18 May 2019

 The French Ambulance - Steve Ellis 

Before our scheduled display and talk our President, Richard Berry FRPSL, had a presentation to make - you may remember that at our AGM he announced that he had awarded the Alan Brown Trophy to Francis Rodrigues for his article in Society Journal 319 (Spring 2019) on “World War II - American and Japanese repatriation exchanges in Lourenço Marques and Mormugao”.  Well, Francis was here at our meeting and Richard duly presented him with the trophy to keep for a year and also a certificate in recognition of the award.   We hope that this won’t be the only time we see Francis and indeed he hopes to attend meetings from time to time, family life permitting!

On with the show and we had Steve Ellis, who many of you will remember being involved with the Postal History Society he was a regular attendee at our joint meetings.  This time the afternoon was all his and his chosen subject “The French Ambulance”.  Steve mentioned that he was a French specialist and that this collection stemmed from a French Red Cross collection and amongst that were a few examples of the ambulance (French pronunciation required here!).  The term to us English folk means a motorised vehicle, but to the French it was much more - the original use referred to the place in which the wounded were treated, rather than the means of transport - a building or even a tent on the front line looking after the wounded.  The following has been taken from Wikipedia:

The term ambulance comes from the Latin word "ambulare" as meaning "to walk or move about" which is a reference to early medical care where patients were moved by lifting or wheeling. The word originally meant a moving hospital, which follows an army in its movements.  Ambulances were first used for emergency transport in 1487 by the Spanish forces during the siege of Málaga by the Catholic Monarchs against the Emirate of Granada. During the American Civil War vehicles for conveying the wounded off the field of battle were called ambulance wagons.  Field hospitals were still called ambulances during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and in the Serbo-Turkish war of 1876, even though the wagons were first referred to as ambulances about 1854 during the Crimean War. 

Steve showed some early items - from the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815 an entire sent in 1793 to the Director of Ambulance at Lorient by the Director General of the military hospital at Rennes; he also showed a document from the period of the Franco-Prussian War 1870-71 seeking voluntary donations issued by the President of the Société de secours aux blessés militaries (SSBM).  During this period the term “ambulance” was provided by five distinct organisations: military, Red Cross, Presse (an amalgamation of five French newspapers who got together to raise funds for the ambulance), civil/religious organisations such as colleges, convents, and even a bank established its own ambulance and lastly a small number of foreign ambulances during that period.  He showed early letters connected with the Paris Commune (Commune de Paris) in 1871 - on 18 March 1871 radicals in Paris led an uprising with the aid of the National Guard, composed largely of workers who fought during the siege of Paris and which was being disarmed by the head of the provisional national government.  This included an original armband with Red Cross and authorising cachets used by Dr Lionville, head of the Paris Clinique and ambulance service.  There was an early letter of 1859 to a medical sergeant major in Rome, during the Italian War of Independence 1859-61.  There were items from the Crimean War which saw the use of mules and horses, from the Far East (Vietnam) in 1883, the Morocco campaign from 1907 as well as the French China Expeditionary Corps of 1910.

Then we came to the First World War where the word referred initially to buildings.  There were several hundred cachets applied to such mail which were used to identify individual ambulances and to authorise free mail.  There was a whole frame of Red Cross items - the Red Cross was established by the Swiss, who used the reverse of the flag of Switzerland as its emblem.  The display gave a token of the number and type of cachets used.  In WW1 we started to see for the first time motorised vehicles, people offered their own vehicles as mobile ambulances.  Some vehicles were kitted out as mobile operating theatres and they had their own cachets.  Britain provided over three and a half thousand vehicles for use as ambulances some of which were designated as urgent cases ambulances.  A large number of Belgians set up an ambulance in Folkestone.  There were Alpine ambulance, mobile operating theatres, automobiles, temporary hospital No. 21 (Ambulance Alexis Carrel) in Compiegne.  We then come on to other Allied nations - the Australians and Canadians established medical facilities, the Americans had several hospitals in France and associated ambulances whilst the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), a civilian volunteer ambulance service set up by a group of Quakers during WW1, totalled over 1,000; it was initially based in Dunkirk in October 1914 under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.  The Salvation Army was based in Lyon, there was a French Ambulance in Russia and also an Alpine Ambulance and the Dominican friars established an ambulance at their base in Berlitz.  Lastly he showed a number of ambulance train movement orders.

Then it was the turn of other members to show associated items - Peter Burrows was first to display with a postcard of an American ambulance train in France along with a booklet about the train.  He also had picture postcards of the American hospital in Paris and others showing wounded soldiers returning home and disembarking at Boulogne.  He was followed by Peter High who showed a few items from ambulance barges - the French utilised the very many barges on the rivers and canals which were near the front line as this made it an ideal way for the safe carriage of severely wounded soldiers.  The showing included a couple of items from French ambulance barges and a photograph of British barges, initially a private enterprise although later the government set up the Inland Water Transport (IWT) organisation, as well as a Christmas card.  Eventually there were two flotillas of ambulance barges.  He also showed a picture postcard of a German ambulance barge in Russian Poland, the only such item he had seen as well as a postcard showing an ambulance barge used at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire pulled by a horse.  Peter also mentioned and showed a book “Ambulance Flotilla - British Hospital Barges on the River Seine 1915” by Anne Penny and published by the author in 2015.  He also showed postcards of both the interior and exterior of the French ambulance barge La Danoise from a Danish volunteer nurse in 1915; the barge was sponsored by the Danes and staffed by Danish volunteer nurses.  Finally the third and final Peter to show was Peter O’Keeffe who had a 1915 postcard showing a cachet of No 4 Temporary Hospital at Neufchateau (Vosges) sent by a British person, possibly a nurse, to the UK, with its own cachet.

© Forces Postal History Society 2020