Doctors in the Great War

B1923

The author has provided a very good and detailed account of how the medical profession, military and civil rose to the challenges of WWI. He discusses the differences between civil and military medical practices and structures.

This is a very important book because it not only provides fresh insight into WWI medical services, but it shows how the base of skills and facilities built to support future wars. The book will appeal to a wide readership, including those interested in expanding their understanding of WWI.

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NAME: Doctors in the Great War
CATEGORY: Book Reviews
DATE: 180113
FILE: R1923
AUTHOR: Ian R Whitehead
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword, Frontline Books
BINDING: soft back
PAGES: 309
PRICE: £14.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, World War One, First World War, Great War, 1914-1918, doctors, medical services, triage, nurses, civil hospitals, field dressing stations, wounds, poison gas, mental illness, combat stress, medivac
ISBN: 1-78346-174-8
IMAGE: B1923.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/oqgyq87
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: In 1914, the British Army stood at a threshold in field medical capabilities. The 19th Century had seen a steady improvement in the treatment of field casualties, but there were still great gaps in coverage and many aspects had changed little from the crude level of treatment during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time of the Crimean War, a handful of pioneering doctors and nurses were beginning to introduce some fundamental changes, providing a base on which WWI medical services were developed and expanded.

The founding of the Royal Army Medical Corps followed the British Army practice of creating new regiments and corps to take responsibility of any new technology or skill in support of the field regiments. This in itself is a fair indicator of how recently field medical support had been regarded as an essential of modern warfare in 1914. Even so, the RAMC was inadequate to the task and required a very rapid and urgent expansion. The gallows humour of the British Tommie suggested RAMC stood for Rob All My Comrades, which was not entirely unfair because some stretcher bearers spent as much time looting the dead and wounded as they did evacuating casualties, but these were a minority.

The medical profession was also going through a period of significant change. The training of new doctors had generally followed a long way behind civilian needs and was further restricted by economics. Many doctors joining the Army did so primarily because they had completed their training but did not have the funds to set up in practice. William Bryden, who achieved fame for his epic ride from the Kyber Pass to give warning of the Massacre of the Army of the Indus, was one example of an Army surgeon who was unable to afford to establish his own practice on completing his training as a doctor. His ride also highlighted the very difference expectations of a military surgeon in the Victorian Age. He was detailed, together with an Indian lancer escort to raise the alarm and, as he set out, an Afghan sniper’s bullet struck his sword, breaking it a few inches below the hilt. That he carried sword and pistol was very different from the establishment of the Red Cross and the expectation that doctors and nurses would be unarmed and protected under international agreement by 1914. The use of the Red Cross emblem to mark medical personnel and facilities was intended to prohibit any form of enemy attack and generally came to be accepted practice.

1914 was also the point where a number of technologies came together for the first time and on a scale that had not been seen before. The machine gun turned fighting on its head. Until the use of armoured vehicles broke the deadlock and return to a level of battlefield mobility, the machine gun forced the establishment of hundreds of miles of trenches, each line only a few hundred yards away from the opposing trench, sometimes much closer. By fixing the troops into static line defences, the initial response was to assemble hordes of artillery batteries, of ever heavier guns to pound the enemy trenches into submission, or to provide a creeping barrage to shield infantry as it left its trenches and advanced on the enemy trenches. Inevitably, casualties were massive as commanders were forced to seek victory within the confines of the conditions. Underground warfare became a further method of seeking to destroy enemy trenches by mining and this led inevitably to anti-mining warfare under the battlefield. Also inevitably, chemical weapons were used in an attempt to break the deadlock. The nature of poison gas meant that as many casualties could be caused to friend as to foe. As the opposing armies tried to find some new miracle weapon to break the enemy, warfare took to the skies and began to develop as a new battlefield.

The result was that the huge numbers of casualties threatened to overwhelm the medical services in the field dressing stations and in the hospitals of the rear areas and in the homeland. This was not just a case of the war creating huge casualties, but in the improving methods of bringing casualties back from the front. Having static battle lines meant that dressing stations could be located in rear trenches. Casualties that would have died before reaching medical aid could now be brought relatively short distances for stabilization of serious injuries and the dressing of minor wounds for those who would be going straight back and into battle. Road vehicles and trains were able to reach close to the field dressing stations and this meant that stabilized casualties could be moved rapidly and in reasonable comfort to fully equipped hospitals. As the trenches became a major feature of the battlefield, narrow gauge railways were built right up to the front lines to bring up ammunition and supplies, also providing transport for casualties after delivering the primary cargoes. At the emergency treatment centres, close to the rear lines, a proportion of casualties could recover and be able to rejoin the fight, but for many there would be a further move back to the British Isles for long-term recovery. There would then be a further consequence where ex-soldiers would be returned to society with mental and physical disabilities that had never been seen on that scale before, for the simple reason that past wars would have seen most of them die on or near the battlefield. This factor has developed more strongly in later wars, but technology and medical procedures have improved to the point where battlefield survivors can return to civilian, and even military, life after suffering very serious wounds. The Great War was the conflict that set the pattern for future wars in the treatment of casualties.

The challenges faced from 1914 to 1918 were considerable. Many casualties were hit by shrapnel and the resulting injuries could vary from minor to major. However, minor wounds could soon become infected in the filth of the trenches, killing many who should not have died and increasing the flow of casualties who now required a greater level of medical care. Some injuries were self-inflicted as a way of escaping the trenches. This led to some casualties requiring medical treatment before being shot by firing squad. Shell shock became a major problem as soldiers endured weeks of heavy bombardment. The use of poison gas caused horrific injuries as lings were seriously damaged and blindness was a common consequence.

The author has provided a very good and detailed account of how the medical profession, military and civil rose to the challenges of WWI. He discusses the differences between civil and military medical practices and structures.

This is a very important book because it not only provides fresh insight into WWI medical services, but it shows how the base of skills and facilities built to support future wars. The book will appeal to a wide readership, including those interested in expanding their understanding of WWI.

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