Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Irish Doctors in the First World War by David Durnin

‘The absence of conscription in Ireland leaves it open to young Irish practitioners to profit by the military service of English, Scottish and Welsh doctors and set up practice in the homes of the absentees to their obvious hurt. How does the British Medical Association hope to deal with that? Nay, to put it more fairly, how can we hope that the British Medical Association can right this wrong?’ 

 On 20 January 1917, the British Medical Journal published the above letter sent by an unidentified Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps – the British Army’s medical division. The letter highlighted underlying feeling among some British doctors that Irish medical personnel, rather than participating in the First World War, travelled to Britain to occupy jobs left vacant by medical men serving with the British Army. In response, Dr Maurice Hayes, a graduate of the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that the Irish medical profession, without compulsion, had ‘provided a steady flow of volunteers to the British Army’. From 1915 to 1919, Hayes acted as Honorary Secretary of the Irish Medical War Committee – a group of leading medical professionals, responsible for encouraging Ireland’s doctors to enlist in the British Army. Prominent members of the committee included Ephraim Cosgrave, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; D.J. Coffey, President, University College Dublin; A.F. Dixon, Dean of Faculty of Physic, Trinity College, Dublin and F. Conway Dwyer, President, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. The group, through letters and newspaper advertisements, appealed to Irish medical professionals to volunteer for war service. Their appeals were successful. From the outbreak of war in 1914 to the end of hostilities in 1918, Irish doctors enlisted in the British Army medical services.

Portion of a battle line, outlining casualty clearing stations 

Source: Wellcome Images, L0027194, Wellcome Library 

 On 18 August 1914, the first contingents of Irish medical personnel travelled to France; No.1 Stationary Hospital, No.1 General Hospital and No.13, 14, and 15 Field Ambulance Divisions departed Dublin for Le Havre. On the same date, No. 16 and 17 Field Ambulances departed Cork for Saint-Nazaire. Initial reactions to the wartime setup varied among the contingent depending on their assignment. In 1914, RAMC Command implemented an intricate casualty clearing process on the Western Front. Significant numbers of medical personnel occupied the roles at each stage of this process and Irish physicians and surgeons were among them. Stretcher-bearers collected injured soldiers from the combat zone and carried them to the nearest Regimental Aid Post – a zone occupied by RAMC MOs, normally located in shell craters or building ruins – before transporting the wounded to Advanced Dressing Stations. Here, injured soldiers had their wounds dressed and were then transported via Field Ambulance – horse-drawn carriages or motor vehicles – to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). RAMC medical personnel in the CCS dealt with injuries requiring immediate treatment and conducted numerous surgical procedures. Ambulance cars and trains then transported the wounded, fit for transportation, to nearby hospitals established by the RAMC or voluntary groups, like the Red Cross. Hospitals were located close to battlefields. MOs also identified wounded men better suited to treatment in hospitals on the home-front and recommended these men be moved, via hospital ship, back to domestic hospitals in Britain and Ireland. 

Photograph showing a ward, with patients either in bed or on chairs, c.1915 

Source: Wellcome Images, L0060826, Wellcome Library 

The majority of hospital ships arriving in Ireland docked in Dublin and contained an average of 400 soldiers. From 1914 to 1918, approximately 70 institutions located throughout Ireland provided facilities for the treatment of 16,000 returning sick and wounded. These included auxiliary wards and hospitals and a number of specialist institutions established by RAMC Command (Ireland) for the treatment of specific diseases. In 1915, for example, the War Office appointed Lieutenant-Colonel William Dawson, Inspector of Lunatic Asylums in Ireland, as RAMC (Ireland) specialist in nerve diseases. On 16 June 1916, Dawson took charge of the Richmond War Hospital, located in Dublin’s Grangegorman Asylum. The Richmond War Hospital catered for 32 soldiers suffering from mental disorders. From the date of opening till its closing on 23 December 1919, the Richmond War Hospital treated 362 cases, of which two-thirds were discharged to friends or ordinary military hospitals, two returned to duty and 31 sent directly to civil asylums. While the institution was helpful in the RAMC’s attempts to provide treatment for mental cases, it was undeniably small. Therefore, in October 1916, the War Office requested Dawson to facilitate them by placing an asylum with 500 beds at the disposal of the RAMC. Similar arrangements had been managed successfully in Britain. In Ireland the vastly overcrowded asylums made this an unlikely prospect. Yet, in April 1917, the War Office acquired Belfast’s Civil Lunatic Asylum and incorporated it as part of the Belfast War Hospital. The hospital received Irish men suffering from mental illness during active service and also treated men, not of Irish birth, who belonged to Irish regiments. The first military cases arrived on 15 May 1917. Staff consisted of men who had enlisted in the RAMC for the duration of the war and who had previous experience working in asylums. Between the opening of the hospital and its closing on 15 December 1919, 1,193 cases were admitted; 772 were discharged into the care of their family or friends and 103 transferred to other hospitals more suited to their treatment needs. 

This post has given a brief overview of Irish medical involvement in the First World War and using the small example of Irish asylums, has highlighted the impact of the conflict on Irish medical infrastructure. In future pieces, I will profile some of the Irish doctors who participated in the First World War and, using details gathered from diaries and letters, detail their roles and experiences on various fronts. As a PhD student researching Irish medical personnel in the First World War, I am always pleased to be contacted with details of new source material. If you are in possession of diaries, letters or postcards of Irish medical personnel who participated in the First World War, please get in touch – David “dot” Durnin “at” 

David Durnin is an Irish Research Council Doctoral Scholar, at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin. For more information on his research, click here.


  1. I have WW1 medals for one Lewis Crowe born in Ireland. He is nota family member but somehow his medals are in our family's possession. Some research shows he obtained his medical degree at Dublin, but he was in England in 1901 and he served as a Captain in the RAMC. After WW1 he was registered with the Medical Council and practised as a GP in England. He married May Pilling in 1916, but they appear not to have had children. I have been unable to find any relations to whom I could return the medals more's the pity.

  2. I am trying to match a 1918 sketchbook by Dr J.W. Power with the interiors of a Dublin hospital where he served during the war.
    Power (1881-1943) was an Australian of Irish descent who became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons England and received the licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London in 1908, then practiced in south-west London. From April 1917 Power served in the RAMC as a temp lieutenant, then as a temp captain. After the war he left medicine to become an artist (see my book J.W. Power Abstraction-Creation Paris 1934). I am an art historian and am keen to trace his war years and would appreciate any assistance.I will be in London from 10-22 May, my email is

    1. Hi Ann. Sorry for the late reply. I'm not sure if David has seen your comment yet but I'll forward your question on to him and see if he can help.