2 March 2019

Ambulance and Hospital Trains - Dr Brian Robertson OStJ, TD, MICPEM

This display and talk was given by member Dr Brian Robertson, who was himself Squadron Commander of the Ambulance Train Squadron RAMC(V) in BAOR between 1985-1994, responsible for ten such trains.  It was unusual not only in the topic but the way it was presented - largely a digitised display from a laptop through a projector onto a screen, something we had never done before - and it was extremely successful.  He started collecting in 1979 - any country, any hospital train!  The material shown during the talk covered the South African War 1899-1902, Russo-Japanese War 1904-05, WW1, WW2 and the post-war period.  The display showed the work in progress to catalogue and write up Brian’s collection of postal history, photographs and ephemera of ambulance and hospital trains from all countries and campaigns where such trains had operated - this amounted to six volumes thus far.

As part of the display he had one piece of moving footage to show - that of a British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) ambulance train on exercise during 1991.  He also showed a number of pictures, both external and internal, of rolling stock in BAOR which initially was ex-US but latterly of ex-DB stock until the drawdown of BAOR when the trains were eventually scrapped.  He told us how they operated, loading and looking after patients delivered by bus (converted to ambulances).  The trains on average could carry up to 500 patients (both stretchered and walking wounded).  The trains in BAOR had only ever been used on exercise, never for real.

He looked at the history of ambulance and hospital trains and then in more details at the various campaigns they were involved with.  The first movement of any casualty by train was in the Crimean War of 1855 when wounded were simply carried lying on straw in the open wagons that had been used to build the railway at Balaclava.  Trains were subsequently used in a number of wars, notably in America when in 1864, after the Battle of Gettysburg more than 15,000 wounded were moved by railways.  In Europe rail came to the fore in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 when rolling stock was converted to take sick and wounded and it was around this time that we start to find postal history associated with hospital and ambulance trains.  The South African war of 1899-1902 saw a specially constructed hospital train come into service - a 7 coach train that carried only 74 stretchers and was called the Princess Christian Hospital Train, named after the third daughter of Queen Victoria [see Figure 1].  


Figure 1

His earliest hospital train cover was from this train, dated SE 14 00 and there was also an original photograph of the train; also shown was a photo of No 4 Hospital Train, “The White Train”, and a postage stamp of the train issued by the Seychelles in 1989, a country which does not possess a railway!  He also showed a postcard written by staff on the No 3 Hospital Train on 1 August 1900 and postmarked FIELD POST OFFICE 17 / BRITISH ARMY S AFRICA on AU 3 00.  Next we come to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 which made great use of rail along the Trans-Siberian railway with some 78 different hospital trains in operation.  He showed various cards from the different trains, including No 50, 4 and 12 Hospital Trains; also a postcard of nurses standing in front of the Hospital Train Maria Feodorovna.  

Onwards to the First World War which saw the name change from Hospital Trains to Ambulance Trains with material from the UK, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Germany France and Italy.  Over 5 million sick and wounded were carried on British Ambulance Trains alone and the display showed a number of different types of postcard which were typical of those sent from the Ambulance Trains.  No 17 Ambulance Train was taken over by the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and we were shown a number of postcards of the train and its staff, together with a Grant of Leave card for an individual.  Also shown were various postcards from troops who had arrived in the UK via hospital ships from Ambulance Trains, including a card with an Ambulance Trains Comforts Fund cachet.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had around 160 trains - hospital and ambulance trains and various other trains as well!  Shown were a selection of cachets used on mail by the various trains, as well as examples of cards, including Knights of Malta and various sponsored trains.   Many of these were shown with a back drop of a map showing the route a particular card had taken or the route of the train itself [see Figure 2].  This also included the Spitalszug Augusta with a photograph of the lady concerned and examples of cards from the train with its various cachets.  Russia had a large number of trains in use, with examples from train 604 accompanied by a map showing the locations where the six cards he had had been written and posted; also shown were cards from trains 72 and 1022, again with relevant cachets.  Germany had both ambulance and hospital trains along with various other medical trains and Italy also had trains, mainly operated by the Red Cross or Knights of Malta and a variety of cachets were also shown.  As regards France, Brian admitted he still had a great deal of work to do but nevertheless showed a card (front and back) depicting Train Sanitaire Semi-permanent No 4 PLM and a map showing the locations posted for 13 cards from this train spanning the period 28/11/1914 to 24/12/1915.  He also referred to the helpful FPHS monograph “French Military Posts & Railways 1914-1918: The Authorizing Handstamps” by David Trapnell and published in 2011.


Figure 2

The Second World War was next and we were told that there was much less material available, nevertheless Brian showed us items from the UK, Germany, France, Italy, East Africa and India.  Items shown included a 1944 mail bag label from the Home Depot to a pre-typed “No   Ambulance Train. R.A.M.C.” where the ambulance train number would be inserted manually; external and internal photos of No 63 Home Ambulance Train (HAT); a homemade 1942 calendar from No 64 HAT; covers from a German ambulance train; French Train Sanitaire 505 in 1940 [see Figure 3]; a Christmas Forces Air Letter “Greetings from East Africa” written by a WO2 in the RAMC from No 1 (EA) Ambulance Train from Port Reitz, Mombasa on 15/10/1944; a press cutting and group photo of 23 Indian Ambulance Train staff in Iran and a 1943 airgraph from 34 Indian Ambulance Train in India.


Figure 3

Following the end of WW2 there was a cover with the cachet Swiss Hospital Train North in 1946 but with a Polish stamp and postmark (more research needed).  We then came to the Cold War and the operation of Ambulance Trains in BAOR - a couple of examples of incoming mail to staff on the trains and he apologised for the philistine who cut the stamps off these covers – namely our speaker himself! All staff was given a BFPO for their annual camps in BAOR but as they moved around the country, BFPO numbers were altered in manuscript to keep up with up their movements.  On one exercise in 1989 arrangements were made to carry a philatelic cover on all the exercise runs. The cover carried the operating train numbers as issued by the DB to allow movement on their system.  The disbandment of all British Army Ambulance Trains capability by the Ministry of Defence came in 1995 and the trains were scrapped.

© Forces Postal History Society 2020