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By Stewart Emmens on

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care

Curator Stewart Emmens reveals some of the stories from our Wounded exhibition.

Our Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care exhibition marks the centenary of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916). While the focus of Wounded is the First World War, the genesis of our exhibition lies with more recent conflicts.

A few years back, I was struck by the regular reports of British casualties in Afghanistan. While those killed were mourned and commemorated, at times the wounded seemed to be little more than numbers that were soon forgotten. It made me think – were they badly wounded, how had they been treated, where had they been taken, what had they been taken in, who was caring for them and what would happen to them in the longer term?

Looking back to the First World War, at the British on the Western Front, you can ask the same questions. But this was war on a vastly different scale, a new kind of war that produced levels of wounding unparalleled in severity and casualty numbers.

Stretcher-bearers behind the British front line, 1917, c. Science Museum, SSPL
Stretcher-bearers behind the British front line, 1917, c. Science Museum, SSPL

It was also a war fought within environments and under conditions which could be hugely detrimental to efforts to save those wounded. The colossal potential of which reached a peak for British forces on July 1st 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the starting point of our exhibition.

What were some of the key medical challenges that arose from this carnage and what were some of the responses – be they scientific, technical or strategic – that emerged to cope with them? These are intriguing subjects for the Science Museum to address. Using material from our diverse First World War medical collections, alongside a number of significant loans, we will explore some of them through this exhibition.

However, this aspiration has presented its own challenges. The medical experience of 1914-1918 and the implications for the years that followed is a vast and complex narrative. Even by concentrating our exhibition on the Western Front and the British experience, we have had to pick out key strands and themes from what was a multi-faceted story. And it is not a simple case of the ‘triumph of medicine’. While real medical innovation did arise as new techniques and strategies were pioneered, others were rediscovered, or adapted and evolved through experience. Many mistakes were also made and time and again medical services were simply overwhelmed by both the nature and the sheer scale of casualties.

Two objects which epitomise some of these ambiguities are an extremely rare blood transfusion set, which we believe to be one of the earliest practical designs for use on British wounded, and an artificial arm. The blood transfusion set represented a major advance in medical treatment that arrived late in the war but proved the life-saving potential of what is now a standard procedure in emergency medicine.

An extremely rare blood transfusion set. c. Science Museum, SSPL
An extremely rare blood transfusion set. c. Science Museum, SSPL

Conversely, we are also displaying an artificial arm that was much coveted during the war for its apparent technological sophistication, but through the experiences of those who used it was ultimately found to be wanting. Initially imported from America, the Carne arm was an expensive item that became known as the ‘officer’s arm’ as only officers tended to get them.  In practice, wearers found them heavy and difficult to master, and many soon ended up in the backs of cupboards – never to be worn again.

A century on, the nature of warfare has been transformed. But along with the many differences there are some surprising echoes, parallels and similarities with the medical events of the First World War – both through the battles to save lives on the frontline and in the realities and potential futures of those living with their wounds today. Some of these contemporary aspects will also be touched on within Wounded.

Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is open until 2018 and is free to visit.