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Battlefield Scout Huts and the Scout Ambulances of the First World War

YMCA Notepaper
Headed Notepaper given out in the YMCA and Scout Huts
When war broke out in 1914 the Scout Movement was barely six years old, which makes what follows very remarkable indeed. This is the story of how B-P, his wife and some of the adult leadership spent their war and of the work that went on at home by Scouts to support their efforts. I feel that this inspiring episode in history should be part of the education of every Scout. Unfortunately, there are still large gaps in our knowledge, particularly of first hand accounts and, as we move into the twenty-first century, naturally there are very few of the original participants left to testify

RESEARCH has been difficult, with understandable confusion between the Scouts Huts, as the censor would not allow their name or location to be used. They were often referred to as being 'somewhere in France'.

I am very anxious indeed that these pages might serve to rekindle verbal accounts passed down from father to son, or help to reveal any diary or first-hand experience that might have been written at the time.

B-P and Olave's War

EARLY in 1915 the 13th Hussars were sent to France. Baden-Powell, as their Honourary Colonel, was invited by Sir John French, Commander in Chief, Allied Forces, to visit their lines.

B-P sailed from Folkstone on March 27th, 1915, for a 10-day visit. He called at St Omer and then Amentieres. He visited a front-line trench and was soon under fire and able to see the enemy through a trench telescope. He went on to the infamous Ypres battlefield (pronounced 'Eepr' by the French, but 'Wipers' by the English 'Tommies') and then to Poperinghe where he met his old colleague-in-arms, General Plumer. At Roncq he met officers and men from 13th Hussars who impressed him as being efficient and fit,

"...but all except about half a dozen were new to me."

That one sentence sums up the awful decimation of human life that was commonplace in trench warfare.

On way back to Le Havre, B-P stopped at hospitals and YMCA recreation Huts. These Huts were, in the main, new prefabricated constructions, with basic comforts for the troops - a canteen, writing materials and occasionally a camp cinema. They were provided by charitable contributions and manned by volunteers, often adult officers of the YMCA. B-P came away deeply impressed with the importance of these Huts to the welfare and morale of the troops and the need for many more. In the Headquarters Gazette of May 1915, B-P describes how he was invited inside a YMCA Hut:

"Inside a concert was in progress and there was practically 'standing room only'. A good variety of entertainment was going on, in which some of the best entertainment was displaying itself and had the audience rocking and crying with laughter. The Chairman of the show was a chaplain who, the moment he saw me, gave me the Scout salute. He was one of our many Scoutmasters doing duty at the front..."

There is no doubt that the YMCA were involved in this work very early, much of their funding coming from their branches in the United States. With over 40 such Huts situated in Northern France, they were the 'parent organisation', under which B-P was happy to supply funds and his 'Scouts Huts'. This was yet another instance of the close co-operation between B-P and the YMCA, which is dealt with in more detail on the 'Brother Organizations' Page.

An envelope supplied by one of the Huts, bearing the handstamp of the Army Veterinary Corps and, of course, the Censor's stamp. Posted February 4th, 1915

Baden-Powell and his wife made several visits to France throughout the course of the war, so much so that the Germans, much perplexed by his coming and goings, were convinced that he was up to his old tricks as a spy. (Perhaps this is not to be wondered at, given that B-P published My Adventures as a Spy in 1915!) There were 'reports' of his spying activities from all over Europe; indeed one newspaper reported that B-P had been executed by firing squad for espionage. This caused some amusement, but whatever the rumours, B-P- much to his frustration, - see letter to Panzera illustrated later in this article - had no official combative or intelligence-gathering role in this war. He was 57 years old when war was declared and was not recalled to active service. The powers that be thought the war would last only a short time and that there would be sufficient regular officers within the army to direct operations.

Not a man to let the grass grow under his feet, B-P had, within weeks, produced a handbook A Quick Training for War designed as a survival manual for the conscript. This sold 60,000 copies within its first month of publication.

Baden-Powell not only paid several visits to 'The Front', but spent periods of time working in his Scout Huts. His mere presence was a tonic to the troops as demonstrated by the numbers that attended the 'lectures' that he was asked to deliver. When he was not in France he was tireless in his work raising funds for the Huts and Ambulances as well supervising the Scout Coast Watchers.

The 'Push' to raise funds

LETTERS sent by B-P, held in the archives at Scout HQ, Gilwell Park, give a graphic account of B-P's involvement:

"5th November 1915

Dear Allenby

I am just now collecting for funds for more YMCA Huts in France. The demand for them goes on increasing."
YMCA Hut fund car
Back of YMCA Hut fund card

Baden-Powell was anxious to know General Allenby's requirements, so that he could make the necessary provision. The image shown here is taken from a postcard, one out of a series of 312 cards sold at the meetings such as the ones B-P addressed. The front of the card shows a Field Ambulance, illustrated in the 'Scout Motor Ambulances' section on this Page.

"16th November 1915

Dear McCowen,

I have just been on tour in Manchester and Liverpool with Yapp with a view to extracting money for more Huts at the Front and I am delighted to say that we were all exceedingly well received. There is every promise of our getting a pretty substantial sum - probably around £12,000.

If there is anything I can do at home let me know. I shall probably be out again at the middle of December and shall be very glad if the Scout Hut at Etaples can be ready by then."

And again to McCowen four days later:

"I have visited the institute at Beauguesne. It is well managed and much used by the men. The Manager wants material sent up for a building...The Engineers will help him put it up if the material could be sent."

In this letter B-P listed sites for the Huts required by General Allenby and pointed out that existing buildings could be used, even churches hired from priests. It was obvious that there were some in the bureaucracy who did not share B-P's vision on how to get things moving.

Scouts themselves raised much of the money for a separate 'Hut and Ambulance' fund. Their efforts are described below in the Motor Ambulances section.

The Mercers' Arms

Mercer's Arms
Sketch of Mercer's Arms Hut drawn by the Chief Scout

BADEN-POWELL'S family had long been active members of the Mercers' Company, an ancient London Trade Guild founded in 1348. It became the foremost amongst the Guilds and it is still active today (see link below), mainly as a charitable institution. In 1910, B-P was created a Warden of the company and, prior to the war, he became Master, like his father before him. It was natural that B-P should turn to his Guild to fund his new project. He was not disappointed as the company were to fund the first and largest of the six Scout Huts and, later on, another Hut and a marquee.

The 'Mercers' Arms' Hut was sited near Calais and opened on July 21st, 1915, with a troop of French Scouts forming a guard of honour. The Hut was described as one of the best of its kind. It was staffed by members of the Scout Association who, in the main, had responded to appeals in Headquarters Gazette. It was made very clear that only those unfit, or over the age for normal military service, would be considered. The first leader was Burchardt-Ashton, a Scout Commissioner, who was later to supervise his own Scouts Marquee. (There is more on Mr Burchardt-Ashton's Marquee further down page.)

Olave Baden-Powell, despite the fact that her son Peter was still only a toddler and daughter Heather a tiny baby born only weeks before on June 1st, 1915, went out to France. She spent over three months in the Mercers' Arms Hut with her friend Miss Ashton, before going on to the Scout Hut at Etaples. (It seems probable that Miss Burchardt-Ashton was the daughter of Mr Burchardt-Ashton.)

Lady Scoutmaster
B-P's suggestion for lady Scoutmasters' uniform

In the Headquarters Gazette of December 1915, there was an account by Olave Baden-Powell of her experiences in France. She was, it must be remembered, born of an extremely wealthy family and had since been elevated to the status of Lady Baden Powell. The life she describes was anything but ladylike, chopping wood, clearing out and lighting fires, cooking, cleaning and washing, but she seemed to take it all in her stride and still be on hand to offer personal counselling.

One soldier wanted advice as to what he should do about his wife, who was being asked to pay an increase in rent when she could not work because she had to stay at home to look after her babies. Olave told the solder that helping out in this was just what she was there to do - a little ironic in view of the fact that Olave had left her own babies at home!

All staff wore Scout Uniform and B-P himself designed the uniform for 'Lady Scoutmasters' serving in the Huts. He produced the sketch illustrated here on which he coyly wrote was not of any particular Lady Scoutmaster, " need not be taken to reflect upon any individual." (It sounds as though B-P was 'being prepared' and avoiding marital disharmony!)

The Hut was decorated with Scout insignia and Scout flags. A glimpse in daily life in the Hut is given by B-P in his 'Outlook' in Headquarters Gazette in October 1915. He quotes a letter published in a newspaper from a soldier who had found the Hut a boon. The soldier went on to describe a Saturday night there as "...a beano without the booze."

On June 12th, 1916 the Hut was scene of a meeting of 'Old Scouts' from all the regiments in the neighbourhood, to witness the enrolment of three new prospective Scoutmasters into the Movement. They were young men who had been inspired to join after witnessing the work of the Scouts in the Mercer's Arms Hut. Members of the Belgium Boys Scouts were present, as was the senior army C.O. in the area, a Major Nightingale, himself a former Scout. There was much formality and the senior Belgium Scout Official spoke of the work his boys were doing in supporting his country's soldiers as dispatch riders. The front line passed through their towns and villages and the local Boy Scouts were very much involved in supplying the front line trenches, as is graphically illustrated by this famous postcard.

Belgian Postcard
Trench Warfare. Note the Belgian Scouts in the background

After the speeches a fine clock was presented to the Hut on behalf of 'Old Scouts' in the Navy. (A similar one as presented to the Hut at Etaples.)

Mr F H More was appointed Hut Leader in 1917. He wrote that the Hut was:

"...situated in the middle of a large Ordnance Camp and Repairing Works, it was easily the largest building in the camp. It was lofty and well lighted, fitted with everything possible for the convenience and comfort of the men and possessed two excellent billiard tables."

Mr More goes on to describe excellent facilities for amateur dramatics, with reading and writing rooms and a canteen. It was estimated that between 800 and 900 men a day were served with tea and cocoa, cigarettes, etc. and "...when the men were off-duty in the evening there was never a slack moment."

A quiet room was used on Sundays as chapel by most denominations and prayers were said every evening before it closed. There was a comprehensive library with, of course, a Scout section.

Staffing Problems

Despite the immense amount of good this and the other Scout Huts were publicly acknowledged as doing, it was never easy to find the staff and, as the long war came near to its end, it became even harder. In Headquarters Gazette of October 1918, B-P commented on the Mercers' Hut in his Outlook:

"Our leader has unfortunately been obliged to come home and, so far, we have been unable to replace him."

Next month we were promised that B-P was going to France to look into the problem on the spot, but fortunately the war was over. Armistice was signed on the November 11th, 1918. B-P still visited four of the Scout Huts and one Girl Guide Hut. There was still a need to staff the Huts, as they remained open for a further year until 22nd November 1919, when the last of the servicemen and British P.O.W.s had been repatriated. The Hut was then presented to French Boy Scouts, but the clock donated by the Navy was removed and sent to Imperial Scout Headquarters.

The Hut at Etaples

THIS was the biggest of all the Huts built at a cost of £1,000 to house 1,000 men. It was close to the sea, surrounded by sand dunes. The 'Scut', as it was affectionately known, was opened on January 1st, 1916, when Lady Baden-Powell triggered the blasting of a pit to be used as the soak-away.

I cannot be absolutely certain that this is the Etaples Scout Hut, because, to please the censor, there is no reference to its location. The illustration on the Postcard shown here was drawn by S Gordon Wilson, then aged 17. The Postcard has been used, but must have been sent in an envelope, as it is without either a stamp or an address. Part of the message reads "Just a view of a YMCA Hut which does a lot of good work and supplies good tea, cocoa and eatables..."

The Hut at Etaples
Postcard of the Hut at Etaples

The drawing fits a description given by a correspondent to Headquarters Gazette of February 1917 who signed himself 'S.G.W', perhaps the artist of the card above. He wrote that the two new Huts replaced an old one. They had only been erected two days when they were used for the Christmas festivities - "an immense cake bearing the Scouts arms vanished in no time."

The author wrote as though there was only one Scout Hut in existence and was not allowed to name or describe its location but described the place as being "...among sand hills surrounded by pine trees overlooking a tidal river."

Note the Scout flag flying high.

Baden-Powell wrote in a letter to Percy Everett on January 2nd, 1916:

"We are awfully busy here. We opened the Hut at Etaples yesterday with greatest success. Though supplies are scarce and no Scoutmasters have come to take up the work, we thought it best to get the Hut under way if only to give the men shelter and warmth in this filthy weather. And I am glad we did, for it has been a big success. The place was crammed to standing room yesterday, the moment the doors opened and has been so today.
"We got very good concert entertainment for them last night after the commandant had formally opened the place - and the trade done at the bar was tremendous. My wife, Mrs B.A. A Scoutmaster from another Hut, a man we picked up here and a helpful ex scout or two, as well as myself - has as much as we could do in serving the men in the evening. The men are delighted with the place.
"My wife gave tea to ex-Scouts before the place was opened and about 40 men turned up."

The Chief Scout opened the Hut and remained in charge, supported by Olave until February when the Rev. Cyril Butterworth took over. The Hut was well used from the outset. B-P wrote that they would take £25-£30 a day for items of refreshment that cost one penny each. (There were 240 pennies in a pound!) B-P wrote:

"By degrees we are introducing the Scout spirit - which is now so conspicuous in the Mercers' Arms and I have every confidence that the institute is going to do as great a thing morally for the men as it is doing for them materially."

Rev. Cyril Butterworth remained the leader of the Hut for most of the war and went on to compile a history of all the Scout Huts, on which much of this article is based. The unpublished manuscript in kept in the UK Scout Archives at Gilwell Park.

Panzera Letter
Letter to Major Panzera from the Hut at Etaples

In a letter written on January 3rd, 1916, from 'Scouts Hut', Etaples to Major Panzera, who was his Artillery Officer during the Siege of Mafeking, B-P writes feelingly that Panzera is lucky to have been called up for service as " is something to get a billet [i.e. an active commission] at all when so many are 'not needed'."

"Generally I am pretty busy between running the Coastguards in England and helping with the YMCA Huts in France. My wife is helping to run these and is just now running our new big one at Etaples having been for the past three months at Calais. Our young hopefuls [the children] are left to run riot at home I'm afraid."

Spencer Lemming, a First World War theatrical actor-manager wrote an account in The Scout on February 19th, 1948, about the time Baden Powell, as Hut Leader, had booked Lemming's show 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' for the Hut. An adaptation of Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables', Wilfred Walter played the Bishop; Lemming played the Convict Valjean and B-P served coffee and buns to the young soldiers.

"He..appeared to 'come and go', so we were convinced he was on spying mission. That could be the only reason why such a great general was not 'in the field.'
"I saw for myself how B-P could show the roughest soldier an innate kindliness and simplicity, which concealed completely his inner strength of heart and mind. It was a great privilege to have known him for that comparatively short while and it is one of my proudest memories."

The table below (with its separate Scroll Bar) is a brief diary of some of the major happenings in the Etaples Scout Hut from its opening in 1916 to the time it was closed down in 1919:-

Inside the Hut

'A grateful Lance Corporal and Hon. Scoutmaster' described the inside of the Hut in the September 1916 edition of the Headquarters Gazette.

"The Hut is decorated with a large portrait of the Chief, surmounted by the Scout Badge and Motto. A complete series of patrol flags is suspended behind the counter and Mr Ernest Carlos' well-known Scout pictures 'If I were a boy again' and 'New Recruit' amongst others are on the walls. Down the centre of the Hut are a long row of tables and these as well as many tables at the side were packed with men, many of them busy writing letters…I do not think they will forget the Scout Hut when they go. I know that I shall not for one."
Visitor Book
The specially-printed cover of one of the Etaples Scout Hut Visitor Books

(The artist Carlos and his Scout Paintings, is projected as another Scouting Milestones web article. It is interesting to note that Carlos himself was serving in France at this time and died leading his battalion during an attack on June 14th, 1917.)

Hut Leader Butterworth kept a visitors' book running throughout his time and there are three fascinating volumes in the UK Scout Archives, containing the names of over 5,000 visitors, some recording their home Scout Troop alongside their names.

When Olave B-P visited again in February 1918, the end of the war must have been in sight, for she wrote in the visitors' book:

"Though there is a warm welcome to all at the Scouts Hut at Etaples, there is a warmer one awaiting all Old Scouts at home."

Other Huts and Marquees

Mr Burchardt-Ashton's Marquee

Burchardt-Aston in LoF Uniform

MR Burchardt-Ashton, a friend of Baden-Powell, was a former Scout Commissioner for Emigration and had worked at the Mercers Arms, as its Hut Leader for a while in 1915. As being a Scout Commissioner and a senior official in the YMCA also a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen. The Frontiersmen were an independent body of patriots with varied experience, mainly in the colonies, who were prepared at their own expense to offer their service in the cause of the Empire where ever they though they were needed. The Legion had played a significant part in the first years of Scouting when its founder Roger Pocock, wrote several articles for the first issues of the Scout Magazine and his book, The Frontiersman's Pocket-book, was reccommended by B-P in Scouting for Boys>. Frontiersmen were instructed by Pocock to assist Scouting where they could and did so many early Scout Camps. (Not least the Humshaugh 1908 Camp). Burchardt-Ashton had been a Frontiersman since 1914 and after the war he often tried to persuade B-P to join the Legion of Frontiersman, but B-P kindly but persistently declined, thinking that his membership might compromise his position as Chief Scout.

Mr Burchardt-Ashton donated sufficient money to B-P's fund to purchase a Marquee, which Ashton personally supervised in Northern France close to the Belgian border at Poperinghe. It was made of brown canvas with a wooden floor and had very little comfort for those had to live and work in it.

The Lena Ashwell Concert Party gave concerts and the inter-regimental boxing matches were a common entertainment between shelling, which on one occasion resulted in shrapnel penetrating the canvas.(Lena Ashwell was the sister of Roger Pocock, founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen.) B-P requested the 'wounded' panels of canvas should be replaced rather than stitched: "So that they will serve as interesting mementoes after the war." B-P at least understood the value of learning from history!

The Marquee was moved as required to sites at Meteren and Bailleul. The Marquee leader, a Mr E W Berger, who succeeded Ashton as Burchardt-Ashton Marquee Leader in 1917, said of him,

"...a thorough Scout and so keen that I fear my own subsequent leadership was insignificant as compared with his influence over Scouts and ex-Scouts who used the Marquee."

Berger went on to describe how he tried to run things.

"We tried to perpetuate the Scout ideals and the Scout way of doing things ... we tried and succeeded in doing things outside the scope of an ordinary canteen."

He persuaded officials and high-ranking officers, many of them ex-Scout Commissioners, to bend the rules to allow his men to take comforts to the troops in dangerous and normally prohibited areas. In doing this dangerous work they felt they were fulfilling the Scout Law and Promise.

The Marquee was used for inter-denominational worship. Whichever creed used the facility, the Scout fleur-de-lis still remained alter clothercloth. The Marquee possessed a wind-up gramophone and a battered record of the Chief Scout's speech and whenever this was played other activities, if not the sound of the guns, ceased.

After three years with the Marquee, Mr Berger was obliged to leave it to others whilst he moved nearer to the front line. Three months later during the German advance of 1918 he came back and was shocked to find total devastation, villages obliterated from the face of the earth and no sign of the Marquee.

In a report for the YMCA, on the work of this Marquee, Mr Oliver McCowen (with whom B-P had corresponded) said that few centres at the front justified the generosity of the donors as much as this particular Scout centre. It had withstood repeated winter storms but in the end had simply been blown to shreds.

The Canadian Marquee

This Marquee was established through the donation of $1,000 from Canadian Boy Scouts. After a false start when an old tent was mistakenly provided, a brand new Marquee was dyed khaki to prevent it being a target for 'Bosch airmen'. It was erected in the Canadian sector and was managed by their Chaplain, Lt. Col. J Almond. Capt. McGreer wrote to B-P:

"The chief point, however, is that an average of not less than 1,500 men visit the tent daily and make purchases, read literature, write letters, which contribute to the comfort and cheer of their homefolk as well as themselves."

The area it was originally sited in was frequently shelled but it had escaped damage at the time of McGreer's letter in July 1916.

Major Allan P Chatford, a Canadian Chaplain, described the last months of its existence as follows:

"During the Summer months it served the troops in the reserve area and was on several occasions punctured by flying bits of shell. We were obliged to move it twice...On one occasion the centre section was badly ripped by a mine explosion...When we moved up North from the Paschaendale operations we found it could not be set up, but pieces of it were used for making a canteen. During the autumn storms even these parts fluttered out a glorious existence just before we moved away."

The tent had witnessed Canadian involvement in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Paschaendale.

The Belfast Boy Scout's Hut

This was built through the sole efforts of the Scouts of Belfast. After being erected at Bailleul, the tide of war passed it by and its staff was sent to work nearer the front line in a marquee. The original marquee was eventually sited at Bethune six miles from the front line. A YMCA report, dated November 1916, states the Hut was opened every evening and remained open all night. It was used mainly as a transit point for men being sent home from the front on leave. The Hut came to be used day and night and was equipped with dormitory accommodation. A further report was received in August 1917 when the Hut leader was a Belfast Methodist Minister who always insisted, bible in hand, 'on a word of praise' before the troops went to sleep. The Hut continued its work until April 1918 when, with many others, it was destroyed during the German bombardment.

The Rouen Cinema

This too was provided from B-P's fund. It was a wooden building and capable of seating around 1,000 men. Though well furnished with Scout symbols and literature, members of the Cavendish Club managed it. (The Cavendish Club was a London club used mainly by retired army officers)

The Cinema was opened September 18th 1916. Films, Concerts and Lectures were well-attended and on Sundays it too was given over to Church Parades. A letter received by Scout HQ from the Recreation Committee in October 1917 records what a boon 'the Boy Scouts Cinema' has been to the camp..."We now have a string orchestra which plays every night..."

The Cinema was closed at the end of the war and sold by the Cavendish Club who sent the funds back to Scout HQ.

Wartime 'Clubs' in England

The Hythe Hut

IN the summer of 1916 the Mercers' Guild again funded a recreation Hut at Shorncliff Camp, in Kent. It was presented to the YMCA with the proviso that it should, like the French Scouts Huts, be operated by Scouting personnel.

Scout's Soldier and Sailor Club

The Duke of Connaught first opened the club at 68 Victoria Street in 1917, where it was also to play an important rôle in the early days of the Scouts' Friendly Society. At first it seemed ideal and was glowingly reported on in the Headquarters Gazette.

"Good premises have been secured, with refreshment rooms; lounge, writing rooms etc. at a point convenient for several railway stations."

It did not however 'take off' as anticipated and Baden-Powell himself carried out a review of the situation. There is a memorandum in the UK Scout Archives from B-P dated December 19th, 1917, pointing out why new premises were now required.

"Caretaker disagreeable and grasping - heavy drinker.
The locality of the club is fatally wrong."

New premises were found and the Club was re-opened at 27 Buckingham Palace Road Thursday on April 11th, 1918, by B-P.

The Editor of The Scout magazine, Geoffrey 'Uncle' Elwes, had run a similar club, the St. George's Scout Club, in Colchester since the first days of the War and there was also a more recent one in Grantham. The St. George's Scout Club also played an important role as a meeting place for 'Old Scouts' and in the early days of the Scouts' Friendly Society, and was thought by some to be the genesis of Rover Scouting.

Scouts Motor Ambulances

HEADQUARTERS GAZETTE, October 1914 carries news of what I think must have been the first Scout Ambulance. Some individuals (Rich ones, it has to be said) were volunteering their beloved vehicles for wartime service. Owners of De Dion Bouton cars were especially generous in this way. The magnificent 24 h.p. De Dion Bouton illustrated below belonged to Mr E G Currie and Mr Victor J Spiganovicz. They paid for its conversion (see picture on right) and presented it to be operated by their local Boy Scouts Association. The vehicle held three stretchers and covered many miles in Scotland, conveying regulars and territorials to hospital. It was also one of the first cars to be called out to assist the survivors of HMS Pathfinder, which was sunk by the enemy in the North Sea.

Ambulance conversion
Photo before and after conversion. (Image taken from wartime newsprint in Headquarters Gazette)

Headquarters Gazette of November 1914 records that the of Order of St John of Jerusalem (the St John's Ambulance Association) had accepted a gift of a Panhard car converted to a motor ambulance presented to the Scout Association by Mr Ernest Alexander. The Gazette said that a team of Scouts who must be over the age of 18 and trained in First Aid would operate the ambulance. This was the Four-stretcher ambulance that ex-Scoutmaster Sgt. Major Leonard Hodson, with 'a patrol' of ambulance 'Scouts' landed in France, February 27th, 1915, and worked around Ypres in April/May 1915. It had the words 'Boy Scouts' painted on its side.

In May 1915 The Headquarters Gazette has an article by B-P, in which he describes seeing the ambulance at work with its 'patrol of ex-Scouts' who form the stretcher party. At that stage the ambulance had not yet seen direct action but had been employed carrying the sick between hospitals and hospital trains. (This was soon to change.) Whilst there, the Chief Scout drew the sketch below.

The same issue of the Gazette carried a letter from Sergeant Major L Hodson, RAMC, writing from Belgium on April 8th, 1915. He recounts how the ambulance mainly worked at night and on occasion this had to be done without lights. The ex-Scout stretcher party consisted of Privates Flear, Hogen, Henry and Clark. Sgt. Major Hodson concludes:

"We are all very fit and settling down well to active service conditions very well indeed. The car is behaving very well and I trust will do some very useful work."
Ambulance and windmill
B-P's sketch of ambulance with windmill in background

In the July Gazette Hodson sent a further report which included:

"From 11 p.m. on the 23rd (May) up to 6 p.m. on the 24th, we took in a great number of cases of wounded and victims of gas. We ourselves were slightly gassed - quite sufficient to be most uncomfortable."

The Scout stretcher party patrol had been sniped at and experienced a German attack on a trench from which they were in recovering the wounded, but characteristically Hodson concluded:

"I am glad to tell you that we are all exceedingly fit and have been all the time we have been out here."

Sgt. Major Hodson wrote to B-P again in September to report that the 'Scout Unit' was now in charge of a Field Dressing Station and that he and his men have

"...a nodding acquaintance with shells for we are near a road, which is shelled every day..."

He did not however mention the ambulance. Perhaps it had suffered mechanical breakdown for shortly afterwards he wrote again to B-P appealing for a new vehicle.

Col. H S Roch, RAMC, wrote from France in appreciation of the old ambulance.

"...what excellent work the Boy Scout's car and its team did in troublous [sic] times round Ypres in April and May, when it took its full share of the tiring and dangerous work of getting the wounded away every night under considerable shell fire… Sergeant Hodson himself (an ex Scout in charge of the ambulance) is one of the most energetic, helpful and resourceful N.C.O's out here. If he is a typical product of Boy Scout Training, then your Organisation has done much for the future of the Nation."

B-P as usual was prompt in responding to need. He wired back

"...don't worry: the Boy Scouts will send you a new car."

He then circularised Scout Commissioners and Local Association Secretaries throughout the UK.

"My proposal therefore is that every Scout should give the proceeds of one day's work towards the fund now started towards providing the Ambulance. In accordance with our rules, there should be no touting or begging for subscriptions..."

The suggested day for this action was Monday, October 25th, 1916, being Balaclava Day (the commemoration of of a battle fought in the Crimean War in 1854). B-P felt that on the evidence of a similar Boys Brigade appeal enough money might be raised to do more.

"In such a case I would propose to devote the remainder to the purchase and erection of a recreation Hut for the soldiers in France in co-operation with the YMCA. Such a Hut like the one already established by my Guild, the Mercers Company and manned by members of the Boy Scouts would be the means of doing incalculable good."

A similar letter to was sent to Scoutmasters. The result of the appeal was an amazing £5,821 (£221,314.00 at today's values), raised by the honest toil of Scouts across the country. Scouts cut flowers from their gardens and sold them, ran entertainments, Scout Bands performed, bicycles were cleaned etc. A Wolf Cub pack gave up a day to pick up acorns. Used bottle collecting was made into a national pastime in Northern Ireland with 200 tons of bottles and jars being collected in Belfast.

American Red Cross

Needless to say the new ambulance was quickly on its way. It was delivered to the Military Authorities in November 1915, ready to be sent overseas. The words 'Boy Scouts' were again painted in red on the doors. The old vehicle was repaired and sent to the Scout Hut at Etaples, but it eventually had to be sold off for the want of a driver and petrol. Part of its hood (its soft-top - not the engine cover!) was sent to Imperial Headquarters for the 'Scout War Museum', but unfortunately I do not think it has survived.

The image shown here is of a YMCA postcard issued as part of series to raise money for Huts. (The reverse side of this card is pictured earlier in the article.) I am not aware of any images in existence of the second Scout ambulance. However, we do know it was a Ford and I think it very likely that the ambulance above, operated by the Red Cross, was the same make and of similar construction.

About a year later, on December 15th, 1916, an additional five Ford ambulances were presented to Sir Alfred Koegh on behalf of the Military by His Royal Highness, the Duke of Connaught on behalf of the Scout Association, but these were intended for use with Auxiliary War Hospitals in England. (HRH the Duke of Connaught was President of the Scout Association and long-term supporter of Baden-Powell since their army days in India.) The money for these must have come from the same 'Hut and Ambulance Fund' detailed above. However, the discovery of the postcard below (Courtesy John Ineson Collection) clearly indicates that there was a separate fund just for Scout Motor Ambulances.

Ambulance Fund card

A Lt. Col. Green of the Croydon War Hospital wrote to Imperial Scout Headquarters in 1917 to say that the one of the five Ford ambulances attached to his hospital was "...of invaluable assistance..." Other cars were attached to hospitals in Cambridge, Reading and Whitstable.

The 1st Ilkley Troop donated a Ford Ambulance to the British Red Cross, who used it throughout the rest of war to excellent effect in Alexandria, Egypt.

News from The Front

The Headquarters Gazette of September 1916 carried news about two of the ambulances. One of the drivers J J Wellet wrote:

"The car is running quite well, but is getting rather war-worn and the body is looking more like a sieve than anything else, with the small pieces that have gone through it."

Another Scout driver, Mr Roebuck, had been wounded with a shell splinter in the leg, but it was only a small wound and after a few days rest he was at work again.

The Hon. Roland Phillips was perhaps one of the most charismatic of London pre-war Scouters. He was a personal friend of B-P and had stayed at the B-P's family home at Ewhurst, Kent. He had, just before his departure to France, bought a property on behalf of troops in his East End District, which later became Roland House, the subject of a separate Milestone article. By an amazing co-incidence, Roland Phillips had been observed driving this Scout Ambulance - a few days later he was killed in action on July 7th, 1916. His death, B-P publicly declared, was "the heaviest blow that our movement has yet sustained."

THIS is only a glimpse of the work that Scout Movement undertook during the First World War, Other Scouting Milestones Pages, both written and projected, provide a more complete coverage, but nothing short of many encyclopaedic volumes could possibly document the countless accounts, some written, mostly not, that ought to be on record.

May I urge all would-be Scout Historians (and every District should have one!) to work at local levels to preserve and record before it is too late.


LITTLE did I know when I decided on the title for this page quite what a battle it was going to be. With the article in its draft stage I took it and most of the artefacts that illustrate it, to the Scout Archives at Gilwell Park. Unfortunately, on Friday, March 1st, 2002, my motor caravan and its entire contents burnt to the ground as it stood in the Brachett's Field Car Park. Later, on the very day I was due to send (electronically) the written article with now, regretfully, only the computer images of the burnt artefacts to my Webmaster, my computer crashed, with a message indicating that the hard drive had failed. My son-in-law - a computer expert - managed to get my computer running again in a limited way, but enough to enable me to make a full backup of all my data. Had the hard drive been lost the images would have also been lost, with very little chance of replacement. I am very hopeful that this particular battle is now at an end, and hope that the losses to myself and my friend the Scouting Artefacts Collector, John Ineson, will be compensated by renewed interest in this fascinating period of our Scouting history.


Printed Sources
Christmas in the Scout Hut Headquarters Gazette, February, 1919
Headquarters Gazette. All the war-time issues
Scouting Achievements Beresford Webb, 1937. Chapter 5 - 'War Service'
Spencer Lemming The Scout, February 19th, 1948
The First Ten Years Sir Percy Everett, 1948
The Scout Movement E E Reynolds, 1950
Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero William Hillcourt, 1964. p348 onwards
Women of the War, p.28 Lady Olave B-P, by Barbara McLaren, 1918
Internet Sources
The Mercer's Company Website

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