Last updated: 30 June 2014
The earliest medical services in the British armed forces date back to King Charles II’s formation of a regular standing army. Each regiment was provided with a surgeon and assistant surgeon, both as commissioned officers.
In 1855, in the midst of severe public and journalistic criticism of army medical provision during the Crimean War (1854-56), a unified Medical Staff Corps was formed to provide other ranks medical personnel. This corps was renamed the Army Hospital Corps in 1857, then the Medical Staff Corps in 1884.
In the meantime, in 1873, the provision of medical officers on a regimental basis was abolished and in its place a single Army Medical Department established. Finally, in 1898, the Department and Corps were merged into a single unit, known as the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), whose personnel were sent straight into action in the Sudan (1896-98) and the Boer War (1899-1902).
As with the Crimean War, the South African conflict demonstrated the importance of army medical provision and the fatal consequences when hygiene advice was ignored. Thus, by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the unit was recognised as vital to any national war effort. During that conflict its personnel served in every theatre of war and it expanded to 154,000 other ranks and 13,000 officers. The RAMC lost 743 officers and 6,130 soldiers killed.
The RAMC’s dental wing became independent in 1921 as the Royal Army Dental Corps, while the RAMC itself remained at the forefront of new medical techniques throughout the 20th century, pioneering facial surgery during both World Wars and the use of penicillin and blood transfusion in the Second World War (1939-45). In recent years RAMC personnel have deployed to Bosnia (1991-97), Kosovo (1999-), Afghanistan (2001-) and Iraq (2003-11).
Members of the unit and its predecessors have been awarded 27 Victoria Crosses (VC), including two out of only three VC bars ever awarded (designating a second award of the VC to the same person). An RAMC private, 19-year-old Michelle Norris, was also the first female recipient of the Military Cross (MC), in recognition of her actions on 11 June 2006 at Al Amarah in Iraq.
In spite of all this, the RAMC is a non-fighting arm whose members may only use their weapons in self-defence. This is symbolised on parade by its officers holding their scabbard with their left hand rather than drawing their swords, and by its other ranks never fixing their bayonets. Its involvement in every theatre of war the Army has seen means it has no battle honours.
The corps’s cap badge is a crown above a laurel wreath containing a serpent entwined up a staff. This is the staff of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine.