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Podcast 29: Wounded

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A piece of shell hit one of the fellows who was about, what, six or seven in front of me and it hit him at a glancing blow on the leg and sliced a piece of his muscle off his leg and, of course, he fell to the ground screaming and he was bleeding…

During the First World War, the mass mobilisation of civilian armies coupled with fighting on an industrial scale led to unprecedented numbers of wounded. The range of weapons used meant there was a wide variety of ways that men could be wounded. Alfred Irwin fell victim to a sniper’s bullet in November 1916.

We took part in the assault on Desire Trench and in the morning, before it got light, I went up to have a look round this new ground we’d taken. I went round with a company commander and was very pleased with what he’d done. And just as it was getting light, I started off back to my battalion headquarters and I hadn’t gone more than a few yards before I was shot in the thigh. I fell into a shell hole full of water – it was freezing hard, full of water and ice – and every time I raised my head to try and put a bandage on my leg the sniper had another go at me. So I had to lie in the water and just wait for help, which did come in the form of Canadian stretcher-bearers. But my unfortunate orderly whom I’d – I thought I was doing the best I could for him – I told him to go on when I was hit (that is to say to go back) was hit on the way back and died. But I came through because I was lifted out by Canadian stretcher-bearers later in the morning.

Gordon Highlander J Reid described the effects of being hit by a machine gun, one of the most devastating weapons of the war.

I had to go with my section between the second and third German lines to a machine gun post. Just as we got over out of the second line to go to this machine gun post, they opened up on us. Well I said, ‘Get down, for God’s sake, or we’ll all be killed!’ We all flopped down, the six of us, I could feel something just feel a pain in my arm, then I felt something in my head. We shoved six bombs into this machine gun post and there was no more firing then. By this time, we was all wounded, the six of us were all wounded, but none of us was killed. And all in the left arm and the left hand. One chap had a bullet right through the palm of his hand, oh, it smashed up his hand. This bullet had went into the muscle of my left arm, but it hadn’t touched the bone, it had come right out the back of my arm. What had hit me on the front of the eye, the top of the eye, I don’t know but it took all my eyebrow away and the skin, and it was bleeding, pouring down with blood.

Artillery accounted for the highest number of wounds and fatalities, especially on the Western Front. British signaller Leonard Ounsworth was wounded by a shell on the Somme in July 1916 – not that he realised this at first.

Well, the blast blew me out of that trench – I was just getting to my feet, you know as you’re going down – it blew me out of that trench. I bruised my hip on the edge of the trench as I flew out, I think, and I landed about, you know, two or three bays away. Well, they’d both dropped had these two officers in front, and I started off. They said ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and so I started to walk on after them, no bones broken. And so I walked on a bit and I felt this hand was wet, so I wiped it on my breeches, and I wiped it a second time on my breeches, well everything’s dry as a bone and there was blood running off my hand, so I thought, ‘Oh hell’. So I just shouted to them, ‘Half a mo’ – I am hit after all!’ So we sat down in a hole and I got a field dressing – you used to have a field dressing in the corner of your tunic, you see. I didn’t know then, I’d got one in here through my jaw and one in the throat here, just missed the jugular. I’d got another one in the back, I’d stop four pieces and I never felt them. You feel it afterwards, mind you, but just at the moment you didn’t feel anything at all.

As well as shells and bullets, the troops also faced a new form of warfare – poison gas. Walter Clarke of the Worcestershire Regiment didn’t at first realise the danger he was in during a bombardment in March 1918.

I know I was on guard – you do about two hours each, keeping your eye out in case anything happened – and we suddenly got shelled. One or two got hurt. Nobody knew it was mustard gas: nobody knew it was gas at all, they thought it was just being shelled, you know, like an ordinary barrage all round us. You didn’t know, they were only just shells. But what happened, these shells when they burst they’d drop all on the floor, liquid. And in the morning the mist, there’s always a mist there every morning, that was coming into the air and you were breathing it all in. Nobody knew until one or two chaps started being sick and a lot of the fellows were laying about going blind and sores all over their eyes. And then they realised what it was.

However a man was wounded, his comrades did their best to help him. But as Harold King found during the Second Battle of Ypres, this often meant placing yourself in danger too.

While the line of troops were walking along quickly to get onto the road, a piece of shell hit one of the fellows who was about, what, six or seven in front of me. It hit him at a glancing blow on the leg and sliced a piece of his muscle off his leg and, of course, he fell to the ground screaming and he was bleeding. I shouted quickly to somebody in front, ‘For Christ’s sake, bandage him or he’ll die.’ The sergeant major was up behind and he said, ‘You stop behind and bandage him.’ So I knelt down and I made a tourniquet on him and bandaged him as best as I could, shouted for the stretcher-bearers. Well I’d just bandaged him and got him on the stretcher and was putting my equipment on, when another shell came over and burst and of course I ran. And as I ran I got hit. I got hit in the heel of my foot. It was a shrapnel bullet and of course the force of the blow that I received spun me round and I fell head into trench and must’ve hit a brick or something and, of course, I went to sleep.

And for French private Leopold Carles, the danger became too great when he tried to help a wounded comrade in 1918.

We had to run away from the position where we were. Personally I was carrying one of my comrades who had been wounded and there then we were caught between two fires, and that is tragic, you as a human being, you can’t realise what your instinct is, what your personal action is of that moment. The only action you could take is to be safe. Jump from one point to the other, to a shell hole if you can. But when you got, as I had on that particular day, one of my comrades who had been hit, badly hit by a shell splinter, I was carrying him and what was tragic is when I had to give him up. There was no question out of it, we were going to be both killed or one of us had to try and make it for his skin.

British gunner H Doggett managed to find the compassion to help his enemy following an attack on Poelcappelle in October 1917.

Now there was one boy, German, there he had got half his hip blown away. And in some yard by Kitchener’s Wood there was a light railway. When the lad got there I tied him on to a little truck and put a label on him asking the next person to see to him, just to push him on down to the line. I don’t know whether it is good to say it or not, but I think it was the only kind act I did out there, to be quite honest.

But a member of Tom Adlam’s platoon had no such empathy during a British attack on the Schwaben Redoubt in September 1916.

When we were going along the trenches the men sort of lose all controls. One of the nicest fellows I had in my platoon, we saw… there was a German soldier just at the dugout. He’d been wounded. He was in a bad way. He was just moaning, ‘Mercy kamarad, mercy kamarad.’ And this fellow in front of me said, ‘Mercy? You b… German,’ he said, ‘take that!’ And he pointed, I thought, point blank at him. He was just in front of me. But he jerked his … and he missed him. And I gave him a shove from behind and I said, ‘Go on, he won’t do any harm. Let’s go and get a good one.’ But it was so funny, the fellow said afterwards, ‘Sir, glad I missed him, Sir.’ It was just in the heat of the moment, you see.

One of the greatest challenges in helping wounded men was moving them to safety from where they had fallen on the battlefield. As German medical officer Stephen Westmann found, this could be an extremely risky process.

We had met the experience of the British, that whenever they had wounded men in their forward lines they went along with a Red Cross flag and nobody fired at them. The German guns were silent until the Red Cross flag had disappeared. We did the same and the British didn’t fire too, artillery fire ceased completely and infantry fire stopped. Now we got the idea to do the same trick with the French. We formed a kind of convoy, in front of it a man with a Red Cross flag, in the middle another man with a Red Cross flag and in the rear another man with a Red Cross flag. Unfortunately the result was exactly the contrary. The French artillery opened up – it was intense fire – and several of the stretcher bearers were wounded and killed and so we had to give up this attempt and to bring the men down at night.

Every battalion had its own stretcher-bearers, who carried wounded men to the medical officer. Basil Farrer described his role as a stretcher bearer in the Ypres area in 1915.

We’d be in the front line in our – the company stretcher-bearers would generally share a dugout to themselves, there, with our stretchers – and we’d be available on call. For, if there was a casualty, the word was passed down the line, ‘Stretcher-bearer! Stretcher-bearer!’ And then, of course, we’d go along with our stretcher, attend to the man, see if he was wounded. Every soldier had a – in the pocket in his tunic inside – a dressing. Well, we’d get that out and there’s a little phial of iodine – if the wound wasn’t too serious, we’d get that out and put the iodine on and just wrap it up and then put him on the stretcher and take him down to the regimental aid post where he’d be dealt with by the MO attached to the battalion. Every infantry battalion had an RAMC medical officer attached.

But this system soon broke down during the chaos of large battles. Australian stretcher-bearer Frank Kennedy described how the confusion of the Gallipoli landings in April 1915 meant that it was impossible to follow normal procedures.

When we disembarked from our boats on the beach the conditions were indescribable. Wounded, dead, dying, rifles left all over the place, packs that the chaps had chucked off as they advanced in the first assault, no dressing station had been arranged. And the first thing, the first order I was given was to try and get the bodies carried under cover. We did our best, we went up, but the carrying of the stretchers down those slopes was the most difficult thing that any stretcher bearer could do. To try and ease the pain of the chap on the stretcher, stepping down, perhaps stumbling over some bushes, but we carried on right on until the evening, getting as many as we could down there.

Regimental medical officers were only equipped to administer basic treatment. Maberly Esler outlined what little he was able to do at his regimental aid post as MO of the 9th Border Regiment in 1915.

The only thing you had at your disposal was to cover the wound, to keep it from getting infected, and stopping haemorrhage if by compression on the main vessel – if they were haemorrhaging and bleeding to death – or putting a tourniquet round the leg or arm. If it was shot off and bleeding profusely, you had to stop the whole thing by putting a tourniquet on. But you couldn’t keep a tourniquet on longer than an hour without them losing the leg altogether, stopping the blood supply. So it was very necessary to get the field ambulance so they could ligature the vessels, and the quicker that was done, the better. It was very necessary in a case like that to get them shot off to the ambulance as soon as possible, in five or ten minutes.

If necessary, a casualty would be moved from the regimental aid post to an Advanced Dressing Station. After Victor Fagence of the Royal West Surrey Regiment was hit by machine-gun bullets in late July 1917, he found a lack of organisation at the station he went to.

Well, there was the dressing station there. There was the officer, the medical officer, who was also a surgeon. Most of them were surgeons. And he had one or two orderlies. And quite a lot of wounded. There were a lot of walking wounded and a number of stretcher cases. But the peculiar fact that struck me was that we all had to line up as we arrived, queue up as we arrived. And each man was being attended to in his order of arrival in the queue, without any regard to how badly or lightly he was wounded.

If a wounded man needed further treatment he would usually then be taken by ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station. Alice Remington worked as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment in France. She later recalled the challenges of her role.

It was the driving up and if you had a lot of wounded people, you know. Groans of people in pain are very distressing. And, you know, there’s not much you can do except get them there without making their wounds even worse. Because if you drove fast, besides giving pain – which they might have stuck – you had to be so careful, if there were any fractures, that the fractures didn’t jab into anyone. Particularly if it was a chest wound. You couldn’t have any ribs or anything puncturing lungs.

Travelling behind the lines in an ambulance did not mean a wounded man was out of danger. British officer James Naylor was sent back for treatment when he was wounded during an attack in June 1918.

I walked back to some cross roads where we knew the odd ambulance used to come to collect walking wounded. I got into this ambulance and we drove off and we hadn’t gone very, very far before a shell burst quite close to it and turned the whole thing over. None of us was hurt more than we originally had been hurt or wounded. We all got up, I remember, and we couldn’t right the thing because we weren’t sort of fit enough and we went on walking.

If their injuries were serious, men were transferred from the Casualty Clearing Station to hospital for further treatment. British private William Dann was taken to hospital in 1917 after being wounded in the neck by shrapnel.

Eventually we was moved off again in GS [General Service] wagons to the nearest station, where there was an ambulance train. They took us right down to, right in the middle of France, Number 3 Hospital, and I was in there a couple of months. Well, my wound wouldn’t heal up. They said it was a half of a shell cap of a gas shell, which means it’s infected the flesh a little bit there and I had to have it scraped three times during the period I was ill. Well eventually, it did heal, and I’ve always had trouble funnily enough now with irritation and that sort of thing. Anyhow, eventually it got well and then they put us on a French farm for convalescence for 12 days.

Hospital ships transported wounded men back to Britain from the various fighting fronts. Frederick Caokes of the Hampshire Regiment was hit in the groin and hip by a sniper at Gallipoli on 15 August 1915.

I was put on the hospital ship at about 12 noon, I think, on the Monday morning. I was taken out there by lighter, you see, and then you’re winched up by a crane. Well, when I was getting near the top of the boat, the stretcher sort of slipped and I thought I was going to slip off back into the water about 50 feet below you see! But fortunately, I managed to hang on with my hands; I couldn’t do anything with my feet. I hung on till they did eventually get me to the top of the boat and then, of course, it was alright.

Once in Britain, the wounded were taken to one of the many hospitals equipped to treat them. These included both established hospitals and new ones set up to cope with the high numbers of casualties. Mrs Bird was a civilian nurse who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Colchester Hospital, in Essex.

Well, of course, they were so glad to be back and always at night, especially, I went round the wards at night sometimes. And the men were so grateful to talk to someone. And they were so happy to be warm and comfortable and well fed and that sort of thing. Those with superficial wounds made a terrible fuss about them, but any that were severely wounded – and so many of them were – they were marvellous, absolutely marvellous. Well I’m reminded of a man with superficial wounds who made an awful fuss about everything and another one who had his leg off, one leg off below the knee, one leg off above the knee, the right arm off and the left eye out and he was the life and soul of the ward and kept everyone very amused.

Despite the risks, some men were so desperate to get back home to ‘Blighty’ that they were willing to injure themselves to do this. British gunner John Palmer recalled the effect low morale had on his thoughts along this line while serving in the Ypres area in 1917.

Well, I suppose there is a limit to everything but what with the mud at the Somme and the mud at Passchendaele to see men keep on sinking into the slime, dying in the slime, I think it absolutely finished me off. There was one time when the ammunition wagons were coming up and I had been in this mud, mud right up to my waist, and I thought, ‘Well this is it. I’ll put my leg under the wagon.’ And I did, I got as close to that wagon, as close as possible. But I just couldn’t do it. I think I was broken in spirit and mind. And a few days after, I got my packet through the lung and the shoulder which took me back to Blighty. And I said, ‘Thank God for that’.

William Holbrook of the Royal Fusiliers witnessed one of his officers carrying out a self-inflicted wound in 1916.

This fellow he was a conscript or… he wasn’t a regular soldier. I liked him, he was an unusual sort of chap. ‘I can’t stick this,’ he said, ‘I’d sooner be dead than stick this.’ So anyway, one morning there was a hell of an explosion at the back of my trench. He’d put his hand under his steel helmet, had put a Mills bomb on top and blew his hand off – lost his arm. He’d gone round to the bay, round to the back of the trench, and we was in the trench, you see. And he’d put his hand on the… put his helmet on top of that and pulled the pin out of the Mills bomb, blew his hand off. I don’t know what happened to him. He was only about 22.

The medical services during the First World War saved many lives – including most of the men featured in this podcast. But not all survived their injuries. Infection and gangrene were both a severe risk and medicine was not yet advanced enough to deal with the sheer scale and types of casualties. Despite this, the injury Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment received in July 1917 was, to him, a blessed relief.

I was told when I got my wound, the first wound I got, I was told, ‘Yeah, jolly good wound, mate!’ You know, one of my mates said. One of the – I was at Rouen hospital – and this, he was an old soldier. He said, ‘Yeah, you got a jolly nice wound there, mate’ he said! He said, ‘That’ll get you to Blighty alright,’ he said, ‘but,’ he said, ‘the only thing is, it’s infected.’ Well I knew what that meant and I was on my back for about six weeks. Finest six weeks of my life in France, because I could sleep and sleep and sleep. I couldn’t lie on my side because this was like a tonne weight, this shoulder, you see. I had to lie on my back. But I really enjoyed that. It just about saved me, I think. Oh yes, it was a lovely wound.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 30: Women’s war services