Bengal Ambulance Corps

Bengal Ambulance Corps When England joined the First World War on 4 August 1914, the local Rajas, Maharajas, Nawabs, Zamindars and distinguished leaders assembled at a meeting in the calcutta town hall on 14 August 1914 with encouragements from the British Indian Government. They annonced that they were eager to assist England in the war with money, materials and manpower. Following a proposal at this meeting to send a medial team to the battlefield, the Viceroy of India decided on 20 August 1914 to send a medical team comprising of Bengalees by setting up the Bengal Ambulance Corps. Maharaja Bijaychand Mahtab of Burdwan (Bardhaman) and the President of Bengal Medical Association Dr. S P Sarbadhikari played the leading role in the constitution of Bengal Ambulance Corps. But the initiative was stalled temporarily as it was impossible to send the Bengal Ambulance Corps within August 1914 after completion of training.

In early October of 1914, the representatives of Bengal Ambulance Corps committee started fresh dialogue with the army at Fort William of Kolkata on the subject of recruiting Bengalee soldiers. It was decided initially that a medical team would be formed from Bangladesh comprising of 15 physicians, and 175 compounders, dressers and stretcher-bearers. On 25 February 1915, an announcement was made by the army on the constitution of river ambulance or the first unit of Ambulance Corps comprising of Bengalees. It was decided that this river ambulance would operate on the Shatil-Arab River of Mesopotamia. The proposed manpower was brought down to 100. The Viceroy announced the government decision on formation of the river ambulance on 6 March. Lt. Col. A H Knott joined the river ambulance as its commander.

Apart from imparting training to Bengal Ambulance Corps, a floating hospital was built for it. It was named 'Bengali'. Before the members of the Ambulance Corps started their journey by train, the 'Bengali' began its journey from Kolkata to Mesopotamia through the sea-route. But it sank in the sea near Madras on 17 May 1915 after being hit by natural disaster.

It was decided once again towards the end of May that the Bengal Ambulance Corps would launch a 'stationary hospital' at Mesopotamia. With this objective, 77 officers and soldiers of different ranks as well as 41 medical workers reached the Amara town of Iraq from Kolkata. The members of the corps launched the Bengal Stationary Hospital on 17 July 1915. This hospital remained in operation up to 31 May 1916. During its execution of duties for around 11 months, 7,922 military patients received treatment from the hospital. Besides, medical treatment was provided at its outdoor department to around 200 civilians or local patients every day. The Bengal Ambulance Corps was highly praised everywhere for the activities and high quality services rendered by bengal stationary hospital. The Viceroy of India Lord chelmsford (1916-21) applauded the just-defunct Bengal Stationary Hospital and its initiators in September 1916.

In response to an application submitted by the members of Bengal Ambulance Corps to provide services in the battlefield, 37 members were attached to the 2 Field Ambulance led by Havildar A C Champati. The 2 Field Ambulance started for Kut Al Amara on 8 September 1915 with the goal of occupying Baghdad. It headed for Baghdad after capturing Kutt. When a member of the corps fell sick at Tesiphon on the way to Baghdad from Kut, he was sent back. After arriving at the Tesiphon area, the British forces faced a strong resistance from the Turkish military. They returned to Kutt after suffering a defeat in this battle. While returning, 6 sick members of Bengal Ambulance Corps were taken prisoner by the Turks. After reaching Kutt, 12 members of the corps fell sick; they were sent home from Kutt. The remaining 18 members of the corps stayed back at Kutt with the 2 Field Ambulance for discharging their duties. The Turkish forces laid a siege around Kutt and the British forces surrendered to the Turks on 29 April 1916. A sick member of the corps was released immediately after the surrender because of his illness. The remaining 17 were taken to Baghdad by the Turks as prisoners of war. Eight members of the Bengal Ambulance Corps obtained their freedom through swapping of prisoners in September 1916. The remaining ones were released after a truce was declared in the war on 11 November 1918.

A lion's share of the expenses for establishing and running the Bengal Ambulance Corps were borne by the people of Bengal. The government provided only arms, ration and transport costs. Almost all kinds of expenditure including the salary-allowances and uniform of soldiers were met from the subscriptions collected by the committee for Bengal Ambulance Corps. The committee also provided the money for purchasing the floating hospital 'Bengali'. The corps committee collected almost Taka three lak for the purpose. Some members of the Bengal Ambulance Corps received official recognitions because of the heroism and bravery the members of the Corps demonstrated at the battle of Tesiphon and during the siege of Kutt. The GOC Townsend remarked on their overall performance, 'they have proved that the Bengalee clerks are fully fit for the job of soldiers'. [Muhammad Lutful Haque]