Passchendaele: Stretcher bearers' medals amid the mud

By Stephen Lyons
Historian and writer

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image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance
image captionThe five medal winners with their commanding officer - (back row l-r) Bugler George Thomas, Cpl David Samuel, Pte Oliver Young, Cpl William Probert (front row l-r) Sgt Ernest Sweeting, Lt Col John E H Davies, Regimental Sgt Major William Stroud

Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres) - Pilckem Ridge 1917

"Tuesday July 31st was the "Great Day". At 3.40 a.m. a terrific bombardment began. Every British, French and Belgian gun from the coast to Messines went full blaze. The din was terrific, and the Bosch line was a sight worth seeing. It was a mass of flame. I stood outside a dugout near the Canal Bank and watched the Hellish performance. As dawn broke one couldn't see the Pilckem Ridge for smoke. The ground trembled, and the air was filled with the shrieking and swishing of shells as they rushed along to deal death and destruction to the enemy."

This is how Capt Douglas Charles Murray Page of the 130th (St John) Field Ambulance described the beginning of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele in his diary.

The 130th (St John) were recruited especially by the St John Ambulance Brigade in south Wales for Lloyd George's army.

Preceding the battle, Capt Page had spent many weeks at the Canal Bank above Ypres, at one of the Advanced Dressing Stations.

Artillery bombardments had been almost continuous and there was always considerable aerial activity.

At night the army - faces and hands blackened and their feet and rifles wrapped in sandbags - had been busy digging assembly trenches for the big push.

Large numbers of wounded came into the dressing station every day and had to be evacuated by ambulance car after nightfall.

image source, Stephen Lyons
image captionThe Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) Memorial at the National Arboretum
image source, Imperial War Museum
image captionBritish stretcher bearers photographed carrying a wounded man in deep mud at Battle of Pilckem Ridge
image source, Stephen Lyons
image captionThe Welsh Memorial at Iron Cross, Pilckem Ridge

The shelling made it impossible to sleep at night so Capt Page snatched what sleep he could in the afternoons.

The men of the 130th had suffered quite a few casualties behind the lines in the weeks and months before the big push.

In May, the ambulance car in which Sgt Maj William Stroud and five men were travelling had been hit by a gas shell while en route to help prepare a casualty loading station, just west of the Yser Canal.

Stroud, a Hampshire man who had come to south Wales to work in the mines and was Superintendent of St John at Abercarn, took a shrapnel hit between the shoulders but was able to remain on duty.

Sgt Tommy George Hopkins of Treorchy, a Military Medal winner at Mametz Wood, was wounded, as was L/Cpl Gwilym Ivor Rees who had won the Croix de Guerre at Mametz.

image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance
image captionNumber 10 - Sgt Thomas G Hopkins in the 130th rugby team 1917-18 season

One man lost an arm and Pte Thomas Jones of Amlwch, who had worked as a repairman at International Collieries, Blaengarw, before the war, died of his injuries shortly after reaching the casualty clearing station.

These St John men, just one cog in the Welsh army charged with the taking of Pilckem Ridge, north east of Ypres, were no strangers to the worst of the mud and blood of battle, as they had been the unarmed stretcher-bearers who had toiled for 60 hours without rest at Mametz Wood the year before; unstinting in their commitment to bring the wounded home to safety.

While officers and nursing staff of the 130th manned their 'Main Dressing Station' smaller groups prepared to receive the wounded at Sussex Farm and Fusilier Advanced Dressing Stations.

It was the job of the 130th's bearers to transport the wounded from 'Regimental Aid Posts' at the edge of the battle and bear them to the dressing stations.

Heavy rain had come on 29 July and every track and road had become virtually impassable. Wagons and ambulances became stuck and had to be abandoned or pulled out with extra horses and men.

Some tracks were now unrecognisable and horses and gun carriages would slide into the mud.

In his diary on 31 July, Jim Cleaves of Abersychan, noted that they had started to carry wounded at 08.00 that morning from the 3rd German line and that plenty of German prisoners came in all day.

image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance
image caption"Same again today - entries in Jim Cleaves' diary

The 38th Division took about 800 prisoners, 300 of which were pretty badly wounded. Capt Page was assigned to treat them at the prisoner of war cage.

The next day, again, it was atrociously wet.

"The wretched wounded were coming down soaked to the skin and covered with mud from head to foot" Capt Page wrote in his diary.

Another entry reads: "It rained all day and was cold and windy. It was pitiful to see the walking wounded coming down the road soaked to the skin, coated with mud and utterly exhausted.

"We were happily able to cheer them up a bit with hot cocoa, cigarettes, fresh dressings to their wounds and a cheery word as we sent them off in the ambulance cars."

Capt Page's feet were painful and swollen, as he couldn't get his boots off for several days.

The stretcher-bearers worked tirelessly to carry the wounded from battle.

They worked for days non-stop, with little or no rest.

In addition to the problems caused by the rain, shelling during previous weeks had decimated the roads and tracks, pitting the ground with shell holes.

image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance
image captionFootball team - Sgt Ernest Sweeting in military uniform seated far right
image captionMedals awarded to Sgt Ernest Sweeting, a teacher at Crindau Boys School, Newport

The terrain had become a wasteland of almost un-navigable mud and water. The job of the bearers was all but impossible. This was no new challenge though to these veterans of Mametz Wood.

The 130th were awarded five Military Medals for their actions during those five days of battle.

Sgt Ernest Sweeting, a teacher at Crindau Boys School, Newport, in charge of a stretcher squad in the thick of the battle, was awarded the Military Medal for finding a route through the desolation of smashed trenches and saturated landscape, "remaining on duty for five days with courage, coolness, judgement and determination".

Sweeting was also awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Pte Oliver Young from Cwmcarn, was also one of the 130th's five Military Medal winners.

Oliver, with his pals, repeatedly brought the wounded home across open ground under heavy shellfire and counter attack, day after day with little rest.

image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance
image captionOliver Young pictured as part of the 130th's tug-of-war team with Sgt Hopkins behind him
image captionOliver Young’s Military Medal and Citation

Bugler George Thomas (Penygroes), Cpl David Samuel (Ogmore Vale) and Cpl William Probert (Rhondda) were the other three recipients.

The Pilckem Ridge five were among a total of 26 Military Medals won by the unit in the Great War: a proud record for the Commanding Officer, Lt Col John E H Davies of Wrexham, and St John Ambulance in Wales.

Before the end of the war Sgt Tommy George Hopkins had added a Distinguished Conduct Medal to his Military Medal.

On one occasion, after heavy shelling, he had extracted wounded from a tangle of shattered wagons and kicking horses and carried four men to safety on his back, one after another.

Another time he saved many wounded from an area heavily swept by machine gun fire, despite being twice blown up by shells.

Capt Page was awarded the Military Cross when, one month later, he crossed 500 yards under a heavy barrage in search of two wounded officers.

He dressed their wounds in the open by the light of the flash of the guns and brought them back.

During the 3rd Battle of Ypres the men and officers of the 130th showed the same unstinting courage and commitment to duty and the preservation of life as they had done at Mametz Wood and as they did in the final push on the Somme in 1918.

image captionThe actual page on which the RAMC Greeting is recorded

It is clear from the poems and songs written by the men that the 130th was a true "Band of Brothers" whose lives were of nothing while another was in danger.

They were "Faithful In Danger" (In Arduis Fidelis or Faithful in Adversity - The motto of the Royal Army Medical Corps) as this short verse written by one of the men and recorded in Bugler George Thomas' notebook demonstrates…

A Greeting to One of the R.A.M.C.

Today for your King and Country

This certain you're doing your best

Friend of the stricken and wounded

May your errand of mercy be blest

May success attend every effort

While soothing each sufferer's pain

What a right hearted welcome we'll give you

When Home you are returning once again.

Respect and gratitude to the fearless, indomitable men of the 130th (St John) Field Ambulance.

A credit to Wales.

image source, 130th (St John) Field Ambulance

(Excerpts from the diary of Capt Page used with the kind permission of his granddaughter, Elizabeth Coggin)

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