Australians on the Western Front: Bearing it all for their comrades and country

DEVASTATION: An Australian stretcher party brings in wounded soldiers along a duckboard track near Garter Point in the Ypres sector on October 15, 1917. Photo: AWM E01127
DEVASTATION: An Australian stretcher party brings in wounded soldiers along a duckboard track near Garter Point in the Ypres sector on October 15, 1917. Photo: AWM E01127

A four-man Australian stretcher party carries a wounded soldier along a duckboard track past the mud and bomb craters near Zonnebeke on October 15, 1917.

The photograph captures the devastation near Garter Point that followed eight hours of daily shelling.

One medical officer said: “I have never seen more exhaustion or greater courage among the bearers than during these weeks in front of Ypres.”

Stretcher-bearers had a dual role in the First World War, rescuing wounded so they would survive and fight another day and bringing in those near death who would never return.

Colonel Graham Butler, in the Official History of the Australian Army Medical Service 1914-18, called it a dual allegiance to serve the military command and to serve humanity – and said they succeeded at both.

The status of stretcher-bearers and respect for their powers of endurance rose steadily during the war – the use of battalion bandsmen generally ceased after mid-1916 – and bearers were selected “for their physique and guts.”

Casualties among the stretcher-bearers themselves, as they collected the wounded, were often very heavy.

The survival of wounded soldiers was very often determined by the first aid given by bearers.

Military historian Mark Johnston said stretcher bearers “also contributed to victory by maintaining morale of the healthy, who were reassured that if they were wounded someone would risk all to save them.”

In Stretcher-bearers: Saving Australians from Gallipoli to Kokoda, Johnston said that on the face of it the bearers coped remarkably well with the horrors of attending and evacuating the wounded under fire.

“Inevitably, though, dealing first hand with the butchery of war took its toll.”

Irish-born sleeper cutter and 16th Battalion scout Martin O’Meara was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916 for carrying in at least 20 casualties, under intense fire, from no man’s land at Mouquet Farm.

Three times wounded, he survived the war but spent his last 16 years in a Perth mental hospital.

Powerfully-built Cooma blacksmith’s striker Ernie Corey was decorated four times for saving lives.

With stretcher-bearers in short supply at Queant in 1917, the 55th Battalion private volunteered to help and spent 17 hours non-stop retrieving the wounded.

Australian Corps commander Sir John Monash said: “There was no finer example of individual self-sacrifice, for the benefit of comrades, than the stretcher-bearer service...”