Saving Lives under Fire: the RAMC at Dunkirk

For RAMC personnel attached to fighting units who had made the perilous retreat to the Dunkirk beaches a maelstrom of carnage awaited them.

Cundall Dunkirk
War Artist Charles Cundall captured the scene which greeted RAMC personnel in which they had to strive to save the lives of those who could be evacuated from Dunkirk.

Corporal Montague of No. 6 Field Ambulance took a wounded sergeant to a French hospital, where every corner and passageway was filled with the wounded and dying. Outside, the roads were blocked with abandoned and destroyed vehicles. Looking out to sea, Montague noted a Royal Naval destroyer with a broken back. On the sand, rows of men waited their turn for evacuation, vulnerable to wave upon wave of Stuka attacks. Montague set to work burying the dead, digging graves in the sand with his bare hands. `We stuck each man’s rifle into the sand at his head and tied his identity disc to the trigger guard.’
Sergeant Reg Gill, who had been serving as a radiographer at No.18 General Hospital at Étaples, experienced some difficulty in loading some of the French casualties who were evacuated from Dunkirk:
We loaded the stretchers and put the French and British walking wounded aboard. Many of the French didn’t want to go. When they were told we were going to ‘Angleterre’ they didn’t want to know. Some wanted to go back down the coast and join in the fighting again but most seemed to acquiesce and go reasonably well.
Just up the coast from Dunkirk, at La Panne, a large number of RAMC units had gathered and set up dressing and clearance stations in the remains of the hotels. Colonel C.M. Finny, the Assistant Director of Medical Services of 50th Division was present on 30st May and recalled:
The sea front at La Panne is a sort of military Harley Street. Nearly everyone seems to be in the R.A.M.C. In addition to my three field ambulances, Nos -, -, and – C.C.S. and – Field Ambulance are located in hotels by the sea. No. – C.C.S. is at Rosendael near Dunkirk and, I understand, is holding casualties prior to embarkation.

Hospital ships were anchored offshore and stretcher bearers struggled through the water to load men on to smaller transfer boats. Corporal Michael Adams of No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station was one of those at La Panne. As the doctors were working round the clock performing heroic stints of endurance with their surgical skills, orderlies like Adams were left to administer post-operative care. He recalled the delirium of one soldier, calling for his wife; to sooth the man’s distress Adams pretended to answer as his spouse. The pressure of the situation led him to wish the mortally wounded would die quickly, to provide relief from their mental and physical torment, and to free up space for those waiting for treatment.
Captain Richard Doll, whose research would later conclusively establish the link between tobacco smoking and cancer, was one of the later evacuees. Having been given the order to make a last withdrawal at 2200 hrs on 1st June, he headed for the mole at Malo-les-Bains before returning to report its location to the rest of his battalion. Not being able to find them in the confusion, he returned to the beach with the small party which was accompanying him, where they dug themselves a shallow shelter in the sand. An officer then walked past asking for a doctor, as there were reports of badly wounded men the other side of the mole. Doll went to investigate but could not locate any casualties, although on his return trip he found a man with a badly broken leg. All he was able to provide was a dose of morphine, and the advice to the man’s comrades to have him embark as soon as possible.

Richard Doll
Dr Richard Doll in later years

Realising that there was a chance that his party might not be evacuated before the Germans either overran the beach or caused much greater damage by shelling, Doll walked a short distance along the coast and found a line of men in the water, waiting their turn to board couple of small rowing boats transporting men onto larger boats.
We lined up in the water and, as the empty rowing boats returned to the shore, parties of us waded out to them…the water came up to my breast before I reached the boat…To the accompaniment of much swearing on the part of the two seamen, the boat gradually filled and was then pulled out to a paddle steamer lying a couple of hundred yards further on by a small motorboat.

Upon boarding the paddle steamer, Doll’s Dunkirk duties were not finished. He responded to the request of a naval medical orderly to assist with binding and splinting of wounds of some nine or ten men; `Some were terribly badly wounded, and I cannot understand how they got on board.’ One man, who had six separate fractures on both legs, died before the boat returned to the safety of England. By this stage Doll was utterly exhausted, but was sustained by traditional British fare, `I must have looked terribly done up, for the orderly looked after me like a child, continually giving me steaming cups of tea, and Oxo and pieces of bread and butter.’ He was then asked to treat some more wounded on deck, before being granted some much-needed rest. When he awoke he was in Ramsgate harbour. The only possessions remaining were a small haversack and a small kitten which had been his companion since he had found it lost and forlorn in Les Bergeurs.

Further accounts of members of the RAMC who were involved in the Battle of France and evacuations from Dunkirk and St Nazaire can be found in my recently published book, Faithful in Adversity: The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Second World War

Faithful in Adversity


The Bewicke-Copley Brothers, Sprotbrough, Doncaster

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Sprotbrough, near Doncaster, is one of those warm, welcoming and perpetually open churches which can tell the visitor a wealth of information about the life of the community.

One striking part of Sprotbrough’s story is found in a beautiful stained glass window in the St. Thomas chapel, designed by the noted artist and sculptor Sir Ninian Comper.

It is dedicated to two brothers-in-law, one of whom,  Redvers Lionel Calverley Bewicke-Copley, is the initial subject of this post.


Redvers Bewicke-Copley2

Redvers Bewicke-Copley

Born in London on 17 Sept. 1890, but brought up at Sprotbrough Hall, Redvers was descended on his mother’s side from Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chief Minister. He was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. In 1910 he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant, promoted to Lieutenant in 1913 and Captain in July 1915.

Redvers was one of the `Old Contemptibles’, a nickname given to the British Expeditionary Force to France and Flanders in the autumn of 1914, on account of the Kaiser describing Britain as having a `contemptible little army.’

He was wounded 23 Oct. 1914 while helping a wounded comrade & sent home to England on sick leave;

A brother officer wrote: “On 14 Sept, on the first day of the Battle of the Aisne, isolated parties had made their way up to the edge of the wood on the northern slope & had been driven in. Thinking the wood had been made good, I took a machine-gun section up to the edge of it. Here I found D.L., Bewicke-Copley & a Coldstream Sergeant with a bunch of some 25 German prisoners. As soon as I mounted my guns, a heavy fire from snipers started & D.L. & the sergeant were killed, but Copley covered the prisoners with his revolver & ordered them to shout to their friends to cease-fire or to be killed themselves. Copley came in under cover when the sniping diminished. He then said he was not going to leave the prisoners & was going back for them. It seemed certain death & I told him so, but he went out and brought them in quite calmly. I think it was about the most cold-blooded piece of daring I have seen in the war.”

Having spent nearly two years convalescing in Britain, Redvers returned to the front in late 1916. However whilst leading a party repairing trench wiring at Sailly, France, he was shot clean through the head by a sniper within 20 yards of the German line and killed outright on 21st December 1916. He was Buried at Combles.

Sprotbrough war window.jpg

The magnificent war memorial window in St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough

Left to right, the panels are  Martin, a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in two, and gave half to a beggar. The next panel shows St Michael with the Devil at his feet, as referred to in the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, v7-9

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.  But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

The third panel depicts St  George with a dragon at his feet.  The final panel with the figure holding his sword upwards, in a sign of peace, is believed to be Christ

As a footnote, a sword believed to be Redvers’ regimental souvenir, was listed for auction in 2015 with a guide price of £200-400

Redvers Bewicke-Copley sword

 Redvers Bewicke-Copley graveRedvers Bewicke-Copley’s grave at Combles, France

However the story of the Bewicke-Copleys and twentieth century warfare was not to end there. Redvers’ younger brother, Robert Godfrey Wolsley Copley, had also served in the First World War.

NPG x166873; Robert Godfrey Wolseley Bewicke-Copley, 5th Baron Cromwell by Walter Stoneman

Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Robert was commissioned in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and first saw action out in France and Flanders with the 3rd Battalion in the period May-November 1915. He then departed for the Mediterranean theatre of war, transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in May 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross. He was also mentioned in despatches and received the Italian Al Valore Militare in bronze. He was also wounded. Having then witnessed further active service in Russia 1918-19, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Following the war, he succeeded to the title of Lord Cromwell, and gained the rank of Colonel in the service of the Royal Army Reserve of Officers.

Robert assumed command of ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In 1939 he was recalled to active service army and led the defence of Calais in May 1940.  Robert was wounded in both of his arms and his head. Despite this he remained in command at his barricade and taken as a POW by the Germans. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

An account of Robert’s bravery on this occasion was left by Airey Neave, whom some might remember was killed by a terrorist car bomb at the Houses of Parliament in 1979.

‘The situation of the 60th was desperate. A death-struggle at the bridges. Barricades of   burned-out lorries and trucks off the Rue Edison and Place Richelieu were manned by the surviving officers and riflemen. Houses in the area had long been devastated by the flames and blown by shellfire into heaps of rubble behind which the defenders fired on the Germans. The mortar bombs came in an endless stream exploding dead on the road-blocks. The 60th, lying without cover in the streets, had little protection from the Stukas. No one who experienced the attack on the morning of the 26th is ever likely to forget it. A hundred aircraft attacked the Citadel and the old town in waves. They dived in threes, with a prolonged scream, dropping one high explosive and three or four incendiaries. They machine-gunned the streets and dropped a few heavy bombs between the 60th H.Q. in the Rue des Marechaux and the docks. The first effects on the defence were paralysing but, as others had experienced with Stukas, the damage was moral rather than physical. Within a few minutes, the riflemen eagerly fired Bren guns and engaged the Stukas, one of which was brought down on the seashore … ’ Neave continues: ‘At the Place Richelieu, Lord Cromwell, firing a Bren gun, was three times wounded that morning. He had already shown all those qualities that add up to real leadership in war. He was hit by bullets in both arms and in the head, the sight of one eye being badly affected. And yet he remained in command when all the men at his barricade, save himself and two riflemen were dead. At 11.30 a.m. he was compelled to fall back to the line of the Rue des Marechaux.’

Robert was repatriated in 1943 due to his injuries and continued to be active in public life, serving as  Lord-Lieutenant of Leicestershire between 1949 and 1966.He was invested as a Knight, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (K.St.J.).

In 2012 Robert’s medals came up for auction and fetched £8,200. However the value of the contribution of two generations of men in the wars of the twentieth century cannot be valued in monetary terms.

Robert Bewicke-Copley Medals.jpg

Robert Bewicke-Copley’s medals, from the 1914-15 star through to the Order of St John of Jerusalem

Once again, familiar themes demonstrate themselves in the instance of the Bewicke-Copley brothers:-

1. The memorialisation of war death in a parish church, as using Christian motifs. This reminds us that the an appreciation of the importance of Christianity in the minds of our ancestors is an essential prerequisite for a fully-rounded understanding of twentieth century warfare.
2. The sense of duty held by most of the ruling class of the time that led to such high casualty rates amongst junior officers such as Redvers.
3. The importance of the Church of England, as the guardian of so much of our shared history, of making that history as accessible as possible as was originally intended, rather than shutting out the visitor with a locked-door / Sundays only policy.
Sprotbrough church
The wonderful St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough. Well worth a visit.
The theme of Christianity in twentieth century warfare is explored in detail in my two books:
Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2

Louise Thuliez – French Great War Heroine

Louise Thuliez is one of twenty-three case studies included in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War, published by Pen and Sword in October 2015.

Fight the Good Fight

Louise Thuliez was born on 12 December 1881 in a small village in the Nord department of France, close to the border with Belgium She was brought up in Mauberge and recalls receiving a very patriotic education at a time when the memory of the Franco-Prussian war was still fresh in the public consciousness. Indeed the map of France in a Geography textbook showed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, taken during that war, as coloured in black. Her brother was a priest

Having qualified as teacher, holding a post in Lille, in July 1914 she was on hoilday in Saint-Waast-la-Vallee in Northern France, close to her birthplace.

She was not accepted to work in local Red Cross Hospital. Her brother told her that God would have a task marked out for her in the war, and that should would be given a chance to serve.

Early on 24 August most of the British wounded were taken by ambulance to the rear, except six men for whom there was not room. It was expected that an ambulance would return for them but none arrived. At this time, due to the near evacuation of the village, there was a shortage of food. Louise gained permission from the mayor to break open a locked and deserted bakery to make some bread, challenging some of her own countrymen when she insisted that the first priority was to feed the British troops.

Once the village was under occupation, Louise and her friend Henriette hung a makeshift Red Cross flag from a window to indicate that wounded troops were in the house. However, apart from an occasional desultory check, no effort was made by the German authorities to remove the men into captivity. A new house was found by a local nobleman, Prince Reginald de Croy, one situated in a remote part of the countryside. The six men were given civilian clothing and when they reached the `safe house’, they found an English soldier who had already been hiding there for two months. A decision was made to attempt to get all seven men back to the front. En route they met up with other, larger, collections of fugitives until eventually the group number around forty.


Louise Thuliez

Louise Thuliez outside her prison cell at Siegburg


Louise travelled to Brussels to make arrangements and then came back into France to escort a Captain Preston and  a Lieutenant Bushell into Brussels, carrying long batons of bread in order to look like local civilians. False passports were provided for them in Mons and eventually they reached Brussels and then onto Holland and England and active service again.

Her duty done two these two men, Louise did not consider that this was the end of the matter in helping fugitive British and French soldiers. Many more were still hiding out in the nearby Forest of Mormal area and many of the people involved in the escape plans were priests, due to their connections within the communities. One bonus for Louise was that on establishing her headquarters at the house of a Canon Flament, she had the happiness of hearing Mass every day and described it like having a private chaplain. By 1915 Louise was in contact with Edith Cavell, and would frequently deposit soldiers at her Brussels nursing home for Edith to send them on the next stage of their journey. These journeys to Brussels were undertaken at night, walking close to hedgerows so the men could throw themselves into a ditch to hide.

In time the serving soldiers were joined by local French youths who wished to escape from German control and join their country’s army. Again, the strength of the Catholic church in this part of France was put to good use, as Monsieur l’Abbe Lothigier had organised a group of these youths who wanted to leave. As Louise could not attract too much attention by visiting his presbytery too often, she suggested that he come to her to hear her confessions, as this method meant they discuss the details of the operation without being overheard.

As the numbers of men seeking to escape increased at the same time as German surveillance became stricter, Louise was obliged to undertake more journeys all the way to Brussels. On these occasion she would hand the men over to the care of Edith Cavell at her nursing-home on 149 Rue de la Culture, and sometime to a small café-hotel in the Rue Haute.

However on 31 July 1915 whilst meeting at the Brussels home of architect Phillipe Baucq, himself later executed at the same time as Edith Cavell, Louise was arrested during a German raid. She was taken to the prison of St Gilles in the city and locked in a cell whilst a search of Baucq’s house revealed a huge amount of incriminating evidence against them and many others involved with the work of helping allied soldiers across the Dutch border. From this evidence further arrests, including that of Edith Cavell, were made in the following week.

Louise’s trial began on 7 October 1915 at the Senate building, co-accused with thirty-four others. When asked why she had performed her actions, she answered, `Because I am a French-woman’. She was accused of high treason, with the prosecutor demanding the death sentence for her and seven others, including Phillipe Baucq and Edith Cavell. Court proceedings were conducted in German, with translations being made for the prisoners and no access to their defence counsels being permitted.  On hearing the demand of the death sentence by the court, she remarked that, `For every cross is given the corresponding strength to bear it.’

On 11 October the prisoners were assembled in the central hall of St Gilles prison. After five names, the word `todestraffe’ was read out, meaning death penalty. Those five names were Phillipe Baucq, Louise Thuliez, Edith Cavell, Louis Severin and Jeanne de Belville. Louise later described feeling a great calm and relief at that moment due to her Catholic faith and her belief in the afterlife. She thought of those dear to her who had died, including her parents, and that she would soon be meeting them again. The Countess de Belleville told Louise that she considered the death sentence for them God’s judgement, whereas the latter thought it a sacrifice for their country which would balance out their other human imperfections.

The five were then returned to their individual cells, but Louise and the countess were allowed to join together in one cell. They were joined by the prison chaplain, a Father Leyendecker who suggested they submit an expression of regret for their actions and a formal appeal for mercy but at this point they were not of a mind to do so. The next morning, 12 October, they were reading their prayer books in their cell when Louise felt an overwhelming rush of anguish on behalf of Edith Cavell. She had already been executed that morning. Unbeknown to Louise, the orders for her own execution were for the morning of 13 October.

Louise continued to receive Holy Communion and have confessionals whilst awaiting the death penalty. On 17 October she asked the prison chaplain if he would tell her in the evening if she were to be shot in the morning, which he agreed to do. Finally on 27 October she was informed that a reprieve had been granted after the intervention of the Marquis de Villobar, the Spanish ambassador in Brussels, who had gained an intercession from his king, Alphonse XIII. Further appeals had been made directly to Kaiser Wilhelm II by Pope Benedict XV and indirectly from President Woodrow Wilson of the then neutral USA.

Louise was then transferred not to Siegburg in Germany, her ultimate destination, but back to Cambrai in northern France, where her prison conditions were considerably worse than those in Brussels. There she was accused of the `crimes’ she had committed on the French side of the border, but despite being found guilty, word came through the Kaiser’s clemency had been extended to these cases too. By the end of January 1916 Louise arrived in the prison at Siegburg to begin nearly three years of monotonous incarceration. Medical care was inadequate and many of the female prisoners died, one in Louise’s arms as she comforted her, and another whose husband had also died in prison the previous week leaving behind a four-year-old orphaned boy. As in the prisoner of war camp inhabited by Joe Garvey, typhus spread and trenches were dug to bury the victims near the exercise yard.

Louise copied down the inscription that she saw when entering the German prison, one which to her was a distortion of the true meaning of Christianity:

You are now a prisoner. Your barred window, your bolted door the colour of your cloths, all bear witness that you have forfeited your liberty. God did not wish you to continue to defy Him by sinning against His laws and the law of men. He had brought you here so that you ay expiate the crimes of your life.

So, incline yourself under the all-powerful hand of God, incline yourself under the iron laws of this house. If you will not obey of your own will, your will shall be broken and bent. But if you receive humbly the punishment that is inflicted on you the fruit of your submission will be a chastened heart and a peace conscience. God has willed it so.

For Louise, the repentant sinner was always pardoned by God, and for society to withhold this pardon was a crime.

She undertook small acts of private protest, including sewing buttons on military uniforms deliberately loose, so they would fall off at the first hint of pressure. Religious neutrality was not permitted in the prison, so each Sunday all prisoners attended either a Catholic or Protestant service. As in St Gilles, each worshipper was kept in an isolated stall whereby only the top of the heads of the others were visible above the partitions. This amused Louise and reminded her of a picture she had seen of St Francis of Assisi speaking to the fishes. However the services were held in German, and despite requested for a French or Belgian priest, Louise was unable to make confession or hear the words of consolation and hope which she craved. However patriotic sentiment was shown each 14 July when threads of red, white and blue material were worn on their uniforms. She also wrote a letter of protest to the German Minister for Home Affairs against political prisoners like herself being forced to undertake munitions work.

In 1919 Louise had the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre conferred on her by Georges Clemenceau, President of the French Republic. He cited that she was:

Model of the purest patriotism, she rendered signal services to the Allied Armies in the invaded regions. Spent herself in caring for the wounded, and in the midst of the gravest danger, probed herself to be actuated by heroic courage and complete disregard for personal safety. Victim of her devotion to our country, France, she was condemned to death by the Germans. This sentence was later commuted into one of transportation with hard labour.

Louise Thuliez medalsLouise with her Legion d’honneur and Croix de guerre


She wrote her memoirs in the 1930s and they were translated into English in 1934. During the Second World War she was active in the French resistance, helping more English and French soldiers to safety and receiving the Order of the British Empire. She died in 1966.



Huntriss Memorial Window, Mattersey, Nottinghamshire

One memorial window which takes the breath away is situated on the south wall of the parish church in Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. The church is one of the majority which thankfully is open during daylight hours, for people to appreciate the serenity and spirituality of the space.

The window commemorates the deaths of three brothers who spent some of their youth in the quiet village. They were the sons of William and Charlotte Huntriss. William had married Charlotte in 1883 and was a successful farmer who by 1911 was living at Mattersey Hall. He died in 1912 before the war broke out. Charlotte was thirteen years younger than her husband and would live until 1939.

The quote above the figures is from Revelation 2:10 and reads:
Underneath the tableau is the inscription:

Cyril was born in Scarborough and educated at Uppingham School. He had served in France since January 1915. Cyril had won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry on 9th August 1915. At Hooge, Belgium, he had, `led four bombing parties up to the assault on the enemy’s position with the greatest coolness and daring.’ He had also been mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir John French in January 1916. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with nearly 20,000 other British troops. His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial.

Harold was born in East Markham, Nottinghamshire. The following information comes from the website :

Captain Harold Edward HUNTRISS
Killed in action 17th May 1915, aged 24
Harold was born 23rd May 1890 in East Markham, Nottinghamshire, the son of William Huntriss, J.P. and Charlotte Elizabeth Huntriss. He was educated at Uppingham between 1904 and 1908, after which Harold applied to the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy on 29 September 1908, giving his address as Mattersey Hall, Bawtry, Yorkshire.
He was promoted to Lieutenant on 3rd May 1911 and arrived with the 2nd Battalion in France 6th October 1914. Lieutenant Huntriss was hit by shrapnel in the left thigh on the 29th or 30th October, during intense fighting east of Ypres and returned to England to recover after an operation.
Harold returned to the 2nd Battalion in April or May 1915 but was killed at the head of his Company as they advanced to the second German trench line, Major MacKenzie and Lieutenant Hutton-Williams being killed close by. All three were buried together despite the difficulties their men had recovering their bodies after the battle.
At the time of his death, he lived at Harlsen House, Belvedere Road in Scarborough, his widowed mother being his next of kin (resident at 116 Wheelwright Road, Gravelly Hill in Birmingham). There also seems to be a link to Huntriss and Huntriss Solicitors in Halifax who handled his mother’s affairs, his brother William seemingly being a partner within the firm.
Lieutenant Huntriss is buried in the Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy, 7km east of Bethune..

William was born in Scarborough and died on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and died in 1918, a few weeks before the end of the war.

Their names also appear along with the others from the village who made the ultimate sacrifice on the marble tablet next to the window.
One final twist to the tale was that when I came to sign the church visitors’ book, the last entry was for a Brian Huntriss from Leicestershire. I wonder if he is a relation.
John Broom is the author of two critically acclaimed books; Fight the Good Fight, Voices of Faith from the First World War , and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War published by Pen and Sword. For a personally signed copy please email The cost is £16 plus £4 p+p
Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2