Monday, 29 October 2018

Treating Tommy: from the Front Line to Lewisham Military Hospital in World War One

The First World War quickly produced devastating injuries on the battlefield which posed a real challenge to treat. Survival depended on quick medical intervention. The wounded were often moved several times.

Regimental Aid Post (RAP)

Initially, the walking wounded tried to reach the nearest RAP, while others were carried by stretcher bearers. RAPs were often set up in trenches or abandoned buildings typically, 2---300 yards of the front line. There, they would be treated by a regimental medical officer (RMO). The RMOs were qualified doctors but knew little about treating war wounds. RMO’s administered pain relief, anti-tetanus injection and a basic dressing. Sometimes stretcher bearers trained in First Aid helped out.


Evacuation began from the RAP and continued to advanced dressing stations (ADS) further away from the front line where soldiers could be treated. Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) were next up the line and were the first static units a casualty would encounter. CCSs often moved, casualties being moved back to base hospitals in France and Flanders.

Medical personnel

As well as Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) doctors, military medical staff included the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS) and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) . Other ad hoc organisations not under military control such as First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and the Society of Friends –Friends Ambulance Unit, (FAU), Quakers and conscientious objectors, also made a contribution. QAIMNS sisters were sent to France in 1914 and their numbers increased after that as the need for experienced nursing staff increased.

Nursing staff and patients, Lewisham Military Hospital. ⒸLewisham Local History and Archives Centre

Hospitals in France and Flanders

There were two types of base hospital stationary and general. They were mainly located in large towns or ports, notably Boulogne and Etaples. Unofficial, voluntary hospitals supplemented these RAMC units but were not officially approved by the military authorities. The work was hard and time off for doctors and nurses was usually only given in cases of illness.


Transporting the wounded was a real challenge and barges were eventually used to transport men direct to hospital ships due to pressure on the railways. Once at a British port, casualties were transferred to an ambulance service train and sent to a receiving station. Receiving stations were local hospitals such as Lewisham Military Hospital. They were the last stop on a wounded soldier’s medical journey.

Lewisham Military Hospital

In 1915, the Lewisham Workhouse Infirmary was cleared to make way for expected wartime casualties. The hospital was then renamed Lewisham Military Hospital. It cared for officers, ranks and German POWs. It was headed by Dr Frederick Sherman Toogood who was given the temporary rank of Major with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Hospital Workhouse Infirmaries were ideal for conversion into military hospitals as they often had gardens and other amenities for the staff and patients.

Lewisham Military Hospital had beds for 24 officers and 838 rank and file. They also had provision for shell-shocked officers. The first wounded arrived in May 1915, including some injured during the infamous gas attack at Ypres when chemical weapons were first used on a large scale.

The hospital treated those who needed more specialist treatment or who needed a longer period of time to recover.

The first patients would be walking wounded in cars followed by stretcher cases carried by ambulance.

Once at the hospital, the men would wash, uniforms fumigated and replaced with a hospital military suit. The hospital suit was a blue jacket and trousers with a white shirt and a red tie.
Patients details were taken and then they were taken to the wards.

After the war, the hospital reverted to civilian use in 1919. Eventually it became University Lewisham Hospital.

Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian

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