“The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army, and yet it was the greatest for the Army Medical Services.”
On 1 July 1916, at 7.30am, an attack on the German line began that was supposed to break through enemy defences and change the course of the war. Over the following 12 hours, 19,240 men on the British side died and tens of thousands more were injured. The medical response was provided in large part by the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), and its role was to ensure that in the event of wounding soldiers were evacuated and treated as quickly as possible. The Army Medical Services were overwhelmed by the number of casualties coming off the battle field that day, but met the challenge of treating so many wounded. The system of casualty evacuation, from battlefield to hospital, and staged treatment depending on the severity of wounds perfected over the previous two years, was sorely tested but it worked.
During the course of World War One, from August 1914 to the Armistice in November 1918, many thousands of battle casualties were treated by the Army Medical Services. While medics dealt with casualty evacuation and surgery, nurses from the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Medical Nursing Service (QAIMNS) aided patient recovery, and the Army Veterinary Corps (AVC) handled the demand for animals, both as beasts of burden and to draw ambulances during the opening months of the war. In addition, large numbers of men became ill and were unable to fight due to a range of ailments, such as those of the digestive system, rheumatic fever and minor infections. Another group of diseases army doctors had to deal with were sexually transmitted infections, malaria and dysentery. The introduction of new kinds of weapons, such as poison gases and the mass use of machine guns, also meant that doctors and the nurses who tended the wounded were faced with previously unseen kinds of injuries that they had to respond to. The Medical Services often struggled to save their patients’ lives, but in many cases developed medical solutions to help repair broken minds and shattered bodies.
This new exhibition at The Museum of Military Medicine marks the centenary of the end of World War One and explores the work of the Army Medical Services during that conflict, particularly the role of casualty evacuation in saving lives and the innovations that medics pioneered in the treatment of wounded soldiers and animals. The legacy of military medicine from that War in the century since is also featured, since revolutionary advances in medical treatment and patient care developed during conflict have contributed to the healthcare revolution of the twentieth century, saving many civilian lives in the process.
‘Medicine and Innovation in Conflict: The Army Medical Services during World War One’ opens on 27 September 2018 and closes on 28 June 2019, the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the First World War.