British Red Cross stretcher bearers

© IWM

During the Battle of the Somme, our volunteers were up to their knees in mud helping the wounded. From carrying casualties and searching for the missing to providing hot water bottles and cigarettes, our volunteers did everything they could to help.

Now you can walk in their memory – or remember your ancestors who served in the war.

As soon as fighting began in July 1916, the army’s first aid teams and stretcher bearers were overwhelmed. They turned to the British Red Cross’ trained volunteers for help.

Alf Collard, who was in charge of the Red Cross team, wrote:

‘On Sunday, July 2nd, when the wounded began to come in in large numbers, we were called upon to provide as many stretcher bearers as we could furnish. I am pleased to say that about 60 orderlies worked all through Sunday night and well into Monday without a stop …’ 

The number of injured soldiers was so high that the Red Cross turned to its volunteer mechanics, chauffeurs and clerks for help. They abandoned their normal roles to carry stretchers instead.

From battlefield to hospital bed

Red Cross teams load a patient on to a hospital trainThirty Red Cross ambulances parked close to the battlefield. They transported injured men to first aid posts, casualty clearing stations and base hospitals across France.

Whilst men had their wounds treated at casualty clearing stations, they tucked in gratefully to bread, coffee or chocolate milk supplied by the Red Cross. They also took the opportunity to enjoy a cigarette or two.

Many soldiers with severe injuries were sent back to Blighty to be treated. The Red Cross cared for them on hospital trains as they headed home. But the relationship didn’t end there.

Our ambulances were ready and waiting at train stations in London. They transferred the patients to Red Cross hospitals across the country.First World War Red Cross nurse lights a cigarette for a patient

Hundreds of hot water bottles

In France, all these casualties needed everything from bandages, mattresses and sheets to pyjamas, surgical instruments and food. They also craved comfort from tobacco. Red Cross depots stepped in to support the struggling Army Medical Stores.

In early 1916 we opened a store at Doullens in preparation for the Battle of the Somme. The staff anticipated that demands on the depot would be high so they stocked up on extra equipment including hot water bottles, toothbrushes, lamps and surgical swabs.

Nonetheless, nothing could have prepared them for the pressure they faced when the fighting began. They called in anyone with a set of wheels to help drive the equipment to hospitals and casualty clearing stations as quickly as possible.

Mud like red cheese

However, travelling anywhere quickly was almost impossible. The condition of the roads as you approached the Front were appalling. A journey of a few miles sometimes took hours.

Red Cross volunteer John Masefield described the mud vividly during his visit to the site of the Somme in October 1916:

“To call it mud would be misleading. It was not like any mud I’ve ever seen. It was a kind of stagnant river, too thick to flow, yet too wet to stand, and it had a kind of glisten or shine on it like reddish cheese, and it looked as solid as cheese, but it was not solid at all.”

Missing in action
A woman sitting at her desk in the Red Cross enquiry department for wounded soldiers Boulogne 1917

Enquiry department for wounded soldiers, Boulogne, 1917

Tragically, between 1 July and the end of the battle on 18 November 1916, one million men were killed or wounded.

Throughout the First World War the Red Cross “wounded and missing and prisoners of war department” searched for missing soldiers on behalf of worried relatives at home.

Just two months after the fighting at the Somme began, the team had received between six and seven thousand enquiries. They reported ‘this being considerably the largest amount which has been received in any single month since the opening of the department.’

Volunteer ‘searchers’ were swiftly sent to hospitals across France. They searched for relatives and collected reports on the casualties that had occurred during the battles. This information was also used by the war office to clear up the cases of men reported missing.

Walking to remember

Jon Gater from Sandwich knows how important this department was. His great grandfather, Ernest Holwell, fought on the Somme battlefields with the 4th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment.

Ernest was wounded and taken to a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Germany where he stayed until the end of the war.

It was thanks to our wounded and missing service that Ernest’s family found out he was alive. During his internment, Ernest received Red Cross parcels sent by the family. At the end of the war, it was the Red Cross who repatriated him.

Now Jon is doing a walk of remembrance to commemorate those who were killed or wounded at the Somme.

Jon’s walk will take him and a group of friends all over Kent as they attempt to take a single step for every soldier killed or wounded during the battle – between them, that’s one million steps, or 400 miles.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Jon, “but I wanted to take part in an act of commemoration that would really help me to understand the scale of the loss of life.

“I’m donating all the money I raise from the walk to the Red Cross. Their International Family Tracing service is bringing together families separated by war today, just as they helped my family 100 years ago.”

  • Fancy organising your own walk to remember the Battle of the Somme event? You can choose how far to walk, where, with whom and when (although the challenge must be completed by the end of November). Find out more about this fundraising walk.
  • Did your ancestors volunteer for the Red Cross during World War One? Research your family tree using our records.