Medical Services in the First World War

A medical orderly attends to a wounded Canadian soldier on a stretcher near Arras, 1918.; A bayonet scabbard and entrenching tool handle have been used as makeshift splints for his arm, which has been broken by a piece of shrapnel. Medics in front line areas often have to adapt to the conditions around them.

A medical orderly attends to a wounded Canadian soldier on a stretcher near Arras, 1918.

photographs

A bayonet scabbard and entrenching tool handle have been used as makeshift splints for his arm, which has been broken by a piece of shrapnel. Medics in front line areas often have to adapt to the conditions around them.

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Medical care throughout the First World War was largely the responsibility of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The RAMC’s job was both to maintain the health and fighting strength of the forces in the field and ensure that in the event of...

Medical care throughout the First World War was largely the responsibility of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The RAMC’s job was both to maintain the health and fighting strength of the forces in the field and ensure that in the event of sickness or wounding they were treated and evacuated as quickly as possible.

Every battalion had a medical officer, assisted by at least 16 stretcher-bearers. The medical officer was tasked with establishing a Regimental Aid Post near the front line. From here, the wounded were evacuated and cared for by men of a Field Ambulance in an Advanced Dressing Station.

A casualty then travelled by motor or horse ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station. These were basic hospitals and were the closest point to the front where female nurses were allowed to serve. Patients were usually transferred to a stationary or general hospital at a base for further treatment. A network of ambulance trains and hospital barges provided transport between these facilities, while hospital ships carried casualties evacuated back home to ‘Blighty’.

As well as battle injuries inflicted by shells and bullets, the First World War saw the first use of poison gas. It also saw the first recognition of psychological trauma, initially known as ‘shell shock’. In terms of physical injury, the heavily manured soil of the Western Front encouraged the growth of tetanus and gas gangrene, causing medical complications. Disease also flourished in unhygienic conditions, and the influenza epidemic of 1918 claimed many lives.

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  • First Field Dressing

    equipment

    First Field Dressing; British first field dressing issued to all servicemen during the First World War. They were intended for use as soon after injury as possible, often applied by the wounded soldier himself.
  • Service tunic of Leonard Stagg

    uniforms and insignia

    Service tunic of Leonard Stagg; British Army service tunic of Private Leonard Stagg, a stretcher-bearer with the 2/3rd South Midland Field Ambulance RAMC, who served on the Western Front during the First World War.
  • The Interior of a Hospital Tent

    art

    The Interior of a Hospital Tent; The Interior of a Hospital Tent, 1918, by John Singer Sargent. The hospitals set up immediately behind the lines were often housed in tents during the First World War, including wards and operating theatres. This was particularly true of Casualty Clearing Stations, with base hospitals further away from the fighting sometimes making use of existing or more permanent buildings.
  • Medical haversack

    equipment

    Medical haversack; Shell dressing haversack carried by a Royal Army Medical Corps stretcher-bearer during the First World War. Stretcher-bearers were often the first medics to reach a casualty, giving initial first aid and evacuating them to the nearest Regimental Aid Post.
  • Hospital barge in northern France

    photographs

    Hospital barge in northern France; This photograph shows the interior of a hospital barge in northern France, First World War. The cargo hold of this barge has been converted into a functioning ward, staffed by nurses and medical orderlies. The canals provided another form of transport for evacuating casualties on the Western Front, easing the pressure on the railway network.
  • Pocket surgical kit

    equipment

    Pocket surgical kit; Pocket surgical kit of Major-General Patrick Henderson DSO. He carried it with him on the Western Front, in Salonika and in Russia during his service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War. Most surgery was carried out at Casualty Clearing Stations and at stationary and general hospitals behind the lines.
  • Shrapnel fragment

    souvenirs and ephemera

    Shrapnel fragment; Shrapnel fragment removed from Lance Corporal Charles Frampton’s wounds during surgery in 1917. Frampton was wounded in August 1917 when serving with 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment on the Western Front. After initial surgery, he was evacuated to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, where it was discovered his wounds had become infected. Despite further treatment, Frampton died as a result of the complications of this infection, aged 23.
  • Malaria prevention

    photographs

    Malaria prevention; British soldiers stand on parade, waiting to receive their daily dose of the anti-malaria drug quinine, in Salonika during the First World War. Diseases such as malaria were a major drain on manpower, particularly in theatres like Salonika where the disease was particularly prevalent. The First World War saw big advances in combatting disease, with the first extensive use of vaccinations against diseases like typhoid.
  • Prosthetics

    photographs

    Prosthetics; A doctor takes a plaster cast of an amputee's right leg at Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton, Surrey, in preparation for fitting a specially made artificial limb during the First World War. Serious wounds of the limbs, particularly those made worse by gas gangrene infection, could sometimes result in amputation. Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton became a specialist centre for amputees, with craftsman on site who made artificial limbs.