Teacher guide

Thousands of wounded soldiers had to be evacuated away from the frontline to safety from the beginning of the war. A real “trajectory of the wounded” was established, starting with emergency treatment and ending with revalidation and recovery. The health services, whose structure and care were hierarchical, also introduced several steps in the moving of and care for the victims; that is clearly demonstrated here by the two gelatine silver prints that have been preserved at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.

The first aid station

The divisional first aid station which was situated in the combat zone marked the first step in the care for the wounded soldier. Wounded soldiers would be brought there by their unharmed mates, or get there using rudimentary tools such as the wheelbarrows, which served as stretchers, and which were occasionally drawn by animals. Their survival was in fact determined by the assistance that they received from other soldiers, who often risked their own lives to help their mates. Once there the wounded soldier was examined. Then he was evacuated to the hospital behind the frontline, depending on his condition and his chances of survival. In reality the first aid station was too rudimentary and not hygienic enough to carry out operations. It was first and foremost a triage station for the wounded, designed to separate the “walking victims” from the “victims on stretchers”. In that sense the first aid station was a real interface between the frontline and the area behind the frontline, a space where first aid was provided in view of alleviating the patient’s suffering. Although morphine injections and camphor oil compresses – when they were available – were designed to relieve pain, the dressings, meanwhile, were often insufficient to cover the gaping wounds and severe bleeding of the wounded. The care that was dispensed seems random while the soldiers' agony was long and painful (See the catalogue "Aux Portes du Chaos. L’arrière-front en Flandre durant la Grande Guerre", Editions du Musée départemental de Flandre, 2011, 60 p.).

All these elements are present in the photograph taken in Flanders on October 16th, 1917. The offensive that was launched between July 31st and October 10th, 1917 and which was won by the British High Command, with the support of French and Belgian divisions, left a lot of suffering in its wake. Behind the wooden barracks and the parapets of sandbags the general impression was one of weakness and confusion. A scene of desolation emerged from the chaos. The victims, who at times were left on the wooden duckboards, waited, their faces haggard, to be evacuated behind the frontline.

The hospital

In a second phase, the wounded were effectively taken to the hospitals inland in order to be treated and convalesce. On the spot, the victims received care from health professionals who were assisted by committed civilians. Although the combat zone was an exclusively male realm, the reality of the Great War meant that women were indispensable behind the frontline as caregivers, nurses or as Red Cross personnel. Next to the army's medical units there were also hospitals in various premises: such as schools, churches, castles... They were often located in the countryside and equipped to respond to the mass arrival of wounded soldiers from the frontline. Communication tools were indispensable between every link of the chain. In order to evacuate the wounded away from the frontline, ambulance trucks as well as trains were used in medical convoys.

The second photo dates from September 12th, 1915 and shows a lazaretto, the name that the Germans gave to their military hospitals. Here a number of wounded soldier sit together for a posed photograph. On the wall we can see an inscription in Gothic font, the portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918) and Kaiserin Augusta-Victoria, as well as the black, white and red flag of the German Empire (1871-1918). They all remind us of how important nationalist sentiment was at the time. Several of the wounded soldiers are in bed, due to injuries to their limbs, and they probably also bear psychological scars. To pass the time and forget their suffering they would draw, chat, write or play cards.

At the time medicine was founded on recent developments: the discovery in 1901 of X-rays by the German physician, Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923), as well as the first cosmetic surgery and prostheses. These medical innovations had only been recently developed, leaving soldiers disfigured. After the war they were often called “Gueules cassées" or facially disfigured veterans. The German Empire had over 4 million military casualties. 

The topic of the war wounded can be extended and expanded by studying excerpts from the film, The Officers’ Ward by François Dupeyron (2001). In this film, which is based on the novel by Marc Dugain (1999), the director chooses to focus on the mutilated and the disfigured. The subject is similar to that of Johnny got his gun by Dalton Trumbo and Luis Buñuel (1971) but the angle is different. From a literary perspective Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (1920) or even Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916) are excellent materials for an interdisciplinary study. The same goes for the paintings or sketches of Otto Dix during art classes. Finally, the Museum of the Army Health Department (founded in 1850) at Val-de-Grâce in Paris is another way of continuing the study of the army’s medical services with a field visit.