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Industrial injury

03 January 2014

Sarah Mullally gets a sense of the scale and stench of war

Wounded: From battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918
Emily Mayhew
Bodley Head £20
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THROUGHOUT my teenage years, it was a combination of my grandmother, Vera Brittain's book Testament of Youth, and the work of war poets such as Wilfred Owen which fuelled my interest in the First World War. Despite the words I read and the stories I was told, however, I felt that a true understanding of what people experienced during the First World War remained elusive.

I can say that that, in part, is true no longer: Wounded is a powerful and descriptive read, and through it I found a greater understanding of what it was to be part of that war.

Emily Mayhew has undertaken extensive research, using public and private archives, to produce a highly readable account of the work of the men and women who struggled among the horrors of the Western Front. In doing so, not only has she created a comprehensive account of the medical care at the Western Front, but she has also recognised the courage and determination of the men and women who saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The striking horror of the war is caught in particular in her writing of events such as those involving the Regimental Medical Officers (RMOs), documenting the second assault on Aubers Ridge in September 1915 at the battle of Loos.

Although Mayhew's objective is to talk of the part played by the RMOs and bearers, in doing so we hear also of the British tactics that led to 8000 casualties - a catastrophe that so repelled the German gunners that they sent out their own medical personnel to help carry the wounded. In describing a casualty who is being supported by a nurse, she talks of the 800 patients arriving in just 36 hours at the medical centre.

With a descriptive use of language, she gives us the opportunity not just to see but to smell war, and powerful images are created throughout the book. "He could smell the battlefield as if it were a living thing, sweating cordite and blood, twisting and writhing as if trying to shake him off its back."

In another instance, this time in talking of the London Ambulance Columns, the image of stations' smelling strongly of gas is particularly descriptive - a smell so strong as to cause all the flowers brought in by well-wishers to welcome the wounded men back from war to turn black and die. In other accounts, there are stories of men who lived with dressings that became rank, as nurses were too busy to change them.

We read of stretcher-bearers struggling through the muck; surgeons operating in tents; and nurses working for hours, standing up in trains, all of which paint a memorable picture of theirplight.

The First World War redefined weapons as tools that had a destructive primary and secondary wounding power within seconds of impact. These in turn made medical staff tear up the rule-books and redefine the whole concept of battlefield medicine.

Mayhew's historical research has been made more powerful by the voices of the wounded and those involved in caring for them. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the First World War, they are voices that we should listen to - but be warned: they will move you.

The Revd Dame Sarah Mullally is Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral.

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