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National Railway Museum marks historic First World War centenary with new exhibition

Today the National Railway Museum unveiled its new exhibition, Ambulance Trains, marking 100 years since the busiest ever day of ambulance train traffic during the First World War.

Descendants of ambulance train medical staff gathered with museum experts to mark the anniversary by opening the new display, which explores the little-known story of the trains that evacuated injured soldiers away from conflict zones to receive medical help during the First World War. The landmark 1916 date occurred during the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle on the War’s Western Front in which more than a million men were wounded or killed.

Inspired by years of painstaking research by experts at the York-based museum, the centrepiece of the ground-breaking exhibition is an historic railway carriage of the type that would have been converted for use in a First World War ambulance train, transformed inside and out to recreate the intense atmosphere on board these hospitals on wheels.

Alison Kay, Archivist at the National Railway Museum, said:

It is very gratifying to open this new exhibition on such an historic day and commemorate the heroic efforts of ambulance train staff to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefields of the First World War and care for them on board. After years of hard work and careful research, we are pleased to finally bring these stories which have been lying dormant for almost a century back into the public eye and give these trains and their passengers the twenty-first century prominence they deserve.

Positioned at the centre of a new exhibition space in the museum's Great Hall, the carriage has been carefully transformed both inside and out to enable visitors to step on board and move through spaces including a ward, a pharmacy and a nurses' mess room. Digital projection, sound and historic images, alongside recreated interior fittings, will recreate the intense atmosphere of these confined trains.

Jane Sparkes, Interpretation Developer at the National Railway Museum, explains:

For the first time, our exhibition will bring together photographs, technical drawings, letters and diaries to bring to life the huge range of human experiences carried on board these trains. Ambulance Trains not only explores stories of the wounded soldiers who travelled with their harrowing memories of warfare, but also the medical staff who worked tirelessly in claustrophobic conditions to provide comfort and care. It also looks at the railway workers who built the carefully designed trains at incredible speed to keep up with demand, and the wider public who saw the grim reality of the overseas war when these trains pulled into British stations.

Among the descendants of ambulance train medics gathered to open the exhibition was Caroline Stevens, whose ancestor Kate Evelyn Luard worked on an ambulance train in France for the entirety of the First World War. Caroline Stevens said:

"My great-aunt Kate Evelyn Luard worked on First World War ambulance trains for the first year of the war. From 1915-1918 she also served in a field ambulance and as sister in charge of casualty clearing stations on the Western Front. She carried out her duties with unfaltering composure and dedication to those in her care under difficult and often dangerous conditions and was one of the few nurses to be awarded a Bar to her Royal Red Cross. We are delighted to be at the opening of the National Railway Museum's new exhibition which has been inspired by people like her and which features extracts from the numerous letters she sent back to her family from France."

The museum's project to bring ambulance trains back into the public eye has attracted support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Yorventure, via Yorwaste through the Landfill Communities fund. Fiona Spiers, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Yorkshire and the Humber said:

The impact of the First World War touched every corner of the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund has invested more than £70 million in projects – large and small – that are marking this global Centenary. Thanks to National Lottery players an important part of our First World War history has been brought to light; the restored ambulance train will be on show alongside significant stories and research showing the essential role that they played in the war effort."

The National Railway Museum's Ambulance Trains programme will also include a series of free talks by curators, experts and descendants of ambulance train staff that will delve even deeper into this fascinating subject, and a special trail will be available for families to explore the exhibition together. For more information, visit our website.