The most recent addition to our rare book collection is an amazing insight into the lives of people who worked on ambulance trains during the First World War. The book was compiled by the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and (in their words) consists of ‘ articles from our train magazine, and reflects for the most part the lighter side of our life – the other side was all too present in our minds’
The Friends Ambulance Unit was made up of conscientious objector Quakers, who by choosing not to fight often served in medical positions assisting injured soldiers.
Working on ambulance trains meant dealing with the many horrors of war; terrible debilitating injuries and diseases and men traumatised from their war experiences. The Friend’s Ambulance Unit dealt with these terrible things, whilst at the same time being opposed to the war that caused them.
Archives held within Leeds University’s Liddle Collection, The Imperial War Museum and The Library of the Religious Society of Friends document horrific experiences of the Friends Ambulance Unit. ‘A Train Errant’ provides us with a lighter insight into how ambulance train staff coped with their experiences.
The cartoon below from the magazine shows how men on the trains had begun styling their beards as ‘facefins’.
‘Sergeant writes. My moustache is a treat. the satisfaction I have derived from same especially on tedious railway journeys is quite worth the necessary trouble. They all say they like the one that tickles ‘
Men could spend years serving on ambulance trains close to the front. The below cartoon is obviously a dig at the quality of the food on the train. Those travelling on the train ate ‘armoured pies and tarts’ made by ‘Bub and Co … Jam and armour plate makers’.
This extract written by a matron on a train is tinged with the same sense on humour as the above; her ‘impressions of an A.T. [ambulance train]’ describe the superior driving of British engine drivers (as apposed to the French), smashing of enamel as the train jerked forward, moving to the more profound ‘wooden crosses in the rude God’s acre’, making us pause and think of the cheery ones “gone west”‘ and rumbling of guns far away.This is only a small selection of the fascinating articles contained in ‘The Train Errant’. The book helps us to understand how people coped with the enormous pressure of war, where people were launched into unfamiliar and horrifying situations.
We hope to include this kind of real life insight in our ambulance train exhibition due to launch in 2016.
Other Ambulance Train blogs:
Recreating a First World War Ambulance Carriage – click here
Coming Home From the Front Line – wartime ambulance train travel – click here