Bandsmen and stretcher-bearers: Why were bandsmen also stretcher-bearers?

About Graeme Hosken and Tom Joy

Graeme Hosken is editor of DIGGER magazine of the FFFAIF and is the author or co-author of several books on WWI, including ‘Digging for Diggers’. Tom Joy is a retired member of the Army Bands Corps with an interest in those who served in WWI as bandsmen and stretcher-bearers. This article has been extracted from the article of the same name in DIGGER Issue 34, March 2011 and re-printed with permission of the authors.

To answer this question, information has been drawn from the writings of C. E. W. Bean, Tony Sillcock, a national serviceman who ended up becoming the Music Director (Lt.Col.) of the Australian Army Band Corps, and Bob Keatch, ex-president of Australian Army Band Corps Association.

Bean’s article entitled ‘The stretcher-bearer tradition’ stated in part:

‘Until the First Battle of the Somme many battalions had used their bandsmen as stretcher-bearers. After that battle this system generally was abandoned. For one thing, after such battles the band was too badly needed for cheering up the troops! A battle like Pozieres sometimes made a clean sweep of the regimental bearers. Also, on its side, the work of the bearers was too important to be left to unselected men; they were now specially selected for ‘their physique and guts’.’

The authors believe that Bean is correct in saying that after the Somme, the regimental (battalion) stretcher-bearers would have been drawn from the battalion infantry companies, not just the band – the numbers required as replacements would have necessitated this change anyway – but profiles below reveal that some bandsmen continued to act as stretcher-bearers into late 1918.

Tony Sillcock commented:

‘The answer to why [bandsmen were stretcher-bearers] is not simple and for every theory there is a contradictory example. In general terms the band provided an organisation that was well-suited to performing the medical (stretcher-bearer) role. It had the necessary numbers and rank structure to allow personnel to be distributed among the companies of an infantry battalion. The band was able to train in their medical role while the rest of the unit trained in their infantry role. In action, the band was not required to perform so the band could be employed in other tasks. Stretcher-bearing certainly didn’t offer a safe option. In fact a number of unit commanders withdrew their bandsmen from stretcher-bearing duties because of the number of casualties and used them in roles such as mortar sections in order to keep a band.’

Bob Keatch’s thoughts were:

(1) Towns/districts/cities commonly had at least one Brass Band. Most bands were brass bands, although I have records of pipe bands, and one of an assortment of instrumentation that may be classified a military band with woodwinds included, from WA. Many brass players were Salvation Army musicians (more so in WWII than WWI). All of these organisations were already a bonded group who would have presented as a unified collection of soldiers ready for training.
(2) Bandsmen were of the ‘right sort of stuff’ for the job [of stretcher-bearing, which included battlefield first aid]. They were intelligent and trainable, and not illiterate or semi-literate.
(3) Bandsmen were a collection of soldiers who worked together well for training, and of the numbers required for stretcher-bearers for a whole battalion.
(4) Australia inherited the centuries old ‘British Army system’ of employing musicians as stretcher-bearers, possibly for the above reasons.’

Some Victorian examples are:

Studio portrait of Leyton Loggin, October 1915.  AWM DA11083.

Studio portrait of Leyton Loggin, October 1915. AWM DA11083.

Leyton Loggin was a 28 year old coach painter from Casterton, Victoria, when he enlisted on 7th July 1915. He was not a large man, weighing only 10 stone though he stood 5’10½” tall, with sallow complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair. His musical abilities saw him allocated to the 29th Battalion Headquarters Details Band at Broadmeadows on 12th August.

Loggin disembarked from the Ascanius at Suez on 7th December 1915 and next arrived in Marseilles on 23rd June 1916. On 4th November he was admitted to hospital suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting, returning to his unit five days later.

On 23rd November 1916, Loggin was wounded in action (fractured left arm and fingers) and was transferred to the 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham for treatment, where he was admitted on the 29th. He entered camp at Weymouth on 14th December and for some unknown reason was admitted to Southall Hospital on 1st January with shell concussion (fireworks on New Year’s Eve perhaps, as he had not been back to France). On 23rd March 1917, Loggin was attached to No. 3 Command Depot Headquarters. He attended hospital at Bulford for treatment for VD from 2nd July until 24th August.

Loggin rejoined his unit in the field on 14th December 1917 and died from gas poisoning on 7th May 1918. He is buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Studio portrait of Leyton Loggin, October 1915.
AWM DA11083.

Private 59 Robert Henry Keir MM, C de G, MID, 29th Battalion

Robert Keir enlisted at the age of 22 years on 12th July 1915. Like Albert Riddell, he married after enlistment and before departing for overseas. A grocer in civilian life, Robert‟s musical abilities saw him allocated to the HQ Details Band for the 29th Battalion. He stood 5′ 5″ tall and weighed 10 stone, with fresh complexion and dark brown hair.

Keir reached Egypt on 7th December 1915 and France on 23rd June 1916. He was wounded in action at Fromelles on 19th-20th July 1916 but remained on duty. He was Mentioned in Dispatches by General Haig on 13th November 1916 for ‘distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty.’

His second wounding came on 3rd December 1916, with shrapnel wounds to the thigh and hip. Keir remained being treated in France until January 1917. On 1st February 1917, he was awarded the Military Medal and soon after, the French Croix de Guerre.

The citation for his C de G reads:

‘This man is a bandsman, also a stretcher-bearer. On the night of July 19th/20th 1916 at Petillon, Pte Keir carried bombs and ammunition to the German trenches, which were being held by our men, until the wounded started to come in. He then took up his own work and continued during the whole of the next day, going out into No-man‟s land in daylight, securing wounded. While assisting Pte Hayes, who was mortally wounded, he was also wounded, but refused to leave his post; this man showed wonderful endurance. He was always at his post no matter under what conditions. He came under notice again on 5th October 1916 by bringing in two men who had been wounded by snipers, on the tram line leading up to the subsidiary line, while still under fire.’

Keir was promoted to lance corporal for escort duty on 15th February 1917 and rejoined his unit on 30th April as a private. In September of 1917 he was admitted to hospital with influenza and did not return to the 29th Battalion until 14th December. On the same day, Robert was attached to 8th Brigade Headquarters. In October, Keir was transferred to the 32nd Battalion following disbandment of the 29th.

Taken ill with influenza in March 1919 Keir was transferred to England for treatment. Following his recovery, he embarked for Australia on 3rd May 1919. He returned to his wife in East Malvern and appears to have worked for Melbourne Tramways following his discharge.

Private 90 Vivian Charles Bartlett, 21st Battalion

Vivian Bartlett was aged only 18 years and 10 months when he enlisted on 24th October 1914 with his father’s consent for overseas service. He was a carpenter who stood 5’6″ tall, weighed 13 stone, with fair complexion, blue eyes and auburn hair. Bartlett was allocated to the bandsmen/stretcher-bearers for the 21st Battalion at Broadmeadows camp on 5th May 1915.

Bartlett saw service on Gallipoli before the evacuation. While at Tel-el-Kebir he was admonished in January 1916 and fined for overstaying his leave in February when serving in the Canal zone.

The 21st Battalion reached France on 26th March 1916. Bartlett was killed in action on 23rd August 1916 at Pozieres. His name appears on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial to the Missing.

Darge portrait of Vivian Bartlett, May 1915.  AWM DA09093

Darge portrait of Vivian Bartlett, May 1915. AWM DA09093

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