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First World War

Serving on the front and back at home

Pharmacists were among the men and women who served in the First World War, through enlisting in the army, serving on the home front, or maintaining pharmaceutical services.

17th Field Ambulance, showing horse-drawn horses

Source: The RAMC Muniment Collection in the care of the Wellcome Library, Wellcome Images

17th Field Ambulance, showing horse-drawn horses

On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The following day the first full-page advertisement ran in British newspapers appealing for men to volunteer: ‘Your King and country need you’. It was the first of many such adverts to appear over the subsequent years.

The then Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was tasked with recruiting a large army to fight the Germans. On 5 September a picture of him pointing at the viewer appeared on the front cover of a popular magazine, London Opinion, over the order ‘Join your country’s army’.

Large numbers of chemists and druggists — and others engaged in the medicines trade in different ways — responded, signing up for service with the army.

On 19 September 1914, the Chemist & Druggist (C&D) published its first roll of honour, encompassing “all those connected with pharmacy and the drug trade who are now serving with the British army”. It listed several hundred names and appeared weekly thereafter. In all, the list included thousands of names. But it wasn’t long before the names of those killed in action began to appear, some weeks with as many as a dozen names listed.

Military dispensers

Pharmacists enlisting usually expected to do so as soldiers in the army. Some, however, hoped to make use of their pharmaceutical knowledge. On 8 August 1914, The Pharmaceutical Journal published an article under the heading ‘Pharmacists as military dispensers’. It announced a special army order, which laid down the conditions of service for pharmacists who wanted to serve as military dispensers during the war. “Men enlisted under this army order must not be more than forty years old, and enlistments will be for one year, or if the war lasts longer, for the duration,” it said.

Pharmacists who wanted to join the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), which is responsible for maintaining the health of servicemen and women, were advised to speak with their nearest recruiting officer, and must first enlist as ordinary privates, the lowest military rank, with no guarantee that they would serve in the RAMC. “They should however intimate in what capacity they desire to serve,” read the notice. “We are informed that the services of 150 dispensers will be required, and that not more than 50 of these will be expected to serve with any expeditionary force that may be sent out of the country.” 

The requirement to enlist as ordinary privates generated a heated debate in the letters columns of The Pharmaceutical Journal. Henry Morgan, a pharmacist from Kimbolton, hoped that “pharmacists will not enlist unconditionally, for if they are willing to work under the RAMC corporal during times of war, they must not be surprised at RAMC men insisting on being registered as full-blown chemists without examination during times of peace.” More patriotic voices prevailed: James Grier, a pharmacist from Manchester, wrote that “the present is not the time for arguments, but for service.”

In the army

Pharmacists could not progress to become commissioned officers unless they joined the forces as combatants. Their rank and status in the armed forces remained a contentious issue throughout the war. The argument even spread to the national newspapers. In the Daily Chronicle on 3 April 1915, a letter from an RAMC lieutenant was published urging that “warrant rank at least should be granted to men holding the Pharmaceutical Society’s certificate”.

Pharmacists’ rank and status in the armed forces remained a contentious issue throughout the war

At the time, pharmacist William Glyn Jones was Liberal MP for Stepney. During the war, Jones was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministers of Munitions and Reconstruction. There were thus close links between the society and the government, and Glyn Jones was an advocate for the employment of pharmacists in the army. The society lobbied the government to establish an Army Pharmaceutical Corps with its own commissioned ranks. All such proposals, however, were resisted by the army. Only minor concessions were obtained; in 1916 the title ‘sergeant dispenser’ was replaced by ‘pharmacist’ in official communications.

Those pharmacists who did enlist were involved in a wide variety of duties during the war, many of whom shared their experience with readers of the two main journals catering to pharmacists of the time. On 12 September 1914, The Pharmaceutical Journal published: ‘A chemist’s assistant’s experience at the Battle of Mons’. Immediately after the war, the C&D’s readers were invited to contribute their stories to a series of articles called ‘Experiences of the Great War. In all, 36 contributions were published. The first, ‘Pharmacy in the near east’, appeared on 23 November 1918; the last ‘With the Sanitary Corps’ on 17 April 1920.  


As soon as war was declared, men who were too old to join the army, including many pharmacists, wanted a means of serving their country. Unofficial volunteer defence associations spontaneously formed around the country[1].

On 18 July 1915, a meeting was called by a group of local pharmacists, the London Pharmaceutical Association, to discuss the possibility of forming a corps made up entirely of pharmacists. Most of those present signed the roll, becoming the inaugural members of the Pharmacists Volunteer Training Corps (PVTC). The aim of the new corps was to provide a company “trained in sanitation, ambulance work, chemistry and analysis”[2].

Along with other volunteer corps, such as the Volunteer Motor Corps and the City of London Volunteer Training Corps, the pharmacists became exasperated with the government’s refusal to recognise them as a military unit. In an attempt to prove their worth, the PVTC held an exhibition of their skills and sanitary appliances at Brockwell Park in London on Sunday 15 October 1916. The hope was that the war office would give the corps official recognition as the Pharmacist Sanitary Company for London.

Despite the exhibition, the war office decided that recognition could not be given to any non-combatant unit. They were given the choice of disbanding or converting to combatant training. Eventually, the PVTC became ‘D’ company of the United Arts Rifles, which formed the 1st County of London Volunteer Regiment. The pharmacist volunteers stayed as infantry soldiers until the end of the war.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.20065770

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I recall, when Secretary of the Essex Local Pharmaceutical Committee I had sight of the Minutes of the Committee dating back to it’s inception in 1911. At one stage during WWI the Committee recorded it’s good wishes to one of their number, Mr Percy Jordan on his joining up, and wished him a safe reurn home. He did, and continued as a pharmacist in Grays for many years.

    Miall James

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