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Trebrys

How were stretcher bearers chosen?

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Peter A Barnes

I understood that bandsmen were traditionally deployed as stretcher-bearers in time of war. Whilst they receive basic weapons training, they would probably not be trained to a standard where they could be used as front line soldiers. Padres (well at least RC padres-see Fr. Dominic Devas ofm “From cloister to camp”) often accompanied the M.O. attending the wounded and given such aid as they could, including helping with carrying stretchers. Medical personnel can carry arms as long as they are only used to protect themselves or their patients. Whilst serving in Cyprus during the EOKA troubles I noticed that our RAF doctor and an Army RC chaplain carried revolvers on their belts.

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rcwdavies
Grant, I didn't know about that. On the western front stretcher bearers were usually left alone but I can see that casualties would be sustained by shellfire that did not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Deliberately sniping at a stretcher bearer is a vile act as they picked up wounded men from both sides.

My Great Grandfather Pte Charles Redfearn was a stretcher-bearer in the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters. He was machine gunned in the legs whilst attending to some wounded and he died 6 weeks later. It's hard to say if the machine-gunner could've picked him out as a stretcher bearer or not, but the lines were reasonably close (they could hear shouts from the enemy). Maybe it was dark but this was not in the heat of battle, just ordinary manning of lines at Vieille Chapelle in 1915.

I assumed stretcher bearers were often shot at deliberately (on either side), so I'm interested in your comment that was unusual. In any case, I agree it is a vile thing to do. I guess the hatred grew after a while in the trenches and made some men do these things. For sure it was a very dangerous job to be a stretcher bearer.

He was a bandsman, by the way, I have his regimental clarinets. He was also 37 in 1915, so perhaps he was not as fit as some in his company. He had become an undertaker in civilian life, so perhaps that also explains how he came to be a stretcher bearer. I can only imagine what the other soldiers thought about being carried by an undertaker though!

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BJanman

Some volunteered. In the book 'The Long Carry', Frank Dunham writes " It was here (Halifax Camp) that we saw our first real signs of war and except for khaki, the whole place appeared deserted and houses etc., could be seen which had suffered from shell fire. We were received in camp by Lt-Col C J S Green, who gave us a lecture on our duties etc., and then asked for specialists, i.e. men who had received special training in any one branch of infantry work. Running over the list he called out, 'Stretcher Bearers' and I, having obtained by first aid certificate with the British Red Cross Society in 1915, fell out, with three others, Michell, Hitchcock and Brown..... During the day, I had issued to me a S.B. armlet, and I, in turn, handed over my rifle to C.S.M. Childs of 'A' Company."

When looking for info on the casualty chain for one of the battles of Ypres. 1917 I came across this

"Thus the 20th Division (XIVth Corps), in the battle of the 16th-18th August, depended chiefly on the trolly line running to Fusilier Farm and the canal bank. The line was broken several times by shell-fire, but was speedily repaired. The division was given 200 infantrymen to assist the stretcher bearers. They were organized into four parties of one officer, two N.C.O.s and 47 other ranks each, and had been given a short training in first aid and bearer work for one week. The parties were used on relay posts, on the trolly lives, with wheeled stretchers, and as loading parties at the entraining and detraining posts and at advanced dressing stations...... There were many examples of the organization of of relay work by the stretcher bearers of individual divisions ...... as a rule the divisional or corps commander detailed 200 infantrymen under their own officers to assist the R.A.M.C. stretcher bearers; and the regimental stretcher bearers were doubled."

I've also come across a reference to a complete section of the Labour Corps being told to assist with stretcher bearer duties but I can't remember where I read it.

I think the answer is it depended on the circumstances?

Barbara

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Dogflud
They were as brave as the ordinary soldiers

Geraint,

Very true. I'm a little surprised that no-one in the thread prior to me mentions him, but L/Cpl William Coltman VC, DCM*, MM*, the most highly decorated NCO of the Great War is a case in point.

A man of very deep Christian conviction, he was, I believe, originally posted to work behind the lines but volunteered to go to an infantry battalion as a Stretcher Bearer where he would be more useful as a fit man but one not willing to kill his fellow man.

Any winner of a decoration for bravery is special, winners of multiple awards are outstanding, VC's are exceptional, but those who win them while being unarmed and defenceless are truly beyond superlatives.

Even modern day medics have a personal weapon for the protection of themselves and their casualty.

Cheers,

Nigel

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jhill

Let me make a few comments on the activity of stretcher bearers during the Passcehendaele operations of October-November 1917.

1. On one day, 6th November, when the village of Passchendaele was finally captured, the report of the Deputy Director - Medical Services - Canadian Corps stated that Medical Corps casualties for that day were 7 killed and 46 wounded. Almost all of these came from the bearer sub divisions of the Field Ambulances of the Divisions involved. Two Divisions advanced beside each other, and one Field Ambulance of each cleared casualties from the Regimental Aid Posts of their Division back to the Advanced Dressing Stations, where the casualties could be loaded onto ambulance cars. The bearer subdivisions of the other two Field Ambulances augmented that of the Field Ambulance responsible for the clearing. Thus, there were about 250 bearers for each Divisional area. That makes over ten percent casualties in a 24 hour period, which is quite a bit considering that by the time casualties started arriving at the R.A.P.s the front line was about a mile further on. The fact is, of course, that this was the apex of a salient with hostile artillery all around, and only one or two well known tracks leading to each sector.

2. These numbers do not include the much larger number of men called from the infantry brigades in support, who were to provide bearers to augment the Field Ambulance men. In the event, on 6th November, many of these extra men were not required. In the forward area, the assaulting brigades were to clear back to the R.A.P.s. Unfortunately, I have not seen casualty totals for the Battalion stretcher bearers, since they were not Medical Corps men, but members of their particular Battalions. One would assume they suffered in proportion to their battalion comrades. On the one hand they would have been up and about in plain view more than others. On the other hand, they were usually a bit behind the front of the advance. At this time, the stretcher bearers would normally have advanced with or slightly behind the second wave.

3. I have read anecdotal accounts for this period of men certain that the Germans deliberately targeted stretcher parties, and also some where both sides respected the other fellows' parties clearing wounded. I accept these stories without trying to read too much into them. The situations must have been indescribably chaotic and terrifying. Men being shot at would have shot at any of the enemy they could see. At four or six hundred yards across a smoky field stretcher bearers may have looked like any other infantrymen. Another factor in this case was that casualties were evacuated by the same tracks used by reinforcements and carrying parties. In a desperate battle one would expect artillery observers to call for fire on a known track whenever any traffic appeared.

Of course, I am venturing my own opions on this. I am sure other points of view may be equally valid.

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truthergw

Interesting to see some figures. Thank you. While the fighting was going on, it is hard to see how one would know that stretcher parties were being deliberately targetted. After a battle, when stretchers were trying to clear an area, it would then be obvious and that of course was the norm throughout the war for both sides. Only seldom was a truce arranged or observed while wounded or dead were recovered.

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Bob Doneley

The following is extracted from Vol 2 of the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914–1918 (http://www.awm.gov.au/cms_images/histories/14/chapters/13.pdf):

" In the Australian forces the “moral” status in the battalion of the regimental bearers steadily rose during the war. After Pozieres the use of bandsmen generally ceased and bearers were specially selected “for their physique and guts.” At the same time regimental tactics crystallised. In most battalions 32 men were trained. “Prior to a battle,” says a record of the 27th battalion, “the bearers were attached 8 to a company - in normal times 4; one from each company would go into the line with the RMO. to carry the extra material and learn the location of the Aid Post. These men rejoined their companies,

but the Bearer Sergeant remained at the R.A.P.” In a major battle it was seldom that the battlefield could be cleared without extra fatigue parties being allotted from the combatant troops."

Bob

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rcwdavies
In a major battle it was seldom that the battlefield could be cleared without extra fatigue parties being allotted from the combatant troops."

I guess the battalion stretcher bearers would easily get overwhelmed in an attack, especially before they were increased from 16 to 32. My G-Grandfathers battalion (1/8th Sherwood Foresters) had 56 killed and 135 wounded at Hohenzollern Redoubt, mostly in one day, Oct 14 1915. I know other battalions had fared even worse in the previous weeks. No way 8 or even 16 stretchers could cope with that, never mind the RAP, but I guess sometimes they just had to do as much as they could.

I know that 2 (or 4 later) SBs would be part of each infantry company. If some companies from a battalion were attacking, and some in reserve, would the SBs from the reserve companies normally stay with their companies, or go and assist the companies attacking? Eg if 'D' was attacking, and 'G' in reserve, would the 'G' company SBs go and assist 'D' company?

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truthergw

We could perhaps bear in mind that many wounded would not require two stretcher bearers to get back to the RAP or even further. One of the functions of battle police was to stop too many unwounded men escorting wounded and also to direct escorts back to the front after the wounded man had been delivered safely. We have all seen pictures of wounded being given a shoulder to lean on. That would not require a trained stretcher bearer.

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geraint

Agreed Tom, Frank Richards has a piece in OSND in which volunteers are chosen from his platoon to escort lightly wounded men to the rear. As an old sweat, and 'on the scrounge' both he and his mate sought an opportunity to visit an estaminet and Red Lamp, but red cap activity in the vicinity made them 'think twice, for they were not slow in using their truncheons and revolvers'.

As a point of interest, he also relates a story where four stretcher-bearers walked on to no-mans-land in the middle of a local shoot-out, and the German guns stopped firing whilst they carried their burden off the field. The guns continued immediately they'd gone.

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Bob Doneley
I know that 2 (or 4 later) SBs would be part of each infantry company. If some companies from a battalion were attacking, and some in reserve, would the SBs from the reserve companies normally stay with their companies, or go and assist the companies attacking? Eg if 'D' was attacking, and 'G' in reserve, would the 'G' company SBs go and assist 'D' company?

When a battalion was in the line there was no one really out of danger, whether in defence or attack - so SB's could be needed anywhere, any time. I wouldn't think that stretcher bearers would be readily swapped between companies in normal circumstances, but it would probably be at the discretion of the RMO, based on his assessment of where the need was greatest. After all, the SB's were under his command, rather than the company commanders.

Bob

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rcwdavies
When a battalion was in the line there was no one really out of danger, whether in defence or attack - so SB's could be needed anywhere, any time. I wouldn't think that stretcher bearers would be readily swapped between companies in normal circumstances, but it would probably be at the discretion of the RMO, based on his assessment of where the need was greatest. After all, the SB's were under his command, rather than the company commanders.

Bob

Thanks for that Bob, I didn't appreciate that the SBs were under the command of the RMO. I was asking because at Loos in Oct14, some companies or units of the 1/8th Sherwoods were detached and went with the assault battalions. I think the reserve companies were also sent forward later anyway, but it's very confusing as to who went where in Capt Weetmans book (for me at least). They also lost their CO, so perhaps they were not really organised as a battalion in that battle. I can't imagine any SBs being able to take it easy in those circumstances anyway. From Capt Weetmans book...."Much untiring energy and devotion were shewn by many during these strenuous three days, not by any means the least by our Medical Officer, , and his stretcher bearers. Johnstone himself worked almost incessantly for over 48 hours in attending the wounded, and in many cases helped to carry them long distances, often under heavy fire. To him and all his helpers are due our grateful thanks for their work on that occasion."

As for wounded not needing stretchers, I guess "wounded" covers a huge range of injuries, though as they said on a TV cop show, being shot is only ever not serious when it happens to someone else! 

Slightly O/T, can anyone point me in the direction of a simple description of typical specialisations within an infantry battalion? How many were grenadiers, riflemen etc?

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mark ashwell

I was researching a Great-great-uncle, Harry Hawley, who was a conscientious objector and posted to a NCC. During my research I had noticed that some "Non-combatants" were KIA. A few older members of the family claim that during the war Harry was somehow involved in the collection and transport of food rations and catering. But I cannot confirm this.

Harry's arguement was that he had no problem whatsoever in carrrying a weapon or fighting the enemy - but would not do so on the Sabbath! - obviously no good to the army, so they gave him a certificate of Exemption from combatant service, and he was posted to the 5th Northern NCC.

He was the oldest of five brother's. The youngest brother, Fred, who was 15 years younger than Harry, joined the 29th DLI at the age of 17, and fought on the front line until KIA.

I know who I think was the bravest! - some members of the family shunned Harry after the war and he moved away.

regards,

Mark

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bierast
Slightly off the original topic, but here's an interesting account by an Australian, wounded at Pozieres, who was carried by German POWs

Thankyou Grant, that brought tears to my eyes. This unknown German's truly noble sacrifice reminds me of this account of the exceptional compassion of similarly anonymous French POW bearers towards a wounded German officer described here. The same site also has some excellent material on German bearers and medics.

Andi Lucas

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KF Kelly

A book mentioned in the past on the forum is 'The Road To St Julien' by William St Clair edited by John St Clair (Pen and Sword books). This is a collection of letters by stretcher bearer. The book gives a vivid account of the experiences of a stretcher bearer through the major battles of the Great War.

Kevin

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Torrey McLean
How were stretcher bearers chosen?

Were there specific men chosen for the task or did everybody have to take turns in doing it? Would have been a nightmarish duty whatever the process of choosing!

Regards,

Trebrys.

Hello, Trebys -

I can provide some information about the system used in the AEF. More than 30 years ago, I knew a veteran of the [American] 30th Division, who had served in a field sanitation squad. He informed me that their usual job was digging and filling latrines, disposing of garbage, etc., but during fighting they were used as stretcher bearers.

I'll alway remember his vivid description of the September 29, 1918 attack on Bellicourt, when the 30th Division participated in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line. He and his fellow stretcher bearer repeatedly entered the German wire system, in fog that was so thick that they couldn't see more than a few feet, and removed every wounded soldier that they could find - all the time under very heavy machine gun fire. He said that if it had not been for the protection of the fog, they would have been massacred.

Regards, Torrey

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sotonmate

Mags

I have brough this to the top so that you can find it easily and read about CO stretcher bearers and the references to a book or two on the subject.

Sotonmate

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Marilyne

Hi all,

 

I recently finished reading "Wounded" by Emily Mayhew and there is a very good chapter on the Bearers. In it she shows that the SB corps is one whose importance has too long be forgotten by history. Quoting SB Ernest Douglas: "They talk about a solider going out and fetching a comrade in under shellfire - and he gets the MM or the DCM. We are always under shellfire and can't dump our stretcher and run for a safe spot, we have to plod on".

The chapter goes on stating that the requirements for SB's were clear: it were to be men of intelligence and "on no account should they be men who have been selected because they are useless or physically incapable of regimental work". They followed a ten week course for "the carry", with emphasis on how to stop a bleed.

the testimonies used for this chapter are also quite descriptive on how to spot a SB: his HANDS!

the conclusion of the chapter is that in the end, the Bearers learned more about death than any other man on the battlefield.

 

in another chapter, "Wounded " tells the story of Joseph Pickard, who was 15 on enlistment. Due to his young age, he was put on bearer duty at his regiment and he hated it. It destroyed his hands, that he used to making fishing rods in peacetime and the boy used to cry himself to sleep every night because of the pain in hands and back. He was severely wounded Easter Sunday 1918.

 

M.

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