Shocking attitudes to Great War’s wounded revealed

April 28, 2008

Diaries written by working class soldiers wounded in World War One have revealed how they silently endured brutal treatment by military nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and stretcher bearers.

Historian Dr Ana Carden-Coyne from The University of Manchester says the material penned by British and Australian squadies explodes an officially sanitised view of military service in the Great War.

Dr Carden-Coyne, who is writing a book on the subject, argues the soldiers privately resisted military medical authorities - many of whom were untrained -using eloquent prose in their diaries and compelling cartoons she found in hospital magazines of the time.

One Australian Private describes in his diary how he felt the need to “keep quiet” when a doctor probed two inches into his leg wound for a piece of loose bone “with all the instruments of torture” including tongs.

And in another, a British patient records his shame when a nursing sister “nearly fell down laughing” after she unbandaged a wounded arm that had suffered severe muscle wastage, because it “looked barely bigger than a child’s”.

One patient penned a poem with a sinister depiction of the surgeon blowing an even larger hole through the entrance of a shell wound.

Though the patient ‘howled like a pup’ and ‘shrieked like an eight inch howitzer’, ‘Captain Scalpel’ said: “All is well!”.

Another comes to terms with his rough treatment by a physiotherapist by using sexual fantasy in poetry.

Dr Carden-Coyne said: “These journals and cartoons show that the heroic myths of sacrifice popular at the time are rather false: those who were injured fighting for King and Country were poorly cared for.

“Military medical propaganda was about 'how well we care for the wounded' and that is acutely contradicted by this evidence.

“In contrast to the image of ‘good patients’ frequently mentioned in published accounts of medical staff, these soldiers used the form of patient diaries to express their horror and resistance in secret.

“They recorded personal stories of pain and healing with an extraordinary level of detail, were very attached to the diaries and took them seriously.

“Each day they entered information about their wounds, medical staff, treatment, feelings, doubts, complaints about lack of food or sleep and observations about other patients and the staff.

“And there is much evidence here of resistance to the policies and advice of the authorities for example by insisting on vocational training or refusing therapeutic treatments and surgical interventions.

“Some patients asserted their agency by demonstrating knowledge of their medical conditions and taking matters into their own hands.

”These 90-year-old stories resonate strongly today amid the accusations from MPs that the government is no longer honoring the military covenant, Britain's duty of care to its servicemen and women.”

Dr Carden-Coyne also examined accounts by medical personnel of the experience of stretcher bearers - who regarded wounded men as their patients though medically untrained.

A stark example was when a medic’s rescue party took refuge in a shell hole with their soldier ‘patient’.

Despite the patient’s pain, he tells how one of the other men bullied the patient, haranguing him to keep quiet.

She said: “The diaries record men rebuking others for screaming in pain – for losing control of the body and letting others know of their immediate fear and sense of danger.

“Diary authors recognise their vulnerability to pain and their passivity in being immobile, in being operated upon or having body parts removed whilst powerlessly under anaesthetic, and by being reliant upon others for care.

“Some of the soldiers describe how medical staff applaud soldiers’ ability to endure physical pain ‘without screaming’ but resent emotional responses and patients who resist treatment.”

Source: University of Manchester

Explore further: Scientists track restoration of communication in minimally conscious patient

Related Stories

Supportive care for cancer patients remains inadequate

December 7, 2016

Pain relief and other forms of supportive care for cancer patients are insufficient, researchers report at the ESMO ASIA 2016 Congress in Singapore. They also highlight that side-effects to chemotherapy must be treated efficiently ...

New study to investigate role of sleep in chronic pain

December 5, 2016

Washington State University will lead a study to understand the relationship between sleep and chronic pain, part of a nationwide effort to address the rising abuse of opioid pain relievers and expand the arsenal of non-drug ...

Recommended for you

Amber specimen offers rare glimpse of feathered dinosaur tail

December 8, 2016

Researchers have discovered a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber. The finding reported in Current Biology on December 8 helps to fill in details of the dinosaurs' feather structure and evolution, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2008
Military hospital care could hardly be called advanced in the early 20th century. The sheer number of wounded and primitive conditions in hospital and camps were very difficult. In fact, being sent to the rear for short R&R from war in the trenches was often *worse* than conditions at the front in France. The French military revolted (as many as 15 divisions!) in one of the more interesting en mass defections on record - it was that bad. It's no surprise that men recorded fear, pain and anger in their diaries; the Brits were avid letter and journal writers. What is astonishing is that it's taken so long to chronicle the war experiences of these men. Text book accounts of the horrors of major wars of the last 200 years have been heavily sanitized, perhaps so as to avoid discouraging future voluntary military service by questioning the enduring physical and social cost of warfare.
not rated yet Apr 29, 2008
War is a consequence of the human brain being that of a hairless knuckle dragging ape. The smart ones at least realize this. We have to accept that violence will last as long as humans will.
One solution is to evolve into different humans with less violence. This requires Darwinian selectivity i.e. removing reproductive rights from those with undesirable traits. Perhaps gene therapy could be used. However this is currently unsound both morally and ethically.
Hence humanity is saddled with violence.
Currently the only workable option is to segregate those (genetically?) predisposed to random acts of violence. This is reflected in the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Genetics will raise some moral dilemmas. Some individuals will be found with DNA programmed to violence and crime - so what do we do. Segregate or change the DNA?
What about health insurance. We know some people are genetically predisposed to disease. They will become marginalized in terms of jobs, mates, health care etc.
At some point in next 100 years computers will become smarter than man. One PC will have more power than all the human brains combined (Kurzweil et al). Will computers be able to give us the answer and will we like it?
Earth is a matter magnet. Look at the craters on the moon to get an idea as there is no erosion there. A meteor strike could wipe out civilization. Are we squabbling over arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Actuaries give this a 1 in 20,000 chance per 50 years.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.