The German retreat to the Hindenburg line had the most effect in the southern region of the proposed attack. The 56th (
“The previous medical arrangements..., where a shifting personnel and a divided jurisdiction of field ambulance commanders had been somewhat confusing, were now changed; and a forward evacuation officer was appointed, whose duty it was throughout the battle to contrive and supervise the evacuation of all wounded from the RAPs to the main dressing station and walking wounded collecting station,”
The tented sub-divisions formed the aforementioned ADS, using the cellars of a row of shops in the village square. The central nature of this location [the square] meant it was shared with both an ammunition dump and a vehicle park and frequently became congested.
“Our Field Ambulance arrived at the village of Achicourt near Arras, and set up its HQ as a MDS [sic] in a disused cafe, with cellars under, which joined up with those of the adjoining shops and buildings, adjacent to which was the narrow bridge over the stream by which all traffic had to enter the village and led to the square, only a short distance away.”
This choke point was an obvious target for the German retaliatory shelling, an infantry platoon being wiped out in an adjacent building and the building containing the ADS itself was hit, the only casualties being the Sergeant's kit bags.
At zero hour the assaulting units, whilst experiencing resistance, successfully entered the German trenches. As the attack progressed the RAMC pushed forward to maintain touch with the aid posts being established within the ruins of Neuville Vitasse. Casualties began arriving rapidly at the various posts, typically the lightly wounded first. The OC Bearers successfully managed his new responsibilities and maintained the critical junction between the regimental aid posts and the field ambulance throughout the day, all casualties moving rapidly down the evacuation chain.
Having survived the initial insult of injury, the cold, shocked casualty became a passive load in the gruelling journey “down the line”.
“...the bearers moved up from Agny. They passed through the shattered Beaurains, where a post had been established, and occupied a series of relays between that village and Neuville Vitasse, which had fallen in the morning's attack. By now the weather was very cold, sleet was falling at intervals, and the carrying across the scarred fields was made harder by the accumulating mud. Stretcher bearing went on intermittently through the night, but on the whole casualties were not heavy.”
With the OC Bearers acting as one centralised, advanced, point of control the bearer division was able to react to movement and varying demands across their front. The pooled manpower also allowed for a reserve to be held, but under forward control, which in turn allowed for some relief of individual bearers. But if the opportunity for rest was more frequent the work was still hard and dangerous:
“They talk about a soldier going out + fetching a comrade in under shell fire-and he gets the MM or DCM, we are always under shell fire, I can't dump our stretcher + run for it to a soft spot, we have to plod on, up past the knees in mud- balancing on the edge of shell craters slipping + sliding, shells bursting above + in the earth quite all around us, its Gods mercy that we get thro but we have the patient to think of, + quickness probably means saving his life, so we go right thro it, not caring a damn + somehow when you get to the sap-head + safety, you laugh and joke at the capers.” [underlining in original]
The existing records of the actual number of casualties passing through the 56th Division's chain seem somewhat confused. The ADMS, in his war diary, records 11 officers and 211 other ranks till the early hours of 10 April. The war diary of the unit running the ADS at Achicourt states 329 total.It is difficult to reconcile this difference as the ADS were under instruction to wire the ADMS every 12 hours with the number of casualties treated. The most likely explanation is the ADS number includes men from other units and possibly prisoners of war, as these would be passed down the same evacuation chain.
The successful advance of the division required the aid posts to move forward. In the traditional, caterpillar like movement, the bearers vacated the cellars for an ADP to be set up early during 10 April, this in turn was replaced by an ADS on 13 April. Having taken over the cellars of a small house, the capacity of the ADS was very limited, only able to hold four patients at a time, this seems to have been an acceptable compromise against the benefits of the location. In the first hours following it's opening, 30 casualties passed through, testimony to the efficiency of the evacuation chain at this point. Further, ultimately unsuccessful, attacks were carried out by the division during 14-15 April, approximately 200 casualties being treated in this cellar on each day. The evacuation of these casualties was conducted by hand back over the newly won ground. To keep the ADS clear and to minimise the casualty's exposure to the harsh environment it was no longer possible to follow the doctrine of evacuation under the cover of darkness, so until communications trenches were established it was the demands of a carry over the top.
Due to the relatively confined area of operations, the influence of the centralised control of the bearer officer and comparatively light casualties the 56th Division's chain of evacuation had held. The pooling of all bearers under one point of command and control had given a new flexibility to the RAMC's forward assets, allowing a rapid advance of medical facilities in support of the attack. Each unit in the chain had managed to maintain touch with the post to its front, ensuring re-supply of materials and a fluid passage through the extended chain of evacuation back to Achicourt.
On 5 April 1917 a last minute change of the allocation of personnel was forced by the absence of reinforcement by 100 [most likely non RAMC] bearers. Priority was given to the forward posts, but no post seems to have been shut.
D. Rorie, A Medico's Luck in the War (Aberdeen: Milne & Hutchinson, 1929)
A. Atkinson, 2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance.
The casualties from this shelling, mostly members of the 13th Battalion London Regiment, would have been received straight into the nearby ADS, demonstrating the flexibility of the chain. A similar direct access was often used for units to the rear of the front line such as artillery brigades.
Anon, The Second-Seconds in
IWM 7997 98/28/1 A
TNA: WO 95/2944 2/3 London Field Ambulance. War diary summary by compliers of official medical history. TNA: WO 95/814 DDMS VI Corps gives a total of 13 officers and 277 other ranks till 6 pm 9 April 1917, a further 13 officers and 295 men by 6 am 10 April 1917.The official history gives the total figure of casualties into field ambulances between 9am 9 April to 9 am 10 April as 26 officers and 522 men for the 56th Division. The “extra” casualties must have found their way into the facilities of nearby divisions, a relatively common occurrence.
The position chosen was/is on a junction of the few roads at the north side of Neuville Vitasse. As such it had good access and egress, is relatively sheltered from view [and hostile fire], would have been easy for men of the division to locate and fairly central on the axis of the division's advance.
The ADS was open at midday, these casualties passed through by 6 pm. There is no way to tell of the chronological distribution within this period.
TNA: PRO WO 95/2944 2/3 London Field Ambulance. 14th “about 200 wounded” 15th 234. In both cases this represents the holding capacity of the ADS x 50
The initial distance from the front RAMC posts to the ADS at Achicourt had been 2.57 miles, by last light on the 10 April it was at least 3.7 miles. These measurements are taken “as the crow flies” but via the appropriate posts in the chain of evacuation.