Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Song of the Ambulance Train

A Red Cross Train, France by Harold Septimus Power, ©IWM Art.1031
In addition to the nine million soldiers who died in the First World War, over twenty million men were wounded. It’s difficult to fully imagine the complex challenges involved in transporting men who had suffered the effects of artillery shelling, grenade explosions, machine-gun fire, gas attacks, frostbite, and shell shock to sites where they could receive medical care. 

The wounded either crawled or were carried behind the lines by stretcher bearers or comrades-in-arms. Taken to an advanced dressing station or poste de secours, those fortunate enough to survive were then driven by ambulances to casualty clearing stations. From there, the most common means of transporting the wounded was the ambulance train. Stretching for as long as one-third of a mile, a typical ambulance train was equipped with a kitchen, rows of bunks for the most seriously wounded, carriages with seats for injured who could sit upright, an operating and pharmaceutical carriage, and housing quarters for the orderlies, nurses, and doctors.   

The diary of a nurse assigned to a First World War ambulance train describes a typical scene:

We had 368; a good 200 were dangerously and seriously wounded, perhaps more; and the sitting-up cases were bad enough…. nearly all the men had more than one wound—some had ten; one man with a huge compound fracture above the elbow had tied on a bit of string with a bullet in it as a tourniquet above the wound himself….They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget. We were full up by about 2 a.m., and then were delayed by a collision up the line, which was blocked by dead horses as a result. All night and without a break till we got back to Boulogne at 4 p.m. next day (yesterday) we grappled with them….The head cases were delirious, and trying to get out of the window, and we were giving strychnine and morphia all round. Two were put off dying at St Omer, but we kept the rest alive to Boulogne.
                        -- Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, 24 October 1914  
                           Anonymous (thought to have been written by Kate Luard)

On July 1, 1916, as British troops in France were suffering tremendous casualties on the first day of the battle of the Somme, twenty-year-old Carola Oman joined the British Red Cross as a nurse without pay and served until April of 1919.  She dedicated her small book of poetry, The Menin Road and Other Poems (1919), to four of her friends who were also volunteer nurses tending the never-ending parade of dying and wounded men. Oman's poem “Unloading Ambulance Train” recreates a common scene of melancholy with small, vivid details. 

Unloading Ambulance Train

Into the siding very wearily
She comes again:
Singing her endless song so drearily,
The midnight winds sink down to drift the rain.

So she comes home once more.

Is it an ancient chanty
Won from some classic shore?
The stretcher-bearers stand
Two on either hand.
They bend and lift and raise
Where the doors open wide
With yellow light ablaze.
Into the dark outside
Each stretcher passes.  Here
(As if each on his bier
(With sorrow they were bringing)
Is peace, and a low singing.
The ambulances load,
Move on and take the road.
Under the stars alone
Each stretcher passes out.
And the ambulances’ moan
And the checker’s distant shout
All round to the old sound
Of the lost chanty singing.
And the dark seamen swinging.
Far off some classic shore . . .

So she comes home once more.
            Carola Oman, Wimereux, Sept. 1918

Underneath the cries of pain, the shouts of the railway inspector, and the beat of the rain, an ancient song can be heard. It rings in the screeching of the train as she pulls into the berth where she will unload her cargo of suffering.  Its endless tune of dreary loss and struggle have accompanied the homecoming of the wounded since Odysseus fought in the Trojan War.

Carola Oman
photo courtesy Charlotte Zeepvat
There is a mindless rhythm to the repetitive bending and lifting of the stretcher bearers, the repeated comings and goings of the ambulances. Sorrow mingles with peace as the procession of broken men on their stretchers resembles the dead carried on their funeral biers. It has all happened before; it will all happen again as each wounded man passes “Into the dark outside.”

The poem describes a home-coming of sorts, but as Siegfried Sassoon explains in his poem “They,” “When the boys come back / They will not be the same.” As the ambulance train is unloaded in the bleakness of midnight wind and drifting rain, the flickering light illuminates the tragedy of men who will likely bear the scars of the Great War for the rest of their lives.


  1. Very moving poem. What a miserable business war is. I recall my great uncle Louis blinded at Passchendaele at the age of 17: yet he married for love and lived a long and happy life.

  2. Thanks for reading and for sharing your great uncle's story. I like the ones with a happy ending!

  3. This is a remarkable blog. The poetry you are sharing is remarkable and I really enjoy your interpretations.