By Emily Mayhew
I work regularly with wounded veterans and medics from Britain’s wars of the 21st century. Their stories have extraordinary resonance with those from a century earlier. Casualties feel the same fear and dread, whether in a freezing shell hole on the Western Front during an artillery barrage or trapped behind a dry mud wall in Afghanistan during a firefight, when rescue looks impossible. Time, whether in 1917 or 2012, slows to a crawl as they try to find their wound, to see how much they are bleeding and then remember that their comrade may have fallen too and that they should try to save others as well as themselves. The sobs of relief are the same when finally a medic makes their way to them, as is the dreadful incomprehension when the medic whispers for them to be quiet, that it is not quite safe enough for them to move, that they should stay low and keep calm. In the minutes or hours that pass while they wait, all the casualty knows is pain but also the small steady comfort of the medic’s hand in theirs, that they are not abandoned and that they will somehow get home.
Great War ambulances, pulled by teams of horses, may seem a world away from the technologically advanced vehicles of today, but the journey taken by the men inside them has not changed a great deal. Stretchers are still stacked one on top of the other in frames with very little room in between. The casualties they carry can hear one another’s cries and, when those cries suddenly stop, are close enough to reach across to another body on a stretcher and feel that it is cold to their touch. The ambulance brings them to safety but it also takes them on a journey from which there is often no return. As the vehicle speeds along the broken roads common to all war zones and their stretchers bump and shake, soldiers realize they are leaving behind their comrades and their way of life as a serving soldier. They are suddenly dependent entirely on the skill and courage of others: from the stretcher bearer or combat medical technician who has got them as far as the ambulance, to the surgeon and operating staff who wait for them at the field hospital. What lies ahead is unknown — bright lights, the organized chaos of triage, tired but kind faces behind surgical masks — and then a whole different future from the one they envisaged in their battalion that morning. They have left behind one world and have begun the journey through another, going from soldier to patient with one shot from a rifle or blast from an artillery shell.
Emily Mayhew is a Research Associate at Imperial College and an examiner at the Imperial College School of Medicine. She is the author of Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I. She is a consultant and lecturer to museums including the Wellcome Collection, the Imperial War Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons.