Ambulance barges in France and Flanders

The British Water Ambulance Fund

As with many aspects of the expansion of the British Expeditionary Force, early impetus came not from central government but from private initiative, voluntary work and charitable donations of money and time.

FLOATING HOSPITALS. WATER AMBULANCES FOR BRITISH AND FRENCH TROOPS. Asmall committee, of which Mr. J. A. Grant, MP for the Egremont Division of Cumberland, is chairman, has been formed for the purpose of fitting out water ambulances to be used on the French and Belgian waterways. Barges are to be converted into floating hospitals. It has been found possible by this means to convey the sick and wounded from the front to a port of embarkation without suffering the agonising pains consequent upon the jolting of ambulance wagons. The scheme has the approval of Sir Arthur Sloggett, Surgeon-General at the front, and Mr. Douglas Hall MP, who has already demonstrated its practicability, is leaving shortly for the front to initiate the scheme. The barges when converted will be staffed by surgeons and names under the control of the Royal Army Medical Corps, while voluntary assistance has been obtained which will avoid all waste money in administering the fund. Offices have been opened at 27a, St. James’s Street, London, where contributions will be received. Cheques should made payable to the British Water Ambulance Fund, and crossed Union of London and Smith’s Bank.

British Newspaper Archive. Article syndicated and run in several newspapers, 24-28 December 1914.
Britush Newspaper Archive. “Daily Mirror” of 31 October 1914. Douglas Bernard Hall was the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight and was aged 47 when he began this fundraising: his father was Mayor of Liverpool in 1879. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve (he is pictured above in uniform) and eventually received formal thanks from the Army Council for his work in raising and operating the barge flotilla before he eventually left for work with the High Explosives Department. He died in 1923, having been created a baronet in 1919.

BRITISH WATER AMBULANCE FUND. Sir, I notice a paragraph in your valuable paper describing my scheme for hospital barges which Sir Arthur Sloggett, Surgeon-General at the front, has approved and accepted on behalf of tho War Office, and for which he has promised to supply army doctors, nurses, and orderlies. Might I inform you that we have started a British Water Ambulance Fund to carry out this work, of which, amongst others, H.R.H. Princess Henry of Battenberg and Bonar Law are patrons. Anyone desirous of subscribing to this most urgent need to alleviate the sufferings of our wounded men during transport can make out and send their cheques to “The British Water Ambulance Fund.” crossed Union of London and Smiths Bank, but the address to which they must sent is 29 St James’s Street, S.W., and not stated in your paper.—l am, &c., Douglas B. Hall. House of Commons, Ist Jan., 1915.

British Newspaper Archive. A letter printed in several newspapers in early January 1915.
British Newspaper Archives. Hampshire Advertiser and other newspapers in early February 1915.

PUBLIC NOTICES. TO THE PEOPLE OF KENT. THE BRITISH WATER AMBULANCE FUND appealing for support provide Barges as Floating Hospitals for the wounded. This means of Transport on the Canals and Rivers of France has already proved to be of immense value relieving the sufferings of the wounded, and greatly increases their chances of recovery; but only very few of these Barges exist as yet, and more are urgently needed. A thousand pounds (£1,000) will provide and fit up one Barge. Will the COUNTY OF KENT contribute one Barge to be called after it? Our Kentish Regiments have nobly upheld their splendid traditions and have suffered heavy losses during the War. We surely cannot better express our appreciation of their gallantry than by assisting to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded, and providing for them a swift and smooth mode of transit. Joan Camden. Mary Hardinge. Cicely Cranbrook. Alice Northcote. Florence Darnley. Evelyn Goschen. Ada Harris. Mabel Cornwallis. Elizabeth De L’lsle. Subscriptions may be sent to VISCOUNTESS GOSCHEN, 25, Rutland Gate, London. or to the Hon. Secretary and Treasurer. Miss M. F. LOTD, High Field, Hawkhurst.

British Newspaper Archive. “Dover Express” of Friday 19 March 1915: typical of many other similar articles around this time.

The fund raised enough money to fit out four barges for work on the River Seine between Paris and Rouen: they later extended their route to Le Havre. They were eventually taken over by the War Office and named collectively as Number 1 Ambulance Barge Flotilla. This unit was eventually disbanded in November 1915, by which time it had carried 5,230 casualties.

BRITISH WATER AMBULANCE FUND A report issued on Saturday by the British Water Ambulance Fund on the progress of the work of the Fund, states that the total subscriptions now amount to a sum approximating to £10,000. By a resolution of the Committee, subscribers of £1000 were entitled to name a barge, and subscribers of £20 to name a bed. Six barges altogether have now been obtained and equipped, four as hospital barges, one as a staff barge, and one as a general store barge. The War Office appointed Captain O’Grady RAMC as the medical officer in charge of the unit, and thepresident, Mr Douglas Hall MP has been appointed navigating officer, and will be accompanied by another member of the Committee to take charge of such part of the maintenance and upkeep of the unit as devolves upon the British Water Ambulance Fund. Each hospital bargo contains accommodation for fifty wounded, each-on a comfortable large sized hospital bed . A specially fitted operating theatre has been provided on one of the barges, with a hoist for lowering the patients down to the same, thus avoiding any unnecessary jolting.

British Newspaper Archive. “The Scotsman” of Monday 29 March 1915.

In August 1915 the Liverpool and District Domestic Servants War Fund donated £60 to name and maintain a bed on the “Liverpool Barge”.

Once it was formalised and in War Office hands, each barge was manned by a non-commissioned officer and two men of the Royal Engineers’ Inland Waterways department, with the medical staff provided by the Royal Army Medical Corps and the female nursing services.

Number 2 Ambulance Flotilla

Early in 1915, the Director of Medical Services of First Army (Surgeon-General W. G. MacPherson) suggested that three canal barges could be outfitted for use in segregation and treatment of infectious cases and sent an officer to Estaires to assess the possibility of using commercial barges and the canal system for the evacuation of wounded men. Approval was given on 19 March 1915. The first barge went into service on 18 April and five more followed. They were formed into 2 Ambulance Flotilla.

Imperial War Museum Q33443. With thanks. The interior of a hospital barge showing how the cargo hold has been converted into a functioning ward.

The war diary of 2 Ambulance Flotilla shows that it remained in approximately the same area of operations throughout the rest of the war, with barges working in the area of Bethune, Avelette, Merville, Isberques, Aire-sur-la-Lys, Estaires, Arques,Saint-Omer, and Calais.

British Official History of Transportation on the Western Front. My highlight. The canal and river network of northern France.
Imperial War Museum Q33445. With thanks. A Hospital barge being towed.

Number 3 Ambulance Flotilla

This flotilla began to exist from 7 July 1915 when Barge number 140, manned by 20 troops from 20 Field Ambulance, came into operation. After being initially based at Saint-Omer the flotilla soon moved to Abbeville, where it began working to River Somme route as far as Corbie. On 17 December 1915 its base relocated further along the Somme at Chipilly but it returned to Abbeville in May 1916.

During July 1916 numbers 3 and 4 Ambulance Barge Flotillas began to operate under a single command. Barges would now operate in pairs, with a single Medical Officer attached to a pair. They continued to work the Somme route, briefly advancing their base to Peronne in July 1917.

On 31 July 1917, the two flotillas relocated to Saint-Omer, where they began to work the same canal and river network described under Number 2 Flotilla, above.

Number 4 Ambulance Flotilla

This flotilla was also initially manned by 20 troops from 20 Field Ambulance, coming into operation at Saint-Omer on 11 October 1915. It worked the same northern canal and river network, but in the summer of 1917 also extended to Zeneghem, Dunkirk and Adinkerke to support the army’s operations on the Belgian coast.

Number 5 Ambulance Flotilla

Number 5 came into existence at Saint-Omer on 10 July 1916 and was put to work on the same same northern canal and river network.

All of the flotillas began to demobilise in December 1918.


The casualty evacuation chain

The Royal Army Medical Corps

The Royal Engineers