Battle of the Somme: injuries, treatment and the trenches

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KS 3-4

This resource has been developed in line with the Pearson Edexcel GCSE syllabus: The British Sector of the Western Front, 1914-18: injuries, treatment and the trenches.

Use these two sources to explore injuries and treatment and the impact the environment had on them.

  • Bringing in the wounded

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    Silent film 3 mins

    The Battle of the Somme saw a million casualties in total from all sides; injured, dead and missing. The range of weapons used meant there was a variety of ways men could be wounded. Increasingly large artillery was developed that could fire high explosive shells further and more rapidly than before. The majority of casualties were caused by artillery shells, explosions and shrapnel. Half of British troops on the Western Front sustained some kind of injury.

  • Dressing Station

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    Silent film 2:15 mins

    A dressing station was the first point in the medical chain. Here wounded were assessed and received basic medical treatment. Men with more serious injuries were taken to a casualty clearing station by horse or motor ambulance. Medical care was the responsibility of  the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) which set up dressing stations like the one seen in this film. Dressing stations were established as near to the Front Line as possible, in places such as dugouts, communication trenches and ruined houses.

How could you use the following sources to find out more about injuries, treatment and the trenches in the First World War?

  • What can we learn from this eye witness account?

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    3:26 mins audio of recollections of medical treatment.
    Q 4131

    Leonard Ounsworth , was a British signaller who fought in the Battle of the Somme. After his neck and jaw were hit by shrapnel from a German shell, Ounsworth was taken to a dressing station (advanced field post), ‘dug into a bank’ to have preliminary dressings applied. He was then taken during the night by horse ambulance, then motor ambulance, to a casualty clearing station. After this, he boarded a train to Rouen, where it was discovered that he also had a piece of shrapnel in his back.

    Download a transcript of this audio

  • How useful is this object to find out more about the causes of injury?

    Shrapnel Shell
    Shrapnel Shell
    MUN 5805

    Advances in technology made for improved artillery (large long range guns) meaning that shells could be fired more rapidly and further than before. Shrapnel shells were not designed to destroy trenches, but to injure troops; they contained lead balls that were scattered mid-air to cause maximum damage to the men below. (This shell has been sectioned to reveal what is inside)

  • What does this object tell us about how the troops were prepared for the battlefield?

    First Field Dressing Pack
    First Field Dressing Pack
    SUR 599

    Every soldier was issued with a (First) Field Dressing pack as part of their kit. Men would therefore be able to dress their own wounds as soon as possible, before medical help arrived. Immediate treatment was vital, particularly to limit blood loss and stop dirt from getting into a wound. The pack contained two bandages along with safety pins for fastening them. Instructions for how to use the pack were printed on the outside of the bag. 

  • How might the trenches protect the troops yet make their injuries worse?

    Troops moving through a trench, shells bursting in the distance
    Q 5100

    Trenches were seen as safe places from direct fire and dugouts provided additional protection. Trenches were dug in a zigzag pattern, so only a small area would be affected if hit by a shell, also making it difficult to fire bullets down their length. Dug into farmland, the soil contained manure which encouraged the growth of tetanus. Disease flourished in the trenches’ unhygienic conditions and relatively minor injuries could be fatal if they became infected.

  • What can this painting tell us about the conditions in which the men were treated?

    The Doctor 1916 by CRW Nevinson
    The Doctor 1916 by CRW Nevinson
    Art.IWM ART 725

    In this painting men are being treated in a dressing station, a makeshift hospital, with straw on the floor. A soldier sitting on a stretcher is crying out in pain as a doctor tends his head-wound. Next to him a body lies on a stretcher, the face covered in bandages. The men have no privacy, however severe their injury.

    Nevinson was commissioned by the British Government as a war artist; he also worked as a Red Cross volunteer. In his autobiography, Nevinson wrote,

    'Our doctors took charge, and in five minutes I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher- bearer, driver, and interpreter’.

  • What does this photograph show us about how the wounded were transported?

    Horse ambulances and stretcher bearers
    Q 4202

    It was important to treat and evacuate the wounded as soon as possible. Stretcher bearers, with basic medical training, were usually the first to reach an injured soldier and were responsible for administering initial first aid. Stretcher bearers worked in dangerous conditions, often under fire and in difficult terrain. Further back from the Front Line, horse and motor ambulances transported men to casualty clearing stations (basic hospitals).