The Wounded Who Gave Their Lives…

British wounded during World War One

British wounded during World War One

We should never forget the true cost of war. We should search out those tributes to our war dead – the unread plaques on our city walls, the smog-smudged memorials in our busy streets and the pristine and antiseptic paeans in our graveyards – and we should pray to whoever our God may be that our own loved ones never have to die the way those young, brave souls once did.

Memorials offer a great service to those who bother to read them, but they are terribly lacking in other ways.

The Great War claimed the lives of over sixteen million people. Sixteen million lives unlived… What those memorials don’t tell you is that there were a further twenty million who were wounded… twenty million lives that bore mental and physical scars for the rest of their days.

The wounded are often the forgotten victims of war. But it is they who carry the heavier burden, in my opinion.

The weapons of World War One were brutally destructive: Mustard gas that blistered lungs, Chlorine that blinded eyes, shrapnel that shredded flesh, and bullets that shattered bones and ravaged organs, all left indelible damage on those who survived such punishment.

A new book, Wounded, by Emily Mayhew (published by Bodley Head) provides graphic accounts of what it really meant to be injured on the battlefields of World War One. Being wounded was, in fact, a prelude to a horrific ordeal.

Mayhew’s book paints heart-breaking cameos of those who struggled in appalling conditions to keep the injured alive.

Nurse Winifred Kenyon would pin little muslin bags of lavender to the pillows of the worst cases to help disguise the stench of blooming gangrene in their broken bodies.

Men would wake after surgery to discover an arm was gone or a leg had been amputated. The nurses would be there to console them as best they could, to tell gentle lies about how everything was going to be alright.

The casualty rate was shocking following major assaults. Streams of soldiers, maimed and horribly disfigured, would pour into squalid, overrun dressing stations, giving neither nurses nor doctors a moment’s respite.

Dr John Hayward recalls one occasion when he was one of just three doctors who were assigned to operate on over one hundred patients. He was in the operating tent for 36 hours without break. Things got so busy that there was barely time to administer anaesthetic.

Surgeons worked at frenetic speed – amputating limbs, stitching and patching – while around them the mounds of severed arms and legs would grow ever higher. Naturally enough, infection was a huge problem.

And yet, somehow, men survived this dreadful damage. One medic described lifting the tunic of a still conscious, talking patient and seeing clear through the hole in the man’s chest to the fields beyond.

Howard recalled how he was struck by how quiet the men awaiting treatment were… no screams or groans, just breathing, gasping as they fought their internal battles for survival. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues would have to make split-second decisions on who was worth trying to save and who should be let die.

For the wounded who survived this far, the next stop was the jolting, agonising ambulance journey to the rear lines and the ambulance trains, into which patients were crammed – the tiers of stretchers reaching to the ceiling. Others had to stand in the corridors. The trains often took days to reach their destinations, due to damaged lines and derailments.

When trains stopped suddenly – a frequent occurrence, as you would expect – patients were jolted about and sent careening in all directions. In such conditions it was difficult to change dirty dressings or relieve pain. Men gritted their teeth and just tried to hold on, while overworked nurses did their best to help.

When wounded soldiers finally reached the ports, the agony would begin anew with a sea journey across the Channel back to England.

To serve in World War One and survive was something of an achievement, but to be wounded and survive such a dreadful ordeal is a miracle.

Dr Arthur Hurst

Dr Arthur Hurst

When these men were finally returned to their loved ones they had not only physical scars with which to contend but serious mental ones, too. Shell shock – or post-traumatic stress disorder – was largely ignored, although some men were fortunate enough to be treated by Dr Arthur Hurst, a true pioneer in this field.

So much pain and suffering by men who were once so vibrant and with so much to live for.

WoundedThe next time you pass a war memorial, spare a thought for those who died and then remember the wounded, who lived on for years but whose war never really ended. In their own way they gave their lives, too.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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27 Responses to The Wounded Who Gave Their Lives…

  1. John L. Monk says:

    More than just “fascinating,” as usual.


  2. Lindy Moone says:

    A wonderful post, David. And so true.

    My dad survived some of the most horrible battles in the Pacific theater of WWII. He was wounded, lost most of his buddies and his fiancee (a nurse) to the war… but to be honest, it consumed the rest of his life as well. Lifelong depression, among other problems, affected every moment of his life. Even on his deathbed, under the influence of morphine, he relived the horrors in terrifying hallucinations. This time, he wasn’t one of the Marines watching in grief-stricken disbelief as Japanese civilians were forced to throw themselves from the cliffs rather than surrender. He was on the cliff with them, falling and falling… to his death. It’s been 19 years since I held his hands, lying to him, telling him I’d catch him, and since I took the loaded gun from under his pillow…

    War is an evil legacy. I hate that this is how I must remember him.


    • That’s a very moving insight, Lindy. What a hard life your father had… and what a tough load it was for you and your family to carry. It’s terrible that the wounded and their extended families are the true casualties of war, and ones who never get the support they deserve.


  3. rhchatlien says:

    Such a good reminder, especially for Veteran’s Day weekend. You write eloquently as always, and this book sounds like an important one to know about.


  4. Lindy Moone says:

    Just downloaded the sample for the “Wounded” ebook. I am WAY over budget for books, but this seems like a good one. Thanks.


  5. Louis says:

    It’s probably because I’m an American but I always think of the medical conditions of the Civil War as being primitive and brutal. The 50 years of advances in killing technology made World War I even worse. There was practically a literary & film genre about the lingering suffering of the wounded from that war. The film “Random Harvest” shows pretty well how WWI vets had a hard time escaping its effects. Wasn’t that also the war that gave us the term shellshock, where for the first time it was not universally considered cowardly to become emotionally unable to fight? All Quiet on the Western Front leaves a clear implication that those killed in the war might have been the lucky ones; that alone is reason to remember and honor the sacrifices of those who did come home. Happy Veteran’s Day.


  6. Lindy Moone says:

    Reblogged this on Belly-up! and commented:
    Hope you read the whole article. It’s a heartfelt look at those who are all but forgotten, and about what looks to be a very moving book. I have my own personal reasons that this touched me deeply. You can see a hint of them in the comments.


  7. Pingback: Wounded Veterans & Teenage Rebellion Twitter Pal Daily | Larry Crane

  8. As always David you give readers thought provoking stories. I agree with Louis that the stories of the American Civil War are eerily similar. Thank you for letting your readers know about this book.


  9. angelsefer says:

    Very interesting and realistic. Thanks for sharing.


  10. Chris Rose says:

    Great post, David. As usual.

    I’ve read a fair bit on this – either through fiction or fact. And to add to you post, while the angels of mercy – both nurses and surgeons – were doing everything humanly possible to help the wounded, governments, both British and German, were doing everything to shunter them out of sight, for fear of demoralising the respective nation’s war efforts; as well as experimenting on them with all sorts of medicines after the war. Better dying in the trenches than surviving…


  11. You’re right Chris, out of sight out of mind. What a waste…


  12. jjtoner says:

    Fantastic article, like all your blogs, David, and very thoughtful. My father in law was gassed in the WWI trenches and died young as a result. I never men him. From what my wife says, he was a special person, a country postman who looked after sick animals and raised a large family. I often wondered why the soldiers weren’t fitted with some sort of body armour. Seems crazy that they were sent out to face machine-guns with no protection apart from a helmet. Thanks for the post.


  13. Thanks James. Glad you liked the piece, and thanks for subscribing to the blog. Body armour probably cost too much money, I’d imagine. The last thing war governments seem to care for are the men they send out to fight in their country’s name. Your father-in-law sounds like a good man – maybe he was drawn to care for the sick animals, having known what it was to suffer himself as a wounded man during the war. We’ll have to catch up over a coffee.


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