As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, an exhibition catalogue in the Library’s collections takes us back to 1968 and the 50th anniversary of Armistice Day: the official end of the War on 11 November 1918.
Even by the global standards of today, the huge numbers involved in World War I astound. Around 65 million people were directly engaged in the War, on all sides, of these almost 8 million were killed and over 19 million wounded – nearly twice as many as in World War II.
The exhibition, entitled Medicine and Surgery in the Great War 1914-1918 was held at the Wellcome Institute (an earlier incarnation of Wellcome Collection) and focused on the role of the British medical services during the war. This role was laid down by the Field Service Regulations as “the preservation of the health of the troops; the professional treatment and care of the sick and wounded; the replenishing of medical and surgical equipment; and the collection and evacuation of the sick and wounded.”
An introductory essay in the exhibition catalogue, written by the Institute Director F.N.L. Poynter, gives a nice summary of these activities, and the medical logistics bring home the sheer scale of operations. From around 20,000 medical personnel in the army at the start of the War, the numbers rose to 13,000 officers and 154,000 other ranks by November 1918.
A major concern in the preservation of health was controlling the spread of infection amongst the troops. At the Western Front, much of the natural vegetation and drainage was destroyed by heavy artillery bombardment, so the soldiers found themselves living in a “vast sea of malodorous mud” where dangerous micro-organisms flourished. The provision of clean water and effective sanitation was therefore a priority.
One intriguing item listed in the catalogue for the control of infection is the Somerville Asiatic body cord, developed from an “Indian folk-medicine device”. It consisted of a wool chord impregnated with mercury and bees-wax that was worn around the waist to kill lice, which could spread typhoid and other diseases.
Injuries from explosive missiles and shrapnel were complicated by contamination from mud and soiled clothing, which were driven deep into the wound. Traditional forms of anti-septic proved ineffectual and alternatives were sought. In addition to developing new techniques such as continuous irrigation of the wound, there was a return to the older of techniques of amputation and debridement (cutting away infected tissue) in order to save lives under desperate conditions.
The exhibition catalogue is interesting, not just for its content about medicine during the War, but also for its insights into collection and display priorities at the Wellcome Institute 50 years ago.
Henry Wellcome was already planning a large section on the history of medicine in war for his museum, and had many objects from other wars and campaigns in his collections. His attempts to obtain medical equipment from World War I were hampered by the fact that in 1918 this equipment was still standard issue and was retained by the military for future use. This did not apply to captured material however, and examples of German medical equipment were well represented in the exhibition. Wellcome also collected substantial numbers of visual works by war artists and photographers, and a selection of the photographs is reproduced in the catalogue and can be explored online:
The Wellcome Institute’s audience, reflecting its research activities, was primarily academic, and the catalogue provides extensive references to the original documents and academic papers that were used for the exhibition. These are also an excellent resource for anyone researching World War I today!
Authors: Julia Nurse and Lalita Kaplish are both members of the Library Web Team