Britain’s forgotten ambulance trains brought back to life in York

Jane Sparkes from the National Railway Museum in York in front of a  1907 London and South Western railway carraige  which will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition
Jane Sparkes from the National Railway Museum in York in front of a 1907 London and South Western railway carraige which will be the centrepiece of a new exhibition
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Their tales of selfless sacrifice have remained untold for decades as Britain turned its efforts to recovery after the First World War.

Now, after years of painstaking research, experts have uncovered the forgotten stories of those who battled to save lives aboard Britain’s ambulance trains.

Ambulance train, 1916

Ambulance train, 1916

The National Railway Museum in York is putting the finishing touches to Ambulance Trains, a new exhibition exploring the little-known experiences of the patients and staff who travelled on these hospitals-on-wheels in the First World War.

“Until now historians have overlooked the crucial role that ambulance trains played in the First World War, but careful research by our curators and archivists has gradually uncovered this neglected piece of history,” said Jane Sparkes, interpretation developer at the National Railway Museum.

“The mass casualties of modern mechanised conflict called for evacuation of the injured on a scale never seen before, and this simply could not have happened without these trains.”

The research project, funded by a £98,000 grant from National Lottery players, aims to tell the tales of some of Yorkshire’s forgotten heroes.

Ambulance train, infectious ward, Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, July 1915

Ambulance train, infectious ward, Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, July 1915

From the injured soldiers transported to hospital to the medical staff who offered the best care they could in cramped, difficult and stressful conditions, each had a story to share.

Millions of men were brought to Britain from the Front via these tightly-packed trains, which included fully-equipped wards, pharmacies and kitchens, the museum has said.

The trains were manned by resident medical officers, orderlies and nurses and could be up to a third of a mile long.

The museum’s exhibition bringing these little-known stories to life will open on July 7, 2016 marking the centenary of the busiest day of ambulance train traffic, which occurred during the Battle of the Somme.

Ambulance train, 1914

Ambulance train, 1914

The centrepiece, a permanent addition to the National Railway Museum’s diverse public programme, is a historic carriage once owned by the Ministry of Defence.

Built in 1907 for the London & South Western Railway, the carriage is of the type that would have been converted for use in an ambulance train.

Positioned at the centre of a new exhibition space in the museum’s Great Hall, the carriage has been carefully transformed both inside and out to enable visitors to step on board and move through spaces including a ward, a pharmacy and a nurses’ mess room.

Digital projection, sound and historic images, alongside recreated interior fittings, will recreate the intense atmosphere of these confined trains.

Ambulance train, 1916.

Ambulance train, 1916.

“For the first time, our exhibition will bring together photographs, technical drawings, letters and diaries to bring to life the huge range of human experiences carried on board these trains,” said Mrs Sparkes.

“Ambulance Trains not only explores stories of the wounded soldiers who travelled with their harrowing memories of warfare, and the medical staff who worked tirelessly in claustrophobic conditions to provide comfort and care.

“It also looks at the railway workers who built the carefully designed trains at incredible speed to keep up with demand, and the wider public who saw the grim reality of the overseas war when these trains pulled into British stations.”

Alison Kay, associate archivist at the National Railway Museum, added: “Ambulance Trains is the culmination of years of work, and it is incredibly gratifying to give these trains and their passengers the twenty-first century prominence they deserve through this new exhibition.

“The museum’s research team have examined hundreds of historic documents and photographs describing life aboard the trains, and all accounts of life on board have a real emotional impact.”