No.27 AMBULANCE TRAIN
The night of 10th November 1916
On the night of 10th November 1916, No.27 Ambulance Train was targeted during a long hostile bombing raid in the vicinity of Amiens railway station. As the result of their work that night, all three nursing sisters on the train, Kate Mahony, Ethel Thompson and Mabel Evans were awarded the Military Medal. The official citations for their awards can be found on the Military Medal pages, but the following two accounts outline the happenings that night, and how their actions resulted in their decoration for bravery. First a newspaper report of the time; unfortunately I don't its exact source, but I suspect it comes from Sheffield.
The alarm, screeched forth into the night air by a great Strombos horn, like a factory buzzer, reached British ambulance train No.27 as it was drawing a heavy load of wounded away from a town in the vicinity of the Somme front one autumn night. There were three British nursing sisters – Sister Kate Mahony, Sister Ethel Kate Thompson, and Sister Mabel Louise Evans – on it.
The driver brought the train to a standstill. In its coaches nearly 500 wounded men, some able to walk, but most of them lying still and helpless on their train cots, awaited what the night should bring them. The first anti-aircraft gun sent forth a whistling shell. Others joined in. But the aircraft came on steadily. It was clear they had an “object.”
“Boom” – a bomb dropped in a field. Up went a shower of earth, which came pattering down like heavy rain upon the roof of the coaches. A second bomb dropped nearer. The coaches rocked and the wounded men began to moan. Another bomb fell. It seemed to fall right on the train itself, though actually it was some yards away. Crash went every window. Out went every handlamp. The train gave a heave that threw the patients out of their beds. They rolled pell mell – they and their wounds and their splints and their beds in the middle of the coach.
And then a woman’s clear voice rang out in the coach. “Now do be quiet and good boys till I light a lamp.” A hand struck a match and applied it to the wick of a handlamp. Sister Kate Mahony stood calm and undismayed in the entrance of the coach.
“Now just wait till I get this wretched little lamp to burn and we’ll have you all in bed in no time; Corporal, you come along and give me a hand,” she added, still holding the match to the wick. And the men in that carriage say that the hand never even trembled. They lay huddled there, some in bed, some on the floor, fascinated by the sight. She got hold of orderlies by the arm. “Here, you come and help,” she said, and orderlies obeyed.
In another coach was Sister Evans; in another Sister Thompson; both of them, like Sister Mahony, models of womanly gentleness and courage. And all this time – for a full hour the attack lasted – the sisters in white moved from coach to coach giving courage by their wonderful example and practical help.
“Man, I’ve seen some cool things,” said the Commandant to a representative of the Evening News, “but the like of those women and the work they did that night I have never seen.” And stowed somewhere in the records of the War Office is the report* made on the behaviour of the three sisters – Mahony, Evans and Thompson – that night by the Commandant of the train, and it contains these words:-
“Patients and staff alike felt that they had to play up to the wonderful standard set by the sisters.”
Sister Mabel Louise Evans is a native of Sheffield, and received her training at Sheffield Royal Hospital. When war broke out she was a member of the Territorial Force Nursing Section, and immediately volunteered for foreign service. She did not, however, get sent abroad at once, but was put on the staff of the Third Northern General Hospital, subsequently receiving orders for duty at one of the base hospitals in France. After a spell at this class of work she was put on to ambulance train duty between the clearing stations and the base, and it was while she was engaged on this mission that her courage and coolness in danger won for her the rare distinction just awarded.
*And from the service file of Ethel Kate Thompson, a copy of the letter written by the Officer Commanding, mentioned above. It is addressed to the Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, Ambulance Trains, and dated November 1916.
I desire to draw attention to the courage and coolness shown by,
Sister M. L. Evans, T.F.N.S.
Sister K. Mahony, Q.A.I.M.N.S.R.
Sister E. K. Thompson, Q.A.I.M.N.S.R.
on the night of the 10th inst.
We were carrying down a full load of sick and wounded (450) and our arrival at AMIENS coincided with the beginning of an aeroplane attack. All ‘stood to’ – electric lights were hitched off and hand lamps lit etc. We ran on until halted outside the Main Station. All around the anti-aircraft guns and maxims were in hot action. Among the helpless patients and among the shell shock patients there was considerable alarm, which was increased as loud explosions began to be heard.
The firing continued and the explosions crept nearer, until, for us, the climax was reached when at short intervals 5 bombs fell in our immediate neighbourhood, near enough to send debris over the train. Twice the lamps were blown out; windows were broken on both sides of the train. The nearest bomb tore up the off rail of the line next to us, smashed the windows and rocked the coach so much that the patients on one side were thrown out of their cots. The attack lasted an hour.
The Sisters rose to the occasion from the very beginning. Carrying hand lamps they went about their jobs coolly, collectedly and cheerfully. Their influence in stopping panic and allaying alarm, was I believe, greater than that of the officers – just because they were Sisters – patients and personnel felt they had to play up to the standard set by the Sisters. They had their chance and rose to it magnificently.
W. M. Darling, Officer Commanding No.27 Ambulance Train.