I was listening a while ago to an oral history on the Imperial War Museum’s site from an unnamed British stretcher bearer on the Struma Front. He may have been forgotten but he lives alongside more remembered company in the form of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and artist Stanley Spencer, both of whom served as stretcher-bearers in the campaign.
The Great War Stories: Luton’s Greatest has an account by Private Robinson who in Gallipoli, faced challenges that stretcher-bearers in Salonika would have found very similar,
“People have no idea what difficulties and dangers have to be overcome in evacuating wounded. The hilly nature of the country does away with the idea of mechanical transport, and every case has to be carried to other hospitals on the beach on stretchers.”
Perhaps it’s because many conscientious objectors signed up for medical, rather than military service, that many accounts of the lives and work of stretcher-bearers have not survived. Maybe, but that’s just speculation on my part… However, one set of diaries has not only survived but been re-discovered by author Sara Woodall, great-niece of the author of the diaries.
Sara discovered her great-uncle’s diaries while at home in Cambridge and was astounded to find both written accounts and accomplished illustrations. The author of these diaries was Bernard Eyre Walker, a stretcher-bearer for the British Expeditionary Force and later one of Cumbria’s leading painters.
The existence of the diaries is something of a miracle in itself. Forced to retreat by a German attack, Bernard had to abandon the diaries in a field hospital. The diaries were later picked up by a German soldier and taken to Belgium, before eventually making their way home to Bernard in Keswick.
Illustrations by Bernard Eyre Walker from his war-time diaries.
Sara has edited and published the diaries, complete with 140 of Bernard’s illustrations from the trenches. I haven’t read the diaries myself, and it’s not an account of stretcher- bearers in Salonika, but it’s a primary source of a largely unrecorded aspect of the time and likely to have a wide appeal. There’s more about the book here.
A Voice From the Trenches 1914-1918 From the Diaries and Sketchbooks of Bernard Eyre Walker. Edited by Sara Woodall. Price £19.95 (+ £3.10 p&p) from Sara Woodall, 17 High Street, Great Eversden, Cambridge, CB23 1HN