background image
uring the latter part of the 19th century and
in the early years of the 20th century, Ireland
was graduating 20 per cent of doctors
qualifying in Britain and Ireland, even though
Ireland only constituted 10 per cent of the
combined population of the two islands. Most of the
doctors qualifying during this period found little work
at home and the British armed forces provided a career
path for many young Irish doctors. This phenomenon was
reflected in the large numbers of students who joined the
Officer Training Corps (OTC), which was established in the
College in 1910.
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on June
28, 1914 was the torch that set alight World War One. In
Ireland, the medical profession responded to the call for
doctors in a magnanimous way. Over 3,000 Irish doctors
joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) or the Royal
Navy during the conflict; this represented almost a third of
the workforce of doctors; 270 students also volunteered for
The Roll of Honour for RCSI lists 1,266 doctors and students
who served in some capacity during the conflict; of these,
180 were students. At least 200 of the doctors who served
already held commissions in the British armed forces before
the outbreak of hostilities, with the remainder getting
temporary commissions for the time they served.
In total, 118 RCSI students joined as combatants; while
33 joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and ten joined
the Royal Air Force. 18 students joined the Royal Navy
as Surgeon Probationers; they were called doctor, got to
treat minor ailments and do dressings; their commission,
which was paid by the day, lasted six months and they then
returned to finish their studies.
RCSI graduates and students were involved in every theatre
of war from the Western Front to Gallipoli, the Middle East,
Africa and even Russia. Most were involved on the Western
Front in France and Belgium. When the British Expeditionary
Force (BEF) mobilised on August 14, 1914, there were 22
RCSI commissioned officers among the medical staff. The
first engagement with the Germans was at Mons in Belgium
and, from there, the BEF retreated to the river Marne over
the next two weeks. Among the Expeditionary Force was
Thomas Crean VC, a College graduate who had earned his
Victoria Cross during the Boer War.
During the early battles, Major Charles Dalton, an RCSI
graduate, was shot, paralysed and died. Charles Paget
O'Brian-Butler, another RCSI graduate of 1907, was also
killed. These early deaths did nothing to diminish the
enthusiasm for volunteering among the students and
doctors. The early battles settled down into trench warfare
as each army tried to outflank the other and eventually
trenches extended from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, a
distance of more than 600 kilometres. The war in France and
Belgium soon became a war of attrition between modern
artillery, with the front line remaining essentially static until
the spring of 1918.
The weapons in World War One were truly formidable;
the standard British artillery shell weighed 18 pounds and
initially was filled with 360 bullets; later this was replaced by
a mixture of bullets and high explosive; if this landed among
a group of soldiers they would be instantly killed. Shrapnel
was the shell casing of the artillery and was also lethal. The
standard Maxim machine gun, used by the Germans, fired
600 rounds per minute; the Lee-Enfield rifle shot by a well-
trained soldier would shoot 15.
Over the next four years, the Allies and the Germans
intermittently tried to break the deadlock along the Western
Front with periods of intense bombardment followed by
infantry assaults. Successful advances were often measured
in metres while casualties were measured in hundreds and
thousands. RCSI doctors were active in all aspects of the
evacuation route as the wounded were transferred from
the front line via a series of treatment stations, the degree
of treatment available improving with distance from the
The doctors stationed in the forward treatment stations
worked in extremely dangerous conditions with many of
them dying side-by-side with the combatants and stretcher
bearers. Many of the 60 Military Cross medals awarded to
RCSI doctors for acts of bravery were earned under these
dangerous conditions. Five RCSI graduates were awarded
the Military Cross on two occasions. Ernest Cotton Deane
(31) from Limerick played rugby for Ireland, enlisted in the
RAMC in 1911 and went to France where he was awarded
the Military Cross for bravery in August 1915. He survived
most of the war but was killed in action in September 1918.
Irish doctors also played a significant role in the ill-fated
1915 Gallipoli campaign; 24 RCSI graduates and students
were involved in the Allied effort. Among these was Peter
Burrowes Kelly who was awarded a Distinguished Service
Order (DSO) medal for his heroic efforts at V beach during
the April landings. He was a doctor on the River Clyde
which was intentionally beached to allow troops land on
the peninsula as safely as possible; unfortunately, they were
greeted with a withering hail of gunfire from the Turks on the
heights above the beach.
For the next two days, Dr Burrowes Kelly treated 750
wounded soldiers on the deck of the ship, even though he
was shot in the leg himself and couldn't walk for the second
day. The episode in Gallipoli started in April 1915 but
RCSI Doctors in World War One
An overview of the heroic exploits of RCSI doctors and students in the Great
War based on extracts from a soon to-be published historical work, Irish
Doctors in World War One. The book's authors include Mr Joe Duigan, a former
RCSI Council Member and retired surgeon