Stretcher Bearers

Advancing troops were not allowed to stop and care for wounded soldiers. All men carried an emergency field-dressing and if possible attempted to treat their own wounds. The wounded soldier then had to wait until the stretcher-bearers arrived. There were only four stretcher-bearers per company and so it was often sometime before they received medical help. Some dragged themselves into a shell-hole for protection, but this was dangerous as many sank into the mud and drowned. One man with a broken thigh spent two days dragging himself backwards with his hands, until he reached his own trenches. Another soldier who had been shot in the chest, lasted eleven days in No Man's Land before the stretcher-bearers found him.

Stretcher-bearers on the Western Front
Stretcher-bearers on the Western Front

In good conditions two men could carry a wounded man on a stretcher. However, after heavy rain it took four men to lift a stretcher. As Harold Chapin pointed out in a letter to Alice Chapin in May 1915: "It took six of us to carry one man. You have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone man a thousand yards across muddy fields."

The stretcher bearers not only had the problem of dragging their feet out of the mud after every step, they also had to make sure not to rock the stretcher as this would increase the pain of the wounded man. The pain of shattered bone ends grating together was so intense that the wounded man was likely to die of shock. One stretcher-bearer working in the mud in 1916 reported that: "as one carried a wounded man you got stuck in the mud and staggered. You put out a hand to steady yourself, the earth gave way and you found you were clutching the blackened face of a half-buried, dead soldier."

Captain Charles Hudson of the 11th Sherwood Foresters, later argued: "Stretcher-bearers were wonderful people. Ours had been the bandsmen of earlier training days. They were always called to the most dangerous places, where casualties had already taken place, yet there were always men ready to volunteer for the job, at any rate in the early days of the war. The men were not bloodthirsty. Stretcher-bearers were unarmed and though they were not required to do manual labour or sentry-go, this I am sure was not the over-riding reason for their readiness to volunteer."

Once he had been picked up by the stretcher-bearers, the wounded man would be taken to the regimental aid post that was usually based in the reserve trenches. After the wounds had been cleaned and bandaged the injured man was taken to the Casualty Clearing Station where surgery was carried out.

Primary Sources

(1) Sergeant Robert McKay, a stretcher-bearer with the 109th Field Ambulance Unit, kept a diary during the Battle of Ypres in August, 1917.

6 August: Today awful: was obliged to carry some of the wounded into the graveyard and look on helpless till they died. Sometimes we could not even obtain a drink of water for them.

7 August: Bringing the wounded down from the front line today. Conditions terrible. The ground is a quagmire. It requires six men to every stretcher. The mud in some cases is up to our waists.

14 August: One party of stretcher-bearers was bringing down a wounded man when an airman swooped down and dropped a bomb deliberately on them. The enemy shells the stretcher-bearers all the time.

16 August: The infantry took a few pill-boxes and a line or two of trenches from the enemy in this attack but at a fearful cost. It is only murder attempting to advance against these pill-boxes over such ground. Any number of men fall down wounded and are either smothered in the mud or drowned in the holes of water before we can reach them. We have been working continuously now since the 13th. The stretcher-bearers are done up completely.

19 August: I have had no sleep since I went on the 13th. The 109th Field Ambulance alone had over thirty casualties, killed, wounded and gassed - and this out of one hundred men who were doing the line.

(2) On one night patrol Anthony Eden discovered a wounded man in No-Man's Land.

We were about fifty yards from our front line when I heard what seemed a groan at my left hand. Signalling to the others to go on I moved a few yards to investigate. There I found Harrop lying in the lip of a shallow shell-hole bleeding profusely from a bad bullet wound in his thigh and two riflemen trying to help him.

Harrop was weak from loss of blood, but still calm and decided. As we fixed a tourniquet on his leg he kept insisting, "Tighter, tighter, or I'll bleed to death." If he was to have any chance, we must get him back to our line without delay. The question was, how. The firing was now sporadic rather than intense, but as I crouched beside Harrop I knew we must have a stretcher if we were to get him in before dawn. I said so, and one of the two young riflemen with Harrop, Eddie Bousefield, at once volunteered to go.

In a few minutes he was to go back in our line, had collected a stretcher and a fellow rifleman, and rejoined us without being spotted. Then came the difficult decision. We had only fifty yards to go, and even though stooped, we would all four have to stand up to carry Harrop's stretcher. The longer we waited the better the hope of the night growing quieter, but the worse for Harrop and the more extended the risk for all of us. I wanted to get it over with, and we did. To this day I do not know whether the enemy saw the stretcher and held his fire, or saw nothing in the flickering light.

(3) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (21st June, 1915)

The whole place was a sea of mud, and the scene still remains incoherent in my memory, plunging about for overworked stretcher bearers, falling into shell-holes, losing our way, wet and tired, we felt all the time rather impotent. But the work was done. All the wounded, including some of the Scots Guards who had lain out for forty-eight hours, were brought in and most of the dead buried. Some (I think it was three) died before we could get stretchers to take them back to the dressing station or on their way there. You see it takes four men to carry one wounded man and each journey to the dressing station could not be accomplished under four hours. This sounds rather incredible but no one realizes the difficulty of getting about, even for a man unhampered by anything. One mile an hour is good going in the mud for an officer, and you will always find yourself on the right when something has to be done on the left. No light can be shown, and you feel your way for about thirty yards as a rule before falling into a ditch or a shell-hole.

(4) In September 1914, Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Minister, banned journalists from the Western Front. One journalist, Hamilton Fyfe, who worked for the Daily Mail, attempted to overcome this problem by joining the Red Cross as a stretcher-bearer.

The ban on correspondents was still being enforced, so I joined a French Red cross detachment as a stretcher bearer, and though it was hard work, managed to send a good many despatches to my paper. I had no experience of ambulance or hospital work, but I grew accustomed to blood and severed limbs and red stumps very quickly. Only once was I knocked out. We were in a schoolroom turned into a operating theatre. It was a hot afternoon. We had brought in a lot of wounded men who had been lying in the open for some time; their wounds crawled with lice. All of us had to act as aids to our two surgeons. Suddenly I felt the air had become oppressive. I felt I must get outside and breathe. I made for the door, walked along the passage. Then I found myself lying in the passage with a big bump on my head. However, I got rid of what was troubling my stomach, and in a few minutes I was back in the schoolroom. I did not suffer in that way again.

What caused me discomfort far more acute - because it was mental, not bodily - were the illustrations of the bestiality, the futility, the insanity of war and of the system that produced war as surely as land uncultivated produces noxious weeds: these were now forced on my notice every day. The first cart of dead that I saw, legs sticking out stiffly, heads lolling on shoulders, all the poor bodies shovelled into a pit and covered with quicklime, made me wonder what the owners had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel. All of them had left behind many who would be grieved, perhaps beggared, by their taking off. And all to no purpose, for nothing.

(5) Charles Hudson, journal entry, quoted in Soldier, Poet, Rebel (2007)

I was sitting in my company headquarters, a corrugated-iron topped shelter cut into the sandbagged parapet, when heavy shelling was concentrated on the remains of a derelict building incorporated in our company sector. One of my platoon commanders, a lad of about 19, was with me. Odd shells were bursting in our vicinity, and the platoon commander, obviously hoping I would advise against it, said, "I suppose I ought to go to my platoon."

This was the first time of many that I had to face the unpleasant responsibility of telling a subordinate to expose himself to a very obvious odds-on chance of being killed. I told him he ought to join his platoon. He had no sooner gone than I heard that haunting long drawn-out cry "stretcher-bearers", to which the men in the trenches were so addicted.

I followed him out, glad of the spur to action. It is so easy to find sound reasons for keeping undercover in unpleasant circumstances. Three company stretcher-bearers were hurrying down the trench. Stretcher-bearers were wonderful people. Ours had been the bandsmen of earlier training days. They were always called to the most dangerous places, where casualties had already taken place, yet there were always men ready to volunteer for the job, at any rate in the early days of the war. The men were not bloodthirsty. Stretcher-bearers were unarmed and though they were not required to do manual labour or sentry-go, this I am sure was not the over-riding reason for their readiness to volunteer.

(6) Harold Chapin, letter to Alice Chapin (26th February, 1915)

My news is - I have done my second week as Hospital Orderly (We do one in three). A fearful field day covering 30 miles and lasting (without a meal) from 6.45 a.m. till 8.25 p.m. The last four hours in soaking rain through which we (a small detached band of Stretcher Bearers - not the whole 6th) marched the ten miles home at a pace which left the shorter legged several paces in the rear, until a staff-officer overtaking us blew the Lieutenant in charge of us up severely. The Lieutenant in question had been previously thrown from his horse and was covered with mud. We had to march down a road - a bad side lane really - along which all the Artillery of the Division had preceded us. It was a muddy road at best and flooded in places. You can only faintly imagine the foot deep surface of clay we had to splash through for over a mile. Every footstep flung mud higher than our waists. Some times higher than our heads. It was a creamy job. The whole day - wet and muddy and tiring, (we were in full marching order all the time) was most fascinating though. It ended by the stretcher bearers, of whom I was one being marched straight into the sergeant's mess and there served with dinner (rabbit stew) and a glass each of the sergeants' beer, the Sergeant Major himself presiding and forcibly preventing any of the over weariest of us from turning from the food and slipping off to his billet and turning in unfed, and the rest of the Sergeants acting as waiters and bar keepers. I believe our little party did as hard a day's work, as has been done in this part of the country, and not one fell out. Of course it was an accident that landed such a task upon us. We should have either gone to the concentration point by train as the Battalion did or returned from St. Albans by train and motor as the rest of the Field Ambulance did, but - true to the conditions of actual warfare - (by chance) - we went out as a Field Ambulance Stretcher bearers sub division and returned as auxiliary stretcher bearers to a battalion of infantry, a change of character which may easily occur in a real engagement if the S.B. sub div. follows the Batt. reserves until they become supports and still further until they become first line and the rest of the Field Amb. being threatened or otherwise compelled to move off, the communications between S. B.s and Tent sub divisions are broken.