Off to War

Date: 22 January 2019

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Part 1 – 130th (St John) Field Ambulance – Off To War - Written by Stephen Lyons

One of the most striking contributions made in the history of the St. John Ambulance Brigade is one which remained largely forgotten for over seventy-five years after its completion, until recalled by Knight of Justice of the Order of St John, C. J. Parry M.B.E., in his publication The Story of the Order of St. John in the Principality of Wales, published in 1996. That history slipped again from memory for almost twenty years, until the centenary commemorations of the Great War of 1914-1918 once more awoke an interest in the exploits of a very special group of Brigade members, the 130th (St. John) Field Ambulance.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, over 800 officers, men and women of No. 11 District were in training at Capel Bangor Camp at Aberystwyth under the command of No. 11 District’s Deputy Commissioner, Herbert Lewis. It was Lewis himself who announced the Declaration of War to the assembled throng. Almost immediately 1,000 St. John members from Wales were assigned to posts at Military Hospitals, to fill the huge gaps left by medics departing for the front with the regular army. During the early months of the war, in August and September, Herbert Lewis personally escorted groups St. John men to France to form Sanitary Squads. In October 1914, Staff-Sergeant John Jones (Abergorky Division) and Sergeant B. Fisher (Glanamman Division) wrote to the Amman Valley Chronicle to let their fellow brothers and sisters know how they were faring: they recounted the words Herbert Lewis spoke to them…

“Boys, let the country, and especially Wales, see that the men of St. John are ready and able to do their duty, and I shall be satisfied.”

 

It was at this time that Chancellor Lloyd George, eager to raise a Welsh Army, secured the agreement to do so from the Army Council. The original plan was to raise two Divisions but, subsequently, one was raised and became the 38th (Welsh) Division, a body of over 18,000 men which required the support of three mobile Field Ambulances, one for each of the Division’s three Brigades. The newly formed Welsh Army Corps, charged with raising this Welsh Army, specifically requested that the No. 11 District’s St David’s Centre undertake to raise one complete Field Ambulance from its members. This request was discussed and acceded to by the Executive Committee at a meeting on November 16th 1914. Herbert Lewis agreed to take on this responsibility and set about raising what was to become the 130th (St. John) Field Ambulance.

A sufficient number of names had already been submitted to form the unit immediately.

However, in order to be thoroughly representative, Lewis invited all the Divisional Officers to nominate men from their branches. The men came from the Amman and Garw valleys, the Rhondda, Ogmore Vale, Cardiff and the Monmouthshire Western Valley. They were mostly men from the Ambulance and Rescue Squads dotted around South Wales coalfields with stretcher and First Aid training and experience. They were hewers, blacksmiths, carpenters and repairmen from all manner of mining work, both above and below ground. The sergeants were clerks, teachers (one a Headmaster), pharmacists, a dentist and also a motorcycle demonstrator. They were Englishmen who worked at the pits alongside the Welsh, men from the country areas of Pembrokeshire, Radnorshire, Brecknockshire and even slate workers and grocers from North Wales who had come south to find work. One was a Theological Student from near Bangor who would serve but not bear arms. Frank Sumption, a pharmacist from Blackwood had been queuing at an infantry recruiting centre but, when asked his profession, was sent around the corner to join the Royal Army Medical Corps.

On the 12th December 1914, within a month of the request being made, the men of the 2nd Welsh Field Ambulance (as it was originally known) were attested at City Hall, Cardiff and the unit was officially handed over to the Welsh Army Corps. They were then treated to lunch at Park Hall by the Lord Mayor and inspected in Cathays Park by Lord Plymouth.

"I am glad to inspect the men of St David's Centre who are to form a Field Ambulance of the Welsh Army Corps. As Ambulance Director, I am proud of the way in which the men have come forward and feel it an honour to inspect such a fine body of men and the General can feel proud of them."

[Lord Plymouth]

Before the year was out their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel John E. H. Davies, a Wrexham surgeon, had taken up his post and Herbert Lewis had passed the reins to him. After a break for Christmas the men entrained to Porthcawl to begin formal training. As with all volunteers recruited for the war they would have to be moulded into an efficient, military unit and that took time.

From Porthcawl the men moved to Porthmadoc, Criccieth and then, on March 2nd, to Prestatyn to train during the first half of 1915. The entire Welsh Division was spread across the North Wales coast. By this time the unit had become the 130th (St. John) Field Ambulance but the men had yet to receive their full army kit. For the first quarter of the year they wore their St. John uniforms and were struggling to keep them in good repair. The unit was granted the privilege of wearing the St. John Eight Pointed Cross insignia on the left cuff of their uniform and to wear the St. John belt buckle. Although there were St. John men in the other Field Ambulances, the 129th and the 130th, by the very nature of its origins the 130th was the only unit of any description in the Great War to have this honour and to use the title “St. John” in its name.

 

The men trained for nursing and stretcher duties and signalling. New recruits were still arriving to join the unit. On one day five men from York turned up, two of which had been members of the Ambulance Team at the Rowntree Chocolate factory. The horse drawn ambulances they used were driven by men from the Army Service Corps (A.S.C.), the only men in the unit allowed to carry weapons. On April 9th Sergeant Cliff Jarman from Wrexham returned from Cardiff with a motorised ambulance car, a gift from St. John. Becoming a functioning military unit, though, was as much a mystery to the officers as it was to the men. Neither the officers nor the sergeants were familiar with military orders and the men had to become physically fit for their duties ahead. There were many long route marches, some of which became longer than necessary because the C.O. would regularly get them lost.

In August 1915 training entered a different level when the entire Welsh Division moved to Winchester to begin integrated Divisional training. The unit which arrived at Winchester was over subscribed by at least 60 men and this number had to be whittled down to three sections of 60 men each, officers and around 30 A.S.C. men. Each of three sections would have a tent sub-division and a bearer sub-division. The men also had to double as Officer’s batmen (valets), cooks, waiters, painters, hairdressers and carpenters. Whatever skills you may have had before the war were put to good use and many new ones were learned. Some men had proved physically unfit for service since joining up and others moved to other regiments as sanitary and water men. By November 1915, when Queen Mary inspected the Division, the 130th was at the correct strength and ready as it ever would be to serve in France.

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