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 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.