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War surgery

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During the First World War the scale of the conflict and the conditions on the battlefields meant that surgeons were confronted with new challenges. It was virtually impossible for surgeons not to be affected by the carnage around them. The number and severity of wounds was on a scale that nobody had ever seen before. Even surgeons, being familiar with operations, were not prepared for the terrible wounds that they were expected to treat. Many surgeons had to unlearn experiences from the South African Conflict (Boer War) (1899-1901) where the climate had been dry and hot. The wet, unsanitary conditions of France presented different problems. Infection was much more likely and disease more evident.

Some doctors resorted to a type of humour. One doctor invited another to his ‘butcher’s shop’. He said, ‘We lop limbs off all day and all night!’ He cheerfully informed the visitor that most of the men in his care were probably going to die from gangrene or other complications, yet maintained a calm demeanour with the patients. British surgeons suffered no shortage of morphine or chloroform during the First World War, so they were able to keep most patients calm and comfortable.

Bibliography

Z Cope (ed.), History of the Second World War: Surgery (London: HMSO, 1953)

J Laffin, Combat Surgeons (Wiltshire: Sutton, 1999)

Glossary:

Morphine

A painkilling drug derived from opium. Morphine is used in hospitals around the world due to its relative lack of side effects.