Wounded - surviving the Western Front

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Emily Mayhew examines the ordeal and care of casualties during World War One.

Walking wounded on Western FrontWounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918, by imperial College researcher Dr Emily Mayhew, breaks step with the usual themes of First World War historical writing with this comprehensive account of medical care at the Western Front.

Drawn from archival documents and diaries, Mayhew charts a path from battlefield, to aid post and casualty clearing stations. It is a book that illustrates the humanity of people working in the most appalling conditions and the utter calamity that was the Great War.

Beginning on the second day of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the first planned British offensive of the war, A young Gordon Highlander sees the months of training and boredom evaporate in a maelstrom that ends his war within minutes of leaving his trench.

The offensive at Neuve Chapelle was considered a victory yet gained little ground at a cost of 11,652 officers and men killed, wounded and missing in little more than a month.

In Chater's case, his injuries, testament to the new machines of warfare, were 'unprecedentedly severe and complex'. Whatever hit him carried the force to cross from cheekbone to cheekbone smashing his upper jaw and nose. In previous campaigns this would have been a mortal wound, but advancements in weaponary also heralded steps forward in medicine and trauma surgery. Due to the dedication and comittment of the medical personnel, Chater was able to document and record their efforts to restore him.

It is a story told through the testimony of those who cared for him - stretcher bearers and medical officers, surgeons and chaplains, orderlies and nurses - from the aid post in the trenches to the casualty clearing station and the ambulance train back to Blighty.

Invariably studies of life in the trenches have focused on the fighting men with very little attention paid to men evacuated to the rear with wounds - or for those trying to keep them alive.

This is a far from uplifting read, Mayhew shows that humanity can exist where it seems impossible, describing how a man with no legs holds a hymnbook for a man with no arms. It charts the successes and dedication of medical officers and bearers whose actions saved many but who in many cases were killed themselves during the four long years of carnage on the Western Front.


Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918
by Emily Mayhew


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