Stories from the Archives

Glenbow's Archives hold thousands of stories of western Canadian lives and events. In November 2013, with the generous assistance of The Calgary Foundation, we invited retired Calgarians to explore some of our little-used research files and to prepare articles about what they discovered. This was a pilot project aimed at involving more people in the community telling community stories using Glenbow's resources.

Alberta Ambulance Drivers in World War 1

By Carole Baldwin

What happened when a young man was caught up in the excitement of going to war in support of his country but was too young, too short, too old or not physically fit? My grandfather was one of those men.

Because of my interest in genealogy, I requested his Attestation Papers [1] from Ottawa and discovered that James Cullain was only five feet four inches in height when he enlisted with the Canadian Medical Army Corps - the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance when World War I began in 1914. I knew from family history that my grandfather was not in the medical profession before or after the War. He was an ambulance driver during the War [2] and I became intrigued with how this came about and what he faced during the five years he spent in France.

The Glenbow Archives in Calgary provided several memoirs and newspaper articles about the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance Corps which arose out of Calgary. In addition, I read several books about ambulance drivers in World War I (both fiction and non-fiction) and reviewed online war diaries of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance. This expanded my knowledge about ambulance and drivers during World War I. (See Bibliography at the end of this essay)


Ford 1916 Model T Field Ambulance, ca. 1916-1918. This canvas on wood frame model was used extensively by the Allied forces in World War 1. Its top speed was 45 mph (72 km/h), produced by a 4-cylinder water-cooled engine. (, accessed June 2014)

What was the Field Ambulance?

"The Field Ambulance was a mobile unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was situated quite close behind the fighting front, and received wounded and sick men. Some had received rudimentary treatment at the front-line aid posts. The job of the Field Ambulance was to treat men who could be quickly returned to unit (the lighlty wounded or sick) but in general to prepare the men for a move to a Casualty Clearing Station." [3]

According to the War diaries of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance, a telegram was sent from the Canadian headquarters in Ottawa to the Headquarters of Military District No.13 in Calgary authorizing the formation of a Field Ambulance for Overseas Service. [4] The title of the Unit was to be: No VIII Canadian Field Ambulance. The Unit was to have 10 officers and 238 N.C.O.'s and men. This Unit was one of the very few who returned as a complete unit in March of 1919. (Calgary Herald, November 2, 1919). At the end of the War, 100 officers and 2,000 men, mostly from Alberta, had become part of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance. During their time in France, this Unit had acquired: [5]

1 Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

1 Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)

5 Military Crosses

20 Military Medals


Cover of "Historical Records of No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance: Canada, England, France, Belgium, 1915-1919" by Lt. Col. J.N. Gunn, 1920. (Glenbow Library 355.31 G976h)

In his personal memoirs held at the Glenbow Archives, Fred A. Smithers, one of the original men in this Unit described the inspection that took place the day before travelling across Canada to Halifax, then to England and finally to France. "Saturday March 25, 1916 at three o'clock unit was inspected by the GOC of Military District No. 13 (Brig. Gen. E.A. Cruikshank) who expressed himself as very pleased with the general appearance and wished them well." [6]

According to Smithers, once they arrived in France, they were attached to the 3rd Canadian Division and billeted primarily in farm houses, mostly in lofts over animals with straw for mattresses.

Sleeping accommodations throughout the war varied depending on where the soldiers and drivers were stationed and whether or not they were on duty. A loft in a barn was a most welcome place to sleep after spending nights in a dugout or trench. The French referred to one type of sleeping quarters as "abri". These were caves covered with sheet iron, sand bags, logs and earth. "Cold and damp" was the best description of where they usually slept. There were many times when the men had to sleep in trenches where they described rats as big as cats running above and around them. If they were lucky they got to sleep on a rickety cot. [7] At least it was off the ground.

Soldiers looked forward to off duty times when they could go into a village, have a delicious meal and especially take time for a bath and washing of their uniforms and other clothes. They were eager to remove their khaki uniforms that became caked in mud and filled with lice that was embedded in their clothing. In fact, delousing stations needed to be set up. Very hot water was needed for this, but what a wonderful feeling to get a good soak in soapy hot water and put on clean clothes afterwards.

Meals provided on days off or rest periods were frequently nourishing and delicious. But day to day food often consisted of several day-old hard bread (without butter), cheese and cheap wine - not exactly a nourishing meal.

Most soldiers found the water in France putrid. Wine was the beverage of choice and so those coming from Canada chose wine over water with their meals. It is no wonder that many returned home after the war as alcoholics.


Cover of "In & Out: Being a Paper Published from Time to Time by the [4]th Canadian Field Ambulance in the Field," No. 1, November 1918. This publication was collected by Henry James Howell, who served with the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance, 2nd Canadian Division, 1914-1919. (Glenbow Archives M-6811-3)

The wounded and the dead

Smithers described his first experience of injury and death soon after arriving in France: "A shell burst close to the ambulance, seriously wounding the two drivers, slightly wounding the two officers and the sergeant." Capt. J.J. Jamieson, Capt. J.A. Reid and Sgt. R. Jackson were slightly wounded; Drivers Pte. C. Sandison and Sgt. T. Garnett were seriously wounded. Smithers goes on to say that Sandison, despite his injuries, steered the car into the shelter of the Asylum Yard before collapsing. He died the following day.

Drivers in the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance were crucial in transporting the dead, injured, and sick casualties to medical stations and hospitals. One hundred years ago the Canadian Field Ambulance soldiers did not need medical training. Their primary purpose was transportation of the wounded or dead to a casualty station as quickly as possible. Even if there were shouts of "slow down" or "take it easy" the drivers had to go as quickly as they could, despite the rugged terrain, ruts in the roads or obstacles such as barbed wire in their way. Often they heard gunfire or shells exploding, and sometimes they were unable to complete the journey to the medical station, due to further injuries or death themselves.

Smithers tells the story of an ambulance driver who changed a tire while shelling took place on the road beside him. Such heroics were commonplace as the drivers took their responsibilities very seriously.

Another ambulance was shelled by enemy fire with one driver killed and the other wounded with shrapnel to his left arm. The injured driver somehow managed to carry two of the wounded from the back of the ambulance to a dugout until further assistance could be obtained from another ambulance. Such bravery and valour were recounted time and again in war diaries and memoirs.

J. N. Gunn in a speech quoted in the Calgary Herald (November 2, 1919) talked about the very high code of honour among stretcher-bearers. "None considered any risk too great or any task too hard if it meant relief for some stricken man. Their duty was not over until every man had been picked up." [8] (Personal papers held at the Glenbow Archives)


Lt. Col. Dr. John Nisbet Gunn of the Canadian Field Ambulance corps, Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1919. (Glenbow Archives NA-4002-26)

Drivers transported several types of patients. There were those wounded in battle who needed stretchers. Many suffered from shrapnel imbedded in their skin. Deafening screams were heard as the vehicle bumped along the deeply rutted and bombed-out roads.

Those suffering from mustard gas were retching and coughing, with eyes burning sometimes to the point of blindness. Inside, their bodies felt a burning sensation in their lungs. Phosgene gas mixed with chlorine came to be called mustard gas. The only defense was a mask which consisted of goggles with a hose like an elephant's trunk - very uncomfortable.

Others suffered from a variety of diseases and illnesses, some needed to be transported to the contagious disease hospital. Of course, the ambulance drivers suffered the possibility of contracting the illness.

The dead were also carried away. If they were not carried away quickly, maggots lived on their rotting flesh. The first time a soldier saw someone dead, he often retched and vomited. He shivered and shuddered from head to toe to see his first dead soldier with his eyes still open. After a while he became hardened at seeing so many deaths around him, and even thought, "thank God it wasn't me!"


During World War I, companies, unions or individuals donated cars or money used to fit vehicles with ambulance bodies. The back of the ambulance usually had room for three stretchers or five injured soldiers in a sitting position. A rudimentary knowledge of repairing these vehicles was a great asset for ambulance drivers, because they would often break down on their travels back and forth picking up the injured and transporting them to casualty stations.


Soldiers from No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance, "C" section reading the English periodical "Bystander," Lille, France, 1918. (Glenbow Archives NA-4400-1)

Medical stations and hospitals

The personal papers of Dr. John Nisbet Gunn (held at the Glenbow Archives) reveal the process to be followed when a wounded soldier was brought to the casualty station:

Enter in A & D Book the Unit, No, Rank, Name and nature of disability.

All patients to have either Field Medical Card or Tag before being sent down to MDS.

Use red-bordered envelopes for serious cases.

ATS not to be given, this will be done at MDS.

Dose of Morphine (when given) and time to be checked.

Give ATS, check patient and card.

Make all necessary entries in A & D Book and issue returns.

Obviously the personnel at these casualty stations knew the meaning of the acronyms.

According to his personal papers at Glenbow, J. N. Gunn was born in Ontario in 1879 and trained in medicine at the University of Toronto. He moved to Calgary in 1907 where he practiced as an eye specialist. During World War I he served as a Colonel with the 8th Field Ambulance Brigade and was awarded the DSO. His obituary in the Calgary Herald (August 27, 1937) reveals that J.N. Gunn "was among the first to suggest blood transfusions as a means of saving life early in the war".

A casualty station had tables with piles of bandages, absorbent cotton, gauze, surgical instruments, antiseptics and splints. The soldiers, patients, and medical personnel could not escape the smell of gas from the lamps and the screeching sound of ambulances arriving. One can only imagine the tension as patients were brought into the station with a variety of wounds.


Soldiers of the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance playing cards in barracks, ca. 1915-1918. (Glenbow Archives NA-4617-2)

The usual process was for comrades or stretcher-bearers to carry the injured soldier to the nearest medical/dressing station where a doctor examined the wound, put on a dressing, recorded the soldier's name, regiment, and nature of the injury and injected the patient with a shot against tetanus. Any personal effect from a dead soldier was set aside, recorded and prepared to be sent home to the family.

The ambulance drivers often assisted in carrying the wounded on stretchers when the soldier was transported to a second medical station. Here another doctor saw the patient, reassessed his injury, and then decided where to send the patient - to a triage hospital which was anywhere from three to ten miles away. A further examination of the patient determined where he would be sent - perhaps farther away from the front line of the battle - or back to England - for recuperation.

There were several types of hospitals in France during World War I. The triage hospitals primarily assessed wounds and determined where the patient should be sent next. If the soldier was suffering from a contagious disease, he would be sent to a specialty hospital for this purpose. Some of the wounded were transported to the base hospital or the hospital of evacuation.

Chaplains moved from one medical station or hospital to another to listen to the injured, pray with them, console the dying or fulfill requests for letters to be written home. Chaplains filled in wherever they were needed, as did the ambulance drivers while waiting to transport the injured or dying.

Roads and weather

Heavy rain made the roads a quagmire, heavy with mud. In addition, much transportation and marching had to take place at night in order to avoid being seen by the enemy. They transported supplies, food, and ammunition. The enemy constantly bombed the road in order to prevent such travel.

The soldiers spoke of cold wet weather from the autumn through the spring. Under such conditions, one rarely warmed up while on duty. Only when there was time off and the soldiers could go to the villages could they get into a hot bath and sleep under warm blankets.


Soldiers of the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance leaving Calgary, Alberta, ca. 1915. (Glenbow Archives NA-4617-5)

Social life

Ambulance drivers were not on call every day. There were times when they were officially on duty for 24 hours every fourth day. At other times when they were short of men, they would work for 24 hours and then have a break for 24 hours. Everything depended on the number of men and vehicles available at any given time. There were also slow times when there were few casualties.

When they did not have to be at their post, men had time to just rest or loaf around, read, write letters to family and friends, play cards, drink or gamble. Many of the ambulance drivers would tinker with their vehicles, checking the equipment and cleaning the mud and dirt that had accumulated.

Letters were a very big preoccupation during the war. Men were very eager to receive news from home. Sometimes it took weeks or even months for letters to arrive. Sometimes letters were lost on the way. When a letter was written, it was read by someone in authority and censored. Soldiers were told not to mention anything that would indicate where they were stationed. Letters to those in the war zone were addressed to an official site in Paris and then forwarded to the individuals to whom it was addressed.

Time and again letters home would simply say what a terrible thing war is, without giving the gruesome details of how bad it really was. My grandfather succinctly described the horrors of war in a letter to my grandmother whom he was courting at the time. The letter written from France dated December 10, 1916, said, "Feel at present as if I owned the whole world (No chance if I did the war would not be on)". [9]

Glenbow holds a large collection of letters between Dr Harold McGill and Nurse Emma Griffis of Calgary. Dr McGill served with the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance and Nurse Griffis was stationed at a military hospital in England during World War I. Their correspondence began with friendship, progressed to love, and culminated in their wedding in 1917. Almost every letter commented on how Harold looked forward to letters from her, from family members or friends. [10]


Captain Harold W. Riley clearing casualties after the Battle of Amiens, August 1918. Riley is shown at 4th Field Ambulance dressing station at Maison Blanche near Roye, France. Note the German prisoners assisting. (Glenbow Archives NA-5555-7)

The horrors of war

The original excitement that led young men to join the war effort soon deteriorated into discouragement as the war went on longer than anyone expected. The conditions under which those fighting the battles lived became more and more demoralizing.

One hundred years later how can we describe the horrors of the "Great War" as it came to be called? The ambulance drivers who transported men to casualty stations or hospitals saw heavily wrapped-up heads with bandages soaked with blood. Men screaming with pain as they were jostled along rutted roads must have caused the drivers to feel like screaming themselves. The smell of blood and rotting flesh would be enough to cause anyone to vomit.

As ambulance drivers travelled from one place to another, they could hear the clicking of rifles and the chatter of machine guns from the enemy as well as from their own side. Shells landing caused thick smoke that prevented them from seeing where they were going.

One of the worst sights an ambulance driver experienced was a pregnant woman sitting by the side of the road shell-shocked. After a while it was almost expected to see men dead or wounded, but when women and children were injured or suffered the effects of war, "It would call forth all the hidden powers of passionate protest" (Gunn and Dutton, Historical Records, p. 20) and these memories could never be erased.

Changes in friends

One of the biggest changes that soldiers saw over time was the changes that had taken place in their friends. They had all started out positive and happy, believing that they were serving their country, that it would be an exciting adventure and would not last very long. Five long years later, Canadian soldiers were still in France. Many men had become angry, discouraged and disillusioned. They were surrounded by death, destruction and misery. They were eager for it to be over and to return to their homes and families, to warmth, clean clothes and a normal life. Some, my grandfather included, had to wait a long time for this to happen.

Returning home

What began as a great adventure eventually became an eagerness to return home to some kind of normalcy. Most recognized that the Great War was coming to an end in one way or another. It simply could not be sustained in their view. Letters home indicated how anxious they were to see their loved ones again. As we now know, that return to normal living included a heavy burden. Soldiers who had experienced such atrocities could not turn off their nightmares, their fears, and the sounds in their heads. Neither could they explain to family members what they had seen and heard in Europe. Many never spoke of the War again. They kept all these horrors within themselves and some men turned to alcohol to ease the mental pain.

Today we refer to this sad state as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD which I am sure my grandfather suffered. We now know why he turned to alcohol as a relief for his nightmares and anguish at seeing so much misery and despair for five long years. Can this reflection on the sufferings and horrors experienced during World War I teach us any lessons about support for those returning from conflicts in many parts of the world?


Government of Canada: Library and Archives Canada. Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918. Complete service file including attestation papers for James William Andrew Cullain. (Hard copy in possession of Carole Baldwin)
Family history: Oral interviews of Tony Cullain (my father) and Leona Edwards (my aunt) - son and daughter of James Cullain.
What is the Field Ambulance? (Retrieved May 20, 2014)
War diaries of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance. (Retrieved on February 13, 2014)
Calgary Herald newspaper: November 2, 1919. (held in the personal and military papers of John Nisbet Gunn - Glenbow Museum)
Smithers, Fred A. Detailed memoirs of the 8th Canadian Filed Ambulance World War I (Held in the Glenbow Museum)
Harvey, William C. and Harvey, Eric T. eds. Letters from Verdun: Frontline Experiences of an American Volunteer in World War I France. (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2009) p. 42
Gunn, J. N. personal and military papers -Glenbow Museum
Letter from my grandfather to my grandmother from France in 1916 (Held in personal library of Carole Baldwin)
Harold McGill letters (Held in the Glenbow Museum)


Calgary Herald newspaper March 26, 1919 - personal and military papers of John Nisbet Gunn (Glenbow Museum)

Eldridge, J. The Trenches: Billy Stevens, The Western Front 1914-1918.Toronto: Scholastic Canada, 2002

Government of Canada: Library and Archives Canada. Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918

Gunn DSO, Lt Col JN, Dutton, S. Sgt EE. Historical Records of Number 8 Canadian Field Ambulance 1915-1919.Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1920 (Glenbow Museum)

Gunn, J. N. personal and military papers. Glenbow Museum

Harvey, William C. and Harvey, Eric T. eds. Letters from Verdun: Frontline Experiences of an American Volunteer in World War I France. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2009

Although these letters were written by an American, they proved useful in this essay because the author belonged to a Field Ambulance corps during World War I. He was articulate and revealed both the positive and negative aspects of his life in France during 1917 and 1918. (Held in the personal library of Carole Baldwin)

Hemingway, Ernest. Farewell to Arms. Kindle edition

This novel served the purpose of this essay because it was based on some of the personal experiences Hemingway had as a soldier in a Field Ambulance Corps.

Johnson, A.E, Hall, A Roland, Best, CT, Roe JM. Diary of the Eleventh: being a record of XIth Canadian Field Ambulance February 1916-May 1919 (Glenbow Museum)

McGill, Dr. Harold, Harold McGill letters. Glenbow Museum

Smithers, Fred A. Detailed memoirs of the 8th Canadian Filed Ambulance World War I (Glenbow Museum)

War diaries of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance. (Retrieved on February 13, 2014)

About the author

Carole Baldwin is a retired teacher, passionate about researching and writing her family history. A neighbour, who knew of these interests, invited her to attend an introductory session on writing at the Glenbow Museum. Eager to discover more about her grandfather, who was an ambulance driver during World War I, Carole signed up for the voluntary Stories from the Archives project. Carole lives in Bragg Creek with her husband, Dermot and faithful dog, Nemo. The Baldwins have three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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