Saturday, 21 March 2015

Oaklands Military Hospital

(The World War 1 field ambulance is my specialist subject so I'll try to be brief!)

At the outbreak of war the first military formation to arrive in Chelmsford was the 1st South Midlands Division, comprising some six thousand men. The health of these men was the responsibility of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).

Each division was divided into three brigades, and each brigade had an RAMC Field Ambulance attached. This was the first line of military health care, and provided both medical care and sanitary services to the brigade and division. The term "field ambulance" was primarily used to describe the casualty clearance or evacuation role of the medical unit, rather than any type of vehicle. Each field ambulance had a strength of 220 men, with 10 medical officers. These were formed into three sub-units which formed dressing stations; section A formed the Main Dressing Station (MDS, the HQ of the field ambulance), and sections B and C the Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS). Each section was further subdivided into a Bearer section and a Tent section. The former carried out the duties of collecting casualties, the latter provided basic medical and nursing care.

As a division was sent into action, the three field ambulances were deployed in support of the front line. The main dressing station was usually a couple of miles behind the line, but the advanced dressing stations were often within a few hundred yards of the trenches. The ADS could be set up in the cellar of a building, or in a dugout. The MDS would be in a larger building and, depending on the situation, might be able to erect its tents to provide additional beds. The three field ambulances would often work together in providing medical support to the whole division.

Casualties were initially collected from the battlefield by the regimental stretcher bearers (non-RAMC men from the battalion) and would be initially treated by the regimental medical officer (RMO) in the regimental aid post (RAP). The RAMC bearers from the ADS would go forward to the RAPs to collect the casualties and replenish the medical supplies. Casualties unable to walk would be carried by stretcher to the ADS or MDS where they would receive very basic treatment (change of dressings, immobilisation of fractures) before being collected by the Motor Ambulance Convoys and conveyed back to the Casualty Clearing Stations.

RAMC field ambulances at home still had medical responsibilities. Men who fell sick or were injured while in training (the "sick, lame and lazy"!) were seen at the regimental sick parade and sent to the local field ambulance for treatment. This might mean bed rest, or simple surgical procedures such as tonsillectomies, or treatment of fractures. More serious conditions would be dispatched to the military hospitals (such as Colchester) or the local civilian hospital if urgent.

The three field ambulances of the South Midland Division were initially headquartered at Hylands House when Sir Daniel Gooch offered it to the Red Cross. With the arrival of the first Belgian casualties in October 1914 the HQ was moved to Oaklands House, which was used by the various RAMC units during the rest of the war. Oaklands became the medical centre for the district and parts of the building were converted to operating theatres and wards. A large number of tents were erected in the grounds. Another military hospital (dressing station) was established at Eves Corner in Danbury. Given that there were three field ambulances per division there must have been a third but my research has not yet identified its location, although it has been suggested that it might have been at Warley.

This is a photograph of an RAMC unit at Oaklands House. The conservatory has disappeared, but it is clearly at the rear of the building. There are seventy men in the picture, with only three officers, which suggests a B or C section of the field ambulance. The rear of the card is marked "B. E. N" or possibly "B. E. IV". The absence of medal ribbons and wound stripes from the men's uniforms suggests that this is either early in the war, or just as likely, a unit yet to go into action (1st South Midland Division was followed in 1915 by the 2nd South Midland Division, then the Lowland Division and so on). Please let me know if you have any ideas.

Men of an RAMC Field Ambulance at Oaklands House

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