With the imminent publication of Brides of Waterloo trilogy,
Louise Allen, Annie Burrows and I will be blogging on aspects of the battle and
our books over the next few months. I am
sure there will be lots of posts about the British army, but I thought I would
redress the balance a little bit and talk about one aspect of the Napoleonic
Wars where the French had the advantage. They invented and developed the
When I first saw the term "flying ambulance" I
thought it was something that had originated in Africa, or in the Australian
outback. In fact it goes back much further than that. It was Annie Burrows who first brought it to
my attention, when we were planning our trilogy of stories. The Brides of
Waterloo features a British artillery troop nicknamed Randall's Rogues and when
Annie needed to get her wounded hero from the battlefield she calmly announced,
"the French have ambulances, so the Rogues will steal one."
An intriguing idea, and I read more about the development of the ambulance in Dr Martin Howard's
two wonderfully detailed books, Wellington's
Doctors and Napoleon's Doctors.
For his day, Bonaparte was very forward-thinking when it
came to the health of his army. He preferred prevention to medication and
advocated good food, good hygiene, fresh air and high morale. He also supported
the use of quinine and vaccination. He was known to support his surgeons and
doctors and yet he was also capable of callously sacrificing huge numbers of
men on ill-thought-out military schemes. He aroused mixed feelings in his medical
staff, including those in civilian life as the years of the Empire drew to a close and the casualties in the French army rose to alarming proportions.
Weapons of war changed very little during the 18th
century. The effectiveness of the lead
musket balls varied widely, a bullet could kill or it might inflict only a superficial wound
that could cause little immediate pain and there are reports of soldiers
digging out the balls themselves. Howard
tells of a French volunteer in 1792 who was shot in the hip. He dug out the
ball and re-used it, shouting "look, this is how republicans fight!"
Soldiers facing cannon had perhaps more to fear. A soldier in the
path of round shot was often killed outright, or had major injuries that required
amputation because bones and tissues were so badly damaged. Then there were the sword wounds. Straight swords
were used for thrusting and caused deep internal injuries, usually to the chest
and abdomen, whereas a curved sabre was used for slashing at the head and arms.
The heavy cavalry wielded a broad sword capable of breaking bones and severing
limbs. And it was not only weapons - there was the risk of being crushed by falling masonry or trampled
by horses, or burned by exploding shells and fires in the undergrowth or buildings.
And if none of the above actually killed you, for survivors there was the risk
Normal practice in the 18th century was to leave
the wounded on the battlefield until the end of the battle then send out
litter-bearers to carry anyone still alive to field hospitals situated a mile
or so from the site, where the doctors would remain safely away from the
battle. Many of the wounded died before they could get to help or were never even moved from the field as many of the litter-bearers preferred to become looters and never
carried their injured comrades to the hospitals.
However the Revolution had brought the welfare of the rank
and file to prominence and by 1793 the
French Revolutionary Authorities were ordering army doctors to remain with their
men in battle or risk a charge of desertion. Many medical men were dedicated
and courageous doctors and happy to
comply, and two of the most prominent of these were Pierre-Francois
Percy and Dominique Jean Larrey. They were both surgeons in chief to Napoleon, and
with the support of many of their colleagues they pioneered the idea of taking
medical help to the wounded men.
By 1772 the French were already using heavy wagons drawn by as many
as 50 horses to carry medical supplies. These were large "ambulance hospitals"
with hundreds of medical personnel to cater for up to 2,000 injured soldiers
but they were slow and cumbersome. In
1793 the National Convention even set up a competition to design a carriage
suitable for transporting the sick and wounded. None of the designs proved a
success, but it demonstrates that the provision of medical help was a concern.
However, the doctors themselves were making more progress.
|A "Wurst" c 1807|
In 1792 Percy was the surgeon in charge of the Army of the
Rhine and he formed a number of old soldiers and disabled men into a corps of
stretcher bearers. The men worked in pairs to remove the wounded from the field
and take them to the nearest mobile hospitable. Then, when all the wounded had
been collected the corps assisted the surgeons in the hospitals. Percy also designed an elongated vehicle
with four wheels that was filled with surgical instruments, dressing, elastic
sticking plasters etc. These vehicles were called "wursts", the German
for sausage, because that is what they resembled. The top was rounded, covered
in leather and provided saddle-like seating for up to ten surgeons and their
assistants to sit astride. They had supplies enough to deal with upwards of a
1,000 casualties. However, the vehicles were large and cumbersome and the lack of
logistical support and a shortage of horses and supplies hampered their
These "wursts" were praised by officers but never
in widespread use on the battlefield. However, Larrey designed a smaller, lighter but sturdy vehicle that was able
to travel quickly over the ground. It could bring medical aid to men during the
fighting and could carry away two patients lying down. His idea was to remove
the wounded from the battlefield with all speed, so the surgeons accompanying
these vehicles carried only the equipment required for first aid, and the
more seriously wounded would then be removed to mobile hospitals close by. Larrey was
supported by the medical men of the day and in 1797 he received official
approval for his idea, which by this time included not just the light vehicles,
but a whole medical organisation dedicated to treating the wounded and removing
them from the battlefield as quickly as possible. The smaller, light vehicles
also had the advantage that if one of them was lost it would not be a major
blow as there were others to carry on the work.
These "flying ambulances" were a full complement
of 340 men and over 30 wagons split into three divisions with surgeons,
assistants, orderlies etc. each man with specific duties and his own role to
play. Great attention was given to the medical equipment carried and the
uniforms, everything had to be practical and useful. In 1798 Larrey also had
the opportunity try out his ambulance system in Egypt– and when there was a
shortage of draught animals he used camels to transport the wounded!
This was just the start of the ambulance system. Larrey was
chief surgeon to the Imperial Guard, and their ambulance service was well
organised by Larrey himself. For the rest of the army the ambulance service woefully
inadequate but the idea was born and it had been shown that it could work.
British doctors could only look on with envy at this advanced
system of medical care. Today it seems a very logical idea, but it took another 60 years
after Waterloo for the British to set up their trained ambulance corps.
And as a final footnote, Larrey had another innovative idea
wanted hospitals to be inviolable during
war. This concept was much later taken up by the Red Cross and the Geneva
Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory
Published by Harlequin May 2015 -
A Lady for Lord Randall,
first in the
Brides of Waterloo Trilogy
Labels: 18th c medicine, A Lady for Lord Randall, Annie Burrows, Bonaparte, Brides of Waterloo, Larrey, Louise Allen, Randalls Rogues, Sarah Mallory, Waterloo