Motorcycle ambulances were an innovation in WW1, used by the British, French and American militaries, as well as non-governmental support groups like the Red Cross. In the ‘Teens, four-wheeled ambulances were very heavy, underpowered, poorly suspended, and used solid tires, making them slow, unwieldy, bumpy, and likely to get stuck in rough, muddy going common in Europe near battlefields. Smaller, lighter ambulances were required, and motorcycles with sidecars were found very useful near the front lines to move wounded soldiers away from the heat of battle.While movie histories favor front-line heroics mingled with the horrors of battle, the reality is, war is organization. The infrastructure behind battling armies is far larger than their fighting front, and supplying, clothing, directing, feeding, arming, transporting, communicating with, and keeping soldiers healthy is an enormous task. It’s how supply companies like Bechtel and many others, in a long chain stretching back to the oldest conflict of armies thousands of years ago, have got incredibly rich, because private contractors have always been the military’s back story. And private contractors supplied motorcycles, and motorcycle ambulances, for various militaries during WW1.Among the earliest sidecar ambulances were first used on Redondo Beach, California, way back in 1915. They were found useful for getting to drowning victims quickly over the sand, where previously rowing teams had used whaleboats to reach victims, which took far longer to drag across a miles-long beach. Even earlier, the Knightsbridge Animal Hospital and Institute in London tried sidecar ambulances for animal transport as early as 1912, a system still in use into the late 1930s.During WW1, American forces and the Red Cross used Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles for ambulance and medical transport duties. Both makes had reliable motors and 3-speed gearboxes with robust clutches, and were very lightweight, compared to liter-capacity machines today – well under 400lbs. What their wounded passengers suffered while bumping along the muddy tracks of Flanders should be balanced against their likely fate without these light-duty transfer vehicles, which was prolonged suffering and likely death. It was found that the faster an injured soldier was treated, the more likely he was to survive, so getting them away from the front as quickly as possible was crucial. This is a point discovered by every medical service during the war, an example of which was our ‘Angels of Pervyse’ article on this very subject.The organization of care for the wounded at the battle front was roughly as follows: only a few feet from the front lines were various Aid Posts with a chief Medical Officer, his various orderlies and stretcher-bearers, who waited to attend the wounded. Sometimes these were in ruined buildings (as with the Angles of Pervyse), or trenches, or even shell holes. In action, the RAP was situated a few metres behind the front line, this could have been in a dugout, in a communication trench, a ruined house, or a deep shell hole. These first-response medical personnel basically first aid posts, so soldiers could return to fighting immediately.In more serious cases, they staunched bleeding from large holes and lost limbs, and these soldiers were usually taken by stretcher to Collecting Posts or Relay Posts, where teams of stretcher-bearers would walk, sometimes for miles, to a road that could carry a vehicle. Once in an ambulance – motorcycle or car or horse-drawn – the wounded were taken to Casualty Clearing Stations, which were semi-hospitals with capacity for 200 or more wounded.There was limited treatment, but some surgeries were carried out when possible, and usually such stations were grouped in threes or fours, and worked in a relay system, closing down when full, and sending the wounded down the line to the next tent, and re-opening when the first batch had cleared out. The soldiers could he held for as long as four weeks, after which they were returned to battle, or taken via Ambulance Trains or Inland Water Transport to a proper hospital. Of course, these front-line facilities had limited capabilities compared with today, had poor anesthesia and no antibiotics, so their locations tend to be marked by military cemeteries filled with soldiers who didn’t survive their treatment.These photos are part of our ongoing series from the National Archive, which are mostly unpublished, and certainly not seen for nearly 100 years. They’re a fascinating trove of information about motorcycling’s past, how they were built and used and tested in the best and worst situations, and we’ll continue digging into various archives for more articles on The Vintagent.