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Battlefield Medicine (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021)

B (AtoZ Challenge 2021)

The Great War was one of the most terrible slaughterhouses in military history. A staggeringly high number of soldiers and civilians lost their lives in the war. The kind of wounds the new artillery could produce on a human body were beyond horror.
And yet, those battlefields were a workshop for many medical practices. In the course of those five years, medicine advanced faster than ever before. 

The Great War was the first conflict where the number of deaths from wound was higher than that from disease. During the long, ‘peaceful’ 1800s, advancement in all technologies – including military technology – was significant but seldom tasted on the ground. It was in the Great War that many new pieces of artillery, machine guns, shrapnel were first used – and on an industrial level. These were weapons that destroyed the human flesh, living behind mangled, dismembered, dissolved bodies and some of the worst wounds ever seen. 

But battlefields were not only the ground of fighting men. It was also the ground of fighting medical officials and nurses. On the battlefields of WWI, medicine leapt forward faster and more efficiently than it had ever done before. 
The sheer number of wounded and the typology of wounds demanded innovative, efficient solutions because efficiency did save lives – and save soldiers to send back to battle. 

Medicine and military 

Medicine leapt forward tremendously on the battlefields of WWI. Especially in the fields of orthopaedics, anaesthetics and antiseptics
American operating room at Hospital Unit No 116 – France – June 1918

On all battlefields, doctors and nurses were divided between the loyalty to their country and the loyalty to their patients. As much as the medical staff wanted to save lives, sending back to the fight as many men as possible was high on the list of priorities. Military discipline was always in the foreground, both as an outcome and as a modus operandi.

Besides, it was precisely the numbers of ‘cases’ and the demands of the battle – with its continual need for ‘fresh’ men – that spurred doctors and nurses to devise new ways of treating the sick, experiment, discover new practices and made the old ones more efficient. 
There was a deep need, and people stepped up to find solutions. The war presented destruction on unthinkable levels. Medicine had to try to keep up. 
It was an experimental ground of huge proportions. Those discoveries and effects trailed over into peacetime life far into the future. 

Some of the advancement done on the battlefields of WWI

The Great War - Battlefiled Mdicine - WWI battlefields were not only the ground of fighting men. It was also the ground of fighting medical officials and nurses. Huge medical advancement happened on those fields.

Doctors and nurses made huge efforts and managed to improve an injured soldier’s chances of survival vastly. Ambulances, antiseptics and anaesthetics, three elements of medicine we entirely take for granted today, emerged as a common practice on the battlefields of WWI.

The sanitary situation in the trenches and the rearguard was such that disease and infection could prove more fatal than artillery. Cleanliness and its association with reduced infections was a major step forward during the war. 

Before WWI, epidemics had been one of the main causes of death in wars. The vaccines developed before and during the conflict improved the expectation of life for the soldiers. Generalised vaccination against contagious diseases first took place among soldiers of the trenches. 

At the beginning of the war, transfusions were still made directly from donor to recipients, which was extremely difficult, impractical and limiting in war conditions. Canadian surgeon Bruce Robertson initiated new techniques to extract blood from a donor and store it until necessary. But the true revolution was Belgian doctor Albert Austin’s intuition to add citrate to the blood for its anticoagulant properties. Thanks to this innovation, blood could be stored for up to 26 days and transported from the very beginning of the war in 1914. 

Battlefield medicine of WWI
Passchendaele, the battle that cost British forces more than
260,000 dead and wounded: the first day, July 31, 1917

The number of amputations WWI produced was staggering, but meaningful advancement in all medical fields related to it occurred consequently. Less toxic morphine-derived anaesthetic agents started to be used using new devices that made the giving of anaesthetic easier. This allowed operations previously considered impossible to be performed, often in the very casualty station. 

The Thomas Splint had been invented in the 1870s, but only during the Great War it was used massively. It brought the chances for a soldier to survive a bone fracture from 20% to 80%. Prosthetics advanced too. The production had been small before the war. It increased dramatically during and after, with the industry using ever-new, lighter materials like different types of wood and metal. A new protocol standardised the production so that it became possible to have a prosthetic repaired by a different person from the one who created it. 

The practice of triage was invented right on the battlefields of the Great War. 

Battlefield Medicine (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) WWI battlefields were not only the ground of fighting men. It was also the ground of fighting medical officials and nurses. #WWI #History Click To Tweet


First Class – History of Triage – The indispensable tool in emergency medicine
CEUfast Blog – Nursing and Medicine During World War I
British Library – Medical developments in World War I
Apocalypse 10 Lives (The Learning Resource) – Progress in medicine and surgery during the First World War
The Atlantic – How World War I Revolutionalized Medicine
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Medicine and Medical Service

LIVING THE TWENTIES by Sarah Zama - The Great War created a new world. This is that world.


  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 01:11

    So ironic that the huge devastation of war leads to great advances in science and technology. To be a doctor or nurse on the battlefields must have been horrifying but also rewarding when new methods were used successfully.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 08:03

      I agree. When I first realised how many advances WWI pushed for and how many fields, I was quite suprised.
      But then, JRR Tolkien – who fought in WWI – said that from great evil can come great good. He knew what he talked about.

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 01:30

    Wow! That was great. I knew just a little about the subject before, but not anything like this thorough an overview of the topic. I basically just knew that triage was a big deal in WWI and that medicine generally advanced a lot. And of course the improvement in prosthetics is a fact that one does become grimly aware of, if one reads a lot of books written in the 20s. Because a lot of people have them.
    Great post!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 08:05

      True, true. The number of people with prosthetics in the years following the war was staggering.
      There’s a lot more to know. My first draft for this post is trice as long – and of course, it’s only an atom in the subject. But it’s so fascinating.

  • Yamini MacLean
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 03:56

    Hari OM
    Fabulous post, JF, and so true yet horrific that the greatest advances in science of all sorts tend to come about from times of conflict, providing an imperative for the same. Thank you for another poignant and worthy post! YAM xx

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 08:06

      True. Terrible as it may sound, conflict often spurs us to innovation.

  • Pradeep
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 08:27

    No doubt, war is a time of extreme trauma: hardships of all kinds, injuries deaths. Hats off to the healthcare workers!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:33

      It was hard for eveyone in the trenches, but I think the work of the medical staff was particularly hard. They constantly have to come up with solutions, becasue lives were in danger.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 08:30

    I did not know that, about WWI being the first war where wounds were the main cause of death. Fascinating. I really want to read a book about it now. It would probably be a hard read because of all the horror people inflicted on each other, but also historically fascinating.

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:35

      Truly, I never wanted to study WWI because I thought I couldn’t be interested in wars. But now I see it is not abotu battles or conquers. It’s about people. I became emotional writing some of these blogs. I never expected it.

  • lindafibergal
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 12:32

    Great post. Your history lessons are always so interesting. Visually stunning as well. Thanks for being part of the challenge again!
    Pulp Paper & Pigment-My Fiber Art Blog

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:36

      Oww, thanks for you kind words, Linda. I very much appreciate them.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 16:01

    Medics and field hospital doctors and nurses have such a difficult job. Their experiences of seeing so many wounded, dead, and dying soldiers is just as traumatic, in a different way, as being in combat.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:38

      I agree. Many doctors and nurses suffered of shell shock even if they never came near the battlefields.
      It must have been terrible.
      But you know? I wonder what will it be of our doctors and nurses after this pandemic. They too must have seen terribel things.

  • Deborah Weber
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 17:55

    Wow. There was certainly a lot I didn’t know. Such terrible and tragic times. Kudos to the doctors and nurses and advances made. I would love to see the day when the only advances made from any war will be that war is unnecessary, morally untenable, and no longer something we engage in or support.

  • Dara
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 18:21

    Lovely blog JF, and an interesting post. Maybe it takes war / pandemics for any real advancements in medicine. Seems like that sometimes.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:39

      Conflicts and pandemics sure have advanced civilisation in many ways. It’s strange and terrible, but it’s a fact.

  • shirleyjdietz
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 18:43

    So interesting to know those advances came at that time under those conditions. Great job!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:40

      I was so surprise to discover how many innovations WWI brought about, especially in the medical field. One never think about it.

  • Iain Kelly
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 19:01

    Hard to imagine trying to perform battlefield medicine under these conditions, and the pain that the injured must have gone through. Another interesting read.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:41

      Truly, one wonder at how those people could go through it. In and out of the trenches.

  • Sa
    Posted April 2, 2021 at 21:29

    This is such a fascinating read and watch! Thanks for sharing. Great insights shared on this comment feed as well!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2021 at 22:42

      So happy you foudn it intersting, Sa. Thansk so much for stopping by 🙂

  • Gail M Baugniet
    Posted April 3, 2021 at 06:16

    From the tragedies of war arose new medical technology used to repair unimaginable injury so soldiers could return to fight another day. While the benefits of the new technology benefit us to this day, one wonders about the moral ramifications of its justification.
    theme: Novel Research: novel – interesting, different, unusual

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2021 at 20:33

      It must have been particularly hard for the medicl staff.
      But then, most people on he front were there together. I think they probably understood each other’s position probably better than we can today.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 3, 2021 at 06:23

    So much was learned on this battlefield and in the hospitals including the great flu epidemic of 1918/19 because it started in war barracks in the U.S. before they went overseas where it spread like wild fire.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2021 at 20:40

      I was surprised to learn how many things that we take for granted to day in a hospital actually cem from the battlefileds of WWI.

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 3, 2021 at 21:31

    It’s difficult to imagine anything good coming out of war, but the medical advances are undeniable. Another educational post.
    My A-Z post for day 2:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 6, 2021 at 07:57

      Good things can come from the strangest of places, I suppose 🙂

  • Pamela
    Posted April 5, 2021 at 16:34

    This is so fascinating – it is amazing how many advances in medicine have come about through war, and even today there are still things being discovered on the battlefields that move science forward.
    As a nurse I especially find this so important to remember, and where I grew up in Australia there was a second world war nurse who had been captured by the Japanese – she really inspired me.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 6, 2021 at 08:00

      The researche for this challenge gave me the opportunity to discover I many things that we take for granted in the medical prictice today actually started during WWI.

      You comment made me so happy. I’m happy to hear that a nurse appreciate my post. And am happy to pass the ‘news around’ so to day. History is often so complet, and I generally don’t incline for judgment, because sometimes even from evil things comes some good.

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