the local Brighton parks and local people have come out to see them, including the young boy in front, dressed in a soldiers uniform just as no doubt his father was at the front. Men of these men in the photograph were back in the trenches a few months later taking part in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle.
I was out yesterday at a local postcard fair and one of the images I found with this one. It is a small postcard image, badly creased and a little faded, and cost virtually nothing; the dealer almost gave it to me. But it is one of the more remarkable images I have rescued in a while.
Why? Photographs of the wounded, especially the seriously wounded, are far from common. It was a well known fact during the war that King George V would not visit military hospitals as it ‘upset him’. That attitude was shared with a large part of the British public not touched directly by the war. ‘Respectable’ wounded with light and less visible wounds, dressed smartly in hospital blues could easily be accepted but men with burns, or gas injuries and amputees were far less visible, and that extended to photographs as well.
This image shows three wounded soldiers who are all double amputees; with the terrible injuries caused by shell-fire in the Great War these men were far from unique but they are very much missing from the imagery of the conflict. Many veterans felt that the dead were more readily accepted that the wounded, and that those injured on active service were somehow forgotten. A century later soldiers who are double amputees just back from conflict are again part of our culture but thankfully they are accepted and treated with dignity in a way that the wounded of the Great War were arguably not; the future for the three men in this photograph was potentially bleak – a meagre pension, little chance of work and a drain on their family. Some interesting statistics on The Long, Long Trail show that of the the 2.2 million wounded serving with the British Army some 8% were discharged as invalids, as these men would have been; three of the more than 182,000 who fall into that category.
This soldier of the Royal Sussex Regiment was photographed in Eastbourne sometime in 1916. He is wearing a style of uniform that became very symbolic of the Great War: Hospital Blues.
A form of hospital uniform had been introduced even before the Boer War but in the early years of the Great War the need to ensure that convalescing soldiers had a uniform they could wear in public became quite important; if they stepped out in civilian clothes there was always the risk they might attract the attention of zealous patriots who went round handing out white feathers to men not in uniform whom they suspected were not doing their ‘bit’ for King and Country.
The Hospital Blues uniform was therefore available for convalescing troops in Britain; some were issued for France, but the emphasis on issue was on the Home Front because of the problems of interaction with the public. It consisted of a white shirt, a bright red woven tie and a blue jacket; all of which can be seen in this image. As is visible here the soldier also wore his Service Dress cap with regimental insignia; where no cap was available, soldiers often wore their regimental badge on their lapel. The uniform was worn with pride as it showed that not only was the man in the armed services, he had served overseas and been wounded.
The fact that this photograph was taken in Eastbourne may also indicate the unknown soldier here may have been a patient in Summerdown Camp; constructed on the high ground above the town, it was one of the largest convalescent hospitals in Sussex during the Great War, and photographs of it will feature in a future posting.