John Silver’s Field Ambulance: images of life in WWI France

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By | From the Collections

On 3 August 1914 Germany declared war on France, and by the following day, the UK had mobilised divisions of troops, and with them, Field Ambulances to send to the frontline.

The Field Ambulance was not a vehicle but the name given to a mobile front line medical unit. Each Division had three field ambulances assigned to it, comprised of 10 officers and 224 men in total. Lieutenant Colonel John P. Silver commanded the No. 17 Field Ambulance in 6th Division, and his richly photographic papers form part of some recently digitised archives from the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Photograph of ten officers and two chaplains from No. 17 Field Ambulance, 6th Division. Lt Col John Silver is in the centre of the front row. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/542/10-12.

Initially stationed at Cambridge for hard training, the unit was forced to wait until 7th September 1914 before heading to France. They reached Armentière near the Franco-Belgian border on October 17, where trench lines were established and remained until 1918.

Here, Silver was stationed in a makeshift hospital – the beautiful École National Professionelle, which was re-purposed to house 355 beds, as well as premises for the manufacture of war materials for the British army. The school’s laboratories were used to carry out research on poison gas.

École National Professionelle

Postcard of  the École National Professionelle in Armentière. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/542/10-12.

In early October 1914, Armentière was the scene of heavy German shelling, from which the 6th Division suffered a total of 5779 casualties cared for by Silver’s unit. Photographs of bomb damage attest to the presence of Silver’s men in the area. The school was sadly crushed under the shelling, forcing the hospital and manufacturing materials to be transferred to the hospice at Hazebrouck in July 1915.

Bomb damage

Photograph of the factory behind Silver’s house,’ brought down by bombardment’. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/542/10-12.

Silver’s papers include postcards of the pre-war area. One postcard features the landmark seen by most troops en route to the Battle of the Somme – the Basilica of the Notre Dame de Brebières. The statue of the Virgin and child atop this church was hit by a shell on January 1915 rendering it precariously horizontal. Incredibly, the statue remained in this position until further shelling in 1918 completely destroyed it, as one soldier remarked: “It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there”. The statue became known as the ‘Golden Virgin’ and the Germans claimed that whoever made the statue eventually fall would lose the war – an accurate prediction!

Postcard of the Basilica of the Notre Dame de Brebières. Wellcome Library reference:

Postcard of the Basilica of the Notre Dame de Brebières with the toppled statue on the left. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/542/10-12.

It is hard to visualise the horror of the shelling in this area in contrast to the peaceful photographs of Silver’s Field Ambulance Camp where shelters crafted from straw sit in an open field or camouflaged beneath trees in Villeblaine, Aisne. Being English, it was only right that afternoon tea was maintained, albeit under foliage-sheltered canopies.

Tea time at the Field Ambulance camp

Afternoon tea at the Field Ambulance C Section cook house, covered in foliage for camouflage. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/542/10-12.

Camouflage was also used to great effect to hide artillary. Silver’s album contains other examples of military equipment, including an early Belgian tank. View the whole album online:


Author: Julia Nurse is Content and Metadata Officer at the Wellcome Library.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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