“Is there anything new to learn about the First World War, don’t we know everything already” I was once asked at an interview. One of the most positive aspects of the raft of Commemoration events that have emerged in the last two years – from exhibitions, plays, books, stories and other engagement activities – is this diversity of war experience that has, really for the first time, contextualised the terrible experience of soldiers with other contributors to the war. This has incorporated battle zones beyond the Western Front and life at home, as well as exhibitions on the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy which were my own research focus. All of this has given the public a much wider sense of what the war meant and its far reaching effects on society.
Adding to this welcome new crop of voices is a brilliant new exhibition at the Science Museum focusing on the medical profession during and shortly after World War One, and the development of treatments and facilities to help injured servicemen both at the Front and in the UK. The main section is divided into three colour-code blocks to aid navigation, focusing first on the physical journey of a wounded soldier from the front through the various treatment points and eventually back home to Britain if the injury was severe enough; second it looks at the scientific and technological advances in medicine that the war created and the ways in which innovation and the repurposing of old ideas took place, before finally considering the long-term work taking place at home in plastic surgery, prosthetics and support for mental breakdown.
But the exhibition opens with a brief introduction to the period before injury and we’re shown examples of shells and shrapnel that were designed to cause maximum damage and destruction to the trench systems of the Western Front and the human flesh within it. The randomness of war is something that comes across strongly and a small display of “lucky charms” and amulets is a powerful example of how much reliance soldiers placed on concepts of chance and mystical protection in a highly uncertain and dangerous environment. Nearby is a bloodied stretcher which crucially sets the scene for this exhibition – it is the first artefact we encounter and would have been the wounded soldier’s first contact with medical assistance.
Round the corner and the orange-painted display cases chart the process of moving injured men to various treatment stages depending on the severity of their wound – including the roles of Regimental Aid Posts and Casualty Clearing Stations – a structure that was overwhelmed by the 400,000 casualties received during the first 140 days of the Somme campaign the exhibition tells us, which led to numerous inventions to speed the transportation of wounded men. Items such as the Colt Stretcher, a hammock-like structure, made manoeuvring easier in narrow trench systems than its flat-wide predecessor, while further up the line motorised ambulances and wheeled transportation trolleys were increasingly common in the wake of the 1916 campaigns. One of the best exhibits is a scale model of a transport train kitted out with bunk-beds that can be flattened against the wall for moving masses of men at once. This section is a meaningful and well executed explanation of the process of developing treatment offered to men at the Front.
The blue section has a slightly unclear starting point but offers a number of mini-stories of progress in the development of particular scientific advances. There’s another incredible model of a complex and tight trench system showing wounded men being evacuated while others are being treated on the spot in dugouts or resting on fire steps. You can move around this section in any order and looking at the development of equipment of blood transfusions, field dressings with iodine given to each man in his pack, splints for broken legs, gas masks and protectors, and oxygen masks used by multiple people at once. Each area focuses on the scientist or inventor who developed these vital instruments, giving them a necessary moment of recognition in the history of medical technology still in use today, as well as reminding us that the Allies were engaged in all kinds of vital war work, not all of it wearing a uniform on the battlefield.
The final section will be the hardest for some to see, although a very necessary part of our understanding of the consequences of the First World War. It looks at rehabilitation and surgical innovation to help those permanently disabled or disfigured by the conflict, returning home to a society largely unprepared to see what war had done to its citizens. Most moving and fascinating are the work of Henry Tonks whose pastel sketches show mutilated faces transformed by plastic surgery. Tonks worked with surgeon Harold Gillies – whose story was dramatised in a so-so 2014 play called Dr Scroggy’s War at The Globe – in wards devoted to facial repairs in Cambridge and Sidcup. There are also examples of prosthetic limbs including legs and arms with replaceable hand sections depending on the sort of manual work the individual needed to do and whether they could afford a slightly more elaborate full hand. As with much innovation in the First World War a single change would have a knock-on effect for other developments and here we see examples of new cutlery and crockery developed for those with prosthesis.
As an addendum to the main exhibition, there is a short display at the end focusing on modern conflict in Afghanistan which cleverly draws a direct comparison between some of the medical items and personal charms from the First World War with similar pieces still used in combat zones today. As with aeroplane technology almost everything it could do were conceived from 1914-1918, and what came next was largely refinement, much is true of the medical innovations on display here, really emphasising how crucial the war was in setting in motion things we take for granted today.
Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is a fascinating and welcome addition to programme of diverse and inclusive events honouring the Great War, and one that is not to be missed. Much work has gone into coordinating pieces from other museums including the Imperial War Museum (whose own rather lacklustre new galleries launched events in 2014), the Wellcome Collection and several medical museums. The timely launch of this exhibition, a century on from the Somme campaign, captures a new wave of interest in the war, demonstrated last week by Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s moving We Were Here project placing volunteers dressed as First World War soldiers all over the country, each handing out a card with the name of a man who died, to mark the anniversary of the breath-taking brutality of the first day of the Somme, as well as the poignant all-night Vigil and services at Westminster Abbey which included two beautiful and evocative readings of original testimony by actor Luke Thompson (Reading 1 from 33 minutes in and Reading 2). So the answer to that original question is of course we don’t know everything about the First World War. And with the range of Commemoration activities that have grown up around this 100 year recognition touching on all kinds of experience of the Great War, it’s clear that there is still so much more to learn.
Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care is at the Science Museum (first floor Mezzanine) until 15 January 2018. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1