In the last years of the 18th century all armies possessed a medical service, but they were basic in the extreme, and that included casualty evacuation. A rudimentary hospital was usually set up well to the rear, and only after the fighting was over would the business of moving and attending to the wounded commence. Jean Dominique Larrey (1766 - 1842), a talented surgeon and organiser, saw that this system meant many men died through the delay in treatment and conceived of a ‘flying ambulance’ which could keep pace with the army and provide evacuation and care of the wounded while the fighting continued (at the time the word ambulance meant the whole unit – men, tents and vehicles). In 1797 he travelled to the army in Italy at the request of its commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, and set up three divisions of his flying ambulances, each containing 113 men with 12 casualty evacuation vehicles and four store wagons. The use of purpose-designed evacuation vehicles was an important part of the concept, and these vehicles, later known themselves as ambulances, came in either light or heavy models, each division having eight of the former and four of the latter. Their success impressed Napoleon and the system was extended to the whole army, making the French medical service the envy of all other countries during the wars up to 1815.
The heavier, four-wheeled ambulance is the subject of this set. It was sprung, had sliding side doors as well as those at the rear and could accommodate four stretcher cases. This model depicts the vehicle accurately, and has very nicely included the springs which, since the plastic used is very soft, actually give the vehicle some real suspension! There are no internal details, and not even a floor for the cabin, but such things are not visible when the doors are closed. Since the sides of the vehicle are single pieces the doors are simply engraved on the surface, so there is no means of having any of the doors open. The undercarriage is inevitably simplified but looks good and is perfectly adequate, while the wheels are pretty well done too. Even the rear ladder has been included.
HaT have provided a team of two horses for each vehicle, which fits with Larrey's own description of them, but there is evidence to suggest four were also used, perhaps in certain terrains and when the horses were available, so we would have liked to have seen four provided in this set. Those that wish to have such a team will need to take the front pair from the set of HaT’s French Ammunition Caisson, which is compatible. The lead horse has a rider who also appears in the sets of the caisson and the French Limber. He wears a uniform suitable for around 1807 to 1813. The horses themselves are not particularly realistic poses but will look OK to most people. The harness is again much like that in the earlier sets, and has been well done.
The soft plastic with which this product is made is not the ideal material and presents some challenges. Pegs are prone to bending when trying to force them into holes, and care has to be taken not to tear the plastic, especially when trimming. We found some holes needed enlarging slightly, and perhaps because of the softness some parts fit together adequately rather than tightly, but the end result is quite pleasing. The only real problem is with joining the horses to the vehicle. The front axle of the vehicle has a hole for the harness, but so too does the harness, so the customer has to fashion some sort of peg to join these two together or simply glue the pieces together (the plastic takes glue well).
Despite the difficulties this is a nice model of a vehicle the French soldier was very glad to see, wounded or not. At present the only set containing the necessary medical personnel is the now hard-to-find offering from Strelets, but we would hope that one day more might be made to match this interesting element of Napoleon’s armies.