Medical advances helped to prolong the Great War

A poster promoting  Ian McArdle's talk, 'Medical Services in the Great War'.
A poster promoting Ian McArdle's talk, 'Medical Services in the Great War'.

The First World War undoubtedly saw the full exploitation of the many advances in the means of killing and injuring men on an unimaginable scale.

Technical innovations in munitions and the means of their delivery had been evolving rapidly over the 50 years of relative peace between the major European combatant nations, but no one could have imagined the horrific consequences for the ordinary soldier of the elevation of the means of warfare onto an ‘industrial’ level.

It is perhaps surprising to learn that advances in medical science of the years immediately before the war would be the means of prolonging it.

In previous conflicts any but minor wounds would result in the total incapacity of the soldier.

Poor or totally absent means of antisepsis meant wounds would rapidly become infected and the inevitable onset of gangrene would kill or demand radical surgery to amputate the affected limbs; wounds to the torso would almost always result in death.

The aim of commanders hitherto was not to kill in a pointless bloodletting but to neutralise the enemy by reducing his ability to resist.

Reducing the enemy’s effective fighting strength was the commanders’ ultimate aim, to bring about his opponent’s withdrawal from armed resistance and achieve the political objectives of the war.

What changed, though not immediately at the beginning of the war, was the introduction of technical innovations in treatment by the military.

A few examples of the great advances in ensuring the survival but more importantly the return to effectiveness as soldiers of the wounded are means of treatment only in their infancy before the war.

X-rays would assist the surgeons to understand the internal damage caused by wounds not obvious to the eye.

The development of an effective splint for the treatment of fractures of the thigh would result in the reduction of the mortality associated with that injury from 80 per cent fatal in 1914 to a survival rate of 80 per cent by 1916.

Blood transfusion, unknown in warfare before this conflict, was a saviour for many in the Casualty Clearing Stations, allowing their survival and transfer back to base hospital and longer–term treatment.

The greatest threat to the wounded was infection. The development of antibiotics would not influence the outcome for the wounded in the Great War as they would not make their appearance until the years leading up to the Second World War.

However, the use of fluid irrigation of deep wounds was developed to the point where the same technique was still in use in the latter years of the 20th century.

The result of all of these advances for the fighting man was sadly that wounds did not guarantee a ‘ticket home’ but often merely a short respite before being returned to the front.

The soldiers’ oft mentioned ‘Blighty One’ was a wound ensuring long-term, if not permanent return to Britain. It was the wish of many who could see no end to the conflict.

The project’s regular speaker, Ian McArdle, BA, will present a new talk at the Low Lights Tavern, Brewhouse Bank, Fish Quay, North Shields, on Tuesday, May 19, at 7.30pm. Admission is free.

His talk – Medical Services in the Great War – will explore the work of the medical staff who treated the victims of the new and horrific developments of warfare – almost 2.5 million soldiers (50 per cent of British men who served) were at some time wounded or rendered unable to fight by shellfire, disease and the new menace of gas poisoning.

Anyone with information about anyone who was killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.