Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What We're Reading: New History on The Great War


Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I, by Emily Mayhew

The title of this book is a bit confusing: This is not a comprehensive new history of the Western Front viewed through the paradigm of the massive medical effort that was needed to take care of the war’s innumerable casualties. It is also limited to the British experience in the war and does not discuss the care of the wounded by American or French allies or, for that matter, the similar crisis that was experienced by the enemy nations of the Triple Alliance. Mayhew says that, “Wounded seeks to put medical history back at the heart of studies of the Great War and give credit and understanding where it is long overdue.” Indeed, the tremendous loss, the death and maiming of millions of combatants (as much as the course of the battles), seems essential to an understanding of how nations experienced the Great War. Mayhew writes that “In Britain, the war caused 11 million casualties. Forty per cent of all those who served either ended up with a disability pension or their dependents were in receipt of a death pension.” The British upper classes had served as officers, while soldiers came from all classes of society. People at every level of society would have been aware of losses suffered by friends, or would have encountered disabled veterans.

Wounded soldiers and ambulance stuck in the mud
It seems undeniable that the experience of the wounded should be central to an understanding of the Great War and its social and political meaning. While Wounded is not a book large enough to make that case comprehensively, Mayhew gives us an outline of the landscape that ought to be covered in any adequate assessment of the scope and impact of the medical effort mobilized to help the war wounded. It is much broader than the limited attention to the medical history of the war that has been addressed in the past, which sonsisted of studies that have focused mostly on the surgical advances that came about as a result of the war, as well as innovations in combat trauma treatment. In addition to the surgeons, Mayhew is concerned about preserving the experiences of others involved in the medical support system for the wounded: the stretcher bearers, regimental medical officers, nurses, orderlies, chaplains, those who served on the ambulance trains, and the volunteers who set up medical assistance stations on the continent or who served in domestic volunteer organizations like the London Ambulance Column. She is troubled that already much of the history of the medical operations of the Great War has been lost, and that the work of many groups of participants involved in that operation was never chronicled or recorded. In Wounded, she has mined letters and memoirs, both personal and from museum collections, to try to distill a representative experience of some of the groups that were involved in care of the war wounded.

Ambulances of the London Ambulance Column
Wounded tells us, then, the story of individuals at a certain remove. Mayhew conflates various personal accounts, and rounds out the picture with other official and anecdotal information about the system that was devised for taking care of the wounded. But this comes at a cost. There is little quoted material--at least not enough to give us a sense of some of the participants as individuals--and we lose as well the sense of immediacy that would come from first person accounts. To be fair, the alternative would have been to present heavily annotated memoirs or letters, from which only small sections might be illuminating or relevant to yield a portrait of the task or profession. Although it contains a few accounts of the experiences of some of the wounded, the book is primarily concerned with the experiences of those who cared for the wounded. So we are distanced perhaps a bit more, in that we don’t get much of a sense of the personal pain and suffering of those wounded who passed through the system.

The other thing that doesn’t quite feel right about Wounded is that Mayhew presents us for the most part with a picture of individuals who heroically (as well as resignedly and systematically) did their duty. While there are demonstrated acts of compassion, there is little sense of the chaos and abhorrence that must have pervaded events, the anger and personal failures that would have been inevitable, and what must have been the sorrow and pity of it all.

Inside an ambulance train carrying wounded soldiers
There are some scenes in Wounded, however, that are especially memorable: the railway station in Furnes, Belgium, where hundreds of wounded soldiers were routinely dumped on the platform by ambulances to await the arrival of an ambulance train to Calais. Mayhew explains that the ambulance trains were always those with lowest priority; the trains that received right of way on the rails were those carrying supplies and yet more troops to the front. Claire Tisdall wrote a memoir of her service in the London Ambulance Column, a volunteer organization that transported returning wounded soldiers from arriving ambulance trains to hospitals in London. The day the Armistice had been declared, the streets of London were jammed with drunken revelers who blocked the ambulance. Previously, the ambulances had been cheered on the streets of London by crowds as they passed, but now in the general euphoria, the ambulance was bounced and jostled and had to struggle to make it to the hospital with its cargo of wounded---a picture of a nation of people who had already forgotten that the end of a war does not mean the end of war for so many of those who fought it. The wounded had suddenly become invisible.

While notes at the end of a book might often be safely overlooked by the less interested reader, it is highly recommended that someone reading this book read the overview that Mayhew gives for each subject and group in her endnotes before they read a chapter. The notes give context and survey the history of existing study on each subject, thereby directing interested readers to other studies. Most importantly, they outline the areas in which further scholarship is needed in order to give us a better understanding of the medical crisis that was a central and formative experience of the Great War.

Stretcher bearers fighting the mud and saving a wounded soldier at Passchendaele

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