The Logistics of Evacuation

With other things going on, I’ve not had much time to blog about the research bubbling away during the last couple of years on evacuation, supported generously by a Philip Leverhulme Prize. I’m interested in the practice of evacuation in lots of ways, but especially how it emerged as a modern technique – a political technology of sorts – to protect populations by states in the 20th century, producing evacuating subjects scooped out of territories and zones emptied of people, and whisked away to safety. Kind of (and see my previous posting on airports and non-combatant evacuation).

Clearly other kinds of evacuation existed up until that point too, yet my focus is on how evacuation emerges as a process, precisely as a system requiring infrastructure, records, people, laws, techniques, practices and protocols. Evacuation designates a subject as evacuee and as needing of removal, distinguished it from others falling within or outside a variety of definitions and value systems.

Evacuation is a very interesting yet often overlooked category of mobility and ultimately protection, and there’s no better illustration of how valuable work can be in this area than in Neil Smith’s write-up of Hurricane Katrina, highlighting the problems over the evacuation of New Orleans, something Tim Cresswell explores further in his On the Move (I’ve focused on this for undergraduates in the new edition of Introducing Human Geographies which has a whole new section on mobility). A small part of this research will be published as a case-study on the Liverpool Blitz in a new book with Bloomsbury that we hope to complete next year. I’ll blog about some of the progress of that manuscript in the spring which deals with Liverpool’s Second World War emergency apparatus, alongside the regulation and criminality that the city and its population underwent.

However, where did evacuation come from and how has it evolved?  What is especially clear is that evacuation was significantly developed through industrialised militaries, planning movements away from the battlefield. Aside from other related focuses like airports, territorial disputes, routine evacuations, embassies and non-combatant evacuations, right now I’m following some threads into the development of the medical evacuation of casualties during the First World War (see Derek Gregory’s fascinating posting on ‘Precarious Journeys’, describing a project he is planning on precisely this over a much longer period of time). The evacuation of the wounded is a completely remarkable affair of zones, embarkment points and distribution through long chains and trains of transport systems and relays.

Essentially vectors are made in and out of the battlefield and back through a variety of apparatus from makeshift stretchers and a suspended trolley systems, to horse and carts. Under the Royal Army Medical Corps, each division of the British Expeditionary Force had 3 ambulance units, who were the primary military function organising this system. Bearer posts would relay wounded to dressing stations on the front, possibly in the trenches, and if needed, moved backwards or rearwards to casualty clearing stations. They might then be moved by light-railway lines onto an ambulance train distributing evacuees throughout Europe for repatriation to medical hospitals, and often back to Britain’s ports by ship. The Wellcome Library in London holds many of the Royal Army Medical Corps’ records which gives a really interesting picture into the ambulance trains, and curious insight into the their design and inhabitation. Through those collections we get a better sense how those lines or trajectories of mobility were lived. We see how they were manned and inhabited and even entertained by doctors and nurses who put on plays and performances for the wounded – on the move – quite a different story to that figured in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s classic tail of modern mobility in The Railway Journey.

As you can imagine there was a variety of issues at stake in evacuation and its characterisation. If the onus seemed to be on whipping casualties away from battle as quickly as possible, the RAMC were at pains to point out that even during the Somme, 11,000 medical operations were carried out on forward casualty clearing stations in the month of July, 1916 alone. Surgery really was preferable as soon as possible so long as the conditions of combat enabled. Otherwise, operations would happen further away from the front.

By the time personnel got back to Britain, the ports Southampton and Avonmouth would see almost 2.5 million people embarked, disembarked and distributed onto further British ambulance trains to their home or local hospitals between 1914-1919.

See the The Long, Long Trail (

I’m particularly fascinated by the way systems like this seemed to draw on a host of beautifully rendered representations of an evacuation network which inevitably bears little resemblance to the reality, where the clean rational aesthetic of the lines, forks and junctures meets a messy, dirty reality. On hearing of early difficulties as the British entrenched on the Aisne in France 1914, Lord Kitchener would be sent a series of private reports from Arthur Lee – trusted as Kitchener’s personal commissioner. As Lee would write: “In surveying the scene from London, or studying it upon a map, questions of transport present no very serious difficulties. But the actual problems are complicated […] ”

I’m planning that the wider project will turn into a book of its own.

Peter Adey


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