Our picture of the Great War is indelibly bound up with the suffering of the soldiers who fought. Lines of men blinded by poison gas hanging on to their comrades; wounded soldiers on stretchers patiently awaiting treatment; stretcher bearers themselves struggling through the mud to bring their comrades aid and succour; and the unbearably poignant pictures of limbless or shell-shocked troops in hospital back in Blighty struggling to come to terms with their devastating conditions.
The story of the military medical services in the war is a fascinating but little-told one Now the Naval and Military Press is proud to republish that story, in the shape of these reprints of the rare Official Histories of the Army’s medical service compiled by Major-General Sir W. G. Macpherson. The service in 1914 was much improved thanks to reforms after the Boer War, in which thousands of troops had died needlessly of disease thanks to the lack of proper medical care. In 1914, by contrast, the service was ready to cope with high casualties.
The author was himself deputy-director of the Army’s medical service throughout the war, and is described as having a ‘genius for organisation and improving the service and untiring energy’.
His four-volume history is no dry-as-dust record of administration as one might expect, but a practical, well-written day to day description of how the wounded and sick were cared for from front line casualty clearing stations to base hospitals far behind the lines.
It skilfully weaves essential medical details and statistics into a narrative of battles and campaigns from every theatre of the war. It is also a record of a steep learning curve, as the medical services struggled – often successfully – to keep abreast with casualties inflicted by the changing technology of war. At first, in 1914, most wounds were caused by bullets, but with the increasing use of artillery, shell splinters, shrapnel balls and poison gas accounted for the majority. The heavily manured soil of France and Flanders ensured hat there was a high incidence of tetanus and gas gangrene. The use of blood transfusions, and increased understanding of the importance of blood groups, saved many lives, while behind the lines the pioneering use of plastic surgery strove to repair the hideous damage inflicted by weapons of war.
This is a moving record of compassion in action, and of a service which stove to mitigate, heal and help relieve the inevitable suffering caused by the most destructive war that the world had yet seen.
Major-General Sir W.G.Macpherson
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2009 N&M Press reprint (original pub c.1924). SB. viii+556pp.+Maps (some with colour), Charts & Photographs