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.

Masonic Ambulance unit for France. Members of the Masonic Ambulance Corps, organized in San Francisco, California, in front of the City Hall in that city on the first leg of a journey that eventually landed them at the front in France. The men are here shown leaving for their camp at American Lake, Washington, for their training. Capt. Rawlins Cadwallader of San Francisco, was the head of the unit which consisted of four doctors, 119 enlisted men, 12 ambulances, 3 motor trucks, and four motorcycles. Summer 1917 [National Archive]
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.

“Off for a day’s work. A surgeon of the American Ambulance Field Service mounted on a motorcycle, leaving for the front to administer aid to the wounded. Feb 1918”  Note: the machine is a 1917 Indian Powerplus and sidecar – Indian had a far larger share of US military contracts than any other make, as they were a much larger company than any other American brand at the time. [National Archive]
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.

“Camp Cody, New Mexico. Red Cross Pass Office and Information Bureau, Base Hospital at Albuquerque” Note; the machine is a 1917 Indian Powerplus and sidecar [National Archive]
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.

“Motorcycles used to rush field aid to the wounded. Motorcycles are used to rush surgeons to seriously wounded troops. Photo shows a motorcycle mounted surgeon about to leave an ambulance dressing station in answer to an emergency call.” Note: 1917 Indian Powerplus and sidecar [National Archive]
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.

An Indian Powerplus ambulance in 1918 [National Archive]
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.

“American Red Cross Ambulance men in Italy.” Note: Ernest Hemingway wrote about his time as a volunteer in an Italian Red Cross unit during WW1, in the north of the country, in his book ‘A Farewell to Arms.’  The motorcycle is probably Italian – perhaps a Frera as seen here in this Arditi photo. [National Archive]
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.

“Motorcycle with stretcher attachment used for Red Cross work. Photo shows a phase of Red Cross work being executed in maneuvers at Van Cortlandt Park, New York.” Note: the motorcycle is an Indian Powerplus [National Archive]
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.

The US Army Motorcycle Ambulance Corps field outfit, powered by a 1917 Indian Powerplus [National Archive]
“A motorcycle sidecar outfit used in France for jitney service” Note: this is an Indian Powerplus sidecar, seen in Paris [National Archive]
Members of the American Red Cross with their Red Cross Harley-Davidson and sidecar. used to transport medics and medicine to difficult spots [National Archive]