The Retreat from Dobrudsha, November 1916-January 1917 from Conrad Cato, The Royal Navy Everywhere, 1919
Barry Doyle examines the joys of the close reading of sources and uncovers what it was like to provide medical support in one of the more obscure fronts of the First World War.
Much of the history we read and write is, quite properly, a synthesis and agglomeration of primary and secondary sources. Even when producing deeply researched monographs we don’t just tell it like it was or let the sources speak for themselves. Rather, we sift and amalgamate and shape the evidence into our interpretation of the past. But occasionally one does get captivated by the eye witness account of a particular moment in the past – especially if it describes an unfamiliar period or event. This post examines the detailed reporting of a battle in Romania in 1916 and the role of medical staff in supporting a military engagement.
Commander Locker Lampson MP
This post is based on research in the papers of Oliver Locker Lampson, Conservative MP for Huntingdon 1910-22 and the founder and commander of an armoured car squadron during the First World War. Locker Lampson’s squadron is unusual in that it was dispatched to Russia in 1915 and served with the Imperial army as the ‘Czar’s British Squadron’, remaining in the country until the end of the War. Because Locker Lampson raised the unit himself and secured War Office permission to retain control of it after other armoured car squadrons passed to the army at the end of 1914, he also held all of the military records of the squadron in his private papers now kept by Norfolk Records Office.
3 Squadron British Armoured Cars
Photo: Peter Stevenson posted at http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/yourplaceandmine/images/ww1/rnacd/mainscans/john_no3squ.jpg
Although armoured cars in general and Locker Lampson’s unit in particular have received attention from military historians – including the eccentric Conrad Cato’s The Royal Navy Everywhere, published in 1919 – none have utilized the material in the Norfolk Records Office. These include over 700 files relating to individual squadron members (mainly Petty Officer Mechanics) drawn in particular from Ulster, Huntingdon, Cromer and London. But I was particularly taken by file OLL 3212 which runs to 70 pages and includes a variety of reports concerning ‘The Battle Near Topalul’ an engagement involving the 4th Siberian Corps and a small number of British armoured cars against the invading Bulgarians.
Ingle’s Car following the Topalul engagement, Norfolk Records Office, OLL 3212
Consisting of reports from the subalterns commanding individual cars, the field officers and the Staff Surgeon, as well as Locker Lampson’s summary report of the events in Romania, it provides and opportunity to join up the work of the casualty clearing station with the engagement. The battle itself lasted three days (30 November-2 December 1916) and ended in failure for the Russians. The British cars were used on each day to support attacks on the Bulgarian lines – on 1 December being deployed to protect (unsuccessfully) two damaged Russian armoured cars and on 2 December in an offensive role. On this occasion the two British cars got stuck in the mud and were subjected to heavy rifle, machine gun and artillery fire rendering both immobile. The crews had to abandon the vehicles and take refuge in a shell hole where all except the one of the officers, Lt Ingle, were taken prisoner by the Bulgarians. Ingle had sustained a serious leg injury and was left in the hole while the Bulgarians went to get a stretcher but under cover of darkness escaped back to the Russian lines.
Mitchell’s car recovered after the battle. Mitchell and his crew were taken prisoner. NRO OLL 3212
However, the small British contingent played its biggest part not on the front line but in the medical sphere. The British squadron went into the field with a team consisting of Staff Surgeon G.H. Scott, Surgeons Glegg and Maitland Scott, five hospital orderlies (known as sick birth staff) and two ambulance drivers. Dispatch to the front was delayed when POM Arthur Armstrong from Belfast was accidently run over by an armoured car and sustained a fractured leg, collar bone and a scalp wound. However, the team did reach Topalul on the morning of 30 November and joined the field clearing station under the command of a Russian, Senior Medical Officer Naoomeff. According to Gato there was only one Russian medical officer capable of performing operations so most of the surgical work fell to the British contingent. Casualties began to arrive at 6.00 pm and continued coming in until the team were eventually stood down at 4.00 am the following morning. Although the reports give little detail of the general conditions treated, a specific record of the abdominals was made for each day. Thus, on this first day Maitland Scott did three operations ‘for wounds of the abdomen with perforated intestines’ along with minor operations and dressings. The second day saw the surgeons work from 10.00 am until midnight undertaking four operations for abdominal bullet wounds while the third day saw the team in action from 10.00 am until 3.00 am the following morning when the notable procedures included three abdomen cases, one ligature of the external iliac artery, one operation on a superficial femoral artery, an ‘amputation through the forearm’ and ‘one trephining for a depressed fracture’. By 3 December the fighting had largely ceased with just one abdominal in the morning. It was estimated that ‘in all just under 2,000 cases passed through the hands of the surgeons during this period.’
Important – indeed heroic – as this work was, of equal significance was Staff Surgeon Scott’s organisation of a major evacuation of casualties from the front to Chrisderestii where they were to be taken by barge to base hospitals. On the morning of 1 December, after just two hours sleep, Scott was asked by the Senior Medical Officer to help him clear the hospital of the wounded – ‘who were filling every available space’. Cato suggests that the Russians had only very slow horse drawn carts but, working with Commander Gregory, the squadron field commander, Scott arranged for a fleet of motor vehicles to ferry the wounded. This consisted of three big lorries, three light lorries, an ambulance and a staff car. The lorries were quickly converted to take stretchers and naval cots while the floors were covered with loose straw. When the first convoy left it was carrying 116 of the more severely wounded (in just eight vehicles!) and though the road was generally sound at one point the drivers had to stop and use picks and shovels to level the surface. Having left their first consignment of wounded at Chrisderestii they returned to Topalul and loaded another 84 men, making 200 evacuees for the day. The following day a further 300 were moved although as the road deteriorated two of the light lorries were ‘injured’ (in Surgeon Scott’s words) and had to ‘cease running’. On 3 December the vehicles took 100 wounded to Chrisderestii and fifty to Harsova, and in total between 650-700 (figures vary) were evacuated by motor lorry although it was also suggested that a large number of the lightly wounded Russians had to tramp the 10 miles to the river port.
Russian casualties in this brief engagement may have numbered as many as 9,000 but the British squadron escaped relatively lightly. Although seven members of the squadron were taken prisoner – including one Lieutenant, one Chief Petty officer and five POMs – only four men were wounded in the field and one in the accident at base camp. Moreover, of the four wounded three were officers – Lieutenant Commander F.W. Belt, Lieutenant Walter Smiles and Lieutenant C.W. Ingle who was most severely wounded. Ingle, had been shot in the right leg, fracturing the femur and had dragged himself for twelve hours through no-mans land and deserted Russian trenches before he finally reached the Russian lines. There he was cleaned up at a dressing station and sent down the line to Harsova where Staff Surgeon Scott set his broken leg.
In the report sent to the Admiralty by Commander Gregory a number of individuals were picked out for praise including the Russian troops who helped to salvage the abandoned British armoured cars, a number of officers and POM K.M. Vaughan for gallantry in action. Most pertinent to this post, however, was the singling out of Staff Surgeon Scott and three of the sick bay men, S.R.G Read, W.P. Baker and F. Goodier. The commendation for the latter three stated ‘for untiring work in the operating room and assistance during operations (mentioned in medical report of Staff Surgeon G.B. Scott, RN)’ while that for Scott himself was for ‘devotion to duty and efficient organisation of the Medical Department. This Officer’s name has been previously brought to the notice of their Lordships on several occasions’.
Despite the efforts of the armoured cars and the 4th Siberian Corps, Romanian resistance quickly crumbled with Bucharest falling on 6 December. The British squadron was forced to fall back to Russia, which it appears to have done with considerable efficiency. Moreover, at Tulscha Commander Gregory was ‘suddenly saddled with the further responsibility of getting the Scottish Women’s Hospital cars and nurses into safety’. The Women’s Hospital staff were loaded onto barges and taken first to Galatz where they re-opened their unit to deal with the large number of wounded from the Dobrudsha front. With the assistance of Staff Surgeon Scott they worked almost non-stop for three days admitting, dressing, bathing and operating on patients. When it was apparent that Galatz would soon be attacked Gregory persuaded the women to move their unit to a large barge on the river which they utilised until finally moving out in early January 1917, on to Tiraspol.
What emerges most clearly from this evidence is the extraordinary pressure exerted on the field surgeon during these engagements, especially in the face of such huge casualties. At both Topalul and Galatz Staff Surgeon Scott was required to work 15-20 hour shifts either on his own or as part of a small team in the Field Clearing Station and the Scottish Women’s Hospital unit. Moreover, much like the surgeon superintendents of the workhouse infirmaries, he was also expected to be a manager, showing initiative, leadership and an ability to get a great deal out of very limited resources in very trying conditions. There is no evidence as to the effectiveness of these efforts but the contributions of the medical teams reveal much about the courage, bravery and sheer hard work required by all parts of the military machine in the heat of battle and the chaos of retreat.