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By Alison Kay on

Ambulance trains in 1914 “This is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised”

We have become familiar with images of wartime Christmas truces where fighting stopped—but this certainly wasn't the universal experience on the Western Front 100 years ago.

Ambulance trains did not stop running during Christmas 1914—many patients still needed treatment and staff remained on trains during the holidays. Men worked 24 hours a day during Christmas to prepare Dover Marine station for an increasing amount of patients expected to be received onto home ambulance trains in 1915.

Continental ambulance train number 17 photographed in snow
Continental ambulance train number 17 photographed in snow

You can read what ambulance train nurse Kate Luard was doing during Christmas 100 years ago here.  This is her entry for Christmas Eve.

…This is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed

There was some Christmas cheer on the trains, ambulance train staff distributed cigarettes, pipes, handkerchiefs and Christmas cards to patients.  This Christmas card belonged to Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) orderly Edmund Cooper who served on number 16 ambulance train, this example has recently been sent to us by Mr. Cooper’s son.

Christmas Card from number 16 continental ambulance train
Christmas Card from number 16 continental ambulance train

Ambulance train staff did take time to enjoy Christmas day where and when they could. Nurse Kate Luard describes an elaborate dinner eaten on their train.

12 Midnight – still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills

One ambulance train orderly describes eating Christmas dinner and drinks on the empty ward, followed by a concert. Festivities ended at 11.30 pm with a load of patients coming onto the train at 5.30 am, a few hours later.

A lot of the work we are doing as part of our 2016 ambulance train exhibition centres on balancing the lighter stories of life on ambulance trains with the bleak realities of war experienced by everyone who travelled on them.

We have spent the last year gathering fascinating real life stories of staff and patients who worked on ambulance trains, this information will inform our exhibition where we will describe real life experiences of what it would have been like to travel on an ambulance train.

If you have any information you would like to share with us we would be very interested to hear from you.

You can find out more about our upcoming exhibition and more about ambulance trains in general on our website and through our blog.

3 comments on “Ambulance trains in 1914 “This is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised”

  1. Hi Alison. I thought you might be interested to see the amazing diaries of my great aunt, Sister Edith Appleton, who served as a nurse in France throughout WW1. In December 1918 she took charge of part of Ambulance Train 42. See this page on the website I set up: There are lots of references early on on that page to her colleagues going off to join ambulance trains but if you scroll down to December 6th you’ll see she received orders that day to relocate to AT42. The weeks after that she was on the train travelling back and forth – often deep into Germany – collecting he wounded of many nations.

    Dick Robinson
    Edie’s great nephew

  2. Dear Dick, Thank you very much for contacting us, we are very interested in hearing from anyone who has any information on ambulance train passengers (staff or patients). We’ve seen Edith’s diaries and we have ‘a nurse at the front’ here at the NRM. It would be great to discuss further, I’ll send you a separate email to the above address … very best wishes Alison

  3. I find these articles about Ambulance trains and rest stations/room fascinating. My great great grandmother ran Stourbridge rest station during WWI, I wonder if you might have come across any information regarding her detachment/the station.

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