December 1914 to August 1915 - Training in Wales

On the 12th December 1914 the Field Ambulance Unit raised by Mr Herbert Lewis (Deputy Commissionar of No. XI district, St John Ambulance Association, South Wales) was mobilised and handed over to the Welsh Army Corps at the St David's Centre in Cardiff.

St John men being attested at the St David Centre on Saturday 12th December 1914

The image above is reproduced here by the kind permission of Media Wales Ltd and the Newport Community Learning and Libraries, South Wales.

After being attested, the men were treated to luncheon by the Lord Mayor at Park Hall, Cardiff and were inspected and addressed by Lord Plymouth. He said "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."

The men of the new Field Ambulance Unit being entertained to luncheon at the Park Hall, Cardiff on Saturday 12th December 1914

The image above is reproduced here by the kind permission of Media Wales Ltd and Newport Community Learning and Libraries, South Wales.

The men were put through various drills and went on several route marches and were given six days leave over Christmas. The Glamorgan Gazette issue published on the 1st January 1915 ( reported that on Christmas Eve in Ogmore Vale, a nine year old girl ran out into the street with her clothes on fire and 48177 Pte Albert W Reed with great promptitude immediately wrapped a coat around her and extinguished the flames while both 48068 Sgt Frank J King and 48564 Pte Edward Pinkard also rendered assistance. Possibly the first casualty treated by the men as members of the Unit.

Lt Col Davies arrived in Cardiff on the 28th December and Mr Herbert Lewis handed over command to him on the following day.


(Image courtesy of Hospitalliers' Club of Wales)

The unit left Cardiff by special train on the 29th December 1914 to Porthcawl under the command of Lieut-Colonel J. E. H. Davies who was to command the unit for the rest of the war. The only other officers with the unit at this time were Major W. B. Edwards, Captain A. W. Anderson and Quarter Master (Hon Lieut) Thompson and possibly  Lieut Frederic Samuel Rowland (who, on arrival at Porthcawl and finding that the other Field Ambulance unit there did not have any Medical Officers, transferred to that unit).

R.A.M.C. recruiting poster 1914

Reproduced by kind permission of Special Collections - University of Leeds (URI: ).

The papers related to the formation and early days of the Welsh Army Corps available to view on line at Cymru 1914 - The Welsh experience of the First World War ( provide a fascinating insight into the the difficulties of raising an Army Division from scratch. Firstly, there was some confusion as to the make up of a Field Ambulance Unit with both Mr Herbert Lewis and Mr Owen Owens (Secretary of the Welsh Army Corps) believing that the St John Ambulance Association were going to raise a Field Ambulance Unit of 10 Officers and 223 other ranks. While this is the total strength of a Field Ambulance Unit, approximately 40 of the other ranks would be Army Service Corps men provided as attached personnel not Royal Army Medical Corps. Secondly, in all correspondence in November and December both Mr Herbert Lewis and members of the Welsh Army Corps referred to the Field Ambulance Unit being formed by the St John Ambulance association as the 1st Field Ambulance, Welsh Army Corps. This caused confusion when the Unit arrived at Porthcawl on the 29th December 1915.

During the first few months of training, most of the Welsh Army Corps (later the 38th (Welsh) Division) were clothed in Brethyn Llwyd (Welsh cloth) with the exception of the 130th (St John) Field Ambulance who wore their St John Ambulance uniforms until sufficient army khaki uniforms arrived. While the men who were attested at the St David Centre in Cardiff on 12th December 1914 were all St John men, as time passed, these men were added to by additional recruits, both St John men from outside Wales and men with no prior connection with the St John Ambulance Association such as 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption who joined later in December 1914. As the Unit's training progressed, a number of the recruits, both from the original St John men as well as the later recruits, were either found to be unfit for military service or transferred to other medical and non medical Units so that by the time the Unit sailed to France in December 1915, it was composed of a mixture of Welsh St John men, Non Welsh St John men and men with no prior St John connection but the majority of the R.A.M.C. men were still Welsh St John men.

While training both at Porthcawl, Porthmadoc, Criccieth and Prestatyn, the usual daily routine of the Unit was as follows; 07.30 Parade followed by physical exercise drill, the men then returned to their billets for breakfast to return for a further parade at 09.30. Following this second parade the men where trained in both Unit and Company marching drill or taken on a route march. Lunch was usually between 12.30 to 14.00 when there was another parade that was followed by further marching drill or a route march. This routine was followed six days a week and on Sunday, there was usually a parade at 09.30 followed by a church service after which the men were dismissed for the rest of the day. As time progressed, lectures in first aid, other medical and military topics where also included and as the necessary equipment arrived, training in stretcher drill was also added to the training programme.

Even by early January 1915, the boots of many of the men in the Unit were in a poor state and it was not until mid January that the men were issued with Army boots and socks. 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption records in his diary that he was issued with khaki puttees on the 23th January and that the Unit was issued with grey wool cardigans which were worn when going their physical exercise drill (see photograph below) which he describes as making the men look like little teddy bears.

Physical exercise in their grey wool cardigans (The Unit still being called the 2nd Fields Ambulance) Prestatyn.

The image above is by kind permission of Helen Cleaves - Granddaughter of 48542 Pte James Cleaves.

On Thursday 28th January 1915, the unit moved to Porthmadoc by train traveling via Neath, Carmarthen, Lampeter, Aberystwyth and Bargoed, arriving at Porthmadoc at about 4pm. 48554 Pte George Henry Jickells records in his diary that the Unit had a grand reception at Porthmadoc as they were the first lot of troops to arrive in the town. The Unit's daily routine continued in Porthmadoc with parades, physical exercise, marching drill and route marches. Col J. E. H. Davies, the commanding office also took part in the Unit's early morning physical exercise drill with 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption recording in his diary entry of 5th February 1915 that "there is no swank with him".

On the 6th February, 48071 William Stroud was made Sergeant Major for the Unit. The Units training gradually became more interesting with medical lectures being given by the Medical Officers such as one on typhoid given by Major William B Edwards after the 09.30 parade on 10th February and stretcher drill was also commenced about this time. On the 12th February, the men of the Unit were finally issued with khaki overcoats and so could start to look vaguely military.

 The photograph above is used with the kind permission of Eleanor, Granddaughter of 48192 Sgt Ernest Sweeting M.M and was probably taken in mid March 1915.

Rear row, L/Cpl Blackall, S/Sgt Williams, Sgt E T Owen and L/Cpl Sweeting.

Front row, Sgt Sumption, Pte Ll Jones, Pte C W Jarman and Ginger the mascot.

On the 17th February the Unit moved to Criccieth which was not popular with the men as they had been treated well by the people of Porthmadoc and further more, there was no gas or electric lighting in Criccieth! 48554 Pte George Henry Jickells  records that the Unit marched the 5 miles from Porthmadoc to Criccieth on the 17th February 1915 where he was billeted in a house where the owner and landlady was the cousin of Mr David Lloyd George!

The men of the Unit were issued with Khaki shirts on the 20th February and new boots on the 23rd, the same day that 48072 Nursing Sergeant John Reeves Davies records an interesting incident that occurred while the unit was stationed at Criccieth (courtesy of the Welsh National Library) "A suspected spy was caught coming off a boat, which ran at full speed into the harbour, he was captured and placed under arrest in the George Hotel. Guard was placed over him for about 2 hours. Then he was given in charge of the Chief Constable of Caernarfon. Eventually he turned out to be one of the Secret Service Men (British)." The diary of 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption states that "Today a little sensation was caused by suspicions that a man who came off a little tug in the bay was a German spy. Our men formed a guard around his hotel and he was arrested and examined. The authorities were satisfied as to his identity - he was a secret naval official. But our men weren't satisfied, they wanted to give him a swipe very badly and one usually placid man had a piece of lead piping ready to give him a downer should he prove obstreperous". On the 27th February, 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption was finally issued with a hat!

On the 2nd March, all three Field Ambulance Units (129th, 130th & 131st) of the now named 38th (Welsh) Division moved to Prestatyn to continue their Field and Hospital training. The routine of parades, physical exercise, marching drill and route marches continued. Col Davies took the Unit on a route march on the 4th March and not for the first time, managed to get lost, as 48128 Sgt Francis Sumption. The Colonel was developing a reputation for not being very good at navigating!

By the 5th March, the Unit was about 228 strong and the process of inoculating the men against typhoid began with many of the men fainting when being injected! The photograph below must have been taken after mid March as 48128 Sgt Francis Sumption records in his diary on the 11th that no tunics had yet been issued and the mens clothing was becoming very ragged. In fact, the uniforms for the men did not arrive until the 26th March.

 Men of the 130th (St John) Field Ambulance photographed with their landladies (widowed sisters - Mrs Evans and Mrs Schofield) Prestatyn 1915. From an original photograph held in the Army Medical Services Museum with a digital copy in the Welcome Library Collection.

Back row left to right are 48122 Pte William Haysum, 48092 LCpl John Brennan, 48180 Pte Timothy Richards (later awarded MM), 48109 Pte Herbert Dobbs, 48024 Pte Issac Beecham (later DoW). Front row left to right, 48205 Pte W J Watlters and 48162 Pte Samuel Maxworthy - all from Mountain Ash and then Cpl Jones and Pte Omery (?Emery) (probably 48551 Hembry) from Pontypridd.

While stationed at Prestatyn, the officers were billeted at the Nant Hall Hotel, in front of which the Unit photographs (see Home page and Official Photos page) were taken.

Nant Hall Hotel in 2014

The Nant Hall Hotel in 2014 

The training of the Unit continued at Prestatyn but equipment was in short supply to the extent that a carpenter in the Unit was making temporary stretchers so that the stretcher drill could become more interesting.

On the 13th March Colonel Probyn was sent to the Unit to take over from Colonel Davies. There had apparently been a disagreement between Dr Lyn Thomas (Welsh Army Corps Committee) and Herbert Lewis (Deputy Commissioner of No. 11 District, St John Ambulance Association) regarding the appointment of Officers to the Unit and the War Office had sent Col Probyn to take over from Col. Davies and also a Quarter Master Lieutenant from Aldershot to take over from Lt P S Thompson. There were rumours that Capt. A W Anderson and Major Edwards (both St John Ambulance Association Surgeons) were going to leave on account of Col. Davies losing his position. Neither Col Davies or the other Officers of the Unit had yet been Gazetted nor had they received any pay to date.

On Monday 22nd March, no Officers turned up to the 09.30 parade so Col. Probyn attended and assigned duties but there was a lot of ill feeling in the ranks such that on the following day the men marched to the Nant Hall Hotel only to discover that Capt Anderson and Maj Edwards had gone to London.

Col. Davies, Maj. Edwards, Capt. Anderson and Lt Thompson were finally Gazetted on the 30th March.

A section of page 3112 of the London Gazette 30 March 1915

 On Thursday 1st April, all four of the newly gazetted officers returned to the Unit and were greeted with loud cheers. 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption recorded that "We are all very glad to see them back." Col Probyn was appointed as an instructor to the Unit while Col Davies resumed his command but on the 9th April, Col Probyn was appointed as Commanding officer of the 131st Field Ambulance and thus left Col. Davies to command the Unit. Sgt Sumption goes on to state that "Col. Davies is an extremely considerate sort of man although I think he is better as a doctor than as a Commanding Officer."

On the 8th April, 48135 Sgt C W Jarman had been sent to Cardiff to collect an ambulance car, a gift of the St John Ambulance Association and he returned with it on the 9th.

Ambulance from the St John Ambulance Association

 48071 Sgt Maj W Stroud standing to the left and 48135 Sgt C W Jarman to the right of the ambulance during a stretcher loading drill.

New recruits continued to report to the Unit and had to be processed by the orderly Sergeant and interviewed by the Colonel and then found billets. So even with the loss from the Unit of men who were found to be unfit for military service or were commissioned into other units (such as sergeant dispenser Arnold Collins from Swansea who was commissioned into the 10th Welsh on the 3rd April), the total strength of the Unit gradually increased to well above its war time establishment. On the evening of the 12th April, four new recruits from York turned up, two of were probably 48620 Pte Martin Haddakin and 48619 Fred Yates, members of the Rowntree factory Ambulance Team in York.

As well as continuing their medical and military training while based at Prestatyn, the Unit had to provide a sergeant dispenser and nine hospital orderlies to the assist the Medical Officers of the infantry battalions (1st & 2nd Rhonddas, Carmarthen Pals and Swansea Pals) based at Rhyl. 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption being tasked with this duty for two weeks starting on Saturday 17th April. During Sgt Sumption's first week in Rhyl both 48192 L/Cpl Ernest Sweeting and 48087 L/Cpl Claude Trelawny Blackall were promoted to corporals. While Ernest Sweeting served the entire war with the Unit, later being promoted to Sergeant and being awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Pilckem ridge in 1917, Claude T Blackall did not go to France with the Unit but transferred to the 22nd (County of London) Battalion The Queens and was commissioned into the 1st Momonmouthshire in 1917. 

Also, during this week the Unit photographs (see home page and Official Photos page) were taken outside the Nant Hall Hotel. Both 48128 Sgt F B Sumption and 48064 S/Sgt L W Williams are absent from the Officers and Sergeants photograph, Sumption because he was on duty in Rhyl and Williams because he was on leave in Cardiff during which time he became engaged.

During May, the men attended lectures on first aid and practice in bandaging and on the 13th were all marched down to the town hall in Prestatyn where they each had an oral exam in first aid conducted in a small ante-room.

The next two images are with kind permission of David Ffoulkes, Grandson of Capt. Meredydd Ffoulkes who joined the Unit from the 16th (Service) Battalion of The Welsh Regiment (The Cardiff City Battalion) in June 1915.

Men of the 130th St John Field Ambulance in Prestatyn 1915

Note the man third from the end of the line still wearing civilian clothes, probably a new recruit.

Capt M Ffoulkes sitting at tent entrance. Prestatyn 1915

Capt. M Ffoulkes is seated at the entrance of the tent being handed a note by 48071 Sgt/Maj William Stroud. 

On the 19th June, 48135 Sgt Clifford W Jarman, Sgt Evan Thomas Owen and 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption were in charge of a large group of the men to visit the anatomical museum in Liverpool. Sgt Sumption describes the museum as "most disgusting and almost turned my stomach".

With the coming of the longer days of summer, the first parade of the day had gradually been moved earlier and earlier and now took place at 6.30 am. With the arrival of ambulance wagons and the ambulance car the men's training continued but, as can be seen from the picture below, there was still time for some larking about.

Image by kind permission of Helen Cleaves - Granddaughter of 48542 Pte James Cleaves.JC - 48542 Pte James Cleaves and WR = 48181 Pte William Ridgeway

By early July, Lieut. (later Capt.) Alfred John Andrew had joined the Unit and, as many of the Officers could not ride, there was a riding school for officers which provided much amusement for the men. Some like Major William B Edwards were experienced riders but that did not stop him being thrown from his horse when it shied at a motor car in mid July. His broken leg sustained in the fall prevented him sailing to France with the Unit in December 1915 but he did eventually join the Unit again in late March 1916. When he was picked up Major Edwards apparently said "I don't care tuppence about a broken leg, but tumbling off a horse makes one look such a fool".

Men of the 130th training in North Wales

The photograph above is by kind permission of David Ffoulkes, Grandson of Capt. Meredydd Ffoulkes (arrowed). It was probably taken in North Wales in June/July 1915. Does anyone have an idea as to what the men are doing in this photograph or can identify any of the other men or has other information, please do be in contact.

On the 26th July 1915 while still based at Prestatyn, the strength of the Unit was reported as total of 266 all ranks (R.A.M.C., 6 officers, 18 Warrant Officer & Sergeants, 3 Buglers, 229 other ranks; A.S.C., 1 Sergeant, 9 other ranks). By the 2nd August, Lt F A Anderson had joined the unit. 

On Thursday 5th August the Unit had a field training day at Downing Hall near Mostyn (a march of about 12 miles from Prestatyn) and 48128 Sgt Francis B Sumption was the NCO in charge of the hospital. The Unit arrived back in Prestatyn at 7.30pm having spent a long, tiring but enjoyable day.

On the 11th, the men of the Unit were issued with belts but according to 48128 Sgt F B Sumption, they were second hand and some of them were smeared with blood! 

Stretcher loading drill

 48135 Sgt Clifford W Jarman standing on the right at the front of the ambulance and 48068 Cpl Frank John King (later Sergeant and awarded the DCM for his actions at Pilckem Ridge in 1917) is standing immediately to the rear of the ambulance.

The Unit held a further field training day on Friday 13th August and returned from this in the pouring rain, arriving back in Prestatyn just in time for pay parade.

The Unit spent Wednesday 18th August moving out of their billets. The weather was glorious and they spent their time cleaning their belts with khaki blanco and laying them out on the grass of the field where they had previously practiced their stretch drill. At 8.30pm, they paraded at the Unit headquarters with all their belongings. A huge crowd of local people had gathered to wish the Unit farewell. Finally, the Unit marched to the station amid a blare of trumpets and boarded a train to Winchester via Chester, Shrewsbury and Birmingham.

The Unit history is continued in the next section 'August to December 1915'