Katharine Alston
  • Trenches
  • Age 14-16 (KS4)

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.


[Toby Haggith] Hello I'm Toby - I work at the Imperial War Museum as one of the historians.  

When we're looking at the past, we need to consider the sources we're using, and we need to evaluate their usefulness and their reliability. When we are looking at the Battle of the Somme, we are very lucky that we have an amazing historical record, that was shot right at the frontline by cameraman as the battle itself was unfolding.  

 [Ian Kikuchi] My name is Ian and I'm a historian at the Imperial War Museum. One of my job's is to work on exhibitions and one of the things that one has to do when making an exhibition, is think about our sources - both their usefulness and their reliability.  

So, for example, if I was working on an exhibition about injury and treatment in the trenches of the First World War - one of the sources I might consider might be the Battle of the Somme film.  

In this particular excerpt you've seen mortar bombs exploding (a mortar is a type of small artillery piece). The film also includes quite graphic images showing the recovery and early treatment of some of the battles casualties and it gives a really clear insight into what that experience must have been like. 

[Toby] The sequence you've just seen from Battle of the Somme, shows men being brought back from the battlefield who've just been wounded. This is very helpful, as it's sort of visual glossary of what's going on in the battlefield. However, it doesn't really give us the personal experience of those men; for that we might go to something like a personal testimony, such as that by Leonard Ounsworth: 

“[Leonard] Well the blast blew me out of that trench. I was just getting to my feet you know as you go down - just blew me out of that trench. I bruised my hip on the edge of the trench as I fell out, I think. And I landing about two or three bays away.  

Two officers in front, they say, ‘are you alright?’ - I said yes and I started to walk on after them. No bones broken. I walked on a bit, and I felt my hand was wet, so I wiped it on my britches, and I wiped it a second time on my britches. And I though God the blazing sun – everything is dry as a bone. There was blood running off my hands, so I thought ‘oh hell’.  

I just shouted to them, I said, ‘half a mo – I am hit after all!’ 

So, I sat down in a hole, and I got a field dressing (we used to have a field dressing in the corner of your tunic you see). I got one out and he started to bound it round us. And I say, ‘I'm all right, it’s my arm’.  He says, ‘No it’s here’. 

I didn’t know then – I'd got one in here, through my jaw (where my faint scar is there? Can you see it very faint) and one in the throat here, just missed the jugular. And another one in the back – which I didn’t find out that until I got to Rouen about the one in the back! She says ‘Oh I stopped four pieces’. I went, ‘I never felt them’.  

You feel it afterwards mind you.” 

[Ian] So you've just heard a personal account by Leonard. He was a signaller - a signaller’s job was to pass messages during battle. In his account he talks about his trench being hit by a shell of some kind and he was actually blown out of his trench. So, it must have been quite a large, quite heavy shell, maybe with a large explosive inside of it. 

He refers to being quite seriously injured, he finds blood on his britches (his trousers) and he also talks about how for some time after the explosion, he wasn't actually aware that he'd been hit. Perhaps he was going into shock - or perhaps running on adrenaline at that point. 

[Toby] So let's examine what we know about Leonard’s injury. We know that he was thrown from his trench by the blast from a big shell, probably a mortar shell.  

But we also know that he sustained some shrapnel injuries. Shrapnel is a shard of metal that breaks away from the shell. This piece of shrapnel [on screen there is someone holding a piece of metal] looks like the base of the shell. You can imagine the kind of damage it would do to a body if it hit it. It's heavy and the edges are very sharp. Also remember shrapnel carries bits of dirt and bacteria that would infect a wound - so let's hear a bit more about this injury from Leonard: 

“[Leonard] Two officers took me to an advanced field post, dressing station, in Bernafey Wood. And I was rebandaged there you see. Taken down to Dive’s Copse, and that was a big marquee. We were just laid on the grass there, not even on stretchers, just laid on the bare grass. And they gave us an injection, for tetanus I think, in the chest.  

Then in the evening, we were taken to the station and loaded onto a train for Rouen. And that was the first time we saw any nurses. The nurse is pulling my shirt up at the back – there was a sudden sharp stab of pain and I said ‘OUCH’. She said, ‘what's the matter Sir?’ - when she pulled my shirt up there was another wound in the back, there was another piece of shell there – shell splinters. She said, ‘Oh here’s the culprit’, and she threw it in the grass. 

(Interviewer) Could you tell me a bit more about the dressing station that you went to, first of all? 

[Leonard] Well it was only sort of dug into a bank, that's all. They evacuated them as quickly as they could, you see. They only went in there to have their dressings put on, that’s all. There was nobody who stayed there. The ambulances were coming up and taking them away. They were merely to sort of give a man, I suppose, a preliminary dressing to stop bleeding and that sort of thing.” 

[Ian] So Leonard has described having his wounds dressed at a dressing station. A dressing station was one of the first places a wounded soldier could go to get help. It was a simple, often quite a simple place, where wounds would be quickly assessed and dressed. Those who could return to the front would be sent back. And those whose injuries were more severe will be sent further back away from the fighting to receive more treatment. Through a chain of places like casualty clearing stations, even base hospitals - and for those who are most seriously injured even back to hospitals in England. 

[Toby] We've just heard Leonard’s own account of his experience of being wounded and treated at the front. It's very powerful, because it's an unmediated record, in his own words, of what he experienced. But it's only a personal perspective and may not be representative of all the men who were wounded and treated at the front.  

Also, it took place at a moment during the war and the treatment of casualties changed at different stages of the war. 

Finally, we must also remember that people's memory is not always reliable - and they can forget certain facts and details that may be important. And of course, everyone's perspective is very personal to them and may be affected by their own prejudices and viewpoints. 

So, we've just examined in some detail the experiences of one man being wounded and treated at the front. We've heard Leonard’s own account; we've looked at a film and we've even seen one of the shells that was often fired during the Battle of the Somme.  

But we haven't really understood what his treatment was like, have we? So, to do that, we might look at a first day dressing; we might look at a painting of a casualty clearing station; or we might read some letters or diaries at the time or even a newspaper account. All these other sources could be helpful to us, in piecing together what it was like to be treated during the First World War. 

Using the film Battle of the Somme as a source

Produced for GCSE History students to develop source and interpretation skills, this short film shows how historians at IWM evaluate sources for their reliability and usefulness, demonstrating how skills for analysis are used in the museum. This film is produced in line with the Pearson Edexcel History GCSE syllabus using the film Battle of the Somme to explore the topic: The British sector of the Western Front, 1914–18: injuries, treatment and the trenches.