The Chain of Evacuation of The Royal Army Medical Corps
A man's chances of survival depended on how quickly his wound was treated. Modern warfare was now producing vast numbers of casualties requiring immediate treatment at the same time. This necessitated an efficient system that could immediately address a patient's critical injuries close to the Front and then evacuate him to a medical unit in a safer zone. This network is known as the Medical Chain of evacuation or evacuation chain.
The secret of success in treating large numbers of casualties was rapid evacuation.
"All through the chain of Medical Units from the Front to the Base the wounded man is kept the very minimum of time to attend to his wounds, and then he is moved on, and kept on moving, until he reaches either the Base or Home..... The reason for rapid evacuation is twofold. Firstly, it is very bad for morale if troops see wounded men lying about in large numbers; and, secondly, unless Medical Units are cleared they lose their mobility, and also cannot deal with a fresh influx of wounded that might come in quite unexpectedly - e.g. from a surprise counter-attack."
[Lt/Col T B Nicholls R.A.M.C. 'Organization, Strategy and Tactics of The Army Medical Services in War']
The rapid and successful evacuation of any casualties, whether on a battlefield or in civilian life, depends on three interdependent factors - time, space and transport.
Time involves how quickly wounds receive first aid so infection does not set into the wound, and/or the casualty does not bleed to death. It also involves how quickly the casualty can get to someone with specialized knowledge or with specialist equipment. Abdominal wounds, for example, need to be operated on within six hours in order for the patient to survive.
Transport involves what type of equipment can be used and/or is readily available to transport the casualty away from danger and to an appropriate medical facility. This process could involve the soldier walking or being transported on stretchers, horses, cars, trains, barges or ships.
Space involves what is happening in the immediate area such as: how close can emergency services get without becoming casualties themselves? What is topography and how does it help or hinder? Is there enough space to set up a large medical facility close by or is there only enough room for a small one?
With the above in mind, other factors had to be considered:
- Mobility: All medical field units needed to be able to move at a moments notice. This was essential to ensure the fighting units had medical support during an advance or retreat. The procedure for a significant advance was for each medical unit to move forward to one already up and running in front of them. Therefore, the Regimental Aid Post would move forward in line with the fighting soldiers. An Advanced Dressing Station would then move forward to a Regimental Aid Post. The Main Dressing Station would move forward to an Advanced Dressing Station. A Casualty Clearing Station would move forward to a Main Dressing Station, and a Stationary Hospital would move to fill the gap between the Casualty Clearing Stations and the General Hospitals near the ports. In a retreat the procedure would be same but in the opposite direction. This was achieved by a small 'light section' of each unit moving forward immediately. They would provide care for the serious cases still housed in the unit ahead who were unable to be moved. The rest of the unit would then evacuate less serious cases, then would close, pack up and move.
- Distances between medical units: Sometimes the nature or physical features of the area (due to unsuitable topography for motor transport, bad weather, or deteriorated land due to heavy shelling) prevented medical units from getting optimally close. In these situations Relay and/or Collecting Posts were set up where patients could be collected and transported by horse drawn ambulances. (These will be explained further in the Field Ambulance and Casualty Clearing Station sections)
- Overlapping areas: During a major offensive, the front Line might cover some 5 to 6 miles with many Corps/Brigades/Regiments involved, all of which would have had their own pre-allocated medical support. In situations where the areas of advance were narrow, it was inevitable that their medical support would overlap. In these cases medical units from different Divisions would either work together as one, or perhaps two or three different medical units would set up in one specific location.
- Co-Operation: It was imperative that the medical evacuation chain did not hinder the fighting troops going into action or prevent them from getting to their ammunition, and vise-versa. Also the Medical Services was reliant on other branches of the army to supply materials to build Dressing Stations, construct roads, railway sidings, and/or provide telephonic communications.
- Before the start of any major offensive the Directors and Assistant Directors of Medical Services (DMS and ADMS) who were appointed to oversee in the offensive held a conference to discuss all the above factors before setting up the evacuation chain for that sector.
Collecting Zone: Regimental Aid Posts and Field Ambulances
Regimental Aid Post. [RAP] and the role of the Regimental Medical Officer [RMO]
"I should not advise anyone with any desire to practice their surgical or medical skill to take on the job of medical officer to a battalion, but from the point of view of seeing the war, understanding military methods and the spirit of the men it is the best post open to a medical man..... The only diseases the M.O. is called upon to treat are slight sprains, myalgia, and last, but not least, diarrhea.... Sanitation is, perhaps, the most important work that the M.O. is called upon to perform."
[Lt A Noel Garrod R.A.M.C. 'Notes on the Existence of a Regimental M.O. - At the Front']
Duties of the RMO: During the war every fighting unit (infantry battalion, artillery brigade or cavalry regiment) had it's own doctor [or RMO]. He was RAMC but came under the commanding officer of the fighting unit he was attached to. The doctor's role was not only to attend to medical matters but also matters of hygiene, which meant water supply, the preparation of food, and the supervision of sanitary areas all came under his control. The doctor's daily routine usually began with him doing an inspection of the sick. He then inspected the camp or billets, and the cook houses. The rest of the day would be taken up with the training and supervision of water cart orderlies and stretcher-bearers. To assist him in his duties he would have had an RAMC Sergeant or Corporal attached to him and perhaps 1 or 2 RAMC Privates. When away from the Front Line, the doctor's post was known as the Camp Reception Station [CRS] or Medical Inspection Room [MI Room] and contained 2 - 6 beds for short term holding for those needing rest but was not sick enough to be evacuated back.
"A good M.O. to a battalion was a privileged and important officer. He was usually on intimate terms with his colonel, a friend to all his brother officers, and friend and confidant as well as doctor to the rank and file. Often and often I noticed that a battalion with a first-class M.O. was always a first-class battalion, had the smallest sick parade, fewer men falling out on a long march and the lowest quota of casualties from trench foot."
[Capt Philip Gosse R.A.M.C. 'Memoirs of a Camp-Follower'
Function of the RAP: When in the trenches the doctor's post was the RAP. The objective of the exercise was to patch up the wounded and either return them to their duties in the line or pass them back to a Field Ambulance. The RMO had the same staff as mentioned above but this became augmented by a designated number of Stretcher-Bearers. These Regimental Stretcher Bearers came from the fighting unit the RMO was attached to, usually the regimental bandsmen. When under pressure, the RMO could be further assisted with bearer teams from a Field Ambulance. Every soldier had a special pocket in his uniform for his issued 'First Field Dressing.' It contained antiseptic pads and two bandages (one for entry wound, one for exit) in a waterproof cover. This dressing was applied by a regimental stretcher-bearer, a comrade, or by the wounded soldier himself, if he was able, in the firing line. If the wounded man was unable to walk, he was carried back via hand or wheeled stretcher to the RAP. The regiment stretcher-bearers had then fulfilled their duty, and it became the RMO's responsibility for receiving the wounded man, and treating him by checking the dressing, overseeing the splinting of fractures, and ensure everything was being done to stop the patient going into shock. If morphine was given or a tourniquet applied, the soldier's forehead was marked with a "M" or "T". If required he would undertake an emergency amputation but large operative treatments were discouraged so close to the fighting and danger. The RMO also completed a Field Medical Card for each patient and fixed it firmly to the patient—generally attaching it to a button by its attached string. This card included the soldier's name, rank, and unit, a diagnosis, and any special treatments (like operations) performed. As the patient moved down the evacuation chain, the Field Medical Card remained with him so that information could be added to it and his full treatment could be known. The patient was then taken to a designated collecting area to be picked up by stretcher-bearers of the Field Ambulance.
Equipment: According to Dr John S G Blair "The basic MO's drug box in 1914 included phenacetin for headaches, Adrenaline in injectable form, 0.0003gm, one dose to be used as a stimulant.... Dover's powders for colds, Bismuth salicylate for the stomach, cough medicine, a light aperient calomel, and a strong one, unspecified; quinine sulphate, 2gr (60mg) as a tonic, lead and opium tablets to be made into a lotion as an application for sprains or as an anti-diarrhoeal and, for the doctor to hold safely, morphine sulphate gr 1/4 or grl 1/2 (15 or 30mg). Morphine was to be given "under the tongue or by injection." There were also methylated spirits, iodine, boric lotion and carbolic acid 1 part in 60 as antiseptics for wounds, Lastly there was sal volatile, to be given for 'fainting, a few drops in water'."
[Dr John S G Blair 'Centenary History of The Royal Army Medical Corps].
Equipment at the RAP was supplied by the Field Ambulances and normally consisted of a primus stove and a beatrice stove, along with an acetylene lamp, anti-tetanus serum, assorted bandages, blankets, Boric ointment, cotton wool, first field dressings, plain gauze, shell dressings, Sulphur ointment and a vermoral sprayer. There was also reserve boxes of all of the above, and a hamper containing medical comforts such as brandy, cocoa, bovril, oxo, biscuits etc.
Site (time and space):
Location requirements: The site of the RAP came under the concern of the officer commanding the fighting unit. It was ideally situated a few metres behind the front line, but near the regiment's headquarters so the RMO could be provided with early information about the tactical situation. It was also to be located central so it could be easily accessed from any part of the front line in which the regiment is engaged by the wounded. Also in a place that was sheltered to protect all from enemy fire, and easily accessible to the field ambulances who were next in the line of evacuation.
Typical facility: RAP's were usually situated in a dugout, in a communication trench, a ruined house, or a deep shell hole. In areas where constant fighting had occurred over a long period of time, such as Ypres, there was very little cover left so a RAP might have been set up behind a burnt out tank. RAP's had no holding capacity for the wounded. If the engagement was successful then the RMO moved forward and searched out another area which would come into the above criteria. A yellow flag was put up so that the wounded could find it and runners might be expected to run back to advise the ADMS and the Field Ambulances of the new location.
Transport: The RMO was equipped with a horse for his personal use, and a Maltese Cart (a two-wheeled cart suitable for conveying a lying patient) and driver. Alternatively these might have been a light motor van and a small motor-car or a motor-cycle combination. As noted above the RAP would have stretchers for hand carriage and/or wheeled stretchers.
The Field Ambulance (of infantry divisions)
The Field Ambulance was a complete medical unit made up of previously separate and independent entities. These were The Bearer Division [previously working as Bearer Companies]; The Tent Division [previously working as Field Hospitals] and The Transport Division [Army Service Corps (to be explained further in the Transport of Sick and Wounded section)].
The Field Ambulance at full strength composed of 10 Officers and 224 men. The Bearer Division had 18 stretcher squads each of 6 men. The Tent Division was comprised of doctors: 9 medical officers and 1 dental officer, as well as 1 Quartermaster of stores, batmen, clerks, cooks, dispensers, nursing orderlies, and the Transport Division, which had 60 men attached from the Army Service Corps.
All this made up medical support for one infantry brigade. [Three to every Division]. Each brigade was made up of three to four battalions, so in order to perform it's duties satisfactorily, the field ambulance was divided into A, B and C Sections These three sections were all capable of carrying out independent action. The headquarters of the Field Ambulance always formed part of 'A' Section. The three sections were further sub-divided into three parts to incorporate the bearer division, the tent division and the transport division.
Function of the Field Ambulance
When away from the trenches a field ambulance's role was to keep the fighting men fit and healthy. This was achieved by setting up Divisional Rest Stations [DRS] and baths (usually sited in a Brewery where up to 50 men could be bathed at a time in the large vats). They were also allocated special tasks such as providing treatment at scabies centers or other ailments.
When in the trenches its role was similar to modern day emergency ambulance services: to collect and transport patients to someone with specialized knowledge or to specialist equipment, whilst monitoring them, and treating them if necessary to ensure their condition remains stable. The personnel serving in the field ambulance achieved this by setting up various designated posts and sections according to distance from the RAPs to the Casualty Clearing Stations. The Bearer Division were the stretcher-bearers responsible for collecting the wounded, whilst the Tent Division were the medical staff responsible for the treatment of their wounds.
Before any major offensive, the three Field Ambulances of a Division joined together and acted as one to form and oversee the various posts and stations. One way of knowing how the field ambulances were arranged for any particular battle is to look at the war diary of the ADMS of that Division.
The various designated posts and sections of a Field Ambulance:
Advanced Dressing Stations [ADS]:
Location and Construction: There were normally two ADSs to every Division. In areas where the Divisional line became narrow one ADS would be established for the sole use of that Division and one would be shared with the Division to their left or their right. ADSs were set up as far forward as military conditions would permit. Ideally, this was about 400 yards behind the RAPs. Preferable locations were large houses, schools or churches but tents were used where necessary. In all events they needed to provide living accommodation for the officers and men; shelter from the weather; be inconspicuous and provide protection from the enemy, and had to be easily accessible with an entrance and an exit.
The personnel of each ADS were 3 officers and 53 ordinary ranks. Of these 1 officer was the Officer Commanding. 36 Privates would be employed as stretcher-bearers, with 1 officer supervising them. The others would be employed as clerks, dressers and cooks. If the ADS became overwhelmed with casualties the above personnel could increase.
Typical equipment for the ADS included stretchers, notice boards and flags for marking routes, empty petrol tins for water and kettles, hot water bottles, acetylene lamps, blankets, ground sheets, pyjama suits, stomach warmers, anti-tetanus serum, chloroform and No 1 Field Pannier, which included: wool, gauze, plain lint, shell dressings, 3 and 6 inch and triangular bandages, a jaconet and a calico, towels, nail brushes, safety pins, plasters, towels, tourniquets, a tincture of iodine, rum jars filled with eusol, and splints for leg and back as well as the Thomas splint.
The ADS was the first line of documentation for the RAMC, [i.e. Admission and Discharge books, war diaries etc]. Stretcher-bearers went forward and collected the sick and wounded from the RAP and carried them back to the ADS. A patient's medical condition was then assessed to make sure bandages had not loosened or become too tight, and also that the patient was not haemorrhaging or going into shock. Special attention was given to those marked with a "M" or "T" (morphine or tourniquet) at the RAP, and careful examination was given to see if the tourniquet needed to remain or not.
Surgery was not undertaken at an ADS unless absolutely necessary as it had no holding capacity. It was simply an intermediate stop to assess the patient. Those who were deemed to be urgent cases were transferred to the Main Dressing Station. Those who were not deemed as urgent cases were transferred straight to the Casualty Clearing Stations.
"It was now eleven o'clock of a pitch black night with threatening rain... We were in for a busy night, for all the stretcher parties from the various ambulances were out in the field collecting the wounded, whose arrival was expected now at any moment. An operating tent had been pitched in the field near by, and was brilliantly lit up with a huge acetylene lamp. The operating table was fixed in the centre of the tent and along each side were the instruments, basins, and dressings lying on the lids of the panniers, which made excellent side-tables. Very soon the ambulances lumbered up with the men picked up from the fields close at hand. The stretchers, each holding a wounded man, were taken out of the waggons and laid on a heap of straw near the door of the operating tent. Sixteen men were taken out and laid side by side. New Stretchers were put in the waggons, which again set out to bring in more wounded. One surgeon stood on one side of the operating table, another stood opposite him, and a third surgeon was ready to assist or give an anaesthetic if necessary. Quiet