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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Stretcher Bearers

The scale of fighting in World War I produced unprecedented numbers of casualties requiring medical care.  While each infantryman was equipped with an emergency field kit designed for self-administered treatment, advancing troops were not permitted to care for fallen comrades.  Rather, a wounded soldier had to await the arrival of a stretcher bearer who administered the first line of treatment.

Canadian stretcher bearers at Vimy Ridge, April 1917.
Two distinct groups of stretcher bearers - infantry and field ambulance - operated at the front lines, each fulfilling a specific role in caring for the wounded.  Each infantry battalion was responsible for removing its casualties from the battlefield and transporting them to its Regimental Aid Post (RAP), where its medical officer provided initial treatment.  Infantry stretcher bearers, trained by the unit's medical officer, carried out this task, often administering first aid prior to transport.  Field ambulance stretcher bearers subsequently carried a wounded soldier to the nearest Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) or Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), from where he was transported by horse-drawn wagon or motor vehicle to a field hospital.

At the outset of the war, British battalions assigned the task of clearing the wounded from the battlefield to their band members.  There are several possible explanations for this practice.  As band members had no specific role in combat, they provided an accessible labor pool.  There was also an existing command structure within the band, providing the necessary organization.  Band members were available for medical instruction while their infantry comrades trained for combat.  Their musical skills demonstrated that they were both intelligent and trainable.  In addition, many battalion bands had operated in peacetime, creating "a unified group of soldiers ready for training".  They worked well as a unit and were sufficient in number to provide stretcher bearers for an entire battalion.

As the war progressed, however, the loss of stretcher bearers while evacuating the wounded, combined with the desire to preserve battalion bands for morale purposes, led military commanders to recruit stretcher bearers from amongst rank and file infantrymen.  This practice was widely adopted after the first battle of the Somme (1916).  In some instances, individuals willing to enlist but not wishing to carry arms or participate in killing volunteered for the task.  Some Quakers, renowned for their pacifism, also volunteered for 'noncombatant' front line duty.  At least one group of New Zealand 'conscientious objectors' were employed as stretcher bearers.

Stretcher bearers struggling with battlefield mud.
Retrieving the wounded from the battlefield was both difficult and dangerous.  In normal circumstances, two men were assigned to a stretcher.  On a muddy battlefield, however, four men - and in the worst circumstances a total of six - were required to evacuate the wounded.  Oliver Lyttelton, a British stretcher bearer, described the task to family members in a letter dated June 31, 1915:

"It takes four men to carry one wounded man and each journey to the dressing station could not be accomplished under four hours.  This sounds rather incredible but no one realizes the difficulty of getting about, even for a man unhampered by anything.  One mile an hour is good going in the mud..., and you will always find yourself on the right when something has to be done on the left."

Sgt. Robert McKay, a stretcher bearer with the 109th Field Ambulance (British Army) kept a diary of his experiences at the front.  His August 7, 1917 entry provides another example:

"Bringing the wounded down from the front line today.  Conditions terrible.  The ground is a quagmire.  It requires six men to every stretcher.  The mud in some cases is up to our waists."

As each infantry company possessed only four stretcher bearers for a total of sixteen per battalion, evacuating the wounded from the field after a major battle was a time-consuming process. At the battle of Passchendaele (October - November 1917), for example, New Zealand stretcher bearers evacuated over 2600 men from the front line to RAPs, CCSs or dressing stations between October 4 and 13.  The men required three days to clear the wounded after the first day of fighting.  Four men were assigned to a stretcher, undertaking a three-mile journey that required four hours to complete.  By October 12, battlefield conditions worsened to the point where each stretcher required six men and the journey took five hours.  After the battle, stretcher bearers took an additional four days to remove all wounded from the field.  By that time, it was "too late for many".

Field ambulance stretcher bearers at the Somme (1916).
As with all infantrymen, stretcher bearers were trained in the use of firearms and were not obliged to be unarmed while carrying out their duties.  Nevertheless, few carried weapons onto the battlefield as they interfered with the task of evacuating the wounded.  The prospect of venturing onto an open battlefield without a weapon required courage almost beyond imagination.  While army medical corps personnel were permitted to wear the 'Geneva badge' - as the Red Cross was known - photographs indicate that infantry stretcher bearers frequently wore the insignia in an effort to avoid being shot by the enemy.

The badge, however, was no guarantee of safety.  While on rare occasions enemy snipers fired at stretcher bearers, the majority of casualties were inflicted by enemy artillery fire.  Stretcher bearers evacuated the wounded along the same routes by which infantry units moved reinforcements and supplies to the front lines and therefore routinely found themselves under constant shell fire while transporting their human cargo.

The stretcher bearer's job was one of the most traumatic tasks on the battlefield.  Daily exposure to the horrendous wounds inflicted by enemy fire had a devastating psychological impact, placing the men at greater risk of 'neurasthenia', the contemporary term for post-traumatic stress disorder.  Sgt. Robert McKay's August 6, 1917 diary entry describes one instance of the horrors he witnessed while carrying out his duties:

"Today awful: was obliged to carry some of the wounded into the graveyard and look on helpless[ly] till they died."

German POWs often assisted in evacuating casualties.
Working daily amidst the carnage of war had a dramatic impact on these dedicated soldiers.  Hamilton Fyfe, a British war correspondent who joined the Red Cross as a stretcher bearer in order to 'cover' the war at the front, summarized the experience in these words:

"What caused me discomfort far more acute - because it was mental, not bodily - were the illustrations of the bestiality, the futility, the insanity of war and of the system that produced war as surely as land uncultivated produces noxious weeds…. The first cart of dead that I saw… made me wonder what the [men] had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel…. And all to no purpose, for nothing." 

The Stretcher Bearers 

by Captain Frank C. Tillson, 16th US Infantry

While they're passin' round these Croix de Guerre
An' D. S. C.'s an' such,
There's a guy I'd like to recommend -
He isn't mentioned much.
His job is nothing' fancy, an' he doesn't get much fame,
He is just a stretcher bearer but,
Believe me, Bo, he's game.

(Who am I? Why, just a doughboy.
Perhaps you know my rep.
An' I used to kid the Pill Brigade
For getting' out o' step.
But since we've had this war of ours,
I've seen what they can do,
And perhaps this little story may explain my change of view.)

I was lyin' there one morning, with my nose jammed in the dirt,
While the bullets all around me made the tiny dust clouds spurt.
Just a wishing' I was thinner, an' longing' to be home,
Or any place away from there, from Mexico to Nome.

My pal was lyin' wounded, up a hundred yards ahead,
And I knew we couldn't reach him, so I gave him up for dead.
Then two stretcher bearers started, an' I figgered they was gone,
But they never hesitated - just went on, and on, and on.
They just sort of hunched their shoulders, like it was a shower of rain,
An' they went out to my buddy - an' they brought him back again.

It's not so hard to face the Boche, an' let him shoot at you,
When you've got an automatic, an'
Can do some shooting too.
But those two boys went marchin' out, without a single chance,
Except to push up daisies in some sunny field in France.

They saw their job and did it, without any fuss or talk,
Just as calmly and serenely as you'd start out for a walk.
Believe me, that takes courage, an' I'll hand it to them then,
You may call them non-combatants, but they are soldiers and they're men.


Bandsmen and stretcher-bearers: Why were bandsmen also stretcher-bearers?  Military History and Heritage Victoria Inc..  Available online.

How were stretcher bearers chosen? The Great War Forum.  Available online.

Medics At War: Stretcher Bearers on the Somme.  Great War Photos. Available online.

Stretcher Bearers.  Spartacus Educational.  Available online.

Stretcher Bearers on the Western Front.  New Zealand History Online.  Available online

Poem "The Stretcher Bearers" courtesy of Patsy Lumsden, Canso, NS.  Printed in New York National Guardsman magazine, June 1928.


  1. The badge, however, was no guarantee of safety. While on rare occasions enemy snipers fired at stretcher bearers, the majority of casualties were inflicted by enemy artillery fire. Stretcher bearers evacuated the wounded along the same routes by which infantry units moved reinforcements and supplies to the front lines and therefore routinely found themselves under constant shell fire while transporting their human cargo.

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  2. Thanks for the additional details, "Be the one"!

  3. Thanks, Emma. I'm glad that you found this item interesting.

  4. I'm actually doing a project on stretcher bearers for social studies

  5. That's great, Emma. I have a few photographs of stretcher bearers that I can send you by e-mail, if you are interested. My e-mail address is:

  6. Thanks Bruce. My grandfather was with the 2nd Pioneer Battalion and acted as a bearer at Vimy. I never really had a feel for the task so thank you for giving some sense of what was involved.