About This Unit
The 8th Field Ambulance formed in Egypt as apart of the 'doubling of the AIF' in Egypt following the Gallipoli evacuation and followed its parent (8th) Brigade to France and Belgium from 1916. The 8th Brigade comprised units from all States; the 29th (Vic), 30th (NSW), 31st (Qld/Vic) and the 32nd (SA/WA).
Because the 32nd Battalion was part of the 8th Brigade, South Australians saw service in the 8th Field Ambulance as men were oftend drawn from Battalion reinforcement drafts.
Their baptism of fire took place in the "nursery Sector" near Fleurbaix and Fromelles in the lead up to the battle of the same name. The battle itself overwhelmed all of the medical assets of the 5th Division. Many soldiers were killed in the process of trying to retrieve casualties from the battlefield.
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 enemy attack, 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 not be evacuated.
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 - generally described as 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.
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 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 avaliable 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 to Australia. Many of the wounded succumbed to their wounds in transit. They would be buried at sea in the traditional naval fashion.
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.
Of the men who survived the war, more than 150,000 had been sounded at least once. Many others had been hospitalised with a range of illnesses, and others suffered invisible trauma such as 'shell shock' now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These factors contributed to the arresting statistic that 50% of the men who came home were dead within 20 years of the war's end.