BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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Lt Col G S Crawford, a Farmer’s son from Clough, Co Antrim: An Insight into the Life and Work of a Medical Officer in the British Army

Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Stewart Crawford, MD, CMG, Royal Army Medical Corps
Photograph courtesy of Our Heroes, South Dublin Libraries and David Power.

Gilbert Stewart Crawford was born on the 14 May 1868 at Ballybogy (sometimes Ballybogey or Ballybogie), Clough, his father being Samuel Crawford, a local farmer; his mother was Jane Stewart. The 1901 Irish census records them there. Samuel was 74 years old, his wife Jane 68, and their daughter Annie Jane (28) still lived with them. She had been born at Ballybogy on the 13 April 1872. Samuel was dead by the time of the 1911 census. Jane, now 78, lived with her daughter Annie Jane (38). Samuel, aged 80, had died at of cardiac failure and in the presence of his son Samuel on the 18 February 1906; son Samuel had been born at Ballybogy on the 17 March 1864. The family tombstone in Clough Cemetery reads:

In Memory of Samuel Crawford of Ballybogie, died 18th January 1906, aged 60 years
Also of his sons Andrew who died 1st February 1876, aged 18 years
And Dunlop who died 5th July 1880, aged 18 years
Also his wife Jane Crawford died 10th March 1922, aged 91 years
Also his daughter Ann Jane died 18th March 1922, aged 49 years
Also his son Samuel died 21st October 1953, aged 89 years
And his wife Elizabeth Hall died 10th November 1933 aged 62 years
Gilbert Stewart, though still an integral part of the family, was no longer at Clough as many of these events unfolded – farming was not for him. He trained as a doctor and sought a career with the military.  He was a Surgeon-Lieutenant by the 30 January 1892, a Surgeon-Captain by the 30 January 1895. The emergence of the Royal Army Medical Corps allowed Captain Crawford to become Major Crawford in January 1904 and to advance to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on the 8 August 1914. By then he had already had an exciting career and remarkable record of service.

British Camp in Tirah. Taken from  - 17 photographs of operations during the Khyber and Tirah campaigns on the North-West Frontier of India

Wellcome Library ( - RAMC/1118:Box 228, Reference Number b18302920. Used under Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial license.
Crawford served on the North–West Frontier Campaign in India (1897-98) - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were all part of India at the time - with the Tirah Expeditionary Force, a posting which gained him a campaign medal and two clasps. While it is not relevant here to discuss the causes of this war or indeed the course of the fighting, it is worth reading some material from the introduction to the ‘The Indian Frontier War, Being an account of the Mohmund and Tirah Expeditions 1897, by Lionel James, Reuter’s Special Correspondent, published London, William Heinemann, 1898, a book that should have been compulsory reading for all those who advocated intervention in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan in more recent times.
Lionel James in his book says,
‘the public barely appreciate what was asked of their army when it was sent to ... Tirah. Having been present at the Campaign, I ... should start from as fair a standpoint as possible ... Those who have no knowledge of frontier warfare can form but the faintest conception of the adverse conditions under which the campaign took place ...’

Referring to the task allotted to the British commander he said,
‘He was given a conjectural map of the theatre of war, and was led to understand that no small part of his duty was a fairly accurate survey of the unknown country. He had ... as fine a body of fighting men as could be found ..., but with this army he had to carry a larger army of non-combatants and followers, and a multitude of transport animals ... no fewer than 43,810 transport animals.... This was ... in addition to the transport of the Peshawar and Kurram columns ... it had to be protected, and pushed and driven through perhaps the most difficult country in the world! General Lockhart was called upon to take this undisciplined multitude across mountains where there was not even a vestige of a goat-track; along river-beds strewn with boulders, where the only path was knee-deep in icy water; through gorges where two animals abreast closed the up gradients which in their initial stages defeated (and this is a hard saying) even mountain battery mules; down descents which were almost precipices; through barren places where food there was none; and into extremes of climate which destroyed the weaklings and consequently increased the loads of the more robust. Even had there been no opposition, the passage through such a country of an army so handicapped would have been a great feat.

But there was bitter opposition ... The Pathan, while still possessing the natural advantages of country and physical hardihood, is further armed with weapons as precise and deadly as our own ... He is as active as a ... mountain goat; he can carry a week's rations on his back ...  he is clever and crafty, and is fighting in his own country, where every hill path and position for ambuscade is known to him. [They] reserve their fighting strength for the system of guerrilla warfare ... in which all the disadvantages lie with the invader. ... Those who have never been under a continuous fire do not realise how constant rear-guard actions tell upon the soldier; how weary and dispirited he gets. ... And it has been a campaign of rearguards. I would have my readers realise ... how rear-guard accidents may occur at the close of a short winter day, when baggage has to be driven and carried for miles down the bed of a mountain torrent.’

The medical staff like Crawford worked in terrible conditions in this wilderness, yet they did well.

‘Few people, probably, outside the Department (i.e. Army Medical Services), have any conception of the strain and responsibility devolved on the Medical Services ...  Twenty-three field hospitals altogether were mobilised. ... Each of these could accommodate 100 sick men, and was fully equipped with supplies and comforts for three months. In addition, base hospitals were formed at Rawalpindi, Nowshera, and Kohat, in which beds were provided for upwards of 3000 men. These figures will give some idea of the scale of the organisation. But the wild, roadless country in which the operations were conducted enormously increased the difficulties ... in making arrangements for the care and treatment and transport of the wounded and sick. From Bagh in Tirah to the advanced base at Shinauri is about thirty-five miles by a track traversable only by mules and ponies, or on foot. For these thirty-five miles those who were too ill or too weak to ride, and there were hundreds such, had to be carried in doolies (palanquins) and stretchers, and strongly escorted all the way, for the road throughout was in hostile territory, except the last few miles. From Shinauri wheeled ambulances were available for seventy-five miles, until the railway was reached at Khusalgarh, whence it was a run of eighty miles to Rawalpindi. It may easily be believed that the work of carrying the wounded, and transporting them to the base hospitals, was a very real difficulty.

There were no Chinooks! The condition of the wounded men must have been made worse by such a journey, their wounds made harder to treat.

Medical Aid. Taken from  - 17 photographs of operations during the Khyber and Tirah campaigns on the North-West Frontier of India
Wellcome Library ( - RAMC/1118:Box 228, Reference Number b18302920. Used under Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial license.

Crawford and his colleagues had the quality of their work noted by those in authority.  Surgeon-Major-General G. Thomson, C.B., I. M.S., Principal Medical Officer in the field, was thanked, the OC wanting ‘to express my indebtedness to him, and to the other officers of the department of which he has been in charge, for the high state of efficiency in which it has been maintained, often under very unfavourable conditions.’ 

(The Campaign in the Tirah, 1897-1898: An Account of the Expedition against the Orakzais and Afridis under General Sir William Lockhart, GCB, KCSI, by Colonel H D Hutchinson, page 245-246).

The P.M.O. (Principal Medical Officer) spoke highly of his Secretary, Surgeon-Major W. A. Morris, A.M.S. to the Commander-in-Chief in India, for in submitting Despatches to the Government of India, he wrote:
The extent of these demands may be best realised from the statement that it was considered necessary to provide hospital accommodation for 12 per cent of troops and followers. ... The results obtained in the treatment of the sick, and especially in surgical cases of wounds, have been most satisfactory.’

The South African War, 1900-1902, gave Crawford’s next opportunity to practice his medicine and gain experience. He was present at the Relief of Ladysmith, the Battle of Spion Kop, the actions at Vaal Kranz of the 5-7 February 1900, Tugela Heights from the 14-27 February 1900 and the action at Pieter’s [Peter’s] Hill.  He was involved in operations in Natal, March –June 1900, including the action at Laing’s Nek on the 6-9 June. He participated in operation in the Transvaal in 1901. He acquired a Queen’s Medal and 4 clasps and a King’s Medal (Queen Victoria died in 1901) and 3 clasps.

Where General Butler successfully crossed the Tugela River

Photograph from Album of photographs of Boer War battlefields: Wellcome Library.  Used under Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial license terms.

About 22,000 soldiers were treated for battle wounds. During the early phase of the war, most medical recovery teams, suitably identified, would enter the battlefield and to recover wounded men, but the Boers allegedly took advantage and squads were formed to fire on them, a procedure that killed soldiers and paramedics. This meant recovery was thereafter conducted after dusk, and this made medical care not just more difficult but also less effective.

Despite that, however, the surgical care provision was vastly more effective than in previous wars.  There were twenty-eight field ambulances, five stationary hospitals and 16 general hospitals established to deal with casualties and numerous voluntary organizations developed additional medical facilities. Special units of Natal Indian South Africans served in the recovery effort by transporting the wounded from battlefields.

Based loosely on Lee, Emanoel (1985), "To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899–1902", London: Penguin Books, Viking Penguin Incorporated.

Where the British climbed Spion Kop.
They were to lose 1,750 men killed and wounded before the action ended.
Photograph from Album of photographs of Boer War battlefields: Wellcome Library.  Used under Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial license terms.

The Boer War created an opportunity for Crawford and other medics to promote a number of medical advancements. It was the first conflict to use waterproofed sterile gauze pads and safety pins. High power bullet wounds damaged bones and they developed splints made from canvas and made rigid by bamboo strips. These they covered by Plaster of Paris to create casts. X-rays were also utilized widely for the first time, though some x-ray machines were used earlier, e.g. at the time if the Tirah Expedition.

The RAMC, formed in 1898, achieved much during the Boer war, and in his despatch of 2nd April 1901 Lord Roberts said:

"Under Surgeon General Wilson this department has laboured indefatigably both in the field and in the hospitals. ...There are many instances, indeed, recorded of great gallantry having been displayed by the officers in carrying on their work of mercy under heavy fire, and in the face of exceptional difficulties their duty has been ably performed.”

Quoted from Anglo Boer -

'Boer War: removing the wounded after battle.
Brush and wash drawing by H.M.P., 1900.' by H. M. P.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Crawford was to take his experience of India and South Africa to the Great War, but also other experiences that resulted from his sojourn in the Mediterranean.  He became Major Crawford, Royal Army Medical Corps, on the 30 Jan 1904 and arrived in Malta in February 1906. He was in charge Mtarfa Military Hospital in July 1906 and he introduced measures to lower the mortality from infantile enteritis. He assisted with sanitary matters in Malta after Sept 1907, and was appointed Sanitary Officer for Valletta in 1908. He returned to England on leave in June 1908 but after the 28 Dec 1908 he found himself in charge of a medical party sent to Sicily following the earthquake at Catona.

The 1908 earthquake was the first ‘national’ catastrophe Italy had to face since recent unification. Both Messina and Reggio Calabria were almost completely razed by the earthquake beneath the Messina Strait. It occurred on the 28 December 1908 at exactly 5:21 am while everyone was sleeping, and lasted a mere 30-40 seconds. It measured about 7.1-7.5 on the Richter scale. Ten minutes after the catastrophic earthquake those who tried to escape by running towards the open spaces of the coast were engulfed by a 40 foot high tsunami that swept away the whole seafront. It is estimated that 25,000 people perished in Reggio Calabria and 65,000 in Messina. Reggio lost 27% of its inhabitants; Messina lost 42%.  The violence of the earthquake meant it was felt in Malta too. The Daily Malta Chronicle reported that, "The seismograph at the university (of Malta) was thrown out of gear by the violence of its (the earthquake's) own action."

Crawford’s Field Ambulance was mobilized from Malta. Records state that ‘the following sailed on HMS Duncan to Catona on New Year's Eve: Maj Crawford G S, Capt Anderson H S, Capt Winckworth H C, Capt Lloyd Jones P A, Surgeon Capt Randon R, Lt (QM) Morrison, Sister McCreery QAIMNS, Sister Hartigan QAIMNS, and 55 other ranks RAMC.’

They were very welcome, as stated in the book From the lips of Survivors, page 53:

"We were cut off from the world. All the wires were down. We could not see the lights of Reggio, which told of destruction. All things seemed to be returning to savagery. Early Tuesday morning we saw some silent gray monsters tearing up the Straits, and we could soon distinguish the white ensign. The British fleet had come. It brought the first help from the outside world. It brought surgeons, medical appliances, food and clothing. As soon as the sailors landed they began to restore order."

The work the unit did there was much appreciated, though they were only one of the major relief teams that sped to the area. Crawford and the many others of the British team returned to Malta in 1909 and he was to remain there as Sanitary Officer Valletta until March 1911. On the 29 Oct 1909, he was appointed Commander of the Crown of Italy, a reward for his services in Calabria during the earthquake crisis; he also received the Silver Medal and Diploma of the Italian Red Cross. This was bestowed upon him by the Governor and Commander in Chief at the Palace Valletta.

Crawford's  Italian Award was noted in the  British Medical Journal, 1 January 1910
He became a Lieutenant Colonel on the eve of the Great War and he was in command of the 14th Field Ambulance from mobilisation until August 1915, and was through some of the heaviest fighting on the western front, frequently carrying out his work under heavy shellfire. Details of his character and work are hard to obtain but some insight can be gleaned from With the French in France and Flanders, Being the Experiences of a Chaplain attached to a Field Ambulance, by Owen Spencer Watkins, Chaplain to the Forces.

Watkins was, according to his book, with the 14th Field Ambulance during the Retreat from Mons, at Le Cateau, the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of the Aisne, with them when they retired from Aisne to Northern France and with them at the holding of the Bethune-Arras-La Bassee Line, during the blocking of the road to Calais and at the First Battle of Ypres and Armentieres.

Watkins was a Methodist minister and was delighted to find that ‘The Officer Commanding the Field Ambulance was ... Lieutenant-Colonel G S Crawford, a member  a family which ... has rendered such fine service to Irish Methodism, and whose sympathies were, I speedily discovered, with me in the work that I was sent to do. (Page 12)’.

Referring to one action, though with words he would have applied to any he saw, he noted Crawford’s dedicated behaviour and efficiency:
'Field Ambulance has had many homes —Richebourg-l'Avoue, Le Hamel, Le Touret, La Couture, Vieille Chapelle, Lestrem, Estaires, Les Lobes, Rue Delannoy, Les Facons, and La Belle Croix. In some of them we have made comparatively long stays, in others we did not even complete one night, for we were shelled out by an inconsiderate enemy. But, whether our stay was long or short, Colonel Crawford and his officers have made their arrangements for the receiving of sick and wounded ; the operating-room has been ready, and, under the most trying conditions, excellent work has been done.'  Page 128

He knew Crawford was always personally willing to take risk and to do whatever was needed. He admired his spirit and recorded on one occasion that ‘... the 14th was just coming into action. Leaving the ambulance at Les Facons, I accompanied Colonel Crawford, who was riding on ahead, to select a suitable place in which to establish a dressing-station’. p 104

He knew from firsthand experience how hard 14 Field Ambulance toiled and how well organised they were. He said, ‘I never saw better arrangements, or, indeed, arrangements half as good, as those which Colonel Crawford and his officers made at Jury. Many an officer and man, during this and the following days, who owe their lives to the surgical skill of Captain Lindsay and Lieutenants Tasker and Clark, could not possibly have been saved but for the careful preparation beforehand, and the almost ideal operating theatre into which the room in that little farmhouse had been converted.' p78-79

He noted too that ‘Colonel Crawford and his officers, also, are not men content only to do their official work; they have acquired a considerable civil practice, not one that produces any monetary reward, but one that is rich in the gratitude of those in sore need--refugees from Belgium and the ruined villages of Northern France, and the impoverished peasantry of the particular district in which at present we are operating. The names of Lieutenants Row, Barry, Hay, Chesney, and Clarke will long be remembered with gratitude by those who have benefited by their surgical and medical skill.’ p183-184

The risks the 14th Field Ambulance took saved lived but took a toll of their own men.  The Reverend Watkins at the end of his book about the early fighting in France said, ‘There are now only three left of the twelve officers who sailed from Dublin with the Ambulance last August — i.e. Colonel G. S. Crawford, Lieutenant T Grenfell, and myself. The toll has been heavy, but the achievement great. I shall always be proud that I have been numbered amongst that gallant band of brave and devoted men'. P 192

Major Francis Graham Richard had been killed, Chaplain D P Winnifrith was invalided, Captain Bell and Lieutenants Martin-Row and Clarke were wounded, as indeed was the Reverend Watkins, but Crawford, as a favour to a friend, let him recover with the unit in France.
Crawford later commanded the 18th Stationary Hospital, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force for a time. No 18 Stationary Hospital opened at West Mudros on Lemnos in August 1915 with 624 beds and it later expanded to 1,340 beds.

The Greek island of Lemnos, situated in the northern Aegean Sea at about 50 miles from Turkey and the Dardanelles, and it was used as a staging post for the assembly of troops and ships to be used in the Gallipoli campaign. More importantly for our current study is its role as a place where the wounded of Gallipoli were treated by people including Crawford. Given the nature of the harsh terrain and the narrow strip of land that the Allied troops held on the Dardanelles peninsula, treating and caring for the wounded close to the front was not possible and hence the men had to be evacuated on flat-bottom boats and then transferred to hospital ships waiting offshore for transportation to hospitals in Egypt and Malta. Even that was difficult, as Sir Ian Hamilton's noted in his despatch of May 1915.

He said, 'The Royal Army Medical Services have had to face unusual and very trying conditions. There are no roads, and the wounded who are unable to walk must be carried from the firing line to the shore. They, and their attendants, may be shelled on their way to the beaches, at the beaches, on the jetties, and again on their way out in lighters to the hospital ships. I can only express my own opinion that efficiency, method, and even a certain quiet heroism have characterised the evacuation of the many thousands of our wounded.

The close proximity of Lemnos was attractive, but the island lacked suitable medical facilities, so was intended initially to deal with the slightly wounded, i.e. those likely to be well within twenty-eight days. But the sheer numbers of wounded from the early August offensive and the flood of sick that followed in late August, September and October necessitated its development as an intermediate military medical base. Crawford was one of those who did that work and, though details of his personal role are unavailable, we know he was instrumental in the transition. The hospital moved to Egypt in January 1916, and he probably went with them.
The rest of his career in the Great War is not known to us at this time and he may have retired before the war’s end. He was mentioned in despatches, by Field-Marshal Viscount French, and on the basis of his excellent service he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. His name was removed from the Reserve of Officers in May 1923.

The End of the Road for an Old Warhorse

He inspired his nephews, the sons of his brother Robert of Ashville, Galgorm Road, Ballymena, to enlist. Cadet Robert (Rollie) Crawford joined the Royal Irish Rifles via a commission in the 18th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. 2nd Lt. Rollie Crawford was educated at the Model School Ballymena Academy, Foyle College and Trinity College, Dublin where he was studying for the ministry. In the early spring of 1915 he had joined the Royal Irish Rifles as a private and later became attached to the cadet corps, from which he gained his commission. He went to the front during the first week of February 1915.

His brother, 2nd Lt. Jack Crawford, Royal Irish Rifles, was wounded in the Ulster Division's Somme advance in July 1916. The Ballymena Observer said, ‘We understand that he is in hospital in France and is progressing favourably from his wounds which he states himself are only slight. Mr. Crawford who is just 21 years of age, was with the YCVs (Young Citizens Volunteers). Both brothers survived the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Stewart Crawford, MD, CMG died on the 2 November 1953 at Exmouth, Devon. He had been an outstanding medic and organiser, a man who made a great difference to the lives of others, military and civilian. Sadly he is scarcely remembered in his own home locality.
Some References

The Indian Frontier War, Being an account of the Mohmund and Tirah Expeditions 1897, by Lionel James, Reuter’s Special Correspondent, published London, William Heinemann, 1898
The Campaign in the Tirah, 1897-1898: An Account of the Expedition against the Orakzais and Afridis under General Sir William Lockhart, GCB, KCSI, based (by permission) on Letters Contributed to 'The Times' by Colonel H D Huchinson, Director of Military Education in India, published Macmillan & Co, Limited, New York,  1898
See:  The British Empire: Tirah Expedition
The 1897 Revolt and Tirah Valley Operations from the Pashtun Perspective" by Robert A Johnson November 2009 Tribal Analysis Center
Photographs of the Campaign -
Wellcome Collection -
To the Bitter End: A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899–1902, Lee, Emanoel (1985), London: Penguin Books, Viking Penguin Incorporated.
Anglo Boer -
With the French in France and Flanders, Being the Experiences of a Chaplain attached to a Field Ambulance, by Owen Spencer Watkins, Chaplain to the Forces, published London 1915 by Charles H Kelly, 25-35 City Road, and 26 Paternoster Row, E.C.
The Great War and the RAMC by Bt. Lt. Col F S Brerton, RAMC, Constable and Company Ltd, London, 1919