A Field Ambulance in Salonika, 1916-17

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Sgt George Devlin, T2/15232, ASC 1914

This blog has previously explored medicine in one of the less prominent sectors of the First World War when it considered medicine in Romania in 1916. We return to the theme with a post focusing on a collection of photographs illustrating the various modes of patient transport utilised by a field ambulance on the Salonika front probably towards the end of 1916 or the beginning of 1917. The images were found in some papers relating to my grandfather, Company Sargent-Major George Devlin, who served for the duration of the Great War with the Army Service Corps, spending much of the time on the Macedonian front.

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George and a colleague in France – it wasn’t all play

George Devlin was born in Edinburgh in 1892 to an Irish Catholic family. He was educated at St Mary’s Roman Catholic School in Leith and stayed on after 14 to complete an extra year of advanced numeracy and literacy, classes in government and the empire and a course in basic commercial skills. After school he entered the wine and spirits trade or a brewery (possibly with  D & J McCallum whisky blenders) and it seems likely that he worked with horse teams. He enlisted in September 1914 and rose quickly to Company Sargent Major, receiving his temporary warrant in May 1915, and held the rank for the rest of the war. He originally served in France but was transferred to the Salonika front, probably in 1916. Family legend stated he was wounded four times and in early 1918 he was mentioned in despatches by General Milne for ‘gallant and distinguished services in the field’.

 

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Official notification of the mention in despatches reported in March 1918.

I was brought up to believe my grandfather was a stretcher bearer – among his possessions were a pair of stretcher bearer shoulder patches. But this did not fit either with his rank or his regiment. The (Royal) Army Service Corps were mainly responsible for logistics (their name today). They ensured the movement of supplies and the general servicing of the military. Stretcher bearers I found later were part of the Army Medical Corps. However, thanks to a great website called The Long, Long Trail I was able to establish that the field ambulance (a mobile front line unit) was largely staffed by AMC troops (medics, stretcher bearers, orderlies etc) but with a sergeant and 10 drivers from the ASC to manage the horse-drawn patient transport. These teams were particularly engaged in bringing patients further down the line to Casualty Clearing Stations (the name given to the intermediate medical centres established near the front line usually tented or sometimes consisting of huts).

 

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Unidentified Casualty Clearing Station on Salonika Front 1916

Salonika was a largely forgotten war in part because there was relatively little fighting in the area and partly because the British had relatively few successes when they did engage the enemy. Centred on the Macedonia area of northern Greece the main belligerents were Bulgaria, whose troops invaded Greece in 1915. Allied armies, under overall French command, included up to 400,000 British and Empire servicemen along with Greek and Serbian divisions. Although the front was quiet for long stretches the pervasive threat for the soldiers was malaria. The diseases was endemic amongst the British forces and Mark Harrison quotes one source that estimated the strike rate during 1916 at 300% – in other words every soldier in the British Salonika Army had three bouts of the disease in the course of the year! It is now recognised that the main reason for this high infection rate was the use of quinine prophylaxis rather than physical prevention (mosquito nets etc). There were, however, a fair number of skirmishes and two main battles – both at Dorian – during 1917 and 1918, the latter leading to the rout and surrender of Bulgaria (Maj. Gen. Sir W G Macpherson, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services Volume IV)

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Possibly a base hospital or military encampment

The pictures at the heart of this post  include images of the camp and surrounding area, leisure activities and the horses and medical transport equipment. The first few give a flavour of camp life in a war zone with relatively little war. The troops amuse themselves boxing, they are entertained by traveling theatre or circus, they lie around having their picture taken and they try to keep themselves clean.

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George Devlin in the middle of this group –

probably his horse teams.

 

But the images also show the array of patient transport methods deployed in some version on all fronts. This mule sledge or ‘travois’ (based on a native American model) was widely used in 1916 in areas where pack transport could not be used though the casualties would have to cope with a very bumpy ride!  (see Macpherson p.76 and 77 for description and illustration) With the help of the Imperial War Museum these images have been dated to 1916 as many of the men are wearing slouch hats only used in Macedonia in that year due to a shortage of pith helmets.

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More obviously for moving the seriously wounded, this two mule travois could be used to move casualties across rough terrain and over high ground. This seems to have been a relatively rare method of patient transport. At the rear is an AMC orderly while the horse team will be ASC.

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The cacolet or stretcher-bearing mule was more widely used – again tended by an AMC orderly in slouch hat and an ASC driver. Note the beads over the mules eyes to protect them from flies.

 

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The classic four mule ambulance probably used for sensitive cases or for moving more than one patient at once. Certainly not a comfortable ride on sandy, temporary roads and very difficult in the wet season.

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Finally, the most delicate cases were transported in small trains. These railways used mobile Decauville steel rails while the engine is a Baldwin 4-6-0.

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My grandfather completed his service and was demobilised relatively quickly (in February 1919) Lt George Le P Nixon describing him as ‘A Good NCO’. Unfortunately I never met him – he died six months before I was born – but his medals and the stories I heard about him were among the things that inspired my interest in history and a life time fascination with the First World War.

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George Devlin’s Great War Trio – The 1914-15 Star, War Medal and Victory Medal which also carried the Oak Leaf signifying  a mention in dispatches.

Feel free to use the pictures but please let us know if you do – either by making a note in the comments or emailing me at b.m.doyle@hud.ac.uk

 

 

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