The Magazine

Casualties of War

Medicine as metaphor for the Western Front.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Their dedication and, indeed, heroism adds a new dimension to the more familiar story of the bravery and sacrifice of the combatants. 

Many will find the best things about this book to be its stories of courage, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice on the part of the doctors, nurses, orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, and others—most notably chaplains, who very often threw themselves into assisting with the medical tasks of hospitals and dressing stations as well as attending to spiritual tasks. One such, a Roman Catholic priest, took it upon himself to, in addition to his normal duties, go out into no-man’s-land at night to bury the dead who had fallen in the field, all while under fire himself. Those who noted the absence of God from the trenches were presumably not looking in the right places.

We also learn of the new interest of doctors in mental casualties—though these were always kept separate from the rest at the Casualty Clearing Stations and hospitals, and even on the ambulance trains, where they were kept in separate carriages for the sake of morale: “All over the front RMOs [Royal Medical Officers] were coming to find this class of patient increasingly interesting. For some of them the treatment was quite simple: when the sound of the guns drew nearer and the patients became increasingly upset, the staff went round the ward putting cotton wool in their ears to muffle the noise and restore calm.”

There were also moments of humor, as there were in the trenches. Major Alfred Hardwick of the 59th Field Ambulance unit took advantage of a two-week leave in England to bring back a couple of ferrets from his home in the West Country. They were brilliantly successful at killing trench rats, with which his section of the front had been plagued, and the men were very grateful. 

On Hardwick’s birthday they celebrated with red wine, games of poker and organized ratting, with each kill being celebrated with increasingly drunken cheers and songs about the only two creatures who really enjoyed themselves on the Western Front. What would the ferrets do, the men wondered, if the war ever ended? How could they ever go back to a Cornish farm, now that they had hunted for trench rats in France?

In the words of the old song: How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm? In the case of the men, if not the ferrets, the answer was that you wouldn’t. A new world—recognizably our world—emerged from the Great War. And Wounded goes a long way toward explaining why it did.

James Bowman, the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.