About This Unit
The 11th Field Ambulance was the Field Ambulance Company that nominally supported the 11th Brigade of the Third Division, comprised of the 41st (Qld) 42nd (Qld) 43rd (SA) and 44th (WA) Battalions. Field Ambulances were however under command of the Division HQ rather than the supported Brigade.
This synopsis published by the 11th Field Ambulance Association:
11th Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps, was officially formed at Mitcham, South Australia on 1 March 1916 and became an integral part of the Third Australian Division. LTCOL M. H. Downey was appointed as the Commanding Officer (10 Feb 1916 – 25 Oct 1917), much to the satisfaction of the men. He would later be recommended for a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his administration and conspicuous ability as a leader whilst the Commanding Officer of 11th Field Ambulance.
Once raised the unit commenced training in the hills to the south of Mitcham. This training was to prove remarkably valuable, as the terrain was very similar to that which the unit would soon encounter in France.
The unit embarked for England in four groups on different ships, the Suevic, Berrima, Wandilo and the Afric between 31 May 1916 and 30 June 1916. The first group arrived at Plymouth on 21 July 1916 and the unit was united at Salisbury Plain (Lark Hill Camp) for further training. The Unit spent four months in the Salisbury Plains area where they had the most pleasant time ever experienced in the history of the Unit. On the 24 November 1916 the unit embarked at Southampton for France. On this cold, wet and depressing day the unit was on its way to the Western Front only eight and a half months after being raised in balmy South Australia.
On reaching Le Harve they entrained for the forward zone on the afternoon of the 26th, three days later they disentrained at Bailleul on a miserably cold night and the place was knee deep in mud. The unit then route marched for two and a half days before they eventually took over the Divisional Rest Station at Steenwerck. This station would become historic in the annals of the Ambulance, as it was the first station that they administered in France. Secondly on account of the amount of pioneering work that was accomplished to make the place worthy of its name; thirdly it was here they spent their first two Christmases in France.
From here the unit undertook various duties in support of the Third Division. These duties included running sector medical posts and stations, operating Advanced Dressing Stations and running rest areas. The unit first casualties occurred while in the Le Bizet sector, when the enemy shelled the Advanced Dressing Station. Two cooks were badly wounded, one succumbing to his wounds a few days later on 7 April 1917.
During it’s time on the Western Front the Ambulance was involved in numerous areas and sectors including, Ploegsteert, Messines (No carry was under two miles over shell-churned and trackless ground), Charing Cross (in this area doctors and personnel were also compelled to work with gas marks on), Ypres (Broodseine Ridge, Passchendaele and Flanders Ridge), the Somme and Villers Bretonneux. The casualties were numerous, and the bearers had a very strenuous task evacuating them from the various posts.
During these offensives the Commanding Officer, LTCOL R.W. Chambers, (26 Oct 1917 – 15 Sep 1918) was awarded a DSO for his close attention to detail, and his fearlessness in the presence of danger.
In the final stages of the war the Ambulance was involved in the last Somme operations in 1918. The then Commanding officer LTCOL H.B. Lewers (13 Sep 1918 – 11 May 1919) was received the award of the “Order of the British Empire” (OBE) for the following reasons. “During the attack on the Hindenburg Line, 29 September, 1918/1 October, 1918, Colonel Lewers was able to effect the prompt evacuation of an unexpectedly large number of American casualties in addition to those of his Division by the exercise of his untiring energy and power of initiative.”
From the time of its first casualty in April 1917 to the cessation of hostilities the unit experienced 19 killed in action, 56 wounded in action. As well as 41 men were gassed of which one subsequently died, so for a period of just under two years active service the unit had 116 casualties.
The unit returned to Australia and was demobilized in 1919.
Significant numbers of South Australians saw service in the 11th Field Ambulance because the unit was raised there and the the SA 43rd Battalion was one of the Battalions of the 11th Brigade; soldiers were drawn from the Battalions in the Brigade to man and reinforce the Field Ambulance and other Brigade units.
The Field Ambulance Company was responsible for 'Second Line' casualty evacuation from 'First Line' Regimental Aid Posts (RAP) in each battalion.
The RAP belonged to the Battalion (or other units) and was manned by the Regimental Medial Officer (RMO), a qualified doctor generally of Captain rank supported by several non-commissioned officers (NCO) of Sergeant and Corporal rank, with a number of medical orderlies at the rank of Private.
They in turn were supported by unit stretcher bearers, generally drawn from the Battalion's Band. These men would be trained to administer First Aid sufficient to clear airways, staunch bleeding and perhaps splint fractures so that casualties could be evacuated to the Battalion RAP. Casualties would be hand carried - requiring at least four men but more like eight over any distance for each casualty. Hand carts were also used but rough ground generally meant stretchers. When mass casualties occurred, such as through major shelling or an attack (by either side), decisions would have to be made about the priority of evacuation. The RMO would assess the casualty and decide whether they were to be evacuated and with what priority. Grievous wounds with little chance of survival would generally have a low priority when evacuation resources were scarce.
When an attack or advance was undertaken, the RAP would follow up the units' forward elements and were thus exposed to enemy direct fire (rifles and machine guns) and indirect fire (artillery mortar fire and even gas).
The Field Ambulance would have personnel deployed forward to retrieve casualties from the RAP to the Field Ambulance Advanced Dressing Station - and then to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).
They would have to deploy forward to reach the RAP, and thus come under the same risks as the front line combat troops.
They may have had a number of means to assist in casualty evacuation from light rail, horse drawn vehicles and even motor vehicles. Or they could indeed also be stretcher borne, or on hand drawn carts.
Soldiers with serious wounds who needed surgery have what is called "The Golden Hour" to receive the treatment they need. After that time their chance of survival diminishes rapidly. Conditions were such that evacuation times were extended considerably by poor weather, the predominance of water, mud, the detritus of battle, shell torn ground and enemy action. At the time infection, often described as 'sepsis', was also a great risk as it was prior to the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics.
Once at the CCS, additional Medical Officers and supporting personnel were available to carry out life-saving surgery. Some casualties might be retained in a limited number of beds - generally to allow more seriously wounded to be evacuated further to rear. The tragic fact was many men would have died here from serious wounds and indeed many of the cemeteries scattered through Northern France and Belgium originally began alongside a CCS.
From a CCS casualties might be taken to a Field Hospital or straight to a General Hospital.
In France, the evacuation chain would eventually see serious casualties sent quickly to the United Kingdom. In some circumstances an Australian casualty may have been sent home. Then they would undergo rehabilitation, either in the UK or back in Australia. Significant numbers of casualties at Gallipoli who were stricken with Enteric Fever (Typhoid) were returned to Australia, with a great many of those returning to the Front. In the process of seaborne evacuation, many of the wounded succumbed to their wounds in transit. They would be buried at sea in the traditional naval fashion, or in the case of Gallipoli, at intermediate ports of call, particularly Malta.
It is quite remarkable that some men who were wounded multiple times, kept returning to the Front despite what in contemporary times might have been classified as a 'homer' - in other words they would have been deemed to have done their duty. However many men felt compelled to return to support their mates, particularly as the war drew on and reinforcements began to slow.
* (C) Steve Larkins July 2014
Battle/ Campaign/ Involvement
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