Setting the scene in 1914
We may never know when the London Ambulance Column first met a train bringing home wounded soldiers, but we do know that it was all down to Lancelot Dent and his wife Beatrice.
Britain had declared war on Germany late on 4th August 1914 and the first British troops embarked for France and Belgium on 13th August. In the early morning of 23rd August they had their first encounter with the German Army in what became known as The Battle of Mons. The battle involved some 35,000 British soldiers. The day ended in defeat and bitter disappointment and there were more than 1,500 British casualties.
On 30th August 2014, Michael MacDonagh1 , a journalist with The Times newspaper, whilst travelling home had seen at Waterloo Station about 300 wounded men and officers returning from the field of battle. They were the first batch of casualties in the retreat from Mons. Some had arms or legs in splints, other with bandaged heads and faces. Most were in their torn and soiled khaki uniforms. A few were in dirty civilian clothes given by Belgian peasants with whom they had hidden. The officers were taken by ambulance to the Military Hospital at Millbank but, due to a lack of organisation, there were no ambulances for the soldiers who were not officers. Following a call from the War Office, the caterers Lyons sent a fleet of their delivery vans. The men were laid on mattresses and wrapped in blankets by medical students acting as stretcher bearers and driven to The London Hospital. The few spectators gave cigarettes to the soldiers and cheered them as the vans drove off. For the civilians, it was their first shock of the war and what war meant.
The War Office seems not to have been prepared for such an early return of wounded soldiers. The last battle on European soil involving British soldiers had been the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Subsequent wars, of which there had been many, had been fought on far more distant shores.
The report of the Joint War Committee of the Red Cross and The Order of St John (published in 1920s) states that “The London Ambulance Column met a hospital train at Waterloo on August 13th 1914” but this was quite probably incorrect.
Enter Lancelot Dent and his wife Beatrice. It seems that Mr. Dent, a wealthy city merchant, approached the War Office and offered to organise an ambulance unit. He also offered the use of his large house in Kensington as the unit headquarters. His offer was accepted and for some time the London Ambulance Column was run from 83 Westbourne Terrace , always working in close co-operation with the army.
The Dents were eminently suited to the task. Lancelot Dent had been appointed in 1902 as one of His Majesty’s Lieutenants for the City of London, a post he held for the majority of his life. This post would have involved contact with the Territorial Army and thus the War Office. He also had contacts with the City of London Red Cross. His wife Beatrice had connections with the Order of St John of Jerusalem. She was the daughter of Joseph Dimsdale who had been Lord Mayor of the City in 1901 and its MP for the City from 1900 to 1906.
Yet it was not sufficient for the Dents to have wealth, position, and influence. They would need drivers, stretcher bearers and nurses. And here the War Office had had considerable foresight for well trained volunteers already existed.
1 Source: “In London During the Great War”, Michael MacDonagh, 1935, Eyre & Spottiswoode