About This Unit
The 12th Field Ambulance was the Field Ambulance Company that nominally supported the 12th Brigade although it was in fact under command of the Fourth Division, as indicated by the Colour Patch's circle shape. The 12th Brigade had been raised in Egypt by splitting the Battalions of the 4th Brigade, and was comprised of the 45th (NSW), 46th (Vic) 47th (Qld), and 48th (SA/WA) Battalions.
The Field Ambulance Company was responsible for 'Second Line' casualty evacuation from 'First Line' Regimental Aid Posts (RAP) in each battalion / unit.
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.
Many of the ubiquitous cemeteries in northern France were begun at the sites of Casualty Clearing Stations as men progressively succumbed to serious wounds as they were evacuated through the supply chain.
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. Battalion RAP were generally not accessible by vehicles so the Field AMbulance might deploy a number of different means to evacuate their charges. including hand carrying, small hand drawn wheeled carts horse drawn and motor transport.
Their mission was to get the casulaties to an Advanced Dressing Station or to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), or to the Field Ambulance's own facility which contained a small number of hospital beds and where emergency surgery could be performed. Casualties did not generally stay long, and they would be prepared for further evacuation through the medical support chain. This could entail evacuation to a major Field Hospital by ambulance train, or perhaps right back to Boulougne for transhipment to the UNited Kingdom.
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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