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The Middlesbrough Ambulance


One of the most remarkable events to occur in Middlesbrough during World War One was the story of the Middlesbrough Ambulance. This legendary tale, only recently brought to light, reads almost like a ‘boys-own adventure.’

When the British Red Cross called for more ambulances for the Front, Middlesbrough Borough Council decided to offer their new motor ambulance. Former Mayor, Alderman Alfred Mattison aged 51 former player and Chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club and Phil Bach, ex-England international footballer and current Middlesbrough Football Club Chairman, volunteered to drive the vehicle to the Western Front.

With the vehicle costing almost £650 the venture attracted huge local publicity. An appeal was issued for donations of blankets, socks knitwear and cigarettes to take with them. Tom McIntosh, the Secretary of Middlesbrough Football Club announced that the Directors had purchased £5 worth of underclothing for the Middlesbrough Ambulance to take to the front. Customers at the North Riding Hotel in Gurney Street, collected 550 cigarettes whilst 5,000 cigarettes came from the employees of Dickson and Benson Ltd, the largest retailer in Middlesbrough, each packet carrying a message written by one of the firm’s female employees.

Two weeks later, the dark green Austin Motor Ambulance, reg. DC 529, arrived and was displayed for two days at the Middlesbrough Fire Station. On the morning of Saturday 24 October the vehicle with ‘Middlesbrough Yorks’ written on its side, pulled into the cobbled quadrangle in the middle of the Town Hall. A large crowd enthralled by this heroic adventure, had gathered to see them leave. Led by the Mayor, leading civic officials and many notable local sportsmen they gave a hearty ‘Three Cheers’ as the vehicle, laden with clothing and cigarettes, pulled away. Two days later the Directors of Middlesbrough Football Club in the minutes of their Board Meeting, ‘extended their heartiest appreciation… on the honourable duty the two men are undertaking.’ Alfred’s wife, Emily, received so many wishes of good luck on his behalf, that she issued a statement of thanks in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette on 31 October 1914.

After leaving Middlesbrough the men drove to London staying in the Imperial Hotel whilst the ambulance was given its Red Cross logo and altered to meet War Office requirements. The men finally headed to Folkestone on 29 October 1914 where they crossed the Channel to Boulogne. The ambulance was put straight to work transporting the wounded from trains newly arrived from the Front, to local hospitals and to the Hospital Ships. With each train carrying up to 400 men and over 3,000 casualties arriving in Boulogne each day, Mattison and Bach were kept busy. On 6 November 1914 under the command of Commandant, Captain Kelly, R.A.M.C., the Middlesbrough Ambulance was sent to the Front as one of a convoy of 15 vehicles joining No. 2 Medical Army Corps.

Later in a powerful recollection of their time in France, Mattison said that it was at this point that:

‘they had their first real glimpse of war – the dead horse lying by the wayside, a crudely fashioned graveside, the intense booming of the guns, the passing of the refugees and the glare of burning homesteads.’

The two men stayed in an old Chateau, before finally moving to a local town. For a month the men, often under shellfire, transported the wounded from Field Hospitals to the Clearing Hospitals and the Rail Head for transportation to either Boulogne or Le Touquet. In his letters home, Mattison wrote that the Middlesbrough vehicle was much admired but the roads were bad, with potholes 18 inches (0.45m) deep causing many vehicles to end up in roadside ditches. Although driving the vehicle was difficult (it weighed 2 tons unladen) he would only bring the ambulance home when there were plenty of other vehicles to do the work.

Remarkably they were sighted on at least two occasions. In a letter received on 30 November 1914 from Lance-Corporal W. Danby of the Army Service Corps (Expeditionary Force) described how he was:

‘passing a Red Cross hospital on Monday morning (23 November), fairly early, I saw the ambulances from which the wounded soldiers were being removed, when the words ‘Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, stood out very prominently on one of the cars. At first I thought I was dreaming, but I soon came to my senses when I saw our worthy ex-Mayor superintending the careful removal of wounded soldiers and the managing director of the Boro’ at the wheel. The handshake they gave me was rather nippy for a cold frosty morning but it was proof of their pleasure at seeing me.’

Another sighting took place on 5 December 1914; Leonard Griggs, R.A.M.C 23rd Field Ambulance wrote to ‘Old Bird’ in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette Sports Gazette that he had just ‘had the pleasure of meeting Phil Bach half an hour ago.’ At the end of November with the conditions at the Front becoming increasingly muddy it was becoming more apparent that the Middlesbrough Ambulance was not suited to the conditions. Captain Kelly wrote to Mattison:

‘I think it is a convenient time to return home. You have had a good deal of work and experience with your Ambulance, which is very comfortable, but I would advise you to bring a lighter and shorter M.A. Wagon if you think of coming out again.’

Having driven back to Boulogne on 1 December 1914, Mattison was then asked by Mr Stanhope, Director of Transport to British Red Cross for the vehicle to be left in France as he thought it could be of further use. Leaving Bach behind as a spare driver, Mattison took a few days leave. He returned to France on 11 December 1914 to find that they were again required for duty. Two days later, the Middlesbrough Ambulance began various duties in the Le Touquet and Boulogne area, including another spell at the Front with the No. 2 Medical Army Corps, transporting the wounded from Field Hospitals.

Bach wrote home just before Christmas to say that he was well and that he was ‘quite enjoying the experience (and) would not have missed it for anything.’ The two men spent Christmas 1914 on duty in France but on 31 December with the Red Cross having declared they had enough vehicles and driving conditions in France becoming increasingly difficult Mattison decided to return home. He had heard about the bombardment of Hartlepool, and thought the ambulance would be needed for more urgent duties back in Middlesbrough. Mattison drove back to Boulogne en route for England where he arrived on 5 January 1915. Having taken personal responsibility for returning the vehicle in a state fit for future use, Mattison must have been somewhat relieved to arrive back in Middlesbrough.

Two letters of commendation were received from senior British Red Cross officials regarding the work carried out by Bach and Mattison. Whilst Mattison remained active in the war effort in Middlesbrough, Phil Bach, having joined another convoy, served in France and Egypt, before returning in April 1916. A minute at the Middlesbrough Football Club Board Meeting 8 May 1916, records ‘the Members of the Board expressed their great pleasure on having the Chairman with them and congratulate him on….his safe return.’ In June 1918 he enlisted again as a Captain in the Shropshire Yeomanry finally returning to Middlesbrough in early December 1918.

By Paul Menzies


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