Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918. By Emily Mayhew. The Bodley Head, 288pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9781847922618. Published 12 September 2013
The wounded, carried on stretchers or helped by comrades back to casualty stations, lying in rows in field hospitals, or coming to terms with amputated limbs, blindness or shell shock in country houses converted into convalescent homes, are among the defining images of the First World War. This is due far more to novels such as Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and Pat Barker's Regeneration than to histories of the war. How best then can the historian do justice to one of the war's most common experiences, and to those who cared for the dying and nursed those who survived?
In Wounded, Emily Mayhew eschews what she calls the "conventional" approach, researching the records of the Royal Army Medical Service or hospital archives. If enough of these records had survived, such an approach might have resulted in a useful, if perhaps dry, study, but we must be thankful that instead she wrote this powerful book, which does justice to the experience of the wounded and the dedication of the doctors, nurses, orderlies, stretcher bearers and volunteers who cared for them, by weaving together the testimonies of individuals into a moving history.
The British Army's medical branches were not unprepared in 1914 to meet the challenge of the heavy casualties of modern warfare. The problem was that, just like the generals, they were not prepared for the type of warfare they soon had to cope with. Medical staff had the experience of the 1899-1902 South African War to call on, but discovered that the trench warfare that set in after the first months of conflict required a reassessment of their approach and new thinking about a new war and new wounds. They were perhaps more successful than the military commanders in adapting rapidly to the challenge.
It became clear that a well-organised system of modern hospitals well behind the front was of little avail, as too many wounded men failed to survive the journey from the battlefield. As Mayhew demonstrates, it was not just the new weapons - poison gas and high-explosive shells - that presented the challenge, even the bullets had changed: "the neat round holes made by rounded ammunition" were no more and "instead the cylindro- conical bullet fired by the new powerful weaponry hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles with it". …