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The history of emergency transportation

Motorised ambulances

First World War motor ambulance© Info

The first ever motorised ambulances to transport the wounded were used in the First World War. This was initiated on 12 September 1914 after a small meeting held at the Royal Automobile Club. A few members offered to place themselves and their cars at the disposal of the British Red Cross.

The motor ambulance department was established by the Red Cross, which resulted in 3,446 motor vehicles, including 2,171 motor ambulances, sent to various destinations by the end of the war. The Times Appeal, issued on 2 October 1914, was instrumental in raising funds for the provision of ambulances. Within three weeks, the Red Cross had sufficient funds to purchase 512 ambulances. The Red Cross bought practically every chassis in the country that was suitable for the purpose. There were additional appeals, the Dennis-Bayley Fund and Transport of Wounded Fund which helped maintain the upkeep of the vehicles and there were also a number of cars presented as gifts to the Red Cross.

Ambulances convoys

It became widely recognised that it was necessary to use motor ambulances as opposed to horse ambulances in France and Belgium for the evacuation of the sick and wounded from the Front to bases. By 20 October 1914, 120 ambulances were working in France at the disposal of the Joint War Committee of the Red Cross and Order of St John.

The first ambulance convoy (No.2) consisted of 50 ambulances, serving at the Front and eventually there were seven convoys in operation. Each ambulance carried an average of 3,939 cases and each driver an average 3,000 cases. A total of 2,500 male and female drivers served during the First World War.

Home ambulance service

The first home ambulance service started in 1919. The Joint War Committee appointed a home service ambulance committee to run a scheme, consisting of 500 ambulances, to help the sick and injured throughout the country. The committee planned for all county directors to set up a small committee to operate and control the ambulances in each area.

By November 1919, the 42 ambulances that had completed three months service had carried 1,097 cases, an average of 26 cases per ambulance. Under the scheme the cars transported wounded soldiers and civilians.

Hospital train

The first ever hospital train, the Princess Christian hospital train, was built and transported to South Africa to be used during the Boer War during 1899-1902. The train supplied the wounded with clothing and toiletries and removed the more seriously injured to Cape Town. The Princess Christian carried 7,548 badly injured soldiers.

In the First World War, the UK Flour Millers’ Association presented the Red Cross with two ambulance trains, specially built and equipped, constructed by Great Western and Great Eastern Railways. The trains were working in France during 1915, with another train, converted from ordinary French rolling stock. The three trains carried 461,844 patients.

Hospital launches and ships

The first boat the British Red Cross owned for transporting the wounded was The Queen Victoria, used during the Egyptian Campaign of 1885. Organisation members served on the Mayflower in 1898, when an expedition was sent to Sudan. This marked the first time that the British Red Cross and Army Medical Services worked together.

During 1915, three of the earliest motor launches were placed to serve in Mesopotamia on the Tigris. Soon after, the Joint War Committee formed a motor launch department to organise more launches and replace the use of inferior craft.  A total of 33 British Red Cross launches were in operation in Mesopotamia by the end of 1916. Four river motor launches were sent to the Dardanelles during the fighting between Turkey and the allied forces.

The Red Cross river hospital ship Nahba made round trips carrying patients between Basra and Baghdad from May 1917, and the organisation provided six specially equipped  ‘pulling’ motor launches for the evacuation from the Gallipoli beaches during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16. The Red Cross was able to raise a fleet of 56, with the use of Joint War Committee funds to purchase two ships and the additional boats gained through donors. Barges were converted into hospitals during the First World War and operated on the river Seine.

Air ambulance service

The first British air ambulance was named Florence Nightingale in 1934 and owned by the Croydon division of the Surrey Branch of the British Red Cross. The equipment included ice containers, blood transfusion apparatus and an oxygen tent. The Surrey and East Lancashire divisions were the first to form air ambulance detachments during the 1930s.

The medical departments of the War Office and the Air Force were anxious for air medical transport, prevented by financial constraints and a shortage of Air Force flying officers. This need was overcome by the British Red Cross air ambulance detachments. County directors were encouraged to recruit members of flying clubs and the smaller transport companies as volunteers.

A suitable machine, the Monospar S.T.4, made by the General Aircraft Company of Croydon, could carry a pilot, an orderly and two stretchers. The Red Cross worked with the Army to carry out training exercises in which mock casualties were evacuated from dressing stations to base hospitals. There were larger types of craft to carry from eight, up to 24 stretchers.  Practical instruction was initiated through collaboration between the Red Cross and the National Air Federation. Facilities were offered to licensed women pilots to take the necessary training for air ambulance work.

Invalid travel service

The invalid travel service began in 1946 as a temporary measure to meet an urgent need. Essentially an emergency service on 24-hour call, the department sought to overcome the travel problems of those who, for health or compassionate reasons, found themselves in difficulties. Its first major assignment, on behalf of the government, was to bring several hundred displaced persons from camps in Germany and Austria to relatives able to offer them a home in the UK. Another major exercise at this time involved British and European children who were victims of war. Under schemes initiated by the Swiss, Irish and Danish Red Cross Societies, hundreds of these children were sent to the countries concerned for recuperative holidays or for preventive treatment against tuberculosis.

As a result of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the department became responsible for the movement of 11,000 Hungarian refugees from Austria to Britain by train and aircraft. Red Cross and St John doctors, nurses and VADs accompanied each arrival. The pattern of work changed considerably between 1957-1975 with the expansion of world-wide travel, both on business and pleasure. Nurses, all of whom gave their time without payment, made 1,034 journeys all over the world with seriously sick and injured patients who otherwise would not have been able to travel.

By the summer of 1975, the British Red Cross was reluctantly forced to conclude that it could no longer afford to maintain the service in its existing form.

It continued to advise on problems connected with the travel of invalids and disabled people, to help whenever possible and to put people in touch with other organisations who may be in a position to assist. Our transport service today continues to assist people unable to get about easily or use public transport.

Fire and emergency support service

Mobile fire victim support units, providing support to families in the aftermath of fires in their homes, started in 1993. The fire victim support scheme first started operating in Berkshire and Durham in October 1993. The scheme was established after research identified a gap in the provision of care in such situations. It was based on a programme already run successfully by the American Red Cross. Trained volunteers are called to attend the scene of a domestic fire within 90 minutes of being called by the fire brigade and provide both emotional and practical support to those affected. This service is now called the fire and emergency support service.

The provision of emergency transport services in the UK and world-wide continues to be the focus of British Red Cross activities.