Doctors at war

This guide was last updated in 2009

As Rory Bremner discovered, tracing ancestors involved in frontline medicine can be a rewarding – and eye-opening – experience. Kevin Brown offers his tips.

Military doctors have played a vital part in saving lives and limbs from the wreckage of war. If your ancestor was a doctor at war, there is a thrill in tracing his contribution to some of the military campaigns that shaped the modern age. It was not all glamour and heroism: the conditions in which they worked, as you will soon discover once you begin your research, were often horrendous.

Until 1873 army doctors were attached to individual regiments as regimental surgeons. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, army doctors were brought together to form what in 1873 was named the Medical Staff of the Army Medical Department, but these were officers without any men to command, since the Medical Staff Corps, made up of medically-trained soldiers of ‘regular, steady habits and good temper’ able to act as medical orderlies or stretcher-bearers belonged to a separate Medical Staff Corps.

These two groups of doctors and assistants were amalgamated in 1898 in the Royal Army Medical Corps. For the first time, army doctors enjoyed equal status and rank with other army officers, although their salaries remained lower than those of other officers. Becoming an army doctor was often seen as a last resort for men who could not afford to establish themselves as civilian doctors.

This was to change during the two world wars when civilian doctors were called up to serve their King and Country, serving alongside regular army medics from whom they had much to learn. Medicine was to play a major part in securing victory in the world wars: your ancestors were part of that great achievement.

Photo © Getty Images

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