ICRC databases on international humanitarian law
Treaties and Documents
1949 Conventions and Additional Protocols, and their Commentaries
Historical Treaties and Documents
Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
[p.154] CHAPTER III
Many centuries before our era, the Athenian fleet included a vessel called ' Therapia, ' while in the Roman fleet was a ship bearing the name ' Aesculapius. ' Their names have been taken by some authors as indicating that they were hospital ships.
All we know with certainty is that at the beginning of the XVIIth century it became customary for naval squadrons to be accompanied by special vessels entrusted with the task of taking the wounded on board after each engagement.
It was, however, not until the second half of the XIXth century that the practice really developed. During the Crimean War, more than 100,000 sick and wounded were repatriated to England on board hospital transports. Thereafter, no military expedition was ever undertaken without the necessary ships being assigned to evacuate soldiers from the combat area and give them the medical treatment they might require.
During the First World War, hospital ships were used to an increasing extent, despite the serious disputes and grave incidents which arose between the belligerents in this regard and to which we have already referred. In most instances, passenger liners were converted for use as medical transports.
When the Second World War came, hospital ships specially designed for the purpose were built, and consequently the accommodation for patients was greatly improved. Because bases were far apart and hospitals on land in short supply in the Pacific war [p.155] theatre, the American forces brought into service ships which were really floating hospitals, able to give complete medical and surgical treatment.
By way of example, the characteristics of one such ship, in the ' Haven ' class, are as follows: displacement 15,000 tons, speed 17.5 knots, range 12,000 miles. The medical personnel consists of 21 doctors, 32 nurses, 238 nursing orderlies. The crew comprises 61 officers and 230 men. There is accommodation for 802 patients (for 1,000 in case of need). There are three operating theatres, with X-ray and sterilizing units as well as the necessary laboratories. Each ship can quickly set up a field hospital of 100 beds on land. Lastly, it is equipped with up-to-date hoisting apparatus which simplifies the trans-shipment of the seriously wounded -- always a very difficult operation at sea.
As may be seen from the foregoing, the hospital ship serves a number of purposes. In maritime warfare, it follows at some distance behind naval squadrons and takes the wounded on board after an engagement; in continental warfare, it is used to evacuate and transport the wounded and sick; in "amphibious" operations, it serves as a floating hospital, replacing a hospital on land and giving complete treatment to those taken on board. Whenever possible, hospital ships are specially equipped for the type of work which they will have to perform.
* (1) [(1) p.154] The information given here is mainly taken
from the following: Dr. Robert M. GARRAUD: "Les hôpitaux
flottants", ' Vie et Bonté, ' Paris 1952; and Vice-Admiral
GRANDCLEMENT: "Les navires-hôpitaux", ' Revue
internationale de la Croix-Rouge, ' May 1938, p. 395;