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.
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.
The 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.