During the First World War, the British Army used narrow boats (or barges) sailing on canals and rivers in France and Belgium for the transport of the wounded. A journey by barge would have been smoother and slower than any other means of transport and gave time for the nurses to wash the casualties, then clean and dress their wounds. Patients were also given food during their journey.
These narrow boats were not originally designed and built as hospital barges – existing barges were specially adapted from vessels used for the transport of goods such as coal. Access hatches were cut into the roofs and hand-operated lifts were installed so that stretchers could be lowered down into the body of the narrow boat.
Cargo holds were converted into 30 bed hospital wards, plus accommodation for the staff on board. Nurses from the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) looked after the wounded.
Hospital Barges in WW1 were manned by Royal Engineer Sergeants and were towed down the canals and rivers by steam tugs to Casualty Clearing Stations, Base Hospitals or to ports for evacuation to Britain. Hospital narrow boats were in groups of six and they travelled along in twos, each pair under the command of a Royal Army Medical Corps Officer (RAMC), usually a Captain. Each narrow boat was staffed by a QAIMNSR nursing officer, a staff nurse, an RAMC Sergeant, a Corporal, three nursing assistants, two general orderlies, a cook and a cook’s assistant. They lived aboard the narrow boat.
Once the wounded were safely delivered, the boat had to be cleaned thoroughly. There were many problems – the decks became slippery when wet, the smell of gas on soldiers’ uniforms often caused the staff to suffer a mild gas attack with problems such as vomiting, sore eyes and breathing difficulties and there was the added problem of lice on the uniforms of the wounded.
As the war progressed, special narrow boats were constructed to serve as hospital barges.
Photo: David Scheinmann the photographer has produced a series of beautiful greeting cards under the banner "Nostalgia - Handcrafted Greetings Cards featuring vintage photographs". Among these is a series to commemorate the role of women during the First World War. The picture shows British Nurses on a Hospital Barge and is NUMBERED BAIN 412, being one of a series of WW1 photographs taken by George Grantham Bain, a New York Photographer. The George Grantham Bain Collection is in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
For more information about David Schinmann's work, please see his website http://www.davidscheinmann.com/photo/home.html