Exactly a year before the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War, 11 November 1917 marked a different ending on the Western Front battlefields.
For the first time in many weeks there was relative calm around the obliterated Belgian village of Passchendaele. A series of battles that began with an Allied attack at the end of July finally petered out on the 10 November, as Canadian troops reached the objective whose name still resonates today.
Casualties were huge, but by 1917 this was no longer unexpected.
Indeed, 1917 would prove to be the British Army’s costliest year of the war. How our medical services, both near these battlefields and back home, attempted to cope with casualties on such a scale is the subject of our exhibition Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care, which remains at the Science Museum until next Summer.
1917 had been a year both of consolidation and change for those caring for the wounded. While medical services continued to be over-stretched much of the time, and totally overwhelmed at others, they had been transformed since the summer of 1914. Staff levels had multiplied, and valuable lessons had been learned from many months of treating and transporting those wounded in the inhospitable trench environment.
For the ‘chain of evacuation’, the system which potentially took a wounded man from the trenches to a hospital ship on the French coast, the largely static nature of the Western Front had proved advantageous. Casualty Clearing Stations, set some miles behind the frontlines, had originally been imagined as transient sites for sorting the wounded.
By November 1917, they were well established, well staffed and well-equipped field hospitals. Blueprints for the likes of Camp Bastion, the army’s medical unit established in Afghanistan many decades later.
Life-saving interventions were also proving their worth. New blood transfusion technology could revive those previously considered beyond help, while decades before penicillin the innovative Carrel-Dakin apparatus was providing some defense against wound infection.
Frontline experience also highlighted the value of best practice and good medical training. As medicine came ever closer to the action, stretcher bearers were increasingly acting as emergency medics rather than simply as carriers. They might be trained to apply Thomas splints, simple devices first used in the 1870s, but whose introduction as standard kit, transformed the prospects for those with major leg fractures.
And yet…. tens of thousands of Allied soldiers died in the assaults around Passchendaele. For all the broad improvements in treatment and logistics, the nature of this war ensured that it remained a daily medical catastrophe.
At home by November 1917, tremendous resources and facilities had also been given over to the further treatment, care and rehabilitation of the war wounded. A vast network of sites existed across the country. From austere military hospitals to grand suites in country houses, the state and the public were providing many thousands of beds. Sites for specialist treatment had also been established and were expanding both in size and in expertise, such as The Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup (for facial injuries) and Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton (for amputees).
Wounded veterans were familiar sights in communities across Britain and many were also being retrained and brought back into the workforce. A good number even found themselves retrained into work that was directly associated with the results of wounding. Amputees might become limb-makers, the blind trained as masseurs and physiotherapists. With the war still raging, they continued to be a focus for extensive fundraising, and remained figures of both sympathy and respect.
However, some of those physically and mentally scarred by the war were already looking forward with fear and uncertainty as to how they might fare when peace returned. The government was also concerned, but for different reasons. With the likely final cost of veterans’ pensions escalating, officials would be accused of tightening the assessment of a veteran’s disability in order to save money in the longer term.
In the early years of peace, the wounded were to become inexorably linked with a symbol used to commemorate those who had not survived – the poppy. Following its introduction by the British Legion in 1921, the poppies for the following year were manufactured by a handful of disabled men based in a South London workshop. Within 10 years, over 350 disabled veterans were making them in what became known as the Poppy Factory. Veterans wounded in more recent conflicts continue to make them today.