1915-1918, ambulances and water hospitals

(To Mario Veronesi)

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Italian Red Cross did not miss the opportunity to set up, as was the case for hospital trains, vessels to be used in relief and assistance to populations struck by disasters. In fact, much of the material that could be used to set up hospital trains was also used to set up river ambulances. In the 1891, the equipment and furnishings were set up to set up the first Convouve River Hospital of the Italian Red Cross, the "Brunetta d'Ussaux", which we could also define as" lacuale "since it operated on Lake Maggiore, based in Verbania. Conceived and designed by Count Eugenio Brunetta d'Usseaux (1857-1919), a person with multiple interests, but surely it must be remembered for being the the first (and only) Italian to hold the post of general secretary of the International Olympic Committee, including the construction plans for the boats, was collected in a publication that earned him a (Grand prix d'honneur) at the Universal Exhibition in Paris of the 1900. The first edition was published with the title: "Convogli Ospedali Fluviali project", compiled according to the regulation of the Italian Red Cross Association, for the transport in time of war of the wounded and sick on the hospitals trains.

These convoys of river ambulances, consisting of nine shelter boats and three escort boats, were designed to carry up to 300 soldiers and official 25 (in addition to 80 service people). According to d'Usseaux, the Rowing Societies, with their men and their service docks in their respective areas, as well as their premises as supply, embarkation and disembarkation points, would also have to lend to the project. for the service of carrying orders, supplying food, orders to mayors, correspondence to the sick, communication with army delegates and military and civil authorities.

In the 1894 the material was prepared to set up another river ambulance, the "Lario", destined to operate on Lake Como. For this maiden voyage two were used"comballi", (large sailing boats and oars typical of Lake Como, which from the 13th to the middle of the 20th century were the main means of lake transport of heavy goods), covered with white wooden slats, one for infirmary use, l "another for kitchen, dining room, galley. Actually the complete ambulance would have been composed by 10"comballi", capable of containing injured 214 and 53 employees. These two river ambulances would have made it possible to transport, in the event of war, a large number of injured and sick, in a vast area of ​​northern Italy, from the pre-Alpine lakes to the Adriatic , crossed by rivers and navigable canals.According to a special agreement with statute and regulation, the members of rowing and rowing boats, undertook to guard the barges and guide them in the event of mobilization. in the offices and warehouses of the CRI, including the white shingles for the roofs.These ambulances were the navigating equivalent of a hospital train, or a field hospital.

In the 1897 the countess, Eugenia Litta Bolognini Attendolo Sforza (1837-1914) together with the Milan Red Cross and the president of the Maggiore hospital, Count Emilio Borromeo, financed and launched four boats, destined to function as a floating field hospital. The total cost was over 60.000 thousand lire, and the ambulance was registered among the hospital units under the name of "Alfonso Litta"Which was what his son Alfonso Litta (1870-1891) wanted to remember, he had died while he was in the military service of Umberto I of Savoy (1844-1900), a connected convoy of four boats, perfectly equipped as a mobile hospital. The purpose of the river ambulance was to provide assistance to the countries located along the banks of the Po and its tributaries, with no on-site hospital assistance, and poorly connected both from the road and the rail profile. from several boats of different types, they would have transported more than three hundred people between wounded and service personnel, being equipped with surgical rooms, clinics for dressings, warehouses, offices, and lodgings.The floating hospital was inaugurated on June 22 1898, at Milanese dock: the next 30 left for his first trip, to reach Chioggia and the 10 July Venice, everywhere welcomed by people with big parties. The "Litta"it was initially composed of four flat-bottomed barges, 14 meters long and four meters wide, of those that normally served for the transport of goods over the entire Po basin. One of which was intended for the managerial staff, the pharmacy, the dressing room and to the kitchen and the other three to infirmaries with 46 stretchers and 10 seats each.The technical assistance, on the ground and on board was ensured, initially, by the members of the rowing sports clubs.Then the Italian Red Cross was authorized to enlist in his staff also reservists on leave of the crew corps of the Royal Navy and those of the Royal Army belonging to the specialty of the genius Pontieri.

The 26 September 1915, all the boats passed to the Military Health. With the entry into the war, the Italian Red Cross immediately militarized its personnel, strong of 9.500 nurses and 1.200 doctors, with 209 own logistic apparatuses between Territorial Hospitals, attendances, ambulances and trains hospitals. In the 1916 the military doctors in the area of ​​Guerra were 8.000 (plus other 6.000 operating behind the scenes) and in the 1918 they became 18.000 altogether.

The general directives concerning logistics services were issued by the office of the Chief of Staff of the Navy, among the authorities concerned there was also the Health Inspectorate, which replied to the Logistics Office of Ravenna-Porto Corsini. Initially created as an autonomous body, but later placed under the command of the Marina del Brenta Command based in Ferrara. In addition to the preparation of facilities to receive everything that was transferred from Venice, the office had to guarantee the administration and establishment of the civil and military personnel of the new structure. In a very short time a barracks were built, warehouses for food, clothing and medical equipment, deposits for armaments and shipbuilding, warehouses for aeronautical and traffic light equipment.

On barges-ambulances, it was forbidden to put any signal except the emblem of the Red Cross, prescribed by the Geneva Convention, painted on a metal plate and fixed to the bulkheads and on the boat cover. The mobilization of thelagoon ambulance "City of Venice", established by the Regional Committee of the CRI of Venice after having made arrangements with the Command in Chief of the Piazza Marittima of the Venetian capital. This unit consists of a convoy of 3 peote, (large transport rowing boats, with flat bottom, with high and round bow in use in the Venetian lagoon), each equipped with eighteen stretchers and driven by one or more motorboats transported, in addition to the 54 stretches, up to a maximum of 200 infirm seated or standing. In the lagoon, this unit was also flanked by the autoscafo "Regina Elena"and some equipped steamboats.

The lagoon ambulances met the criteria of constitution, management and employment similar to those of river ambulances. Both were, if necessary, set up and managed always under the control of the military or territorial military health authorities, and by the relief associations (Italian Red Cross). Of the importance of the service of this Unit, which together with the Hull "Regina Elena"And to some equipped steamboats, they transported the injured and the sick from the trains to the various hospitals and vice versa, as well as the transfer from one to the other hospital. The statistical tables show us that throughout the 1916, river ambulances have provided for the transport of 23.473 men, of which 4.217 is on a stretcher. At 30 June 1917, 28.082 patients had been transported, including 4.465 on a stretcher. In March, 1918 river ambulances were taken over by the General Delegation of the Italian Red Cross, which assigned them to the Delegation of the 3a Armata. At 30 June 1918, 48.353 patients had been transported.

For the evacuation service of the Brigade of Marina in the defense of the lower Piave (about 8.000 men) a special section of health was established with means of transport and hospitalization suitable for the predominantly river area. This section, conceived by the medical captain of the Regia Marina Salotti, was composed of two vaporetto hospital, derived from the transformation of the common Venice lagoon water buses, with a section placed at the bow with removable bunks (about thirty) and an operating room at the stern. The section also owned three ambulance motorboats equipped with stretcher frames for eight seriously injured and with seats for wounded and light patients. These motorboats went as far as the trenches and batteries scattered along the canals and rivers to collect the wounded and transport them to the hospital vaporetti. The medical staff assigned to the section consisted of two medical officers, ten nurses and a team of bearers.

As soon as the war hospitals were mobilized they depended directly on the President of the CRI or his representatives, but as soon as they arrived in the area of ​​the mobilized army, they came under the direct orders of the Army delegate. While those sent to a constituency of the Maritime Department, passed under the orders of the General Delegate to the Royal Navy.

The Director, provided the service:

  • of clothing storage,
  • of the deposit of all the hospital material,
  • of the kitchen and pantry,
  • of the pharmacy,
  • housing for all staff, etc.

The withdrawal of the necessary commodities, was done in maximum by means of vouchers in favor, or in the military subsistence or of the enterprises entrusted with the food service for the Army or the Navy after prior agreements with the Military Administration. But they could also be bought by private individuals with direct payment, for example the kitchen expenses that also occurred in the coastal centers of the Po or its tributaries.

These river hospitals served especially for the long transports of wounded and sick soldiers from one hospital to another, this to keep the advanced health establishments light and to prevent any crowding, thinning out the wounded up to the most distant hospitals behind. They were provided with everything needed for the assistance, care and food of the injured and sick even for multi-day trips.

The doctor had a duty to:

receive the sick and wounded who boarded for transport,

monitor the loading and unloading maneuvers,

order the separation of the sick from the wounded, so as to facilitate their clinical service,

monitor the delivery of the sick to the station of arrival,

take care of the cleaning of the boats, the hygiene of the transported, and keep the register of the deceased.

If deaths occurred during navigation, the corpses were left at the first possible port. Accompanied by the death certificate, which was transmitted along with the objects belonging to the deceased to the nearest Military Command. As a rule, after carrying out the transport of wounded and sick, the boat had to be cleaned, washed and disinfected. The barges that had transported infectious patients or affected by diffusible diseases, as soon as they landed, closed and were sealed waiting for a special disinfection. The network was structured as a railway system on the river, with tractions, stops, systematic schedules of passage of the various convoys pulled by the tugs. Where towing was not possible, in the more internal nets, such as on the Bacchiglione or on the Sile, traditional towage was used along the banks, with the horses of the lagoon genius, who had a large stable in Jesolo, or through the contract with peasants that made their animals available.

At the half of the 1918 were surveyed: 639 burchi, (1) 149 peate (2), 65 bragozzi (3), 19 big boats, 5 preame, 12 burchielli (3), 66 battelle (small boats of the Adriatic), 5 mice (4), 58 motorboats, 31 autoscafi, 71 tugs, 59 rascone (5), 119 sandoli (transport boat, with flat bottom, typical of the Venetian lagoon), and 45 caorline (6). To these must be added the rafts assembled on Lake Como and brought down along the Adda to the Po.

Under the command of the entire Italian military medical health system, which in 41 months of war had to manage the transport, care and hospitalization of over two and a half million wounded and sick, was the ten. January Francesco Della Valle (1858-1937), who could count on 53 healthcare sections, 126 hospital units outlined by 50 beds, 82 field hospitals from 100 beds and 42 from 200, 120 ambulances, 108 buses, 16 equipped trains.

28 main military hospitals, two branch hospitals, six convalescent facilities, 31 garrison infirmaries and an unknown number of reserve hospitals were also present throughout the country. Overall, it was possible to have around 24.000 beds for the army engaged in military operations, and more than 100.000 in the reserve plants. Soldiers of the land also engaged Military Health Corps and from the apparatus of the Italian Red Cross (medical staff) and Dame of the Red Cross, that is voluntary Red Cross nurses, assisted by the always voluntary nursing staff, belonging to various assistance committees, such as: Knights of Malta, those ofOrder of the Saints Maurice and Lazarus, And Jesuits. Also important was the help given by the Allies: in the 1918 there were hundreds of British and US health personnel on the Italian front, with duties as ambulance attendants, but also barrellieri and nurses.

Jesolo, then Cavazuccherina, with its River Command was a crucial junction of this system, being positioned in the exact place where the lagoon navigation entered the Piave Vecchia and, through the Cavetta Canal, directed towards the "Litoranea Veneta" a true maze of waterways, communicating with each other and the Adriatic Sea. Where thousands of wounded people from the Karst were evacuated on barges towed by boats that left Grado and reached Mestre after a night's journey. Thanks to the construction of two basins on the Tagliamento, in December of the 1915 the internal water network allowed Grado to reach directly connecting Milan to the Isonzo front. Subsequently the service was extended to the lines of Padua and Vicenza fed by the Brenta and Bacchiglione rivers and on the canals that lead from the lakes of Como and Maggiore to Milan and the Po. A transport service was also implemented in the lakes of Garda, Maggiore and Idro . In Cavazuccherina there were also armed pontoons and two MAS Squadrons in the Lieutenant Command of Vascello Luigi Rizzo (1887-1951) and Pagano di Melito (1879-1944).


1) Burchio, a large, flat-bottomed boat to easily navigate the shallow waters of the lagoon. Traditionally made of wood, it has a variable length between 20 and 35 meters with a maximum draft of two meters. Equipped with two shafts, one in the bow and the other in the stern, with a sail on the third, manoeuvrable by a bar rudder, incenerato in the center of the stern.

2) Peata, transport boat used in the Venetian lagoon. Of considerable size, it is similar in shape to the "caorlina" but is more square and with lower edges. The load capacity is considerable and varies from 100, to over 800 quintals of capacity. The name perhaps derives from "pedota", or "pilot".

3) Bragzzo, a fishing and cargo boat, typical of the middle and upper Adriatic, which carried out cabotage right into the Ionian sea. Equipped with two masts equipped with a sail to the third.

4) Burchiello, river boat used for transporting goods. Formerly used by Venetian nobles, to go to their mainland possessions.

5) Topo, a typical Venetian lagoon boat, mainly used as a freight boat. Used in the less calm areas, where the proximity of the sea made the navigation more difficult, for flat-bottomed boats.

6) Rascona, also known as the "Pavia ship", of large dimensions (the average length was 28 meters for a width of 6,5 meters), was characterized by a half-moon shape and a flat bottom. Depending on the size, the range was between 15 and 120 tons. The propulsion was sailing to the third, with two collapsible masts.

7) Caorlina, typical boat of the Venice lagoon. Used initially for fishing and for transporting large loads (thanks to its capacity and agility of movement). The dimensions are 9,65 meters long by 1,75 meters wide.


1) M. Scroccaro, C. Pietrobon - The Italian military health care in the Veneto during the Great War - Antiga edizioni, 2015

2) M. Veronesi - On the waterways, boats, men, goods, curiosities and legends about the great river - publisher, Medea 2016

3) M. Veronesi - Ambulances on water (from the first experiences to the 1915-1918 war)

4) C. Cipolla, Q. Fabbri, F. Lombardi - History of the Lombard Red Cross (1859-1914), vol II documents - Franco Angeli publisher 2014

5) Italo-Austrian War, Summary of the work carried out by the Italian Red Cross in the war zone and in the territorial zone, unpublished reports kept in the Historical Archive of the Central Committee of the Italian Red Cross in Rome

6) R. Cordani - I Navigli, from Milan along the canals - Celip editions, Milan 2002


1) The photo was taken when the boat no. 1 of the "CRI Alfonso Litta"is passing under the bridge that connects the Darsena of Milan with the Naviglio Pavese. Note the crowd of onlookers crowded on the parapets. (CRI Cremona Collection)

2) Preparation of the ration for the crew of the river ambulance parked near a lock on the Naviglio Pavese. The CRI staff wears the fatigue uniform and, given the summer period, a wide-brimmed straw hat. The barges on the moorings are the numbers 1 and 2, recognizable by the number painted on the bow. From the roof of the barge lane no. 1 note the chimney of the kitchen / galley. (CRI Cremona Collection)

3) River ambulance "Alfonso Litta”, Stop on the Po (CRI Cremona Collection)

4) 1915 scheme of the navigable lines inside the Po to the Isonzo and the canals, executed by the Regia Marina (source: The Italian Navy in the 1915-1918 war, Lega Navale 1920)

5) 1918, Channels from Degree to Isonato (source: The Italian Navy in the 1915-1918 war, 1920 Naval League)

6) World War I, River Ambulance sailing the Po (source Wikipedia)

7) World War I, River Ambulance on the Po (G. Spazzapan Archive)