The West Somerset Railway Heritage Trust WSRHT

Heritage Trust’s Next Projects

Posted on May 3, 2022

After languishing for a couple of years at the end of an inaccessible siding at Williton, Toplight 3639 has been brought out by Ryan and his team where it will be moved to a position where work can start on its restoration. The first batch of timber has already been bought. Toplight 3639 was an ambulance coach during the first world war.
Chris Austin has a little more information on our former ambulance coach, Toplight 3639, the research he has done on ambulance trains has been focused on those that went to France.
Those used in Britain did not work to fixed schedules but ran from Southampton to destinations as required. For example, one trip ran directly to Highclere on the Didcot, Newbury & Southampton lines, where Highclere House had been turned into a military hospital. Later it was to be the setting for Downton Abbey. Destinations in South Devon included Newton Abbott, Torre, Torquay, Paignton and Plymouth.
On the continent, the trains were a key part of the chain, which started with the field dressing trains on the front line. Movement by narrow-gauge train, lorry, bus or even mule was the link to the field hospitals set up further back. From the nearest point to the field hospitals, and sometimes under enemy shell fire, the ambulance trains then took wounded soldiers back to the larger hospitals in towns such as Amiens, Abbeville, Boulogne or Rouen, or direct to the ships at Boulogne or Le Havre. From there, hospital ships linked the French ports with Dover, Folkestone and Southampton and the British based ambulance trains took their patients to inland hospitals.

Tracing individual coaches is more difficult, as we have not been able to find any official record of the allocation of coaches to the individual ambulance trains once they were in army ownership. Toplight 3639 was originally built in 1908 and was converted to an ambulance coach in 1915. Based on the dates of conversion, we think it is quite likely that Toplight 3639 was allocated to Ambulance Train 19, and probably as a ward car, unfortunately, we cannot be sure.