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By Simon Batchelor on

Transporting the wounded: Railway ships as floating ambulances

Find out how railway ships were transformed for medical duties during the First World War.

At the outset of the First World War, the Admiralty requisitioned many ships from the fleets of Britain’s railway companies and their affiliates. These ships were converted to serve a number of purposes including the transport of wounded servicemen.

Technically a Hospital Ship is a floating hospital and is painted white with a green stripe (red if privately fitted out) running along the side and the red cross should be clearly painted on the bows, amidships, and at the stern, these red crosses should be clearly lit at night.

Hospital Carriers are a secondary form of hospital ship, these ships have to be officially requisitioned and are similarly marked and protected by convention. The majority of ships requisitioned from the railway companies fell into this class. The hope that conventions would upheld meant that companies whose ships were returned to them were reluctant to remove the distinctive livery of the hospital ship from their vessels, the Great Eastern Railway, for example, took six months to repaint the SS Copenhagen after she was released from service as a Hospital Ship.

The third class of relief ship is the Ambulance Transport; this class of ship is not entitled to the distinctive livery of the other types of vessel, nor is it protected by treaty or convention, as it has only been temporarily assigned to this duty and remains under the control of its owners. Ambulance transports, however, are entitled to carry military stores and active troops, the only restrictions being that active troops are not allowed to use medical facilities created to treat wounded personnel. The railway steamers operating between Britain and the unoccupied French ports were frequently used for this purpose.

The ambiguities inherent in the treaties protecting hospital ships led to loopholes that could be exploited by all sides. Some Hospital Carriers were temporarily released from service but retained as Ambulance Transports so that they could act as troopships or military stores carriers when such vessels were not available. When operating under a temporary release the ship becomes a legitimate target but once the release expires it is protected once again by convention. This argument was by all navies to justify actions against relief vessels prior to 1917, when the navies of the Central Powers declared unrestricted warfare against Allied shipping.

Amongst the ships taken up at the outbreak of war were three of the Great Western Railway’s Irish Sea fleet; St. David, St. Patrick and St. Andrew. In the space of three weeks the GWR converted these ships into Hospital Ships each catering for about 180 lying down spaces and about 250 sitting patients. The vessels were in service at the end of August 1914, and were initially rated as Ambulance Transports but this was later upgraded to Hospital Carrier.

As the war progressed further ships were added to the relief service the LNWR contributed the SS Anglia. In 1915 this vessel was about to enter Folkestone harbour with a full load of wounded on board when she stuck a mine and sank with the loss of over 100 patients, mostly stretcher cases, and medical staff, more tragically another vessel also struck a mine whilst going to her aid.

The sinking of the SS Anglia, 15 November 1915.© National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library.

The GER contributed SS St. Denis and SS Copenhagen. The latter vessel as we have already seen was released from service to enable the GER to continue their services to the Netherlands.

Another LNWR ship, SS Cambria, had been requisitioned for use as an Armed Boarding Cruiser but in 1915 she was converted for use as a Hospital Carrier and two steamers belonging to the LB&SCR; SS Dieppe & SS Brighton, which had been requisitioned for use as Troopships were also converted. LB&SCR were to contribute another ship SS Newhaven to the Hospital Carrier fleet via a rather round about route, Newhaven had initially been requisitioned by the French Navy and was later released to Admiralty service. Like the Dieppe and Brighton, the Midland Railway steamer SS Donegal had been requisitioned as a Troopship, but also served as an Ambulance Transport. In 1917, whilst fulfilling this role, she was torpedoed and sunk.

These vessels provided a vital service transporting thousands of wounded and sick men from all theatres of war to base hospitals for treatment. The GWR claimed that St. Patrick alone made 758 trips to France bringing back over 125,000 sick and wounded men.

The ships faced all sorts of danger; submarines, mines, enemy surface vessels and, because of wartime measures demanding that all lights be extinguished, collision with merchant ships.

10 comments on “Transporting the wounded: Railway ships as floating ambulances

  1. I understand that my Grandfather, Richard Delaney, was First Officer and also Master of the St Andrew hospital ship in WW 1. The crewlists also show he sailed on the St David. I am seeking information on the voyages he would have undertaken during the war and the numbers of wounded he would have brought home. Also, of course, I would be interested in any personal information involving him. My father told me that Grandfather never spoke of his time during the war, even though he lived till his 90th year. Grateful for any information available
    Regards Anne Delaney

  2. On the 18th August 1918 my great uncle John was evacuated from 32 Stationary hospital at Wimereux in France back to England via the H.T. St. Andrew. He survived to live to fight another day for which I am eternally grateful to your grandfather and others like him.

    Antony H. Blackburn

  3. On the 12 March 1915 my Granddad was evacuated from 22nd Field Ambulance, France, back to England on the HMHS St Andrew. He had gun shot wounds to his leg/foot and survived, thanks to your grandfather.

  4. On 27 June 1917 my great grandfather, Alfred Papworth, was evacuated from France to England on the St Patrick’s ship. He had contracted TB while serving with the D Squadron Bedfordshire Yeomanry (Cavalry) in Northern France. He was taken to Edmonton Military Hospital and later to the 1st Eastern General Hospital in Cambridge. He was later discharged on medical grounds and lived to the grand old age of 93.

    1. So glad of all this information.

      My grand father never spoke of the war years but my grandmother used to say that they were hard years. I’m glad if he helped other families.

  5. HMHS Anglia was bound for Dover not Folkestone harbour, while crossing the channel barrier by No 8 turning maker she detonated one of the German Submarine UC-5 laid mines, about 167 lines lost

  6. I have come across a gold-plated pocket watch with the case engraved “CAMBRIA AUGUST 1919” and the initials “J.P.” ( identified on the inner case as John Pryce of Nelson, Lancashire). The Cambria was renamed Arvonia in 1919 and so I am assuming the owner (he died in Nelson, Lancs in 1943) to be a member of the earlier Hospital Ship’s crew around that time.

  7. My step grandfather was on St Patrick 11/12/1915 at Le Havre name Charles Payne service No 10063. Royal artillirey

  8. My grandfather was the captain of the St,David when she was taken and made into a hospital ship. His name was Cpt Frank Cox from Goodwick and saw many horrific things during the war. He retired from the sea and became harbour master at Cardiff Docks.

  9. It is suspected that my Great Grandfather was evacuated back to the UK on the St Andrew from Boulogne on 5th Oct 1916. Can anyone please tell me the port of arrival for this crossing? I do know that on his arrival in UK he was transported to Horton Military Hospital in Epsom Surrey where as a result of his injuries he passed away on 26th Nov 1916. Thanks

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