The Stretcher: Untold Stories of the First World War

‘The stretcher-bearer ferried him from hell,

A wounded soldier the blast of a shell.’

Stretcher-bearers are the unsung heroes of the First World War. They were often considered to be nothing more than a porter, but they were in fact extremely brave individuals who returned to the battlefield to collect the wounded. Advancing troops were not allowed to stop and care for wounded soldiers. All soldiers had an emergency field-dressing to use if necessary to treat their own wounds. However, if this was not possible the wounded had to wait until the stretcher-bearers arrived.

Picture1They returned to the battlefield as many times as deemed necessary to dress wounds and uncover trapped and wounded soldiers. This meant they could be walking into enemy fire or mustard gas without protection in order to do their job not just once but multiple times.

This was brought home to audiences at Glenside Hospital Museum in May when the National Heritage Lottery Fund funded Fluid Motion’s  ‘Too Much to Bear’, an interactive audio performance with Leigh Johnstone uncovered his great grandfather’s experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches during the First World War.

“But carrying the stretchers down those slopes was about the most difficult thing a stretch-bearer could do. We were constantly stepping down, stepping down—perhaps stumbling over some bushes—while all the time trying to ease the pain of the chap on the stretcher. But we carried on, right until the evening, doing our best to get all those that were wounded. You might be coming down from the front line and suddenly you’d hear a mournful cry from a bush perhaps twenty yards away, ‘Stretcher-bearers, Stretcher-bearers’, and all you could do was to ease your stretcher down on the ground for a moment, go over and see to the case, give them an injection if necessary or some tablets to ease the pain, and tell them you’d come back.” This quote is taken from a First World War Veteran.

There were only four stretcher-bearers per company and so it was often some time before they received medical help. The stretcher could be rolled for easier transportation and is made of lightweight fabric so it able to be transported across the battlefield.

Stanley Spencer as an orderly at Beaufort would have helped with the stretcher bearing, moving soldiers from the ambulances to the hospital beds. He wrote in one of his notebooks about how he would be awoken in the night to deal with the intake of newly arrived injured soldiers: “Everything in the hospital was so instant and so quick…the arrival of a convoy (200 or more would arrive in the middle of the night)”.

Glenside Hospital Museum is commemorating the closure of Beaufort War Hospital in 1919, #GHMtakingpart.

National Lottery Heritage Fund have supporting us to produce an activity learning package for schools and other organisations to hire, using our handling collection which includes Monkey Brand Soap, the Red Cross Arm Band, Brodie Helmet and the Hot Water Bottle.

@HeritageFundL_S #NationalLottery

Blog by Isla Kouassi-Kan and Rhyming Couplet by our resident poet Dave Pearse

Project Management Isla Kouassi-Kan, photograph by Junjie Wang, collections management Sue Farrell