Blood, gunfire and traffic jams: driving ambulances during World War One took some guts. Yet plenty of brave British Red Cross volunteers were ready to risk their lives helping injured soldiers from all sides.
The Red Cross reported that at the Battle of Verdun “from February 20 to March 6 the work was carried out under conditions of great stress.
“The traffic was so heavy that evacuations could only be proceeded with very slowly.
“It sometimes took two hours to go a distance of one kilometre. A heavy fall of snow added to the confusion.”
Tents and hot coffee
“The press of wounded was so great that at times it was only possible for the ambulances to deal with stretcher cases, walking cases having to wait for the chance of a lift in an empty lorry, though the convoys did their best for them by putting up tents for the waiting men and providing as many as possible with hot coffee.”
All the ambulances were painted with the red cross symbol. This was meant to offer protection for medical personnel in an armed conflict – and continues to do so today.
However, in December 1916 a few ambulances were “peppered but not seriously damaged”.
By the autumn of 1917, ambulances at Verdun “were constantly under fire and at times subjected to a barrage. Out of the 20 cars working this service, nine were badly hit and temporarily disabled.”
Ambulances under fire
The ambulance crews were unperturbed. By 1918 they were “constantly pushing forward as the attack advanced […] to save the wounded being carried on stretchers a yard more than was absolutely necessary.
“During this attack nearly all the ambulances were hit, though only one was disabled.
“The General, after the attack, sent an officer to thanks the Section for the service it had rendered and to tell them how pleased the French had been to have their English comrades serving with them.”
A driver’s kit bag
William used to store and carry his personal belongings in this drawstring bag.
William was awarded the Croix de Guerre for evacuating the wounded on roads that were heavily bombarded during the battle of Verdun in 1917.
• See the details for William Huggett
• Did your ancestors volunteer during the First World War? Search for your family’s records
• We still rely on fantastic volunteers. Could you volunteer to drive an ambulance in the UK?
• The painting above is (a slightly cropped version of) ‘Ambulance depot at Etaples’ by Ernest Procter, who was a Red Cross orderly in Dunkirk.